Coming Apart

book by Charles Murray - Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 ISBN:978-0-307-45342-6,_1960%E2%80%932010

Jan'2012: Niall Feguson: Murray sees two nations (Two Cultures) where there used to be just one: a new Upper Class or “Cognitive Elite”—to be precise, the top 5 percent of people in managerial occupations and the professions—and a new “Lower Class,” which he is too polite to give a name. The upper class has gotten rich mainly because the financial returns on brainpower have risen steeply since the 1960s. At the same time, elite universities like Harvard (where I teach and where Murray studied) have gotten better at attracting the smartest students. The fact that these students are very often the offspring of better-off families reflects the fact that (as Murray puts it) “the parents of the upper-middle class now produce a disproportionate number of the smartest children.” They do this because smart people tend to marry other smart people and produce smart children. (Income Inequality, College Education) Murray vividly localizes his argument by imagining two emblematic communities: Belmont, where everyone has at least one degree, and Fishtown, where no one has any. (Read: Tonyville and Trashtown.) He then demonstrates how four great social trends of the post-1960 half century have hit the latter much harder than the former.. (Marriage/divorce/Single Parent Family, "industriousness"/employment, crime/honesty, religiosity.) As a consequence of these trends, the traditional bonds of Civil Society have entirely atrophied in lower-class America. There is less neighborliness, less trust, less political awareness, less of that vibrant civic engagement that used to impress European visitors, less of what the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone, called “Social Capital.” And that, Murray concludes, is why poor Americans are, by their own admission, so very unhappy... Murray’s conclusion is that Americans need to steer clear of Europe and instead get back to their roots. We should scrap the institutions of the New Deal and Great Society and replace them with the system of Guaranteed Annual Income ($10k/yr/person) he first proposed in In Our Hands (2006). And we should pin our faith on the four traditional pillars of the American way of life: family, vocation, community, and faith. (Culture War) See 2008-10-15-KlingSchulzIncomeInequality.

Bryan Caplan: I already knew that their marriage rates were way down, their divorce rates were way up, their kids growing up in broken homes. And I knew that lots of working class men dropped out of the labor force long before the last big downturn. What I didn't realize was that College Education grads have been almost completely immune to these changes... The upshot: Traditionalists don't have to sell an ancient, alien Life Style to get the whole country back on track. They don't have to convert a radically hostile elite. They need to bury the hatchet - to embrace the elite and boost its self-confidence. Then traditionalists and elites can join hands and preach the Good News of bourgeois Virtue. I'm not kidding. If Murray is right, traditionalists need to forget Populism. Their "cultural differences" with the elite are largely cosmetic. Elites (BoBos) are the answer to traditionalists' prayers. They work hard, avoid trouble, get married, and give their kids a good home. The sooner everyone realizes this, the better.

Bryan Caplan again: Murray concludes that Working Class males have simply become less industrious. Quite plausible, though he neglects a strong alternative explanation. Namely: Female income has greatly increased, and men with low status jobs are "inferior goods" in the mating market. As a result, the demand to date and marry such men has sharply declined. The average guy with a low-status job is only modestly more dateable in Women's eyes than the average guy with no job at all (Average Is Over). Men respond by either working much harder to become "superior goods," or saying "Why bother?" and giving up. On this account, working class men are acting less industriously even though their preferences are no less industrious than they used to be.

Bryan Caplan again: Two big blind spots stand out: the War On Drugs; the Welfare State. Murray should have proudly recommend this Open Borders + austerity package to the friends of equality and security, and affably insisted: "My policy beats yours on your own terms."

Arnold Kling: You can take a quiz now to establish if you live in an elitist bubble as defined by Murray. The really elite private high schools nowadays have students spend a semester in France or Spain. I think they would get a richer cultural experience spending a semester in a small town outside the Northeast. (I scored 6, pretty bubbly. Possible range is 0-20, with 0 being bubbliest.)

  • Mar09: Bryan Caplan likes his bubble. You might even call it my Imaginary Charter City (OwnWorld)... In my world, Alex Tabarrok is more important than Barack Obama, Robin Hanson is more important than Paul Krugman, and the late Gary Gygax is more important than Jeremy Lin... whoever that might be... Indeed, I've wanted to live in a Bubble for as long as I can remember.

