I wrote this for SwiftEconomics three years before Donald Trump. In hindsight, this book was quite prophetic as it was the white working class that propelled Trump into the White House.
Coming Apart is the latest book from the highly controversial author, Charles Murray. It is definitely food for thought as well as quite alarming. Murray shows how the upper class and lower class of the United States have diverged in just about everything. He focuses only on white people until the very end to emphasize it’s not a racial problem (in fact, adding race back in hardly makes a difference). While the top and bottom of American society have always been quite different, the trends are pushing them apart into something unprecedented.
The theme, boiled down, is that the “founding virtues” or what Murray believes are the important building blocks of civic society--namely marriage, industriousness, honesty and religiosity--have declined dramatically among the lower class, but have thrived among the upper class. In addition, what’s called social capital (the networks and organizations throughout society), while dissipating throughout society, has plunged in the bottom third. This is not a new discovery, Robert Putnam discussed it at length in Bowling Alone. However Murray has expanded on that by showing the drastic contrast between the classes. He also notes how this trend is compounded by primarily technological forces that have made intelligence much more important. 50 years ago, someone who was really good at math and what not would become a math teacher and get by on a decent salary. Today, they go work for a hedge fund, Google or one of those mysterious quant funds and pull in seven to eight figures a year!
Early on, Murray actually hurts his argument by conceding that “real family income for families in the middle was flat” (pg. 50). In fact, the term “family income” or household income” is highly misleading. As Thomas Sowell has pointed out:
It is an undisputed fact that the average real income… of American households rose by only 6 percent from 1969 to 1996… But it is an equally undisputed fact that the average real income per person in the United States rose by 51% over that very same period. How can both these statistics be true? Because the average number of people per household was declining during those years. (Economic Facts and Fallacies, Pg. 125)
So the only reason the lower and middle classes have a “flat” income is because there are less people in each household working. And yet, the “founding virtues” have still deteriorated.
In one of the most bizarre mysteries of our day, he notes what David Brooks has termed the “bourgeois bohemians.” Namely, very liberal people who live very conservative lifestyles. These are typically the elite of society; those that live in the super zips (zip codes in the 99th percentile of wealth). They get married, stay married, work for a corporation usually, have kids, don’t do drugs, rarely drink and more often than you would think, go to church.
If you go outside of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C., those who comprise the super zips are about evenly split between conservatives and liberals. And funny enough, while they’re politics are polar opposites, they’re behavior is basically the same. The elite, or top 20% of society, Murray refers to as Belmont. And whether it’s the tree-hugging or gun-toting sort of Belmont, the people generally adhere to the four “founding virtues.”
At the bottom, things are much different. Charles Murray splits the bottom off at the bottom 30% of white Americans, which he calls Fishtown. Let’s take an example from industriousness:
In the 1960 census, about 9 percent of all Fishtown men ages 20-64 were not in the labor force. In the 2000 census, about 30 percent of Fishtown men in the same age range were not in the labor force. (pg. 216)
Indeed, the number of people on disability insurance has increased by a somewhat significant 900% since 1960! And it should be noted that life and work are getting safer, not more dangerous.
With regards to marriage, it is well established that two parent families do the best in the aggregate. Well, in a truly haunting chart on page 167, Murray shows the percentage of children living with both biological parents in Fishtown when the mother is 40 fell from 95% to 35% in from 1960 to 2005. In Belmont, it stayed put at about 90%.
Murray primarily focuses on the crime rate when discussing honesty. The crime rate is down recently, but is still up a lot (at least in Fishtown) since 1960. I think he again shoots himself in the foot here as I’ve heard of several studies showing a decline in honesty. Here’s one from Britain and I believe the same trend is mirrored in the United States. Still, the crime rate is bad enough, especially given how high the American prison population is.
All this shows a decline in social capital, or the connections between individuals through various civic organizations. This is why Murray finds the decline in religiosity troubling. Although this mostly has to do with the secular (not atheist) poor. It may be the lack of belief in a reason to existence provides no incentive to act or a no moral code to follow. Or it may simply be a lack of social and charitable organizations to take the church’s place.
Murray does give his prescription, which is similar to mine; the government has usurped the civic institutions at the local level and created dependency through its welfare programs. It needs to get out of the way for civic society to reemerge. I should note, this is basically the thesis of Robert Nisbet’s great book The Quest for Community. The bigger the government, the smaller the individual… and civic institutions for that matter. It is not the supporters of the free market who are atomistic or whatever. It is the supporters of big government who are.
Murray also chastises the upper class for both their non-judgementalism (which, in my judgement, is just a way to say you’re too lazy or scarred to have an opinion) and their unseemliness. I heard of a guy building a house with 5 bedrooms, 8 bathrooms, 3 kitchens, 2 glass elevators and an indoor swimming pool with a retractable roof. No one needs that. It seems that the upper classes have simultaneously lost their judgmentalism and their shame, and it all just drives the classes further apart. Classes that have been fairly fluid in years past, but are becoming more solidified.
Murray’s central argument is that this class-solidification is not economic, as liberals tend to say, but a separation of values and behaviors. I think there’s some truth to both (corporate favoritism and Federal Reserve policies have driven some of the class divide, and part of it is overstated in my opinion), but from the work of Murray and others, as well as working in and near lower end areas and witnessing much of this self-destructive behavior first hand, I have to agree more with Murray.
But as he cautions, this book is not primarily about solutions. Instead it’s the first step, and that is to simply admit we have a problem.
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