by Jack Clark
Democratic Left - Summer 2002
Review of Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 (Crown Forum, 2012, 407 pp., $27).
Charles Murray specializes in big, provocative books with large policy implications. His book Losing Ground argued that policies to alleviate poverty created poverty, providing the intellectual ammunition for the push to end welfare as we knew it. In The Bell Curve, Murray and co-author Richard Herrnstein created a firestorm of controversy with dubious arguments about the natural distribution of intelligence by race.
With Coming Apart, Murray can avoid the accusations of racism that greeted The Bell Curve. Murray now focuses on the great gap between the white elite and the lower reaches of the white working class. There’s some irony here. A central conceit in Losing Ground concerned white working class bars, representing their patrons as clear-headed and intelligent enough to advocate getting rid of the whole mess of government programs: food stamps, cash welfare assistance, Medicaid, disability payments, and unemployment insurance.
Coming Apart draws a portrait of a well-educated and extremely well-compensated elite constituting roughly the top 5 percent of the population. He focuses on CEOs, top policy makers and opinion shapers, chronicling their lifestyles and identifying their “SuperZip” codes. These people at the top take an enormous share of national income because, as Murray explains, their IQs are so high and there is such a high economic premium for intelligence. Without irony, Murray lauds the complex financial transactions this new elite manages. Recall that this book is published in 2012 and was clearly written well after these financial transactions nearly destroyed the world economy.
Murray does express concern about the great gap between this affluent elite and the rest of white America. No, he’s not concerned about the income and wealth gap; that’s just the inexorable result of market forces. Murray does fret that the white elite and the white working class live apart geographically and culturally. Unlike the elite, the white working class is literally coming apart in Murray’s narrative, suffering from extreme social dysfunction that parallels the fraying of the social fabric in African-American communities. Unlike other scholars examining this dynamic, Murray finds no economic cause for the unraveling of white working class communities. Cultural norms or more precisely the lack of enforcement of cultural norms explain all.
Identifying “four founding virtues” of marriage, religiosity, industriousness, and honesty, Murray looks at how well these virtues are lived in Fishtown, a white working class inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood, and in Belmont, an affluent white Boston suburb. In Fishtown, marriage is in decline, and out-of-wedlock births are increasing. Despite the popular view that lower-income whites are more religious, church attendance is also down. Participation of prime-age men (30-49) in the labor force is much too low. On all these measures, Belmont residents hew more closely to the four founding virtues. As Murray sees it, the white elite lacks the self-confidence to preach what it practices. We need stronger social norms supporting work, marriage, religion, and honesty.
He dates the sharp break in American life from the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, managing all sorts of popular-culture references to the era. Coming Apart brings us to familiar territory for the rightwing narrative: The awful, disruptive 1960s caused all of today’s problems. Just marshal some pop culture references, crunch the data, and we can conclude the case. His prodigious data doesn’t fit the time frame, though. White out-of-wedlock births, which loom large in Murray’s argument, show only a slight uptick in the 1960s, with a much sharper increase in the 1970s.
Much of his argument about the dissolute behavior of the white working class revolves around the numbers of labor force dropouts. He charts national unemployment rates and labor force dropout rates among males with a Fishtown education (i.e., no more than high school completion), yet his chart actually shows labor force participation rising between 1960 and 1970, (i.e., the line for dropouts is down). A similar increase in labor force participation occurred again in the 1990s when unemployment fell below 5 percent for the first time since the late 1960s. These data points don’t fit Murray’s argument, so he ignores this evidence. Really, Murray assures us, the problem is the culture.
Critics rightly faulted him for not looking at how economic transformations affected the white working class. In his Beat the Press blog for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Dean Baker picked apart Murray’s case: First Murray does a bizarre comparison by looking at real wages between 1960 and 2010. This is bizarre because wages rose rapidly through the sixties and into the early seventies, then largely stagnated. ...we might think that relative income means something. In a 30-year period where per capita income more than doubled, we might expect that workers would have at least something to show. The fact that the wages of white males with just high school degrees has barely budged in three decades indicates that their situation has deteriorated seriously in relative terms.
