Number 85 September 8, 2000

This Week:

Quote of the Week
Nygaard Teaches Class on Media
Poor Little Rich Country
Humor in the Media
Toward a National Social Report: History and The Grassroots


Is it starting to seem like Nygaard Notes is all about self-promotion? First the fund-raising issue, then I announce that I'm talking on the radio, now I'm teaching a class! Where will it end? I hate to take up valuable Notes space for this stuff, but I figure Nygaardians might want to know about it. Nothing else to promote in the near future, however, I'm glad to say.

For now, I'm outta space, so it's time to go. Hasta la proxima,


"Quote" of the Week:

"What gets measured tends to get done. If you don't measure results, you can't tell success from failure. If you can't recognize success, you can't reward it or repeat it. If you can't recognize failure, you can't learn from it."

-- from the website of "Minnesota Milestones," a statewide social indicators project

Nygaard Teaches Class on Media

I write about media quite a bit. I guess the word has gotten out, as I have been asked to teach a class on the subject. Some of you may want to attend. It will run for five consecutive Thursday evenings starting October 5th at the Resource Center of the Americas in Minneapolis.

I plan to use a popular education approach to the class, meaning that the exact content will be set in consultation with the students in the group. Nonetheless, here is the semi-official notice to give you an idea of what the class might be about:

"Looking at the World: How the Media Shapes Our Understanding of Foreign Affairs"

"Why is genocide in Kosovo on the front pages while genocide in Turkey is not? Why is the ‘peace process' in the Middle East so confusing? Can I get any useful information from the newspapers? Where else can I look? Who decides what goes into the newspaper, anyway?

"If these are the sorts of questions you often ask yourself, this five-week course is for you. The exact content of the class will be set in consultation between the students and the facilitator, veteran local media-watcher Jeff Nygaard. Some ideas for possible discussions might include such subjects as ‘Race and Class in the Media World,' ‘Where to Find Good Independent Sources of Information,' ‘Structure and Function of the Mass Media,' and ‘How to Decode the News.' Emphasis will be on class participation and how to put what we learn into action. Bring your own ideas! Readings supplied by instructor, based on class discussions."

If you're interested in the class, which costs $50 for members of the Center and $60 for non-members, call the Resource Center at 612-276-0788, or visit their website at and look under "Classes and Conferences."


Poor Little Rich Country

In the June 30th Star Tribune (Newspaper of the Twin Cities!), on page A9, appeared an article entitled "Sub-Saharan African nations rank lowest on U.N. quality of life list," which reported on what it called "an international ‘quality-of-life rating' released the previous day by the United Nations. (I think this was actually the Human Development Index, which is deserving of a great deal more coverage than it gets, but that's another story.) While it is no doubt true that the poverty- and war-stricken nations of Sub-Saharan Africa are suffering greatly, I thought the real story for Minnesota readers appeared (as they often do) right toward the end of the brief Associated Press article. In the second-to-last paragraph we find the following: "The report also said the United States has the highest level of ‘human poverty' – referring to life expectancy, illiteracy and unemployment – among industrialized nations..."

The reason I think this aspect of the story was "the real story" is simple. If I were editor of the Star Trib, I would place greater emphasis on the news upon which the actions of my readers could have the greatest effect. Since we are in a time of unprecedented prosperity and great budget surpluses, it seems to me that citizens of this great country might be interested in using some of that wealth to drag ourselves out of what should be a humiliating international position. In other words, Editor Nygaard would see this as a scandal and place it in the paper accordingly, perhaps with the following Nygaard Notes Alternative Headline: "United States Poorest Nation Among the Wealthy." Maybe that would get some attention.


Humor in the Media

Three recent media tidbits that I found oddly humorous:

The lead story in the Star Tribune (Newspaper of the Twin Cities!) on Sunday August 27th was a report on a Minnesota Poll on the horse race for the Democratic Party nomination for the Minnesota Senate seat. Currently there are four "major" candidates, Mark Dayton, Mike Ciresi, Jerry Janezich, and Rebecca Yanisch. Toward the end of the article appeared the following: "Dayton's name recognition was higher than all the other candidates, at 88 percent. Ciresi followed at 74 percent, while Janezich and Yanisch dropped from more than 60 percent in a June poll to 57 percent and 54 percent, respectively." If this poll were accurate, we would have to believe that 276,000 Minnesotans who recognized Janezich's name in June somehow forgot in the intervening two months. 138,000 forgot Yanisch. Hmmm...

Reporter Rick Lyman opened his August 1st article in the New York Times, on the subject of television coverage of the Republican National Convention, thusly: "Republican Party elders declared yesterday on every channel that would listen that they intended to put a new, more moderate face on the Republican Party." Halfway through the article he amusingly wrote: "Senator Rod Grams, running for re-election from Minnesota, told the Republican delegates that they were part of ‘the party of opportunity, not the party of oppression.' The party of oppression? Lighten up, dude. Didn't he get the memo?"

In the "Faith and Values" section of the Star Trib on August 26th ran an article on the co-founder of Amway Corporation, entitled "Billionaire Shares Wisdom Gleaned from Faith, Business." The man's name is Rich DeVos, appropriately enough. Paragraph 7 brings us the following delicious quote: "I don't have a problem with my riches, because I don't consider that they're mine. They have been given to me to use. I am the current steward of them, and will be held accountable for how I dispose of them." I have a feeling that if I went over to Mr. DeVos' house and attempted to "steward" some of that stuff over to my house, I would be held accountable in a whole different sort of way.


