Part Two: Charles Murray, the Long View
The following is the second in a two-part series on Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. For part one, please click here.
In Coming Apart, Charles Murray begins by describing white America on the eve of the Kennedy assassination—a unified society where everyone watched the same three networks, few people had children out of wedlock or got divorced, neighbors didn’t need to lock their doors, and most folks felt themselves to be middle class. Murray wields the symbolic power of the rupture that ripped America on November 22, 1963, to suggest a parallel break in our economic lives. He contrasts a notional working-class neighborhood, “Fishtown,” with “Belmont,” home to the most affluent 5 percent. Since 1963, he reports, our coherent world has given way to cultural and economic fragmentation. America “is coming apart at the seams.”
Murray baits his trap with descriptive material that reads like an American Prospect article, quoting Robert Reich’s “secession of the successful,” Robert Putnam’s dismay at the erosion of “social capital,” and the class-skewed decline in civic participation documented by Theda Skocpol and others in these pages.
Then comes the pivot, inverting cause and effect. The rich got even richer, he claims, because of both their virtuous behavior and “the increasing market value of brains.” As the economy becomes more complex, rewards go to those “who can navigate through labyrinths” of new complexity. And with global scale, “the bigger the stakes, the greater the value of marginal increments in skills.”
Wait a minute. While some of the new concentrated wealth has indeed gone to people like Steve Jobs who invented very useful stuff, much of the increased largesse at the top went to the finaglers of Wall Street. Their brainpower caused losses running into the trillions of dollars for everyone else. The fact that some of these miscreants had paydays in the billions is testament to the market’s failure, not its success.
At the next tier down, those who make merely in the tens of millions, much of the upward income shift reflects the use of intellect to rig the rules. The disconnect between executive pay and performance is one of the best-documented findings in the business literature. Today’s CEOs get about 350 times the pay of the average worker, rather than the 40 times that used to be normal. Moving down to incomes only in the single-digit millions (but still in the top 1 percent), are university presidents and hospital administrators so much smarter that they now command seven-figure salaries—or are they just better at gaming the system? At different points in the book, Murray is oddly on both sides of this argument. In a final chapter that reads like a set of civic afterthoughts, he chides the “unseemly” behavior of executives who manipulate corporate pay, contradicting his own earlier claims of earned inequality.
Murray’s analysis of the values of “the New Lower Class” is even more far-fetched than his treatment of the new rich. He deploys cherry-picked statistics and selective time periods to contend that crime has risen in lower-class Fishtown while it has been constant or falling for six decades in affluent Belmont. His fable uses a mélange of data on incarceration, probation, and arrests to avoid simply crediting the most notable trend of all—the sharply declining rates of violent crime since the late 1980s. Working-class neighborhoods are generally much safer places to live today than they were in the 1970s. The drop in crime is all the more remarkable given the diminishing rewards of honest work.
Murray also ducks the immense increase, since the 1980s, in elite misbehavior such as financial fraud and the misuse of offshore tax havens. A standard Murray evasion is studied bewilderment and false modesty in the face of flagrant evidence that contradicts his argument. “To what extent is the subprime mortgage story indicative of broader rot within the American business community … ?” he wonders. “This is a question for which I have been unable to find good answers.” (Translation: This is a question whose obvious answer blows away my hypothesis.)
The truth is that even when Wall Street executives escaped criminal prosecution, they shamelessly enriched themselves at the expense of clients. Yet Murray is telling us with a straight face that integrity correlates with affluence. If you believe this, I have a mortgage-backed security to sell you.
Another whopper: Income declined among the white working class because of a loss of “industriousness.” Murray points to the lower rate of labor-force participation among males, the dwindling number of average hours worked in working-class towns, and the higher rate of unemployment. But the standout labor-market trends over the past three decades include the increased number of annual hours worked by the median family; a minimum wage that has lagged behind inflation; and millions reporting that they are seeking full-time work but can only find part-time jobs.
Murray might have addressed a class schism that is real and troubling—the split between most of hard-working America and a new underclass, whose emblem is the rural epidemic of crystal meth. Had he addressed that genuine but contained problem, he could not have maintained that the vast majority of working-class Americans are suffering due to their own deficiencies.
Murray’s larger narrative collapses when you remember that history did not begin in 1963. Over the previous century, the income distribution bounced around many times, reflecting shifts in macroeconomic conditions, political power, and public policy. To accept Murray’s basic hypothesis that income inequality mirrors relative shifts in virtue and market valuation of brainpower, you would have to believe the following: In the Gilded Age, the rich got a lot smarter and the poor less diligent. Then, in the more egalitarian Progressive Era, the rich temporarily got stupider and the poor more industrious. In the Roaring Twenties, an age as unequal as our own, the rich (whose schemes led to the crash of 1929) were briefly even more intelligent, then either a lot dumber or more indolent. By World War II, people who were lazy or dim in 1939 somehow got smart and conscientious by 1942 as the economy returned to full employment.
Murray plays fast and loose with comparative sociology as well as history. While most surveys confirm that people report greater levels of life satisfaction in the more egalitarian democracies of Northern Europe, Murray contends that American happiness must be more authentic because our contentment is rooted in deeper virtues. Europe’s “short workweeks and frequent vacations” are symptomatic not of a more balanced society but of the fact that in Europe “the idea of work as self-actualization has vanished.” Tell that to a well-trained, highly skilled, decently compensated German technician. Murray concludes with this astonishingly dismissive leap: “Europeans have broadly come to believe that humans are a collection of activated chemicals.” For them, life has no higher purpose than to “while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible.” So much for European art, music, literature, science, industry, and self-governance.
What makes the book disarming is Murray’s professed concern for the well-being of the collectivity. When he is not wielding forensic data to insist that rich and poor both earn the fruits of their behavior, he is fretting that a hermetically sealed elite has lost its sense of noblesse oblige. But his civic alarms yield no useful remedies.
Every once in a while the scholarly mask slips, and we get an undigested belch of raw prejudice. The trouble with a lot of low-income workers, he writes, is that they “can’t hold a job.” Trying to improve the income distribution is a hopeless cause, unless we want to put taxes back to a “91 percent top rate,” which would cause “reduced productivity” and a “major brain drain” (presumably to those benighted European lands with high taxes).
All of Murray’s books display the same basic modus operandi: Begin by professing sympathy for pathologies usually decried by liberals. Blame moral or intellectual deficiencies rather than the effects of poverty itself. Distort or omit data that don’t fit. Warn that interventionist policy harms the groups it means to help. As Albert O. Hirschman wrote in The Rhetoric of Reaction, this is a formula that dates back at least to the Dickensian workhouse and Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, with its warnings about spoiling the needy. Hirschman quotes Edward Bulwer-Lytton, writing in 1833: “The Poor-laws, formed to relieve the distressed, have been the arch-creator of distress.” Hirschman notes the similarity to Murray’s contention more than 150 years later in Losing Ground: “We tried to provide more for the poor and produced more poor instead.”
Contra Murray, the poor still take the early bus. They still try to hold their families together. Take an honest look at what low-income America endures, and you will see the heroism of everyday life amid dwindling economic rewards. If the behavior of the working class is not always up to that of the moral beacons of Park Avenue, it’s because of the corrosive effect of poverty itself, not the other way around. John Keats had it right:
Love in a hut, with water and a crust / Is—Love forgive us!—cinders, ashes, dust.
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