Charles Murray, the Long View

The following is the first in a two-part series on Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

For a generation, the main story of working-class America has been the collapse of a living-wage economy due to such forces as globalization, weakened trade unions, and reduced government labor regulation. This trend has been a social catastrophe and, increasingly, a severe embarrassment to free-market ideology.

Enter Charles Murray with a lifeline of alibis. His Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 has received worshipful treatment from conservative commentators, and for good reason. Faced with the awkward truth of widening inequality, the right usually adopts a strategy of strained denial. Murray offers an alternative. Instead of waltzing around the reality, he deplores the new schisms in America and then executes a deft pivot: Both the elite and the unwashed, he says, are getting what they deserve.

The rich are getting richer because their superior intelligence combines with greater fidelity to what Murray terms the Founding Virtues, namely Industriousness, Honesty, Marriage, and Religion. These same virtues, however, have been eroding at an alarming rate among the dissolute lower class. Murray thus embraces a prime liberal concern, turns the real causality on its head, and in a stroke validates both free-market economics and conservative values. For his fans, this is game, set, match.

His account is such an audacious twist that few other than Charles Murray would dare venture it as social science. What’s remarkable about working-class America, in truth, is not dissolution but diligence. All across the land, you can find churchgoing, law-abiding people, who are holding down jobs but are far worse off than their parents—even though the economy’s average productivity has doubled since the 1980s. Murray somehow missed the world of America’s largest employer, Wal-Mart, with its regimented and underpaid “associates.” He missed the two-tier wage systems in factory towns. He missed the hard-working new poor in such service-economy jobs as janitors, hotel maids, security guards, retail clerks, and fast-food workers.

Coming Apart is the latest in a series of Murray books whose signature is good humor, ostensible concern for the underdogs, and torture of what is represented as data. The best known of these, for many readers, is The Bell Curve (1994), in which Murray and co-author Richard J. Herrnstein contended that blacks fare worse in the economy because they have lower IQs—ignoring evidence that the black-white test-score gap had narrowed as discriminatory barriers fell.

Murray’s most influential book, though, was the one that marked his arrival as a public intellectual. In Losing Ground (1984), Murray argued that America’s overly generous welfare state was destroying both the work ethic and the custom of marriage, especially among African Americans. He proposed the draconian remedy of “scrapping the entire federal welfare and income--support structure for working-aged persons, including AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children], Medicaid, Food Stamps, Unemployment Insurance, Workers’ Compensation, subsidized housing, disability insurance, and the rest.” Instead of receiving benefits, poor people would be disciplined by the tender mercies of the job market.

Murray’s evidence was soon demolished by one scholarly and popular review after another. Critics pointed out that he had artfully picked a state, Pennsylvania, where welfare benefits had grown twice as fast as the national average; in most of the country, work was a far better deal for the poor than welfare. He mistakenly counted food stamps as part of the welfare package; in fact, the working poor qualified for them. He skipped over recent data and deliberately used statistics from two decades earlier, ignoring the 1970s, a period when the value of the welfare package eroded by 30 percent. In that decade, contrary to Murray’s hypothesis, more people went on the AFDC rolls—not because of rising welfare benefits but because of rising unemployment. Nor did the data bear out Murray’s claim of a correlation between state welfare levels and single motherhood among black women. The better explanation, as sociologist William Julius Wilson would soon document in The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), was the relative scarcity of employed black men.

As it happened, liberals of that era were mindful of the risks of poor people getting stuck on welfare. But unlike Murray, they did not blame AFDC for poverty. They urged a set of income supports that would raise living standards of the poor without deterring work, such as wage subsidies, universal child care, and health care. The only one of these reforms to pass Congress (in 1975) was the Earned Income Tax Credit. In the meantime, Murray’s claim of a ruinous welfare state became an article of faith, first for conservatives and later for New Democrats who identified a political need to “take welfare off the table” as a target of conservative attack. In 1996, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich collaborated on a compromise welfare reform that abolished AFDC in favor of a program with meager work supports. This turned out to improve the living standard of the poor for only as long as full employment lasted.

For Murray, championing the role of market forces, the behavior of the poor was all about incentives. The wrong policy incentives—the welfare package—led people to desert work. But after the turn of the new century, welfare reform ran into rising joblessness and falling wages; incomes of the working poor declined. So Murray, without so much as a by-your-leave, shifted ground. Evidently, the key factor determining whether the poor would rise out of poverty wasn’t incentives after all. It was values. Never mind.

In Coming Apart, 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.
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.”

Tomorrow: Coming Apart caps three decades of Murray's faux concern for the poor.

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