December 2010: Five overlooked stories

A tip of the snow-covered hat to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

We’re constantly reminded how dramatically our media and information choices have expanded in the Age of Google, and yet there are important stories that don’t get the coverage they deserve during the course of a year.

As 2010 ends, I’ve identified five stories that were slighted by the mainstream media—two of which could be categorized as cautionary in nature and three stories that represent overlooked good news.

Why were they ignored? Was it journalistic groupthink? Or because these stories deviated from the established narratives cherished in many American newsrooms (which generally skew to the liberal-left)? Or because they were perceived as too complex for the average reader or viewer? Whatever the reasons, we would have been better served as readers and citizens with more focused coverage of these topics.

Here are the overlooked five:

  1. How democracy has experienced a global decline. The number of democracies around the world has dropped over the past several years, according to institutions like Freedom House, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the U.S. State Department and the United Nations that monitor political freedom. It’s a disturbing slide that hasn’t received enough media attention. (To his credit, Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune dedicated a recent column to the persistence of repressive regimes, “In 2010, the spread of democracy stalled.”)

    The Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index, which reflects the global situation as of November 2010, shows that the “dominant pattern in all regions over the past two years has been backsliding on previously attained progress in democratisation.” The Economist group reports that:

    Disappointments abound across many of the world’s regions. Authoritarian trends have become even more entrenched in the Middle East and much of the former Soviet Union. Democratisation in Sub-Saharan Africa is grinding to a halt, and in some cases is being reversed. A political malaise in east-central Europe has led to disappointment and questioning of the strength of the region’s democratic transition. Media freedoms are being eroded across Latin America and populist forces with dubious democratic credentials have come to the fore in a few countries in the region. In the developed West, a precipitous decline in political participation, weaknesses in the functioning of government and security-related curbs on civil liberties are having a corrosive effect on some long established democracies.

    The Economist unit cites several factors in the decline, including the global financial crisis that started in 2008, the strengthening of autocratic regimes in Eastern Europe and the Middle East by rising oil prices, and what it calls “the delegitimation of much of the democracy-promotion agenda, which has been associated with military intervention and unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

    It’s true that the Bush Administration’s emphasis on advancing democracy, especially in the Middle East, was flawed by its narrow focus on elections, ignoring the need for establishing civil society, the rule of law, the protection of political minorities, and free markets. Unfortunately President Barack Obama’s State Department has abandoned active attempts to promote the democratic agenda (reflected in Obama’s hands-off approach to democratic protests in Iran and China), and that can’t help but hearten anti-democratic forces around the world.

  2. How out-of-wedlock births enable the cycle of poverty.
  3. The latest Census figures underscored growing levels of childhood poverty (some 1-in-5 American children are now living under the federal poverty line), but that was a development that should have come as no surprise. The economic slump that began in 2008 and the resulting unemployment played a major role, as did the continuing breakdown of the nuclear family.

    Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution “has concluded that virtually all of the increase in child poverty in the United States since the 1970s can be attributed to family breakdown,” and she and her colleague Ron Haskin have calculated that the poverty rate of married-couple families is one-fifth that of female-headed families.

    The level of out-of-wedlock births in the U.S. has been steadily rising—the most up-to-date figures show that 41% of births in 2008 were to unmarried mothers. The rates for out-of-wedlock births have been increasing across racial and ethnic groups over the past decade; a majority of black women (72%) and Hispanics (53%) were unmarried when they had children, with lower levels for whites (29%) and Asians (17%).

    As a point of comparison, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously warned of the breakdown of the African-American family in 1965 when the unwed birth rate for blacks was 23.6%; for whites, the number was then 3.07%.

    How should the growing number of out-of-wedlock births be addressed? There aren’t easy public policy answers, of course, but we need our political, religious, and cultural leaders to at least seriously engage with the issue.

  4. Why one of America’s strongest claims to exceptionalism is its continuing commitment to meritocracy.
  5. The mainstream media focused heavily on income inequality in the United States in 2010; the gap between the top and bottom of the socioeconomic ladder is troubling, (even if most of the new wealth is concentrated in Silicon Valley, New York City, Portland, Boston, Austin and a few other financial/high tech hit spots.)

    What has been lost in the discussion about American social mobility, however, is our undiminished support of the idea of meritocracy, which can be seen in the elevation to power of members of previously marginalized groups.

    It’s not just a black president and a female Secretary of State–in a country once dominated by Protestant elites, the Supreme Court is now made up of six Catholics and three Jewish Americans; the highest court is without a Protestant justice for the first time in its history. The presidents of the once-exclusionary Ivy League schools now include an African-American female (Brown), a Korean-American (Dartmouth), three Jewish-American males (Columbia, Cornell, and Yale), one Jewish female (University of Pennsylvania), and two Protestant females (Princeton, Harvard).

    The fact that women and religious, ethnic, and racial minorities are increasingly occupying elite leadership roles reflects a fundamental—and unique—American belief in equality of opportunity.

  6. How start-ups are the engine of American job growth.
  7. That small business represents the engine for job growth in the U.S. has become conventional wisdom, but the reality is that it is start-ups, businesses less than five years old, that are the true job generators.

    Recent research cited by the Wall Street Journal (“Startups Key to Job Growth“) suggests that these “gazelle firms” may create more jobs than what is captured in official statistics. Small Business Administration economist Ying Lowrey says early-stage enterprises involve millions of unpaid and self-employed people who don’t show up in official tallies.

    This undercounting matters; federal and state policymakers should recognize the greater importance of startups in generating jobs. Making it easier to start businesses (with a streamlined regulatory environment), matching private financing of new ventures, and maintaining lower marginal tax rates on long-term capital gains are constructive policy steps. (Harvard Business School professor Josh Lerner outlined some model policies in his Boston Globe op-ed “Creating small business jobs.”)

  8. How Americans have continued to donate to charity despite the economic slowdown.
  9. While charitable giving slipped during the first years of the Great Recession, 2010 donations to charity showed an uptick, according to the National Research Collaborative. Americans remain the most generous givers in the world, with donations representing more than 2% of gross domestic product.

    And the New York Times Freakonomics blog cited a new study from The Fraser Institute that found that higher income Canadians were not as generous than their neighbors to the south:

    Monetary generosity in the U.S. surpassed that of Canada, with 27.3 per cent of American tax filers donating to charity, compared to 23.6 per cent of Canadian tax filers.

    The explanation for this is straight-forward. The U.S. is the most religious of industrialized nations, and believers see charity as a natural part of their faith. Other incentives for giving include a long tradition of local self-help, and numerous nonprofits serving community needs.

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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