America By the Numbers: A Look at My Favorite Book - Robert J. Samuelson

You may think that the last place to find a portrait of a nation is a book full of numbers. But turn to page 673 of the Statistical Abstract of the United States, and you find these intriguing figures. About three quarters of Americans (76.1 percent in 2007, to be exact) get to work by driving alone. Only 10.4 percent carpool, while 4.9 percent use public transportation and 2.8 percent walk. On average, Americans spend 25.3 minutes commuting each way. The state with the longest average commuting time is New York, at 31.5 minutes; the states with the shortest are North and South Dakota at about 16 minutes, followed closely by Montana and Nebraska at 17.6.

I confess to being an avid fan of the Statistical Abstract, published annually by the Census Bureau, because it tells so much so quickly. The just-published 2010 edition, as always, bulges with information. For me, the Stat Abstract is often the first go-to source for a story, because it substitutes evidence for speculation. How do we compare with other countries? Sometimes favorably; sometimes not.

Being optimistic, Americans commit suicide at fairly low rates, 10.2 for every 100,000 people in 2004, less than the 11.9 average for all industrial countries or Japan's 20.3 and France's 15.1. Food is cheaper here than almost anywhere else. In 2007, only about 6.9 percent of U.S. consumer spending went for food at home; Germans spent more (11.4 percent), as did Italians (14.5 percent) and Mexicans (24.2 percent). On the other hand, low food prices may contribute to Americans' obesity. In 2006, about 34 percent of U.S. adults were judged obese, triple France's rate (10.5 percent) and four times Switzerland's (7.7 percent).

The United States may be the birthplace of feminism, but that's not obvious from global figures. In 2009, women were 16.8 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives. In other national legislatures, women did better. For Canada, the comparable figure was 22.1 percent; for the Netherlands, 41.3 percent. The United States was roughly on a par with Uzbekistan's 17.5 percent.

Considering today's economic slump, America may seem a land where progress has died. Not so. The Statistical Abstract offers many counterexamples. Crime is perhaps the best. Two decades ago, governments seemed helpless against a rising tide of murders, assaults, and drug deals. Then crime began to subside. From 1993 to 2007, murders dropped from 25,000 to 17,000, rapes from 103,000 to 90,000, and robberies from 660,000 to 445,000. Crime rates per 100,000 declined more, because the population rose 16 percent over the same period. There is no consensus as to why. Possible causes include better policing techniques and tougher sentencing (the incarcerated population doubled from 1.148 million in 1990 to 2.293 million in 2007). But crime still remains serious, especially for the young: in 2007, 18 percent of high-school students reported carrying a weapon sometime in the previous year.

Other portents of progress? Smoking continues to decline, from 25.3 percent of adults in 1990 to 19.7 percent in 2007. Five-year survival rates for cancer are up: from 62.4 percent in 1990–92 to 69.1 percent in 1999–2005 for whites; and from 48.2 percent to 59.4 percent for blacks. Voting is also up; the turnout of 57.1 percent in 2008 was the highest since 1968. Garbage per person has stabilized; it was 4.5 pounds per day in 1990 and 4.6 pounds in 2007. Among the young (18- to 29-year-olds), Internet usage is virtually universal: 92 percent in 2009, up from 72 percent in 2000.

Mostly, the Statistical Abstract instructs about how we're living and changing. By 2050, the U.S. population is projected to be almost 440 million, up from 304 million in 2008. Almost one quarter of elementary- and high-school students are immigrants or have immigrant parents. In 2007, the average American spent 1,613 hours watching TV, the equivalent of 67 days. From 1980 to 2007, the number of pickup trucks, vans, and SUVs almost quadrupled to 101.5 million, while the number of cars rose only 12 percent to 135.9 million.

And sex? The Stat Abstract has that, too. Among men 15–44, the median number of lifetime sexual partners is 5.4. Almost a quarter of men (22.6 percent) say they've had 15 or more partners. Among women, the median number of partners is 3.3, and almost a 10th (9.2 percent) say they've had 15 or more partners. The Stat Abstract provides a flood tide of facts. But how we interpret, discuss, and debate them is the stuff of democracy.

Robert Samuelson is also the author of The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence and Untruth: Why the Conventional Wisdom Is (Almost Always) Wrong.