Two Cheers for the Elite Policy Consensus

Even as the U.S. struggles with rising income inequality, persistent unemployment and low wage growth, many other social indicators continue to improve.

Over the weekend, the New York Post reported on the continued decline of violent crime in New York City. In 1993, the Upper East Side (a prosperous section of Manhattan long considered one of the safest parts of New York, even during the city's troubled decades) experienced 1,708 violent crimes. Today, only one police precinct in New York covers a neighborhood as violent as that: East New York, in Brooklyn.

It's just one reminder that, even as the U.S. struggles with rising income inequality, persistent unemployment and low wage growth, many other social indicators continue to improve, which is a sign that our public policies are actually pretty good.

I wrote last month about workplace safety: Americans are 40 percent less likely to die at work than they were 20 years ago. Too many of those deaths are from auto accidents, but driving has also gotten safer: Deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled fell from 2.1 in 1990 to 1.1 in 2011.

Teen pregnancy rates are decreasing; births to women ages 15 to 19 in the U.S. fell from 48 per 1,000 in 2000 to 31 per 1,000 in 2011. Infant mortality is down too, falling by 12 percent from 2005 through 2011. And the air keeps getting cleaner.

It's harder to quantify, but our society also appears to be getting more humane. Support for the death penalty is falling, and politicians' approach to corrections is shifting back toward rehabilitation rather than maximal incarceration. The public is a lot more skeptical about getting involved in wars than it was a decade ago.

We're becoming more accepting. Of course, we have the first black president. Popular support for gay rights is rising, leading to legislative victories for gay marriage that looked far off just a few years ago. Even on topics where social change seemed to be "over," we're making improvements: For example, approval of interracial marriages grew to 86 percent in a 2011 Gallup poll, up from 65 percent a decade earlier.

There are even silver linings within economic policy. Insufficient economic and job growth over the last five years is a crisis, but it could be a much worse one: We could be slipping back into recession as Europe is. We owe thanks for our continued, if tepid, growth to the Federal Reserve, which has been able to use monetary easing to offset premature fiscal tightening precisely because it is one of our most elite and unaccountable institutions.

There are many reasons to be troubled by the way certain things are going in the U.S., but there are also many reasons for optimism. This is why I remain more or less an establishmentarian despite my growing discontent with how our elite consensus drives economic policies.

Overall, society works pretty well, and the institutions that elite forces defend are mostly good. I want incremental change that makes them better. I worry that social upheaval would do more to disrupt what's going well than what's going badly. So, don't expect to see me carrying any "occupy" banners anytime soon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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    Josh Barro

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