Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

The most important book you read this year

May 24th, 2012 by Vader

Outside of the scriptural canon, may well be Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White American, 1960-2010.    

Or you could just read 4 Nephi. Both books document the increasing class divisions of a once happy and prosperous people. However, Murray brings in a lot of sociological findings that have a certain scientific appeal.

The overall theme of the book is the collapse of traditional American core virtues since the time of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, and the simultaneous emergence of genuine class stratification in white America. Murray chooses white America in order to avoid confounding his analysis with racial or ethnic issues. However, towards the end of the book, Murray informs us that when the discussion is broadened to include all races and ethnicities, very little changes. The most serious social problems in present-day American are problems of class, not of race or ethnicity.

There are three main themes to the book. The first is the rise of a New Upper Class that differs significantly from the old elite. Murray talks about a narrow elite of perhaps less than 10,000 people who really shape the country. Then there is a broader elite of perhaps 100,000 people who are locally influential. These are part of a new upper class that Murray argues has emerged as a result of the rising value of cognitive skills. F. Scott Fitzgerald once fatuously wrote that “the rich are not like the rest of us”; Hemingway famously snarked back “Yes, they have more money.” In 1960 Hemingway was right; the wealthiest Americans had little in common with each other, other than money, which they did not have in common with the rest of Americans. The very richest might eat off fine china placed before them by servants, but the actual food was the same roast beef and potatoes that most Americans ate for Sunday dinner. It’s a handy metaphor for America in 1960.

But Fitzgerald seems to have had the last word. Whereas even the rich in 1960 mostly did not have college degrees, almost all the rich of 2010 do. Gates and Jobs are rare exceptions, and they are exceptions that tend to support the general rule: Wealth comes from having valuable cognitive skills, and top cognitive skills are now tightly correlated with holding a bachelor’s degree or better from an elite school. Furthermore, the new upper class is increasingly self-perpetuating, since the rise of college education has provided greatly increased opportunities for the cognitive elite to meet each other at college during the prime years for selecting marriage partners. Homogamy among the cognitive elite has turned it into a genuine social class.

This elite is also increasingly isolated from the rest of America. Murray offers a fascinating test, “How Thick Is Your Bubble?”, with provocative questions like “Do you have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian?”; “Have you ever held a job where something hurt at the end of the day?”, or “Have you ever lived for more than a year in a neighborhood where most of those within a mile of you did not have college degrees?” I did not score well. I would have scored even worse if I did not have some background in Church service.

Murray is a conservative-leaning libertarian who attends Quaker services with his wife (I had to fish up the latter fact from Wikipedia) so it should perhaps be no surprise that he is opposed to income redistribution as a “solution” to the “problem” of the New Upper Class. He points out that the cognitive elite have brought considerable economic prosperity to the country, though not so much to the white underclass (on which more in a minute), and that they cannot and should not be eliminated. His program is reform, not revolution, and his call is for the New Upper Class to recognize their bubble and get out of it in order to breathe new life into the American project.

The second theme of the book is the increasing separation between Belmont and Fishtown. Both are real places but they also become metaphors for the New Upper Class and a growing white underclass. This is where Murray really starts throwing sociological data at you, and if (like some of Murray’s academic reviewers) you refuse to be alarmed, it’s because you’re sticking your fingers in your ears while singing the Hymn of the Soviet Union at the top of your lungs. It turns out — this surprised me, and may surprise you — that the New Upper Class have mostly stayed married, religious, and involved in their communities. Very few of their children are born out of wedlock and very few are involved in criminal conduct. Nevertheless, “few” is not “none” and while the absolute numbers remain small, the relative numbers between 1960 and 2008 give cause for concern.

But it is the white underclass that gives real alarm. Fishtown was remarkably similar to Belmont in 1960; both had very high marriage rates, very low illegitimacy rates, moderately high rates of church and civic activity, and low crime rates. The divergence since 1963 is remarkable. We are approaching the point where the majority of children in Fishtown are being born out of wedlock, crime rates are alarming, and religiosity has plummeted.

Murray’s analysis is going to be uncomfortable for a lot of folks hoping for a straightforward exposition on the evils of economic inequality. I suspect a lot of liberals are going to hurl the book across their room with great force when they get to the section on industriousness. Murray make a strong historical case that America has been exceptional in that, while Europeans work to live, Americans live to work. Murray defines industriousness by such measures as disability rates and number of hours worked per week, and he restricts his analysis to males, since he refuses to accept that 1960s housewives were not gainfully employed. Industriousness remains high in Belmont, but it has plummeted in Fishtown. In an era during which medical care and industrial hygiene have both improved significantly, diasbility rates in Fishtown have paradoxically skyrocketed. So have the numbers of males who have taken themselves out of the work force; the increase in idle males seems unaffected by the state of the economy or the availability of gainful employment.

Murray’s third theme is that this is going to end in disaster for the American enterprise. Murray acknowledges that America as a nation may remain powerful and relatively rich, but what makes America exceptional is in very serious danger. He worries most that our elite have become a “hollow elite”; while they still practice the old virtues and while they still get great satisfaction in life from the only four sources that matter — marriage, vocation, community, and religion — they have succumbed to a weird form of backwards hypocrisy in which they are unwilling to preach what they practice. Murray snarks that perhaps they just want to keep the good stuff to themselves; but after laughing over his little joke, he puts on his straight face and says that more likely it’s a lack of cultural confidence, which, if it is so, spells the end for American exceptionalism.

Murray does not end on that pessimistic note; he is not John Derbyshire. Murray argues that four factors may yet convince the new upper class to come out of its bubble and turn back to the old American virtues. First, Europe is about to collapse, and its demise may be a powerful negative example to the broad American elite. Second, Murray argues that the intellectual foundations of the welfare state may be about to implode; advances in evolutionary psychology and neurology may provide powerful evidence for the traditional family and for free will at some deep neurological level. Third, he believes it will be increasingly obvious that there is a better alternative to the European-style social state, where life is nothing but the interval between being born and dying, to be made as pleasantly leisurely as possible. Finally, Murray argues for the resilience of the old American ideals. He is optimistic about the rise of what he calls ‘enthusiastic religion.’ He mentions evangelical Christians, but Mormons seem to fit his description quite well also.

I am not as optimistic as Murray. I’ve long thought that we’re already in free fall, and the pavement is coming up fast. However, I found his discussion of the four areas from which human beings derive real satisfaction highly instructive. I have not had success at marriage, my career stagnated after the second Death Star fiasco, and my community involvement has not been a positive (I’ve mostly destroyed them) but there is still the solace of religion. I’ve resolved to consecrate myself to the Gospel cause more fully from now on, which, if nothing else, justifies the time I spent reading this book.


Comments (2)
Filed under: Birkenhead Drill,Deseret Review | Tags: , , , , ,
May 24th, 2012 13:17:25

J. Max Wilson
May 24, 2012

Thanks for the review, Vader. Very interesting. I’ve read some interviews with Murray. I hope to get around to reading the book myself sometime.

May 28, 2012

Great review. I too will put it on my list.

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