Friday, September 16, 2011
Mitch Pearlstein: "From Family Collapse to America's Decline"
Title: “From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation”
Publication: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.; paperback, 165 pages (also available hardcover), indexed, Introduction and seven long chapters; ISBN 978-1-60709-361-9
I sometimes visited the sessions of the Center of the American Experiment when I lived in Minneapolis from 1997-2003. One time, John Stossel spoke there for a luncheon.
The book, which is a bit expensive, has a “mouthful of words” for a title, suggesting the conservative message that America’s economic problems are the result of weak families rather than corporate “exploitation”. There’s no question that the recklessness on Wall Street in the last decade contributed to our current mess, but there’s also no question that a lot of people in trouble with “pineapple upside-down cake” mortgages “tried to get something for nothing”. If you want to look for blame, there’s plenty to go around. All the current presidential candidates know that.
The book is also somewhat dense in writing style, compared to the earlier collection “Closer to Home” from the same source (Mitch Pearlstein and Katherine Kersten, reviewed here March 28, 2006; I had made a major comment about an essay in this earlier book on my “Issues blog” Feb. 3, 2011.)
In this book, the term “family fragmentation” and the synonym “family collapse” largely refer to people having babies out of wedlock, or getting divorced and leaving single parents. (At the start of his last chapter, Pearlstein, somewhat painfully, tells the story of his own daughter.) But a corollary process is the reduction in family formation in the first place. This trend has many causes, including the accumulation of males who are seen as “unmarriagable”. Toward the end of the book, Pearlstein discusses the way people with relatively minor criminal records get effectively blackballed, with the Internet making it worse (grazing on the “online reputation” issue I have covered at length before).
He also discusses, in a few places, discusses the notion that individual goals have changed over the years, with an outlook we might call “expressive individualism”. Here, it gets tricky. Once people have children, they need to be prepared to put their kids first (and stay together in a marital relationship); that idea itself is not controversial (or maybe it is to some people). But in recent decades there has been a tendency to postpone marriage for career or “self-advancement”, resulting in lower birthrates among people who can probably afford children (the “demographic winter” problem), and a greater likelihood people will grow old alone (he discusses on p 71) – which ties into another notion of “family fragmentation” discussed by Jennifer Roback Morse and others – that extended families are made weaker by single people who leave the nest and leave eldercare to “government programs” like Social Security and Medicare (that gets into a complicated and controversial area that I have covered a lot elsewhere – Morse’s idea is oversimplified, to say the least). Pearlstein pays heed to gender-specific problems, that boys are affected a lot more than girls by deficient environments, and notes that we seem to be heading toward a society where women don't need men -- an issue George Gilder had written about in the 80s.
Pearlstein doesn’t address gay issues in this book much, beyond the same-sex marriage debate on pp 21-23. (In his native Minnesota, a blue state, there is a proposed state constitutional amendment to limit marriage to one man and one woman.) But I have, in my own mind, done a lot of introspection, as to why over the years others made so much of my own homosexuality, and personal aloofness, which in me are hard to separate. I think that a lot of this has to do with an expectation that everyone be ready for the kinds of permanent relationships that can both raise children and (especially recently, with longer lifespans) take care of the elderly and disabled, without so much government intervention. I took myself out of the game, in the minds of many people; if too many people were allowed or particularly encouraged to opt out this way, a free society could not sustain itself and could “slouch” toward totalitarianism.