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Charles Murray: Here's Why I Ignore Economics--UPDATED

The universe has been badly out of balance since March 7, when Charles Murray published an op-ed in the New York Times that I mostly agreed with. Now Murray has published a second op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that I mostly disagree with. God's in his heaven, and all's right with the world.

Both op-eds responded to criticisms of his book Coming Apart, which I reviewed here. The latest one addresses the criticism (raised by nearly every reviewer) that Murray attributed the white working class's current troubles entirely to cultural factors and not at all to economic ones. Murray answers this by stating that between 1960 and 2010 the mean annual earnings of working-class white males age 30 to 49 increased by 11 percent after inflation. "This occurred despite the decline of private-sector unions, globalization, and all the other changes in the labor market." So what are they crying about?

The problem, as Dean Baker points out here, is that Murray chose the wrong baseline year. Working-class wages continued their brisk postwar rise throughout the 1960s and didn't flatten out until 1973. I don't have access to Murray's specific data, but I'm sure they would show that. What I can tell you is that median income for white males rose about 34 percent between 1960 and 1973, then fell about 8 percent between 1973 and 2010 (the last year for which we have income). That's an even more impressive net increase of 26 percent. But sociologists and economists don't fret about what happened to working class males after 1960. They fret about what happened to them after 1973. And basically, what happened is that their wages stagnated (and then fell during the last recession).

So what, I imagine Murray would respond. White working class males still had, factoring in inflation, roughly as much in, say, the pre-recession year of 2007 as they'd had in 1973. (I don't know whether the same can be said of Murray's working-class white cohort age 30 to 49, but let's assume for the sake of argument that it can.) They therefore should have been just as able as before to provide for their families. So you can't blame the breakdown in white working-class social norms--more out-of-wedlock children, etc.--on anything but culture.

But in fact, you can. I don't dismiss out of hand Murray's claim that women's growing clout in the workforce made marriage less of an economic necessity. I won't even dispute his claim that the sexual revolution made marriage less of a physiological necessity. These surely played some role, too. But if they didn't play a very large role further up the income scale, why would they play a disproportionate role for the working class? How do the affluent and the working class differ? I seem to remember hearing once or twice that the affluent had more ... money.

Everybody's income flattened out after 1973, but after 1979 incomes for the affluent began to rise again while incomes for the middle class did not. This was a new pattern. From the late 1940s until the early 1970s incomes had risen for everyone pretty much in tandem; to the extent the patterns differed, it was the working class that saw its incomes rise faster. Now prosperity resumed for the haute bourgeoisie and the rich but it didn't resume for the white working class. This was demoralizing. Human beings are social creatures, and they compare their lot to that of others. If life is getting better for the quality and it isn't getting better for the hoi polloi, then the hoi polloi won't have an easy time ignoring that. The working class is going to go into debt to try to keep up, and still it won't succeed, but it will screw up the economy as it tries. Or it may engage in the other self-destructive behaviors lovingly catalogued by Murray. What the working class will get from Murray is utter denial that the loss of relative economic standing has any significance at all.

Update, March 19: In a Financial Times interview with Murray published March 9, Edward Luce reports that Murray first got the idea for his reputation-making 1984 book Losing Ground while dining at a Washington restaurant called Al Tiramisu. Luce conducted his interview at Al Tiramisu, and mocks Murray's enthusiasm for its black truffle pasta and Italian varietals ("Mmm, it's like a good Montrachet") even as Murray bemoans the pathologies of the white working class. It's a little bit of a dirty trick, one that would be more forgivable on Luce's part if Al Tiramisu were one of Washington's legendarily expensive hangouts for lobbyists with seven-figure incomes. But it isn't. I've never eaten there, but the menu reveals it to be a moderately upscale Italian restaurant--no Olive Garden, to be sure, but considerably less fancy than many other Italian restaurants in the immediate neighborhood.

And anyway, Murray couldn't have come up with the idea for Losing Ground while dining at Al Tiramisu because the restaurant didn't exist until the 1990s. What Murray probably meant was that he came up with the idea for Losing Ground while dining in its predecessor at that location, another Italian restaurant called Galileo. If that's true, then that makes Luce's irony considerably more piquant than he realizes, because Galileo was a very expensive (and very good) restaurant, the place where a chef of considerable local renown named Roberto Donna ("He was Jose Andres before Jose Andres," according to the Washington Post) made his reputation. Donna was not in the business of giving his delectable concoctions away, and if I were the author of a book about welfare dependency whose thesis came to me while supping at Galileo I would try hard to suppress that information.