Saturday, February 11, 2012

White America Coming Apart?

Murray, center, is worried about "White America"
Charles Murray, the right-wing think-tanker most notorious for the "Bell Curve" thesis asserting racial differences in intelligence, has come out with a new book focused on the apparent decline of white people in the US: “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010."

Murray - true to form - blames liberal "elites" for what he interprets as moral disarray among the white working class. Most of this concern relates to declining labor force participation and declining rates of marriage among lower income white people.

Paul Krugman, reviewing Murray's case, suggests the real causes of increasing stress on working class individuals and families:
Most of the numbers you see about income trends in America focus on households rather than individuals, which makes sense for some purposes. But when you see a modest rise in incomes for the lower tiers of the income distribution, you have to realize that all — yes, all — of this rise comes from the women, both because more women are in the paid labor force and because women’s wages aren’t as much below male wages as they used to be.
"Those were the days..."
For lower-education working men, however, it has been all negative. Adjusted for inflation, entry-level wages of male high school graduates have fallen 23 percent since 1973. Meanwhile, employment benefits have collapsed. In 1980, 65 percent of recent high-school graduates working in the private sector had health benefits, but, by 2009, that was down to 29 percent.
So we have become a society in which less-educated men have great difficulty finding jobs with decent wages and good benefits. Yet somehow we’re supposed to be surprised that such men have become less likely to participate in the work force or get married, and conclude that there must have been some mysterious moral collapse caused by snooty liberals...
Back in 1996 (distinguished sociologist William Julius) Wilson published “When Work Disappears: The New World of the Urban Poor,” in which he argued that much of the social disruption among African-Americans popularly attributed to collapsing values was actually caused by a lack of blue-collar jobs in urban areas. If he was right, you would expect something similar to happen if another social group — say, working-class whites — experienced a comparable loss of economic opportunity. And so it has.
So we should reject the attempt to divert the national conversation away from soaring inequality toward the alleged moral failings of those Americans being left behind... the social changes taking place in America’s working class are overwhelmingly the consequence of sharply rising inequality, not its cause.
Disgruntled conservative writer David Frum is, if anything, even more scathing than Krugman in his critique of Murray's book:
(A)t the end of the book, without ever suggesting any reason to believe that government is the problem, he insists that the reduction of government is the solution.

I found myself flipping from beginning to end of the book, punching searches into my Kindle, questioning whether I'd perhaps carelessly missed some crucial piece of evidence. But no. There is no evidence, not even an argument, just an after-the-fact assertion, pulled out of the hat...
The odd thing is: I'm exactly the right market for Murray's rhetoric. I'm predisposed to accept everything he says about the importance of individual achievement and the negative consequences of government that provides too much. All I ask is some skein of connection, no matter how thin and fragile, between the "whereas" and "therefore" clauses of the Murray argument. Murray doesn't draw any at all, and doesn't seem even to be aware that any such skein is required. The conclusions of Coming Apart are pure dogma...
Thus, courtesy of the American Enterprise Institute which sponsors Murray's efforts, we are being treated to another very serious work by the very serious Charles Murray that is sham social science and little more than a new packaging of some very tired right-wing talking points.


  1. "pulled out of the hat... "

    I would have thought it had been pulled out of some other aperture.

  2. I thought Krugman's piece was statistically convincing but somewhat tin-eared in engaging the moral questions, which can't be reduced solely to economics.

    BTW - when is the statute of limitations up on the malign effects of the 60's? I don't remember pols and pundits in 1970 blaming society's ills on the Roaring 20's. Did I miss something?

    1. I think the salient issue in Krugman's response is that Murray sets this up as a "moral" issue when there are real problems that are rooted in broader societal changes that can't be "de-linked" from radical shifts in the economy, probably symbolized most clearly in the demographic groups in question by deindustrialization, the Rust Belt, etc. I think it's important to clarify in front that Murray is engaged in sham social science, rather than engage him on his own terms.

    2. IIRC he successfully skewered the social science, but then did try to engage Murray on Murray's terms, arguing that certain societal changes were morally justifiable since their economic impact was either neutral or positive. I imagined how this sort of argument might sound in the mouth of a politician, and cringed. It simply sounds cold and technocratic, even smug. There are better ways to defend changes to the traditional family, ways that are emotionally more appealing and morally more persuasive.