Monday, June 11, 2012

Coming Apart by Charles Murray

Charles Murray, co-author of the controversial The Bell Curve, is back with another humongous pile of statistics and some observations and interpretations about what they all mean. Murray believes that our entire American culture and society has been split into two somewhat isolated segments over the last five decades - those who, by virtue of their genetics and upbringing, go to the elite colleges and universities, and those who do not, who end up being the working class. These two cultures have grown increasingly isolated from one another, and as the first group often ends up in positions of power and responsibility, its lack of comprehension of the other's way of life can lead to many policy problems.

"As the new upper class increasingly consists of people who were born into upper-middle class families and have never lived outside the upper-middle-class bubble, the danger increases that the people who have so much influence on the course of the nation have little direct experience with the lives of ordinary Americans, and make their judgements about what's good for other people based on their own highly atypical lives."

Murray, a libertarian, has an interesting take on the nature of our nation, calling it the "American project".

"The American project consists of the continuing effort, begun with the founding, to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems."

One thing he said in the early part of the book was a bit offensive to me,

"The people who read a book on American socioeconomic classes are self-selected for certain traits that put most of you in a position to have observed the new upper class at close hand."

Really, Charles? The only folks who are smart or perceptive enough to read your book are the upper class? How snobbish of you.

Hey, even Bill Gates can say something stupid once in a while. When asked who his biggest competitors in recruiting talent were, he said,

"Software is an IQ business. Microsoft must win the IQ war, or we wont' have a future. I don't worry about Lotus or IBM, because the smartest guys would rather come to work for Microsoft. Our competitors for IQ are investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley."

Were you talking about the high IQ folks at the investment banks who ruined their companies at the crash of the mortgage bubble, Bill?

Murray also agrees with some of my thoughts about the futility of attempting to "tax the rich."

"Realistically, rolling back the disposable income of the new upper class in a major way is not an option. The American political culture doesn't work that way. The same Congress that passes higher marginal tax rates in this session will quietly pass a host of ways in which income can be sheltered and companies can substitute benefits for cash income in the next session. The new upper class will remain wealthy, and probably continue to get wealthier."

Murray also shows, statistically, that the new upper class isn't, as I'd always assumed, primarily populated by the liberal political class, but is actually fairly evenly split between conservative and liberal. That would seem to make the brawling between political parties in Congress almost a family feud, wouldn't it?

I had an idea about where Murray was going, in the first third of the book, but he suddenly appeared to change course, and began to talk about the founding virtues of our nation. I had assumed he was going to blame the increasing isolation of the new upper class, who live in high concentrations in what he identifies as "superzips", geographical areas filled with people in the 95th percentile or above in terms of education and accomplishment, near the centers of political and economic power, for the troubles we are facing as a nation, but he ended up surprising me.

From Ben Franklin,
"only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. AS nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters...The expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small. A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed."

While our founding fathers were often Deists, rather than what we would today call Christian, they believed strongly in the need for morality in society and religion as a bulwark of the freedoms present in our new republic. Murray identifies the founding virtues as industriousness - people's willingness to work hard to better their lives and the lives of those around them, honesty - the predisposition of a people to refrain from crime, to follow the rules, and to deal fairly with others, marriage - fidelity and permanence in our family relationships, and religiousity - the belief that moral values come from a divine, all powerful, omniscient creator of the universe.

As Jefferson writes, "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not violated but with his wrath?"

On the subject of marriage and child rearing, Murray mentions the fact that, though it is not politically popular to say so, all sociological studies done have shown that "the family structure that produces the best outcomes for children, on average, are two biological parents who remain married. Divorced parents produce the next-best outcomes. Whether the parents remarry or remain single while the children are growing up makes little difference. Never-married women produce the worst outcomes." Presumably, a libertarian has no axe to grind on this issue, as matters of personal behavior are usually left up to each person to determine for themselves, in libertarian philosophy.

Interestingly, Murray and his colleagues' studies find:

"Religious worshippers and people who say religion is very important to them are much more likely than other persons to visit friends, to entertain at home, to attend club meetings, and to belong to sports groups; professional and academic societies; school service groups; youth groups; service clubs; hobby or garden clubs; literary, art discussion and study groups; school fraternities and sororities; farm organizations; political clubs; nationality groups; and other miscellaneous groups."

He points out that there has a been a sharp drop in church attendance over the last fifty years, and that far fewer Americans identify themselves as strongly religious these days. Oddly enough, however, it isn't the new upper class who have grown the least religious, but the lower, working class. This ties in with declines in marriage rates and longevity of marriages among the working class, while marriages appear to be happier and more durable in the superzips. Murray also attributes the apparent rise of fundamentalist Christianity to the decline in overall religiousity - the people who are left, when all those of little faith have fled, are those who have strongly held core beliefs about the nature of God and the bible - the fundamentalists.

Murray spends some time pointing out the rise in crime and the decline in honesty in our culture. I'm certain that doesn't need much proving to anyone who's been paying attention the last few decades. He also discusses labor force participation, and shows that it had already begun a precipitous decline prior to the recent recession, displaying an alarming deterioration of the work ethic that used to drive American productivity, creativity and prosperity.

Murray sees a couple of ways in which we, as a nation, can proceed from here: first, that we adopt a European model and give up on the American project. Unsurprisingly, this option doesn't really appeal to him (or me). He opens with a quote from Jefferson's inaugural address:

"The sum of good government is a state that shall restrain men from injuring one another and shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement."

The advanced welfare state of  Western Europe provides a great deal of personal freedom, and very few economic freedoms. The citizens enjoy a great deal of (illusory, in my opinion) economic security, but have, in limiting the downside, eliminated the upside for the majority. By providing for people's needs while eliminating the possibility of failure, their governments have deprived them of the satisfaction of success, accomplishment, and self-actualization. We are in serious danger of approaching this state soon here.

On the other hand, the American model has traditionally encouraged the pursuit of happiness through self determination, self improvement, hard work to get ahead, and charting one's own destiny - knowing that you have left the world a better place through your efforts, when life is at its end. The new upper class actually practices this, but they have become reluctant to, as Murray says "preach what they practice" for fear of being thought judgemental.

"Liberals in the new upper class continue to support adoption of the European model, as they have for decades. Conservatives in the new upper class still contribute to conservative candidates, but they are no more willing to preach what they practice than are those on the Left. Those in the new upper class who don't care about politics don't mind the drift toward the European model, because paying taxes is a cheap price for a quiet conscience - much cheaper than actually having to get involved in the lives of their fellow citizens."

Ouch! Was that a burn, Charles?

Murray predicts the collapse of the European model, which we may be watching right now with the crisis in Greece and elsewhere.

"The financial bankruptcy is not anything that even the cleverest planner can avoid. As publicly financed benefits grow, so do the populations that find that they need them. The more people who need benefits, the more government bureaucracy is required. The more people who rely on support from government and the larger the government, the fewer the people in the private sector who pay for the benefits and for the apparatus of the state. The larger the number of people who depend on government either for benefits or for their jobs, the larger the constituency for voting for ever-larger government."

Hopefully, he believes, we'll wake up in time to avoid America's economic and cultural bankruptcy.

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