Thursday, February 9, 2012

Charles Murray and the deepening class divide

Ben and I talk about Charles Murray's new book, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010" in this week's Scripps column. We jointly note: "He argues that America is increasingly, dangerously divided between an out-of-touch upper class and a lower class that has abandoned the virtues of industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity." My take:
Here's the good news: Somebody influential on the right -- and Murray is beloved by many conservatives -- is acknowledging the growing class divide in America. That is a breakthrough.

The bad news: Murray is big into victim blaming. If life among America's working class has declined during the last 50 years, Murray says it's because its members have abandoned the habits of work and marriage that made the country great. He offers a lot of statistics to prove his point.

But there's a crucial piece missing in Murray's story.

It is most apparent when he describes the "real" Fishtown, a Philadelphia neighborhood several miles from where I live. Murray describes in great detail the rise of single motherhood and jobless men in the neighborhood.

But he never mentions Fishtown's most-defining feature: It was once a center of manufacturing and industry -- particularly the textile industry -- and now it isn't. The factories are gone. Residents can no longer walk out of the neighborhood school and into a decent job that can sustain a family.

That's precisely what happened across the country over the last 50 years: The manufacturing sector withered -- jobs went overseas -- and so did the wages of many Americans. Read The Atlantic's January cover story, "Making It In America," and you'll find many manufacturing jobs that mostly go to Americans with a costly college degree in science or math.

Simple hard work doesn't get you as far as it used to. This matters.

Murray talks about the disintegration of the working class, but not the disintegration of the work. "I focus on what happened, not why," Murray writes. Without the "why" though, he cannot and does not offer plausible solutions.

Instead, Murray urges the elites to preach more about virtue to the working class. Workers don't need a lecture, though. They need real opportunity. That can't be found in Murray's book.
Ben says "America's ruling elite has much to answer for." Mostly, they have to answer about sex. You'll have to go to the link to read his take.

UPDATE: The sex comment was kind of a cheap oversimplication on my part. I apologize to Ben.


deregulator said...

Sex? Oh come on, that's a cheap shot. It has to do with marriage. If you graduate high school, marry, and get a job -- just about any job -- and remain employed, the chances of going into or remaining in poverty are nearly nonexistent.

Joel said...

You're right. That was a cheap shot.

But man, correlation is not causation. I see conservatives repeatedly assert that if you get married, you'll probably be able to stay out of poverty. I can see how being married might lead to an increase in industriousness—but it also seems really, really plausible to me that being able to escape poverty is a precondition for marriage.

But declining marriage rates didn't shut down the factories in Fishtown. Single motherhood didn't shift the manufacturing sector to China. Reduced church attendance didn't cause wages to stagnate the last 30 years.

Culture matters, but it doesn't happen in a vacuum. Murray's book (and many conservatives) try to act as though it does. It just happens to let markets (and the people, public and private, who shape them) off the hook. Funny, that.

deregulator said...

At the same time, your contribution to the column hit on a dilemma for the left and the right: What to do about the collapsing job market for people who don't have a lot of education or can't perform a skilled trade.

Those textile manufacturing jobs in Philadelphia probably headed South and then went overseas. That's a problem, sometimes a tragedy, for those who depended on the work to support their families. Then again, the jobs most likely were difficult, unsafe, and didn't pay much. "Bad jobs at bad wages," Paul Krugman (who knows something about this issue, even though he's a doofus when it comes to politics.

Letting the production move to its lowest-cost location helps consumers AND improves the living standards of the people in the low-wage areas who otherwise were starving. (Read the Krugman piece.) Erecting trade barriers may keep the textile jobs from moving but they also make the products that come from the factories more expensive, which harms everyone who doesn't work in the factory.

I'm a free-trader, but I haven't found a neat solution to help those who were left behind. It's a problem, and I'm not sure how to solve it (but trade restrictions aren't the answer, unless your preference is to spread the misery around).

Joel said...

Rick: I think that's well-said all around.

On the other hand, there are other countries (mostly in Europe) who are allied with us in free trade, yet don't seem to have these problems to the extent we do. They do, however, have a rather more developed welfare state and higher taxes than we do.

I know you'll disagree with this, but given the way it all works out, it sure looks to me like we have a choice between A) accepting a welfare state as the cost of reaping the benefits of free markets or B) leaving folks behind, with the result of great suffering.

I'm open to option C, though.

Ben Boychuk said...

Guess I'd better call off the Goon Squad, then. Thanks, Joel.

As for marriage, Murray makes the point that a family income in 1960 remains roughly the same today. In other words, this argument that Ralph Richard Banks and others make that "marriage is a luxury" isn't quite true. Something else is at work here, apart from straight ahead economics. In fact, I think Murray is most convincing in his section near the end of the book about marriage and social capital.

deregulator said...

I think Europe has plenty of problems from its overly generous welfare state. (Euro collapse, anyone?)

It's take 60 or 70 years for these problems to reach fruition. And this would have happened faster, but the integration of low-wage, low-skilled Eastern Europe into the West delayed the process. (Western Europe was an economic basket case during the final throes of the Soviet Empire.)

So the welfare state option may sound nice for awhile, and even "work," temporarily. But the piper must be paid eventually.

deregulator said...

Joel, I've ordered the book. After reading Virginia's take on it at Bloomberg News, I have to see for myself. Much of my admiration for Murray is based on his work from the 1980s, when he spoke about the corrosive effects of government dependency on the work ethic and the like. (Which is why he and Mickey Kaus were in many ways the intellectual architects of welfare reform.) Perhaps he has taken that argument too far. I'll let you know.