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The Two Americas

CHARLES MURRAY HAS lost interest in changing anybody’s mind. When the author of Coming Apart wants to substantiate some assertion that few would dispute—usually one demonstrating how differently life is lived by Caucasians at the bottom and the top of the income distribution in America—he harvests statistic after statistic to the point of tedium. But when Murray reaches any conclusion that his readers might quarrel with, he turns strangely diffident. Here’s where I go with this, he says with a shrug. Others would make a perfectly reasonable case arguing the opposite, he says. It’s a free country.

If this sounds like humility, it isn’t. A humble author wouldn’t devote more than half his nine-paragraph acknowledgments section to thanking himself for writing various earlier books on related topics that helped refine his thinking. Nor would a modest author conclude, at the end of his book, that it doesn’t really matter what those reasonable-sounding others deduce from today’s available evidence because future evidence will prove the author right. Thus Murray, writing about the “European model,” at first concedes magnanimously that, “If you think that providing economic equality and security are primary functions of government,” then “you can easily find evidence on behalf of social democracy.” But a few pages later Murray breaks the bad news that these European welfare states will eventually bankrupt themselves. Americans “will have a chance to watch these events unfold before our own situation becomes as critical, and the sight will be a powerful incentive to avoid going down the same road.” A prophet without honor in his own time, Murray is serenely certain that posterity will thank him for telling hard truths his contemporaries didn’t want to hear.

Murray’s book has taken some unfair criticism for ignoring lower-to-middle-income African Americans and Latinos. Murray focuses on white America not because he doesn’t care about non-whites, but rather because he wants to describe various self-destructive behaviors afflicting the working class—he doesn’t call them “pathologies,” but that’s more or less what he means—without drawing accusations of racist victim-blaming. That has been an occupational hazard for Murray ever since he coauthored, with Richard J. Herrnstein, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, in 1994, which attributed much of the achievement gap between blacks and whites to what Herrnstein and Murray claimed was blacks’ inherent and genetically-based mental inferiority. The scholarly community was near-unanimous in finding Herrnstein and Murray’s evidence on this point unpersuasive and their conclusion repugnant.

Coming Apart excludes non-whites from its discussions of unemployment, out-of-wedlock births, and other troublesome social indicators, but at the end of the book Murray recalculates his findings to demonstrate that in nearly every instance the same dismal patterns hold within the colorblind proletariat. (The only notable exception is the incarceration rate, which shoots way up when you include blacks.) Murray’s larger point is that the social problems he describes extend to all the have-nots, and they aren’t driven by race or ethnicity.

We are, Murray posits, two nations: one a pampered and clueless but high-functioning meritocratic elite, and one a bruised and resentful and low-functioning working class. Murray can’t resist caricaturing the elite as largely a bunch of NPR-listening, New Yorker-reading, Galapagos-cruising liberal nitwits, but he concedes that most of the conservatives who inhabit America’s upper tier are similarly out of touch with proletarian culture. To prove this he subjects his readers (by definition almost certain to be upper-tier) to a quiz, with questions like “Have you ever held a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day?” and “Who is Jimmie Johnson?” The primary purpose is to force readers to recognize that they inhabit a privileged cultural bubble. (Give yourself a gold star if you know that Johnson won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series five times consecutively.) A secondary purpose is to exempt Murray from the class myopia that he describes, thereby establishing his bona fides as a tour guide through the class divide.

Murray’s claim to possess superior knowledge of proletarian culture isn’t entirely convincing in an age when Google makes the acquisition of superficial expertise faster and easier than ever. Otherwise, though, one can’t really quarrel with Murray’s theme that the opposite ends of the income scale have become dangerously isolated from each other. Murray crunches a lot of data about people who inhabit what he calls “the SuperZips”—zip codes with the highest levels of income and educational attainment—to show that people who live in such enclaves have put a shockingly large geographical distance between themselves and the non-privileged. My mind wandered a bit here because the journalist Bill Bishop (whom Murray cites) documented this phenomenon quite thoroughly in 2008 in his book The Big Sort: Why The Clustering Of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart.

Murray also does a lot of number-crunching to create two hypothetical neighborhoods, Belmont and Fishtown, to represent affluent white America and working-class white America. The two fictional neighborhoods are in fact the actual affluent suburb of Belmont, Massachusetts, and the actual working-class Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown, the only difference being that any inhabitant who doesn’t conform to the neighborhood demographic gets eliminated from the picture. It’s a complicated way to look at two groups—the white affluent and the white working class—about whom we already have a lot of national data, but Murray’s method doesn’t strike me as illegitimate.

