It’s not strictly a 2012 campaign matter, but to the extent that the campaign’s going to be about inequality I figure the debate over Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart, is fair game for the Stump. In general, I’m very much with Jon Chait in being wary of attempts to use the issue Murray addresses in the book—the cultural gaps between an increasingly cloistered upper middle class and struggling working class—to distract from the dynamic that is driving the biggest income inequality in the country, that between the 1 percent and everyone else.
But there’s one aspect of the Murray debate that I’m surprised hasn’t been a subject of discussion—his own upbringing and the way that it seems to undermine his thesis. As Murray sees it, the working class has been hurt less by economic shifts that have made it hard for its members—particularly the male ones—to earn a good living than it has by a lamentable decline in industriousness and social values brought on by the upheavals of the 1960s. I will quote at length the same Murray paragraphs that David Frum quotes in his impressive critique of the book:
A natural explanation for the numbers I have presented is that the labor market got worse for low-skill workers from 1960 to 2008. More [working-class white] men worked short hours because they couldn’t get work for as many hours as they wanted; more of them were unemployed because it was harder for them to get jobs; more them left the labor market because discouraged by the difficulty of finding jobs.
In one respect, the labor market did indeed get worse for [working-class white] men: pay. Recall figure 2.1 at the beginning of the book, showing stagnant incomes for people below the 50th income percentile. High-paying unionized jobs have become scarce and real wages for all kinds of blue-collar jobs have been stagnant or falling since the 1970s. But these trends don't explain why [working-class white] men in the 2000s worked fewer jobs, found it harder to get jobs than other Americans did, and more often dropped out of the labor market than they had in the 1960s. On the contrary: Insofar as men need to work to survive—an important proviso—falling hourly income does not discourage work.
Put yourself in the place of a [working-class white] man who is at the bottom of the labor market, qualified only for low-skill jobs. You may wish you could make as much as your grandfather made working on a General Motors assembly line in the 1970s. You may be depressed because you’ve been trying to find a job and failed. But if a job driving a delivery truck, or being a carpenter's helper, or working on a cleaning crew for an office building opens up, why would a bad labor market for blue-collar jobs keep you from taking it? As of 2009, a very bad year economically, the median hourly wage for drivers of delivery trucks was $13.84; for carpenter’s helpers, $12.63; for building cleaners, $13.37. That means $505 to $554 for a forty-hour week, or $25,260 to $27,680 for a fifty-week year. Those are not great incomes, but they are enough to be able to live a decent existence—almost twice the poverty level even if you are married and your wife doesn’t work. So why would you not work if a job opening landed in your lap? Why would you not work a full forty hours if the hours were available? Why not work more than forty hours?
Frum makes the obvious retort that earning so little for hard work might in fact be a wee bit discouraging. He conjures up his own scenario:
You are a white man aged 30 without a college degree. Your grandfather returned from World War II, got a cheap mortgage courtesy of the GI bill, married his sweetheart and went to work in a factory job that paid him something like $50,000 in today’s money plus health benefits and pension. Your father started at that same factory in 1972. He was laid off in 1981, and has never had anything like as good a job ever since. He’s working now at a big-box store, making $40,000 a year, and waiting for his Medicare to kick in.
Now look at you. Yes, unemployment is high right now. But if you keep pounding the pavements, you'll eventually find a job that pays $28,000 a year. That’s not poverty! Yet you seem to waste a lot of time playing video games, watching porn, and sleeping in. You aren’t married, and you don’t go to church. I blame Frances Fox Piven.
How you can tell a story about the moral decay of the working class with the “work” part left out is hard to fathom.
But here’s the thing: that Murray is overlooking the actual work that is no longer available to many working-class men is particularly odd given that his own vision of a lost cross-class togetherness is based on, well, that lost work. In today’s New York Times profile of Murray, he says that the mingling of classes that the country needs more of, and that he has sought by moving his family to semi-rural Burkittsville, Md., “approximates the small-town virtues he enjoyed growing up in Newton, Iowa, where, as the son of a manager at Maytag, he could mingle easily with the children of assembly-line workers.”
A-ha! Yes, Maytag was once in Newton, Iowa. And then in 2006, Whirlpool bought it and shut down the headquarters and manufacturing plant in Newton, sending jobs to Mexico. From a big Times story in 2007 which raised the question “Is there middle-class life after Maytag?”:
Newton’s last day as a manufacturing mecca comes a century after Fred L. Maytag built his first mechanical washing machine here. Over time he also located his headquarters, research center and most production in Newton, changing it from a rural county seat into a prosperous city of 16,000. Absent Maytag’s high pay, overall hourly earnings last year for other workers in the county would have been $3 an hour less, according to Iowa Workforce Development, a state agency.
And then the Whirlpool Corporation bought Maytag in the spring of 2006 and began shutting down its operations here, eliminating jobs and depressing wages. Those caught in this process around the country are gradually swelling what Katherine S. Newman, a Princeton sociologist, describes as “The Missing Class,” the title of a soon-to-be-published book (Beacon Press), of which she is co-author.
Ms. Newman calculates that 54 million adults and children occupy a “nether region” of family incomes well above the poverty line — but well short of the middle class. Either they fall out of the middle class, as the Winchells are in danger of doing, or they have never earned enough at one job to get a family of four into the middle class.
“We are caught in a never-ending cycle of de-industrialization in which the best jobs disappear,” Ms. Newman said. “It is amazing to me how much we have come to accept that there is nothing to be done about this loss of income.”
The question, then, for Murray and those who are using his theories to explain away inequality, can be put very concretely: did the community he enjoyed growing up in Newton really go away because his working-class neighbors mysteriously lost their gumption? It might have been simpler than that.