We in the scribbling and chattering class are facing an emerging crisis which--unless things soon get worse--threatens to grow to dire proportions. It is the absence of crises. Almost all those that routinely arouse or engage us (the economy, crime, poverty, public despondency) are receding or disappearing. We are always ready to offer insights and wisdom, but fewer and fewer subjects seem to require either.
What are we to do? Our social standing, psychic income and even sanity are threatened. In normal periods, we may (or may not) be read, watched or heeded. But we can at least console ourselves that we ought to be heeded, because the country is wrestling with serious issues that require the serious attention of serious people. Now, even this reasoning seems strained.
In the good old days, almost any social or economic problem was deemed a "crisis." There was a surplus, partly artificial. Now, suddenly, the surplus has turned to scarcity. You could, for example, usually count on the economy to go sour every four or five years. There'd be a recession, typically preceded by a burst of inflation. We'd wonder how long the distress would last and--more important--whether it signaled some fundamental economic curse.
Well, the present economic expansion is approaching its ninth anniversary. At about 4 percent, the unemployment rate is 1.5 to 2 percentage points below a level that, a few years ago, many economists believed would trigger a wage-price spiral. Yet, inflation remains slight. The lower unemployment rate means between 2 million and nearly 3 million more people with jobs. Some of us fear that the economy is vulnerable to speculative "excesses" in stock prices, consumer spending and Internet investment. But so far, the vulnerabilities are hypothetical.
Poverty? No one would claim that it doesn't exist. But, almost certainly, it isn't getting worse. The "welfare reform" of 1996 was widely predicted--by its critics--to portend a social catastrophe of destitute single mothers and children. It hasn't. In 1994 the welfare rolls totaled 14.2 million parents and children. By early 1999 the number had dropped by almost half to 7.3 million. At 2.7 percent of the population, this was the lowest share since 1968. There are no reports of mass suffering. Many ex-welfare mothers have gotten jobs. Possibly some are acquiring job skills that will permanently improve their earnings capacity and self-respect. If so, poverty might diminish.
And then there's crime. The FBI recently reported that serious crime (murder, robbery, rape, burglary, car theft) dropped 10 percent in the first half of 1999 compared with the same period in 1998. Crime has been declining since the early 1990s, and these reports are now so routine that they're buried deep inside papers. No one can really explain crime's decline, though theories (tougher sentencing, better policing, more jobs) abound. Still, the reality is simple: A problem that once seemed out of control--a genuine crisis--has gotten better.
Not surprisingly, these favorable trends have brightened the public's disposition. Until recently, opinion surveys exhibited a striking contrast. People professed optimism about their personal lives and pessimism about the nation. But even this gap has narrowed. Consider polls by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. In early 1996 only 28 percent of Americans said they were satisfied "with the way things are going in the country"; 70 percent were dissatisfied. By August 1999, 56 percent said they were satisfied, 39 percent dissatisfied.
To the media, this is disheartening. No one, of course, is going to say so. We are sensitive to accusations that we secretly crave calamity, disaster and social disorder. We can abide (even enjoy) being unloved. We can't stand being unneeded. So there's a yearning for new "crises." Health care is deemed a constant "crisis," although most Americans are getting healthier. For awhile, Y2K looked promising; now the danger seems to be fading (though who can tell?). Naturally, the street demonstrations in Seattle at the World Trade Organization meeting excited editors and reporters. Perhaps we'd get an echo of the Sixties social protest? (This is probably wishful thinking but does explain the lavish coverage.)
Salvation seems to lie in the presidential campaign. Surely this will kindle the public interest? Maybe--and maybe not. The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard did a poll in late November on the election. Among respondents, 62 percent rated the campaign "boring"; only 8 percent said it was "exciting." Some 78 percent said they hadn't thought of the campaign "in the past day."
History suggests that the present social calm will pass. But suppose it doesn't. What would that be? By now, it ought to be clear: the Mother of all Crises.