The analytical problems caused by Murray’s periodization repeatedly mar his argument. He notes that the 1960 unemployment rate was close to that of 2008, so there’s no excuse for white working class men to be out of the labor market. The proverbial reader from Mars, relying on Murray, would never guess that between 1960 and 2010, millions of well-paying manufacturing jobs were lost.
Baker’s example of stagnating wages uses manufacturing jobs as the base. That’s the best case. Male wages in real terms declined overall between 1973 and 2010. Working class family incomes remained stable because more women entered the paid labor force. Starting in the mid-1970s, factory closings devastated working class communities, and large numbers of workers never got back to work. For those who did, wages dropped dramatically. Suicides occurred among men who couldn’t face not supporting themselves or their families. The academic literature on what happens to the victims of plant closings is voluminous, and the conclusions are uniformly grim. Yet with all his data, charts and footnotes, Murray shows no interest in that literature.
Here’s the real story. Idleness grew not from lack of industriousness but from lack of industry. Good jobs left, and men who had difficulty finding replacement jobs drifted into long-term unemployment. Then they stopped looking for work. Their sons grew up not knowing men with good and steady jobs. Sociologist William Julius Wilson traces the same pattern in the African-American South Side of Chicago in When Work Disappears – and even anticipated that the story would repeat itself in white working class America.
Murray acknowledges that a social democrat might read some of his data and see a case for redistribution of wealth, but then he knows that distributive justice is folly, because the distribution of income perfectly reflects the distribution of talent. Trying to adjust the distribution will only make things worse. Lower wages in Murray’s world should make the poor work more, but higher tax rates make the rich work less. It’s odd, too, that in a book crammed with data, Murray supports some of his strongest policy preferences with nothing more than opinion. In discussing how unworkable he believes social democracy to be, Murray claims that generous unemployment insurance is a disincentive to work. He does not need to prove his point.
His is an ironclad case so long as you don’t bother to pay attention to actual policy. In the weak U.S. welfare state, unemployment compensation is not particularly generous, but it does compensate people for searching for and not finding work. On the other hand, in Germany, the unemployment rate throughout the Great Recession was substantially lower than the US rate, in large part because the Germans used part of their unemployment fund to subsidize worksharing. Instead of a firm laying off 20 percent of its workforce, the work week could be reduced by one day. With the government subsidy, workers made about 90 percent of their pay for a four-day week. Middle-sized firms, the core of the German manufacturing sector, strongly supported this policy, maintaining their full workforce throughout the downturn. In the Netherlands and Scandinavia, the unemployed receive subsidies to learn new skills and work in new occupations, sometimes in new industries; the subsidies do not allow them to remain idle. Northern European nations have lost substantial industrial sectors like textiles and clothing, but without the social devastation that occurs here.
Murray does elaborate on his own vision of the good life. For industriousness, Murray substitutes “vocation.” That calling usually is associated with career, but it can be associated with devotion to a cause or to an avocation, too, and Murray makes a good case that the residents of Belmont are far likelier than the residents of Fishtown to lead lives that are happy and meaningful. Still, we’re back to Murray’s point that the American elite needs the self-confidence to preach what it practices. They need to employ stern language and real consequences for behavior that undermines social norms. The American elite needs to be judgmental again. So is he just talking about talking tough? No. Murray gives the game away in talking about falling wages: “Insofar as men need to work to survive – an important proviso – falling hourly income does not discourage work” (emphasis in original). For all the talk about meaningful vocation, for all the veneer of concern and the exhortation that the good people of Belmont preach what they practice, Murray does not advocate moral suasion. Nor is he addressing the need for self-fulfillment in places like Fishtown.
His policy preference is unambiguous: lower-income men of all races will work – at whatever wage is available – or they will starve.
Jack Clark served as the first national organizer of DSA’s predecessor, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), from 1973-1979; the first managing editor of its newsletter; and as a national and local leader of both DSOC and DSA for nearly 20 years. He is Deputy Director of the Transportation Learning Center, which works with transit worker unions to improve frontline training.