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Jewish World Review Sept. 7, 1999 /29 Elul, 5759

Ben Wattenberg

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It's time for a contest -- IT IS SAID that America is consumed with cynicism, and that hardly anyone trusts anyone any more. Notwithstanding a superb set of economic indicators, and some social indicators that are improving impressively, it is said that Americans are ill at ease and sour (at best) as they get ready to cross that suspenseful bridge to the new century. "Values" and "morality" come up in the polls as "the number one issue."

Over the years I have been labeled an "optimist," even a "panglossian," after Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss who maintained that "this is the best of all possible worlds." I say I am a realist.

I propose a contest, actually two. We haven't had contests for a while in this space, although some previous ones were vastly successful, like the one to create a national holiday celebrating the end of the Cold War. And now that I have an e-mail address as well as a post office address, the making of a contest can be facilitated. Why such a contest? I will tell you in a moment.

Contest Number One consists of two parts, 1a and 1b.

Part 1a: Write no more than 150 words, beginning with the sentence, "This is NOT the best time and place ever..." Part 1b: Write no more than 150 words, beginning with the sentence "A BETTER time and place was..."

Contest Number Two also has two parts, 2a and 2b.

Part 2a: Write no more than 150 words beginning with, "People who think this is NOT the best time and place ever are NUTS because..." Part 2b: Write no more than 150 words beginning with, "The REAL reason they say this is not the best time and place is..."

Prizes will be awarded for the best entries in both contests. Excerpts from the winning entries, with the names of their authors, will appear in this column, soon. There is one judge: me. There is no appellate procedure. Entries should be e-mailed to the address below.

Entries via regular mail should be sent to Ben Wattenberg, Newspaper Enterprise Association, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016. Type-written or word-processed entries are preferred; handwritten entries should be legible. Entries must be post-marked or dated no later than Sept. 16, 1999.

By either means of transmission, please name the newspaper in which the column appeared.

Why am I soliciting for such a contest? I need help. I am working on a big project, combining a major PBS documentary, a major reference book published by the American Enterprise Institute and a book of my own views, all dealing with the topic "The First Measured Century."

The idea behind it is that there are now two ways of telling history. The first deals with "stories" or as social scientists say, "anecdotal evidence." And so we have seen a plethora of books and films about yesteryear, many of them wonderful, in terms of events, politics, personalities, science, inventions and arts. We see Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt; world wars; the Roaring Twenties; Cold War; hula hoops; Elvis; Einstein; automobiles; the Depression; air conditioners; Hiroshima; Vietnam; Watergate; the civil rights, feminist and environmental movements; the Beatles; Churchill; Freud; Hitler; Holocaust; Mao; Stalin; Reagan; jazz; rock 'n' roll; radios; airplanes; phonographs; Clinton; antibiotics; antidepressants; computers; biotech; Titanic; Hindenburg; Lindbergh; Challenger; O.J.; and Monica.

The trouble is, you can string out the anecdotes to prove most anything. Were the 1920s really "roaring?" Are O.J. and Monica the escutcheons of the 1990s? And so on.

The other way of looking at history is through data. The academic field of study is called "cliometrics," that is, measuring history (as in Clio the muse of history.) In America we now have a data bank of about 110 years of rich social and economic statistics that lets us assay how ordinary people fared. We didn't always have rates of unemployment, illegitimacy, economic growth, immigration, sexual behavior, poverty, longevity, single parent families, per capita income -- but now we do. Of course, data, like anecdotes, can also be manipulated. But it's harder to do, and at least you get a second view.

My problem is that as I look at these data I come up with this view: this is the best time and place ever. If I go public with that, I'll get yelled at, scorned and mocked. Poor me.

And so it would be helpful if I heard from interested citizens about this matter. In fact, I will accept two entries from any readers who would like to write about both sides of the argument. There are two sides to it, I guess.

. Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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