There are statistics that we regularly consult in order to determine how we are doing. They are something like national vital signs. We know them well. The rate of growth in the gross domestic product. The unemployment rate. The increase or decrease in the budgetary deficit. The rate of inflation. About twenty years ago, William Bennett and some of his associates came up with different measures (The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators). These included things such as divorce rates, SAT scores, juvenile crime, and the percentage of children living in single parent homes.
I propose that we come up with something more holistic than what we’ve dealt with so far. We need a balance sheet. It would include assets and liabilities. What kinds of things might we list as assets? And more controversially, what would we list as liabilities? If we are able to make good choices, we should be able to set out something like a policy agenda capable of gaining broad support and interest.
The right balance sheet would include a good look at economic, environmental, social/familial, moral, criminal, penological, and infrastructure-based indicators. In other words, what features of America life represent assets? Examples might include such things as the percentage of miles of the Eisenhower Interstate System that is well-maintained, the watts of power generated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the percentage of children who grow up with married mother and father, the percentage of public facilities with full access for handicapped persons, the acreage of productive farmland, incidence of church attendance, and the percentage of young people who find work within six months of completing a college or vocational degree. Items could be added or deleted from the asset list in much the same way stocks are added to or removed from the Standard & Poor 500. With good quantitative and qualitative minds cooperating in its creation, the list could become highly useful in terms of setting priorities. My items are anything but canonical. I put them out there simply to stimulate thought.
And what about the liability side of the ledger? This part can be politically sensitive, but the value of the exercise is there if it is performed well. Examples here might include the percentage of the national deficit and debt as a percentage of GDP, miles of national infrastructure considered to be at the 90% point or worse in its replacement cycle, tons of objectively harmful emissions produced by industry, the percentage of children growing up in single parent homes or in families split by divorce, the number of abortions measured against live births, the number of Americans on disability or other welfare programs, and perhaps a measure of illiteracy. As in the case of assets, these items are simply there to suggest the outlines of what is possible.
They key element here is to foster a much larger sense of ecology than the one we have. There is a social ecology every bit as real as the physical ecology in our world. We should think about how we steward our cultural, physical, and spiritual capital all at the same time. Policy thinking that will move us in that direction is much needed.