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.

What sighs of relief must have been expelled along with the seniors as spare rooms were aired, ancient toy poodles were euthanized, radios and TVs were tuned to bearable programming at endurable volumes, and the last vestiges of clan and tribal obligation were dumped in the trash, along with the renewal notice for the large-print edition of Reader’s Digest.

Throwing the old folks out of the house seems to have made us so happy that pretty soon, in pursuit of further happiness, we began throwing each other out of the house as well. Divorce rates doubled between the early 1960s and the middle 1990s. And one of the demographers who contributed an essay to Historical Statistics wrote that about half of all the marriages contracted at the end of the 20th century would end in divorce, and that about a third of the babies being born had unwed mothers. Putting all that together with a continuing decline in the fertility rate among native-born women, we can conclude that the final years of the last century were marked by a trend toward smaller and smaller—and, therefore, happier and happier—households. However, the suicide rate held steady, and even dropped a bit at the end of the 1990s, so Americans did not take the final step in making their households as absolutely small and perfectly happy as possible. But, as with the Social Security Act, the right government program may be able to remedy this.

On another upbeat note, as a longtime smoker, I’m glad to say that Historical Statistics allows me to conclude that stopping smoking causes lung cancer. Practically all Americans claim to have stopped smoking back in the 1970s, as they inevitably tell you every time they bum a cigarette. And per capita cigarette consumption did drop steadily from 1973 to 1994. But during the same period, the incidence of lung and bronchial cancer rose from 42.5 per 100,000 people to 57.1 per 100,000.

Doing a little additional fooling around with the numbers, I can also conclude that nobody stopped smoking at all. Per capita cigarette smoking was higher in 1994 than it was in 1941, and if you watch 1940s movies, you know that back then everybody smoked. In 1994, the number of cigarettes smoked divided by the number of Americans over 18 equaled about 123 packs a year. So if it’s only me who’s still smoking, plus you every so often—but just socially—then the two of us are spending one hell of a lot of time outside the back door of the office building in all kinds of weather.

There’s really no end to the things that one can conclude from these five volumes. Had I but world enough and time—and if the dog hadn’t chewed my cheap, flimsy pocket calculator—I could prove, disprove, re-prove, and improve more things about America than America has things. And America has a lot of things. Of course it probably helps that my education in mathematics ended with a Little Bighorn experience involving Chief Soh Cah Toa in sophomore trig. And I’ve never taken a statistics course. I don’t know a standard deviation from a deviation that would condemn me to eternal perdition, and I can’t tell a bell curve from Ms. Clio’s bustline. But all this is equally true of most readers. So I think I could pull it off.

Did you know that the percentage of young people in the crucial “youthquake” age bracket of 15 to 24 was higher in 1973 (18.5 percent) than in 1967 (16.7 percent)? Therefore it was glam rock that ended the war in Vietnam.

Mark Twain quoted the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli as saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” That in itself was either a collation of official data or a fib, since there’s no record of Disraeli saying any such thing. This goes to show we should take Twain’s statement in the spirit in which it was made. Who more than Samuel Clemens was fond of a very, very tall tale? Imagine how the Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County would have performed if he’d been filled with the contents of the Millennial Edition of Historical Statistics of the United States.

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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