The United States of Incompetence, by Art Carey, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1991, 203 pp., $17.95
Art Carey, an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, woke up one morning to find that a bridge he crossed to get to work every day was closed. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation had let it deteriorate so badly it was no longer safe. For 16 months, as Mr. Carey took a long detour to work, he cursed the rotting bridge, which had become a symbol for what he calls “a disease that’s consuming the soul of America . . . an epidemic of incompetence that is turning the United States into a second-rate nation and Third World country.”
In The United States of Incompetence, Mr. Carey vents the frustration he feels as he watches his nation decline. He also tries to explain its decline, and to point a way out of the morass. The book is in fact an impressive collection of horrifying tales about a once-great nation gone wrong. But no cure is possible without correct diagnosis. Mr. Carey refuses to accept the conclusion to which his own evidence points—that the most obvious cause of decline is that welfare and immigration policies are filling America with incompetent people.
Mr. Carey defines his problem broadly: “Incompetence has become a catchword for a larger malaise. Simply stated, we have lost our purpose, our moral ambition, our sense of social obligation.” The bulk of his book is an account of the five factors he says are responsible for America’s failures: a decline in morals, which undermined the family, which led to bad education, which produced a slipshod work ethic, which resulted in the disappearance of quality. Whether or not one accepts this neat causation scheme, there is no doubt that America is failing in all these areas.
America now churns out illiterates at an alarming rate. Twenty-three million of us, he says, are “functionally illiterate” and another 46 million are “marginally literate.” Half of the 17-year-olds still in school can’t understand a newspaper editorial or 12th grade text book. New York Telephone must test nearly 30 people to find a single one who is qualified to be an operator. At the same time, the work ethic has been replaced by what Mr. Carey calls the “new American dream [of] winning the lottery—riches without effort, reward without talent, gain without pain . . . happiness is freedom from work . . . the definition of bliss is infinite leisure.”
“Family life” in America now includes 11-year-old crack-addicted mothers, and in 1989, 12,000 drug-addicted children were born in New York City alone. Americans kill each other at such a clip that the country has a homicide rate more than 20 times higher than that of Denmark, West Germany, Austria, or Japan. As Mr. Carey puts it, our streets are filled with a “mutant strain of urban animal,” and his own city of Philadelphia is “reminiscent of Beirut, Calcutta, or war-ravaged Dresden.”
All this leads to “a desperate sense that the barbarians have taken over, that a hostile and anti-social underclass is proliferating uncontrollably.” Quite so. We all feel this. What caused it and what could stop it?
Facing the Facts
Here Mr. Carey refuses to face facts. He traces America’s decline to the anything-goes mentality of the 1960s that ridiculed the notion of moral standards and social norms. Everything has gone down hill ever since, he says, and what we need is a good talking-to. Mr. Carey’s prescriptions for rejuvenation ring with such phrases as “resurgence of moral bravery,” and “lowering the threshold for moral insult.” But does he really think that sermons on moral bravery will have the slightest effect on mutant strains of urban animals?
If Mr. Carey thinks that decline began in the 1960s, he has missed two crucial events of that era: the enormous expansion of welfare and the huge influx of non-white immigrants. Both have had devastating effects on America’s moral and national foundations. Spending on welfare, which is a program that pays women with an average IQ of 85 to stay home and have babies, increased 540 percent in real terms between 1960 and 1982, while the number of families on the dole went from 15 in a thousand to 65 in a thousand. We have, indeed, produced a mutant strain of animal, for never before has a country so ruthlessly taxed its most competent citizens in order to pay its least competent to multiply.
At the same time, immigration policy since the 1960s has reduced the white population of the country from 90 percent to 75 percent. A great many of the newcomers are losers by any standard. When over a million illegal aliens who had been amnestied by the Immigration Reform Act crept out of the shadows, California discovered that its share had an average of only four years of education, and that 80 percent couldn’t speak English well enough to hold a job.
The other painfully obvious fact that Mr. Carey refuses to acknowledge is that so much of what he calls incompetence is disproportionately the work of blacks and Hispanics. Although he lards his book with statistics, he almost never breaks down the horror figures by race. When he rants about illiteracy, he fails to tell us that blacks and Hispanics are, respectively, three and three-and-a-half times more likely to be illiterate than whites. He despairs of shattered families, but never tells us that while 15 percent of white babies are born to single parents, 34 percent of Hispanic babies and an astounding 63 percent of black babies are illegitimate. He lambastes indolence and irresponsibility, but hasn’t noticed that blacks are six times as likely as whites to be on welfare and Hispanics are 3.6 times as likely. He does not care to tell us that 52 percent of Hispanic students drop out of high school or that blacks are 46 times more likely than whites to have syphilis.
Throughout Mr. Carey’s book, there is a transparent determination to ignore race. Many of the race-unspecified instances of barbarism he cites are almost certainly stories about non-whites, and he coyly refrains from mentioning race when he writes about well-publicized outrages. For all his readers would know, the Central Park jogger was raped by white college boys, and the Utah tourist stabbed to death on a New York subway platform was killed by Japanese-Americans.
A dose of his own medicine
Nevertheless, Mr. Carey is no fool, and occasionally he glimpses what is really wrong with America. For example, he points out that standards—whose absence he is constantly deploring—require judgments of superiority and inferiority. He even insists that a healthy society is one that has widely accepted norms of behavior and standards of conduct. “Openness sounds nice . . . ,” he writes, “[but] the problem is that openness is inimical to quality because it insists on indiscriminateness. Why? Because the opposite of indiscriminateness is—egads!—discrimination. . . .A society afraid to acknowledge the best because it’s afraid to acknowledge the worst is a society where quality is doomed.” Mr. Carey could do with a dose of his own medicine.
Although Mr. Carey manages to recognize that a society cannot cohere and function without “shared duties, values, loyalties, habits of mind and qualities of heart,” what does his prescription for America call for but more diversity! Diversity, he says is “the marrow of our greatness, the wellspring of our strength.” Through immigration and diversity America will continue to “renew and invigorate” itself. It would be hard to draw a more ridiculous—or more politically correct—conclusion from the facts that Mr. Carey has given us.
Mr. Carey argues repeatedly that America is rife with incompetence because Americans cannot or will not live up to standards. As he says, America is becoming “a second-rate nation and a Third World country.” What Mr. Carey cannot or will not see is that this is because America is increasingly a nation of second-rate and Third World people.