Looking at Marriages and Divorces, Jonah Goldberg-style

I think some degree of basic numeracy is important. Without it, one can come up with all kinds of stupidities.

Here’s a post Jonah Goldberg put up at the Corner:

Divorce Rates Lowest Since 1970 [Jonah Goldberg]

That’s good, though cohabitation is up. But here’s what I want to know — and maybe I’ll ask Beinart about this next week — What does this say about a lot of the liberal talking points regarding the Clinton and Bush economies. I’ve heard Peter say countless times that Clinton’s economic policies had direct, tangible and positive effects on social trends in the United States. Divorce, abortion out-of-wedlock births etc all went down because of a rising economic tide. I never bought a lot of Peter’s argument — which is not unique to him I should add — because it begged an important question. He simply took it as a given that Clinton’s economic plan was the cause of all the economic gains and therefore liberal economics are good for American values. Now, divorce has hit a 37 year low. Shouldn’t that not be the case under Bush? I mean Bush has supposedly reversed all that was good about Clintonian economics and the golden years of the 1990s. So, if there was a causal link between Clinton’s economic policy and improving social indicators, shouldn’t there also be one for Bush’s economic policies? And if so, how come the divorce rate (and other cultural indicators) continues to improve?

I don’t know a damn thing about Beinart except that he probably qualifies as someone Goldberg would call a liberal fascist, and yet he hangs out with Goldberg. Not a good sign, so I shudder to imagine what he’ll respond.

But here’s how I’d do it…

The post to which Goldberg links states:

The latest figures show that it has been in decline for more than 20 years, falling to a low of 3.6 divorces per 1,000 people right now.

Married couples who really don’t have an option but to go through the process of divorce, may need the help of divorce attorneys to help them settle the issue legally. Now, there are two ways to reduce the number of divorces per 1,000 people. One is to decrease the probability a marriage will end in divorce. Another is to reduce the number of marriages.

If the number of marriages per 1,000 people were to drop to zero, I’m sure a few years later Goldberg would be trumpeting that the divorce rate dropped to zero, but lamenting the increase in cohabitation. For more on this topic, read this new blog post named are you wondering, “How does a narcissist react to divorce?”

OK. Enough disparaging the willfully innumerate. Let’s look at data. Marriages and divorces per thousand data from 1970 to 2004 comes from Census by way of the Statistical Abstract of the United States. Data for 2005 comes from the CDC (???), though it should be noted that its provisional. I’ve also included the difference, i.e., the net marriage rate per 1,000.

What can we observe? Well, the divorce rate peaked at 5.3 per thousand – in 1979 and 1981. Since then, its been declining. But a cynic would also note that the marriage rate has also been declining. In fact, the difference between the marriage rate and the divorce rate is shrinking!

Now… let me repeat something from Goldberg’s post:

I mean Bush has supposedly reversed all that was good about Clintonian economics and the golden years of the 1990s. So, if there was a causal link between Clinton’s economic policy and improving social indicators, shouldn’t there also be one for Bush’s economic policies?

Ah yes. Well, let’s look at that. In fact, let’s look at changes going back to 1970. In Figure 2, below, I’ve broken up the change in the net marriage rate 1000 into a few non-randomly selected blocks of years. I’ve helpfully color coded two of them…

It turns out that the marriage rate only increased during one of those blocks – coincidentally, when Jimmy Carter was President. It also turns out that the slowest decrease in the marriage rate per year occurred when Clinton was President. Net marriages declined more quickly under the various Republican administrations.

(Regular readers know we’ve been cataloguing a bunch of these coincidences here at Angry Bear.)

So… the causal link that Goldberg is just unable to see is not just staring him the face, its about to take a bite out of his butt.