Arnold Kling again: Why not just call them (the elite) Vickies? (Diamond Age reference FTW!)

Arnold Kling again: The bottom is defined somewhat more clearly. Murray includes: men who do not earn a decent living, defined as roughly $14,000 a year (the poverty line for a household of two); women who have children without ever marrying; and people of either gender who are "isolates," meaning that they belong to no churches, clubs, or other social organizations. Although the definition may be easier, the tabulation is difficult, but Murray makes a case that this lower tier is 30 percent of the population, or more. (So he's not comparing the Elite to everyone else, but rather to the bottom 1/3. Leaving a Middle Class of 65%.) I am starting to ask myself if Murray is not simply taking Values that matter to him and decorating them with sociological jargon and statistics. This is something that social scientists on the left do all the time as they "diagnose" conservatives.

Mar08: Murray has an Op Ed in the Ny Times where he tries to make 4 recommendations, despite believing Solutions that are remotely practicable right now would not do much good... we should get rid of unpaid Internships... We can also drop the SAT in College Admissions decisions... Another step would replace ethnic affirmative action with socioeconomic Affirmative Action... Finally, we should prick the B.A. bubble. The bachelor’s degree (College Degree) has become a driver of class divisions at the same moment in history when it has become educationally meaningless. We don’t need legislation to fix this problem, just an energetic public interest law firm that challenges the constitutionality of the degree as a job requirement.

  • Bryan Caplan thinks he should focus on cutting back on the Welfare State, plus many complementary reforms that might actually improve the lives of the American Working Class. Ending the War On Drugs. School Vouchers. Vocational education. (Vo-Tech)
  • Mar16: Murray reiterates his focus on social norms rather than policy changes. They (Public Policy and macroeconomic changes) have long since been overtaken by transformations in cultural norms. That is why the prolonged tight job market from 1995 to 2007 didn't stop working-class males from dropping out of the labor force, and it is why welfare reform in 1996 has failed to increase marriage rates among working-class females... To bring about this cultural change, we must change the language that we use whenever the topic of feckless men comes up. Don't call them "demoralized." Call them whatever derogatory word you prefer. Equally important: Start treating the men who aren't feckless with respect. Recognize that the guy who works on your lawn every week is morally superior in this regard to your neighbor's college-educated son who won't take a "demeaning" job. Be willing to say so. A commenter notes that Women shouldn't be let off the hook (Single Parent Family).

Mar09: Edward Luce interviews him. Though hailed by a New York Times columnist as probably one of the most important books to be published this year, others have accused him of wilful blindness to the economic causes behind the hollowing out of the American middle class. To Murray the culprit is entirely cultural – the loss of the Tocquevillian virtues of industriousness, marriage, honesty and religiosity on which he says the republic was built... Murray’s description of the bifurcation in America’s living standards, values and IQs among the white working class is certainly compelling – even critics concede the force of his observations (if not his explanations). Yet his remedies puzzle me, I say. Having diagnosed such a big and growing problem, his solution is to urge the upper classes to be less nice and more intolerant. What makes him think the preaching of the elites would make any difference? “Whatever the Victorians did right in England, we need to resuscitate over here.”.. “If Barack Obama could say we are going to bring on seven years of incredibly low UnEmployment, then he would argue that this would do a lot of good to the Working Class, wouldn’t he?” I agree. “But we already had that in the 1990s, and yet the dropout from the labour force continued to go up, people on social disability went up. Divorce went up. We have no evidence that a robust economy has much to do with these problems at all.”

Mar09'2012: Arnold Kling hosted a Video Conference discussion. Participants were Brink Lindsey, Bryan Caplan, Megan McArdle, Reihan Salam, and Ross Douthat. There was not much discussion of the findings in the book, because everybody seemed to accept them. However, the participants disagreed with Murray, and with one another, about how to treat the social problems Murray documents... It confirms my view that The Diamond Age is the best book to read about SocialClass in a technologically advanced society.

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