Lagging Cultural Indicator

Michael Metzger

Political parties will pay attention to one lagging economic indicator in 2012—the rate of unemployment. Lagging indicators confirm patterns that are occurring, such as whether or not the economy is improving. Cultures operate in ways similar to economies, with cultural indicators. Pay particular attention to one lagging indicator in 2012.

We measure economies by two indicators—leading and lagging. Leading indicators signal future growth or decline. Bond yields are one example. Lagging indicators track whether an economy is growing or declining. The rate of unemployment is a lagging indicator. It’s not predictive as much as it reports what is happening in the job market.

Cultures operate in similar ways. The leading indicators include ideas, images, items, institutions, and individuals that are taken seriously by the general public. Together, they signal whether a culture is likely to flourish or head into decline. But figuring out whether a society is currently thriving or deteriorating requires paying attention to lagging indicators. A key indicator is how people talk.

Human language is as old as creation. God spoke creation into existence as he imagined it. In this sense, language “lagged” behind imagination. Made in the image of God, human language lags behind imagination. It is a lagging indicator of how people imagine their lot in life. And when we listen to how the continuing economic downturn has affected the way Americans talk, this lagging indicator is troubling.

“I was living the American dream,” said one African-American in a recent New York Times article, remembering his $23.76-an-hour public sector job. “Then it crumbled. They get you used to having things and then they take them away.” In his book, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes The Underclass, Theodore Dalrymple reports on how worldviews can be heard in the way people talk. For those at the bottom, “a striking example” is how often they use the passive voice.1 They get you used to having things… they take them away. The problem is always someone else.

Victimhood is the voice of the underclass. This creates a vortex, dragging down a culture. We hear it today in the accusation that the wealthy—the 1%—are the problem. But as Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon points out, wealthy and poor people, as well as the private and public sector, were all complicit in our economic collapse—whether they knew it or not. We are all in some sense culpable. Blaming others only absolves the victims from taking their fair share of the responsibility.

The corrective is a collective sense of responsibility. The Apostle Paul confronted a blame-game situation in the deeply divided Corinthian church. There were arrogant believers who did pretty much as they pleased. They were one half of the problem. There were also “wounded” believers who accused their arrogant brothers and sisters of “causing them to stumble” (I Cor.8). They were the other half of the problem. But note their passive voice. The problem was what others were doing to them. Paul reminded these wounded believers of the exodus, when the Jews played the role of victim and blamed their leaders. “All the congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘You are the ones who have caused the death of the Lord’s people’” (Num.16:41). Not so. A generation of victims never made it to the Promised Land.

Today’s Promised Land is returning to high productivity and lower rates of unemployment. A generation of people who blame others or feel entitled to a well-paying job is unlikely to make it there. In the March 2010 edition of The Atlantic, Don Peck writes: “this era of high joblessness is probably just beginning. Before it ends, it will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar men. It could cripple marriage as an institution in many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a despair not seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years to come.”2

Peck writes that the construction and finance industries, bloated by a decade-long housing bubble, are unlikely to regain their former share of the economy. Workers will have to learn new skills instead of blaming others. Nor can we expect the public sector to return to levels that were commonplace before 2007. Public workers who feel “the system” screwed them are likely to sink to the bottom. Nor can a generation of recent college graduates expect to earn as much as those who finished school a few years earlier—unless they work much harder than many are accustomed to. In this economy, the wounded and entitled will most likely sink, feel stuck near the bottom, but then blame others for their misfortune. It’s a lagging indicator of cultural decline.

In his last sermon before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made this appeal to those on the bottom rung of the cultural ladder: We shall overcome. It was a collective call to the disadvantaged, using the active voice. “We shall overcome. Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome. And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” King inspired people because he invoked the biblical language of prevailing over injustice rather than finger pointing.

It’s wise to pay attention to leading and lagging cultural indicators. Wise faith communities committed to the flourishing of all pay attention to both. They measure whether the church is contributing to the making of ideas, images, items, institutions, and individuals—leading cultural indicators. But wise faith communities also listen for lagging indicators. In 2012, they will do all they can to promote a collective sense of responsibility, hoping to halt what appears to be a cultural slide.


1 Theodore Dalrymple, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes The Underclass (Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2001), p. ix.
2 Don Peck, “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America” The Atlantic, March 2010.


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  1. Mike,

    I really enjoyed this post. I especially appreciated your comments about our myopic tendency to blame the 1% while ignoring our own culpability. It is especially fitting when considering the Old Testament prophets did not just denounce the actions of the rich who profited from injustice, but also against those regular citizens who did nothing to stop the rich from plundering the poor.

    Thanks for also pointing our attention to the necessity of being active and not passive participants in our culture. We believe that justice will roll down like waterfalls and that God is working through us as culture makers to bring forth this justice. Here’s to looking forward to a new year with new opportunities for living as Christ on earth.

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