Toward a National Social Report: History and The Grassroots

There have been attempts at various points in the history of the United States to collect, analyze, and report social information, although one wouldn't know it given the lack of such reporting at the present time. During the Progressive Era before World War I, the United States created the U.S. Children's Bureau, and its first director, Julia Lathrop, ordered the creation of the "Handbook of Federal Statistics on Children," which was a compendium of data on infant mortality, birth rates, poverty, and other child indicators.

In the late 1920s, President Herbert Hoover appointed an ad hoc committee to "consider the critical social changes beginning to occur" in the nation. The committee produced a 1,500-page report(!) entitled "Recent Social Trends in the United States," which looked at a wide range of social issues, including the environment, health, recreation, religion, urban and rural life, the family, labor, crime, and the arts. This report was a true "social report" in that it attempted to go beyond an analysis of the separate trends to look at their interrelation, which the authors believed was the only way to get a sense of the nation's overall "health."

Social data continued to be collected in the U.S., but not comprehensively. The New Deal in the 1930s included federal attempts to gather social data, including the famous documentary photo projects which produced such haunting images of Depression-era America. Again in the 1960s, the idea of a national "social report card" emerged. That's when the phrase "social indicators" was coined, analogous to the well-known concept of "economic indicators."

Building on this, President Lyndon Johnson directed the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to explore the idea of charting the nation's "social progress." Lots of academics, activists, and political types began to get excited (this was the ‘60s, after all) with the result that Minnesota's junior Senator, Walter Mondale, introduced a bill called "The Full Opportunity and Social Accounting Act." This act would have created a "Council of Social Advisors," a national system of social accounting, and the production of an annual Social Report. The economic versions of all of these things already existed, based on a law from the 1940s. Despite the fact that the bill received extensive hearings and, apparently, had wide popular support, it failed to pass, for reasons that I have not been able to discover. A less-ambitious report was produced by the Census Bureau in 1973, ‘76, and ‘80, but the practice was discontinued by the Reagan administration. No attempts to produce a National Social Report have been seen since. In the United States, that is.

After the idea of a National Social Report was thought up, and then defeated, in the United States, it migrated across the ocean and was soon implemented in Great Britain. Called "Social Trends" the English Social Report has been issued every year since 1970. France began to issue their Social Report in 1973, followed by the Netherlands, Norway, and Spain in 1974, Sweden, Denmark, and Austria in 1976, and so on, until today virtually all European nations and many others on every continent issue periodic national social reports. Now, there's an example of an American export that really has benefitted the world.

Sweden has a particularly interesting report called the "Level of Living Survey." In this survey, the government goes out and actually asks people how they are doing in terms of health, housing, education, safety, and employment. But it goes further, to explore more subtle things such as privacy and quiet in the home, the presence of a gathering place in the community for people to meet for recreation or discussion, and green spaces. This is not an "opinion" survey; rather than asking what people think about the level of crime, for example, the LLS asks how often they have actually refrained from going out at night because they were afraid. The idea of a national social survey has now spread throughout Europe. And, in 1990 the United Nations Development Programme introduced its "Human Development Index." More on that next week.

Grassroots America

Right here in Minnesota we have a project called "Minnesota Milestones," begun in 1992, to track and report on the state's progress in several key areas of social and economic performance. It's a very revealing report, and worthy of much discussion. Too bad nobody knows about it. The Star Tribune (Newspaper of the Twin Cities!) has never run any articles about it, as my memory and a Star Trib database search reveals, and the St. Paul daily has only done one substantial article on it, in 1996.

On the local level, there is a private initiative in the eastern Twin Cities that produces the "East Metro Trend Watch" which reports on child health, education, public safety, housing, and economics in that region. Our political "leaders" never talk about it, with the result that most Americans have never thought about it, but similar social indicator projects are underway all over the country, in more than 150 states, counties, and cities.

From San Francisco, California, to Alberta, Canada, to Flathead, Montana, social indicator projects are springing up all over the United States. Some of them are affiliated with the World Health Organization's global Healthy Cities initiative. Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, and several other states also have projects going on. Like I said, it's sort of a movement.

It has been said that "we measure what we treasure," and that certainly seems to be the case with the United States of America. We measure, in endless detail and at tremendous cost, the making and spending of money. We do not officially measure, at least not in any way that is accessible to the average citizen, the numerous social factors that make up our "quality of life." Whatever "unofficial" measure you use, you'll find that our national quality of life has been declining fairly steadily for more than a generation. And we do pretty poorly compared to other wealthy nations, as well.

Perhaps if we can put in place a system for collecting, reporting, analyzing, and interrelating social data, we can develop a "social portrait" of the nation that will have a lasting impact on the public dialogue. Next week I'll give some ideas of how we might do that.

Also next week, I'll fill in some details on the Social Health of the Nation, using data collected by some of the various "indexes" that are already in existence. Maybe I'll even find space to mention some of the ideas of feminist economics and environmental economics, about which I have some reservations. Stay tuned.