I Sing of Fizzy Fluid Retention

The decline of spinsters? Smoke-free living? Drawing on a vast new statistical compendium, our commentator unearths, examines, and extrapolates the hidden challenges to America.

Extrapolating from the trend lines evident in Historical Statistics, we see that if one of the 2008 presidential candidates is a vicious moron (entirely possible) and the other is a beneficent genius (not as likely), and all life on Earth is threatened because al-Qaeda has discovered a way to poke every American with a sharp object simultaneously (could happen), and we extend the franchise to absolutely everyone, including preschoolers, citizens of the EU, illegal aliens, space aliens, and household pets (probably resulting in a better-informed electorate), we could achieve a voter turnout of zero.

That’s just the pleasant daydream of a tired, cynical writer in dread of looming deadlines for tired, cynical commentary on the 2008 presidential hopefuls. A William Henry Harrison of an inauguration to the lot of them.

But never mind—Historical Statistics displays plenty of other cheerful trends. We all became fabulously wealthy last century, so much so that the 1999 U.S. Census Bureau’s poverty threshold for a family of four ($10,221.49 in constant 1982–1984 dollars) was almost exactly equal to the compensation for a full-time worker back in 1941 ($10,360.54 in the same constant dollars). We got so rich that regular folks with ordinary jobs were somehow transformed into victims of soul-crushing poverty, the objects—at best—of our charitable contempt.

Then there’s the “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” graph, figure Ae-B, showing how we got our crabby old parents out of our homes and into the Heaven’s Gate Elder-Care Facility. The vertical axis of the graph measures the percentage of codgers and crones. The horizontal axis is a time line from 1850 to 1990. On the graph is a line labeled “Living with own children” and a line labeled “Living alone or with spouse only.” Move your finger along the time line to 1935, when Congress passed the Social Security Act. Then move it a little more to the right to allow for the benefits to kick in and the wartime housing shortage to abate. Now move it halfway up the graph—X marks the spot! You’ve put your finger on a total sociological inversion. The living-alone line soars—a rocket probe into the deep space of solitary senility. The living-with-children line drops like a George W. Bush approval poll. In 1850, about 13 percent of people over 65 were living alone or with just their spouse, and about 70 percent were living with their children. By 1990, the percentages were reversed almost exactly.

Presented by

P. J. O'Rourke

P. J. O’Rourke is a correspondent for The Atlantic . His most recent book is On the Wealth of Nations (2007).

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