October 10, 2012

We live in an age, we are often informed, of Big Data. Every facet of life is collected, counted, and analyzed carefully: baseball statistics, Twitter trends, and even Google searches regarding which celebrities are gay.

On the other hand, there are all sorts of numbers that we”€™re not supposed to ponder.

Consider that we”€™ve all noticed that the concepts of quantity and quality form a useful pair to keep in mind.

And it’s hard not to notice births. Being born is important.

So what could be more obviously important to America’s future than the quantity and quality of births?

And yet while newspapers run routine articles on the quantity of births, there is negligible coverage of the quality.

On the face of it, this is rather strange because most other aspects of 21st-century American culture are obsessed with quality over quantity. Tiger Mothers, for instance, aren”€™t impressed that Arizona State has more students than Princeton. Nor does anybody win at fantasy football by having the most players on their roster.

Yet most articles about birthrates adopt an intellectual stance appropriate for, say, the Toilet Paper Manufacturers Association: As with opinions, everybody’s got one, so the more the better. More toilet-paper consumption is good for the economy, and that’s all you need to know.

“€œIllegitimate births are bad for the Republican Party.”€

One irony is that the quality of births has perhaps been improving during Barack Obama’s tenure. At minimum, quality has not been in a free fall as it was during George W. Bush’s disastrous second administration. But not only can”€™t Obama mention this on the campaign trail, he probably can”€™t even formulate the idea without his head exploding.

You may object that a term such as “€œquality”€ can”€™t be applied to a poor, innocent baby. All babies are created equal, just as more disposable-diaper sales are good for the economy.

Yet quality can be specified both from disinterested and partisan viewpoints.

For instance, consider the illegitimacy rate (the percent of children born out of wedlock). There’s ample evidence that kids with single mothers get a poorer start in life than children with two married parents.

The second irony is that the end of the Bush Quality Collapse is good for the GOP because illegitimate births are bad for the Republican Party.

Let me specify a seemingly cynical, self-serving definition of quality from the GOP standpoint: Quality births are those that are likely to lead to more Republican votes, both now and in the next generation. Out-of-wedlock births tend to leave women stranded in Mitt Romney’s “€œ47 percent”€ and put their children on the fast track for a life of voting for tax-and-spend politicians. Single mothers vote GOP far less than married mothers (just as single men vote Republican less than married men). And their offspring are more likely to grow up on welfare and thus become natural Democrats.

You might think that the Republican brain trust would carefully monitor illegitimacy trends as a serious threat to preserving the GOP’s putative 53 percent. Yet barely anyone on the conservative side has acknowledged how badly this crucial marker went off the rails during the second Bush Administration, much less analyzed how Bush’s policies were complicit.

Back in 1993, in Bill Clinton’s first year in office, the illegitimacy rate was 31.0 percent. After eight years of Clinton’s less than exemplary moral leadership, the rate had reached 33.5 percent.

The country then turned to the more straitlaced George W. Bush. By the end of his second term, however, the illegitimacy rate had soared to 41.0 percent.

Under Obama, the illegitimacy rate declined marginally in both 2010 and in the newly released 2011 preliminary data. It’s only down to 40.7 percent, so there’s little cause for celebration. Nevertheless, after the appalling increase during Bush’s second term, we must be grateful for small favors.


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