Thursday, February 23, 2012

Coming Apart

Charles Murray has been a prolific scholar.   I first became acquainted with his thoughts in Losing Ground which looked at the development of welfare policy.  He detailed the debilitating effects of welfare both for society and the individuals who received the payments.   Murray has a keen understanding of the principles that created the American system and the notion that "happiness"  is a lot bigger than material wealth.   Some suggest that his 1984 book eventually led to the welfare reform act twelve years later.

His newest book is about the divergence of wealth in white America between 1960 and 2010.  He compares the one class (who make lots of dough - in a place called "Belmont") to the another (who make very little in a place called "Fishtown").  What he finds is that the first group and the second have a significant divergence of core values and behaviors. And more importantly those values and behaviors have begun to diverge significantly from earlier times.

What Murray refers to as the new upper class might number one and half million people in the country.  They live in special places (only a limited number of zip codes) - in essence they are isolated as the upper class has never been before.    Murray suggests that this class developed as the demand for cognitive ability began to become more valuable.  If you want to see whether you are a member of this elite - Murray has constructed a quiz of issues that the elites might not be familiar with.  (Example who is Jimmie Johnson?)

He then goes on to explain some details which he believes are inherent in the American character - industriousness, honesty, marriage, religiosity.  In each he suggests that these core principles are being eroded in both groups but more significantly in the Fishtown residents.   He suggests that there are three "problematic" categories - Men who are not making a living, single women with children and isolates. (those "disconnected from the matrix of community life.")

After all this data (and the book is filled with data) he argues that there are several possible responses to this problem - if one sees it as a problem.  A social liberal might argue for more redistribution of income. A social conservative would attempt to make a compelling case for policies to re-estabish those lost values.   But Murray thinks that a better way to solve these issues is to go back to a more limited vision of government.   He worries that if our political system evolves into a more European model (with the attendant loss of those elements of character) that we would evolve into a system where we get lots of freedom, except on economic issues.   When government intervenes, personal responsibility and the attached links to community institutions are reduced.

Murray's book has generated a lot of discussion.  Paul Krugman wrote a scathing response that seemed at least to me that he had not bothered to read the book before writing about it.   David Brooks did a pretty fair review of the book although he concludes that the way to solve issues raised by the book  is to create national service program which would require the residents of Fishtown and Belmont to interact, at least for the period of service.  In my mind expecting that we will rebuild the elements of national character that we have lost in recent years by forcing national service is odd.  It certainly did not work that way when we had the military draft.

The Wall Street Journal had a very interesting interview with Murray which gives you a cliff notes version of his thesis.  But like his two earlier major books (Losing Ground and the Bell Curve) the better course is to read the book.   It is bound to make you think.

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