Charles Murray's Coming Apart discussed by David Brooks and W. Bradford Wilcox
January 31, 2012
Mark D. White
Charles Murray's latest book, Coming Apart, gets reviewed this morning by both David Brooks in The New York Times and W. Bradford Wilcox in The Wall Street Journal. Murray's thesis is that the gaps in income and wealth in America are no more important than the gaps in culture and values between the more and less affluent. To make his point more forceful, he restricts his analysis to white people, in order to prevent critics from arguining that the decline in values he points out is an issue with racial and ethnic minorities only. These trends are certainly apparent across most if not racial and ethnic groups but it is less recognized in whites, the discussion of which may be Murray's greatest contribution to the discussion.
Of course, your opinion of Murray's thesis is going to depend on what values he chooses, and (according to Wilcox) he focuses on "four 'founding virtues'—industriousness, honesty (including abiding by the law), marriage and religion." I doubt many would have issues with the first two, but the last two will turn off a lot of people (including me, to some extent). Personally, I'd prefer that "marriage" be changed to "family" and "religion" be changed to "community" (since the ethical component of religion is already covered by "honesty," or the whole exercise, really). Perhaps Murray puts his virtues in these broader contexts--I have not yet read the book--but I would guess he chose "marriage" and "religion" because participation in them in measurable (social scientist that he is).
Wilcox, the director of the National Marrriage Project, naturally uses Murray's analysis of marriage (which echoes Kay Hymowitz's Marriage and Caste in America) as an example:
The destructive family revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s has gradually eased—at least in the nation's most privileged precincts. In the past 20 years, divorce rates have come down, marital quality (self-reported happiness in marriage) has risen and nonmarital childbearing (out-of-wedlock births) is a rare occurrence among the white upper class. Marriage is not losing ground in America's best neighborhoods.
But it's a very different story in blue-collar America. Since the 1980s, divorce rates have risen, marital quality has fallen and nonmarital childbearing is skyrocketing among the white lower class. Less than 5% of white college-educated women have children outside of marriage, compared with approximately 40% of white women with just a high-school diploma. The bottom line is that a growing marriage divide now runs through the heart of white America.
Brooks also cites the marriage gap alongside other factors (using the word "tribes" rather than "class" to emphasize the "tenuous common culture linking them"), but links them to the gap in behavior that he feels is Murray's chief contribution:
Worse, there are vast behavioral gaps between the educated upper tribe (20 percent of the country) and the lower tribe (30 percent of the country). ...
Roughly 7 percent of the white kids in the upper tribe are born out of wedlock, compared with roughly 45 percent of the kids in the lower tribe. In the upper tribe, nearly every man aged 30 to 49 is in the labor force. In the lower tribe, men in their prime working ages have been steadily dropping out of the labor force, in good times and bad.
People in the lower tribe are much less likely to get married, less likely to go to church, less likely to be active in their communities, more likely to watch TV excessively, more likely to be obese.
Wilcox points where this disparity in values and behavior cashes out:
The economic and political success of the American experiment has depended in large part on the health of these founding virtues. Businesses cannot flourish if ordinary workers are not industrious. The scope and cost of government grows, and liberty withers, when the family breaks down. As James Madison wrote: "To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea."
This is certain to prompt some heated discussion in the coming months. The statement above is too vague to draw significant conclusions, which will come only from a careful reading of Murray's book. Of course, the role of virtue, or ethics in general, among all members of society and its importance to the economy in particular is of great interest to us at this blog. (Start reading, Jonathan!)
Brooks applies Murray's results to the rhetoric from both sides of the political aisle:
Murray’s story contradicts the ideologies of both parties. Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.
Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent. The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.
At the risk of stating the obvious, I think the most fascinating part of this discussion is how income inequality and cultural inequality interact. In particular, I wonder how much of the decline in "virtuous" behavior that Murray observes among the poor is a result of choices driven by poverty (scarcity), and how much have those behaviors perpetuated that poverty. (This is not to excuse this behavior, necessary, but to understand it better.) And by the same token, the wealthy can certainly be applauded for their virtuous behavior, but to a certain extent it is easier to be good when you have the means, and the extent to which this plays a role should be acknowledged as well.
Whether Murray discusses this issue in these exact terms remains to be seen (after I read the book!), but he does make a political statement, summarized by Roger Lowenstein in his review of the book in Businessweek:
One question I wish he had taken up: Are the “new upper class” and the problems of the lower class related? Coming Apart treats them as separate. That gets to my frustration, which arises in the concluding section. Until then, Murray had merely diagnosed the cultural divide. Now he claims to know the causes. He blames the government and the “welfare state.” This section brims with political resentments; the carefully researched facts give way to bitter generalizations such as “only a government could spend so much money so inefficiently.” The author who tactfully, and wryly, demonstrated how little readers know about the lives of working-class whites, writes of “bureaucrats” with no appreciation, or even interest, in what they actually do. He does not explain why social cohesion should be less today when the Great Society experiment peaked in the 1960s. While blaming the debilitating effect on incentives of social programs, he fails to acknowledge the idea that most Americans probably feel less coddled, less protected today than in 1970.
It's interesting that both Brooks and Wilcox left this part out of their reviews, while endorsing more activist policies on the part of the government to shore up the working class. As valuable as Murray's empirical observations are, it is crucial that we understand them, interpret them, and act on them in a way that doesn't make the situation worse--whatever that may mean.
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