What Murray finds is that while attitudes toward things such as extramarital sex and a woman’s traditional role in the home are more conservative in Fishtown than in Belmont, practices tend to be more conservative in Belmont than in Fishtown. The more broad-minded burghers of Belmont divorce less, self-report happier marriages, raise fewer children as single parents, and remain employed. About as many Fishtowners as Belmonters between the ages of thirty and forty-nine say they have no religious preference (21 percent), but the Belmonters are much likelier to show up regularly at worship services. Candidate Obama was therefore half-wrong in 2008 when he said that members of the white working class “cling to guns or religion.” The latte-sipping set clings to its religion—or at least to its churches, temples, and mosques—even harder (though their faith is less likely to be fundamentalist). But even that isn’t much of a surprise. People who have more economic stability in their lives are going to find it easier to make time for community activities like churchgoing.

Where Murray parts company with most others is in denying that the cleavages he is describing are rooted in economic realities, such as the relative availability of jobs and the growing income gap between Belmont and Fishtown. Murray’s refusal to accept this mainstream narrative ought to occasion lots of bold reinterpretation of the numbers and at least one full chapter laying out in detail his reasoned refutation of the conventional wisdom. At an earlier stage in his career Murray would probably have done this. In Coming Apart, though, he confines himself to a few stray provocations. “Would you like to roll back rising income inequality?” he asks at one point.

How? Hike taxes back to the 91 percent top marginal rate that prevailed in 1960? If you actually succeed in substantially lowering compensation in all forms, you will also get reduced productivity….

Oh, please. Raising the top marginal rate to that level may or may not be a good idea, but when a 91 percent bracket was last in place during the 1950s and early ’60s gross domestic product and productivity were both growing faster than they are today.

Murray goes on to argue that redistributing income wouldn’t narrow the cultural gap between rich and poor, because “the new-upper-class culture is not the product of great wealth. It is enabled by affluence—people with common tastes and preferences need enough money to be able to congregate—but it is not driven by affluence.” But affluence can be greater and more isolating or smaller and less isolating. I grew up in Beverly Hills, California, which is basically Belmont on steroids. Back in the 1970s it was very, very insulated from working-class life. But it is demonstrably more affluent and insulated today. During my childhood, there was actually one (very small) factory at the far end of town. It made Wonder Bread. There was also a tacky Polynesian restaurant on Rodeo Drive, then as now the city’s premier luxury-shopping street. Both anachronisms are long gone. People who grew up in other Belmonts will tell you similar stories, because the rich have gotten richer.

At the opposite end of the divide, Murray acknowledges that the labor market has soured for lower-skilled workers.

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 Fishtown men in the 2000s worked fewer hours, found it harder to get jobs than other Americans did, and more often dropped out of the labor market.

Er—why not? Because “Insofar as men need to work to survive—an important proviso—falling hourly income does not discourage work.” Murray thinks that lower incomes for the rich (through higher taxation) would be catastrophic to American productivity, but that lower incomes for the proles (through de-industrialization) should, absent baleful cultural influences, serve to incentivize the proles to work harder. And in fact it has for some people: in his book Methland: The Death And Life Of An American Small Town, the journalist Nick Reding observes that crystal meth took off in the Midwest at least in part because of the Protestant work ethic. Once people started having to work two jobs to support their families they needed uppers to keep them going. But another response to not being able to support your family as easily as your father could is discouragement and self-destruction (which Weberian consumption of crystal meth ultimately leads to also). Clearly Fishtown’s higher unemployment levels are partly a cultural phenomenon, if only because the unemployed are so disproportionately male. But to shrug off the economic stresses at their foundation, as Murray does, strikes me as willful blindness.

In the end, Murray falls back on solutions that he has proposed before, even when they don’t seem terribly relevant. We need to revive the “founding virtues” of “marriage,” “industriousness,” “honesty,” and “religiosity.” Fine with me, so long as “marriage” includes same-sex couples and the promotion of “religiosity” is confined to people who believe in a) separation of church and state; and b) God. We need to reduce welfare dependency (never mind that a reform bill in 1996 slashed welfare rolls; and that men, whom Murray correctly identifies as the main problem, were never eligible for welfare in the first place; and that workman’s comp, which Murray identifies as a new source of welfare dependency, lacks a sufficient caseload of beneficiaries to account for what ails working class men).

Weirdest of all is Murray’s notion that we need to replace the welfare state with something resembling Milton Friedman’s and Pat Moynihan’s old idea of a guaranteed income. It would seem to contradict completely Murray’s longstanding conviction that government largesse is destroying American self-reliance. I’m sure he has an explanation as to why it wouldn’t, but I couldn’t find it in this book. Murray has put such tiresome exegesis behind him. You believe him? Great. You don’t? That’s fine, too. The biggest bubble of all may be the one in which Murray now places himself.

Timothy Noah is a senior editor for The New Republic and author of the forthcoming The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It (Bloomsbury).