Charles Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, is an extraordinarily important study of the process implied by his title. Charles has a penchant for writing books that challenge, and sometimes change, America’s policy environment.
Murray’s Losing Ground was published in 1984 and fundamentally transformed America’s thinking on the causes of poverty. It provided analytic foundations for President Clinton’s welfare reform of 1996. While the odds are long, let’s hope Coming Apart will produce a similar beneficial outcome.
Coming Apart describes in text and great statistical detail the huge cultural and economic problems that are swamping the poorer half of America’s population, especially the bottom fifth. Among them every measure of social malady has dramatically increased. An abundance of data shows the loss of intact families, lower labor force participation, decreased church attendance, and lower participation in civic volunteer groups.
Essentially much of the white working class is estranged from a virtuous civic culture. Fortunately this seems less true in Montana. We maintain a healthy fragment of the American culture whose passing Murray laments.
As America’s economy has hollowed out, opportunities for those lacking a college degree or having a skilled trade have declined enormously. Manufacturing has increased a bit but it demands ever-higher skills and greater self-discipline. In sum, the working class has an impoverished set of job opportunities relative to those enjoyed in the 1960s. Alas, their culture followed this decline trajectory.
Concurrently a new privileged class is emerging. This high achieving elite is self-selected and mutually reinforced; it’s based on education and mental abilities. This group talks the 1960s culture but generally still reveres and lives social norms of the 1950s. This group tends to cocoon in its own neighborhood and sub-culture. In urban areas especially, these people live isolated from those below them.
To help the reader, Murray creates an imaginary town “Belmont,” a statistical composite based on national data. Their birth rate outside of marriage remains low, they work long hours, and they have high participation in civic affairs. They value healthy living and are obsessed with higher education for their children. That’s their path to success.
Belmont is a safe and comfortable place for the new elite to live—but yet it is socially impoverished. They have little direct contact with those who manipulate the furniture of the world. Unlike Americans of 1960, Murray’s benchmark year, they don’t mix.
When a nation’s elite loses faith in the superior value of their culture, that country is doomed. Belmont’s citizens exhibit a stage of this failure with a creed of “ecumenical niceness.” They are unwilling to be judgmental, not criticizing the lower white classes’ objectively self-destructive behavior. Belmont citizens are reluctant to preach what they practice.
Murray emphasizes the perpetuation of advantage across generations. They pass on privileged access to good schools and to rich opportunities to build contacts and human capital.
Consider unpaid internships. “The children of the new upper class hardly ever get real jobs during summer vacations. Instead they get internships…. It amounts to career assistance for rich, smart children.” In contrast, students from less wealthy backgrounds must find summer employment to continue college.
I’m confident that Murray’s analysis is fundamentally sound. He surely presents a well-substantiated account of a fundamental shift, a reduction in America’s web of social contacts. However, he discounts the difficulty of inculcating a work ethic among privileged children.
Those brought up in luxury while insulated from the harsh demands of real work, often assume that luxury is the natural order of life. Most will learn it isn’t. A successful career demands high productivity in an increasingly competitive environment.
Most well paying, interesting, satisfying jobs demand discipline, dedication, and long hours. I sense that many parents believe that Bozeman fosters these values, ones Murray celebrates. In such places elites cannot easily isolate from those of lower status. Thus Murray explains why our magnet becomes ever stronger.
John A. Baden, Ph.D., is Chairman of FREE and Gallatin Writers.