Coming Apart: Not Proven

It is not easy to summarize Charles Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America: 1960-2010 (Crown Forum), and the author himself never lays out his argument.  But it seems to go something like this:  Since 1960, two new classes have formed in America that are fundamentally shifting the nature of the society: 1) A New Upper Class, larger than that which preceded it, that is the product of an cognitive meritocracy and increased returns on brains; and 2) a New Lower Class that is the product of—well, he never says.  (Although Murray does not use the term, the class is essentially what Marx called the lumpenproletariat—criminals, isolates, the mentally ill, and others outside of the labor market.)   The two classes are diverging in terms of taste and geographical segregation such that they cannot understand and empathize with each other.  They are also diverging in the four “founding virtues” that have been the sine qua non of the American republic: industriousness, honesty (by which he typically means law-abidingness), marriage, and religiosity.  While the New Upper Class has seen small decreases in adherence to these virtues, the New Lower Class has suffered precipitous declines that threaten the very ability to support a functional community.  These declines have occurred independently of the economy as a whole, and independently of race and ethnicity.

While the New Upper Class is not doing badly per se, it is increasingly a “hollow elite” lacking in the self-confidence and moral fortitude required by its station: to set and promulgate standards for the entire society.  Unless drastic change occurs—namely, the elimination of all forms of welfare, including Social Security and Medicare—the confluence of the softening of the New Upper Class and the degeneration of the New Lower Class will lead us to our “doom,” the acceptance of the model of the European welfare state.

We will thus witness the end of the “American project”—the exceptional effort that “human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit.”  This will have a disastrous effect on our happiness, defined to mean something like Maslow’s self-actualization.  Hope remains, however, that we will avoid that path by heeding the lessons of Europe’s looming bankruptcy.

In short, Coming Apart strings together the conclusions of his prior books: Losing Ground (the welfare state has made the poor worse off), the Bell Curve (increased social stratification by IQ will lead to social problems), In Pursuit of Happiness (happiness is fostered by traditional values and forms of life), and In Our Hands (we ought to replace the entire welfare state with annual $10,000 cash grants to all persons).  The only new claims seem to be those relating to the qualitative distinctness of the new classes, and the hollowness of the elite.

A leading Darwinian libertarian, Murray envisions the two new classes in a manner strikingly reminiscent of H. G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine.  Wells describes a society far in the future consisting of two races that have evolved, or devolved, from humans: the frail, banal, and dissolute Eloi who lord over the earth above ground, and the Morlocks, disgusting troglodytes who toil underground to support the lazy lifestyle of the Eloi.  The protagonist discovers to his horror that the Morlocks survive by eating the Eloi.  The story is a Darwinian nightmare.

Murray packages his findings in journalistic prose wrapped in a scholarly apparatus.  Chapters have cutesy subtitles like out of a poor-man’s Montesquieu: “The Founding Virtues: In which it is argued that the feasibility of the American project has historically been based…”  Greatest-hits quotations from Founders and Tocqueville abound, while there are chapters comprising page after page of statistics and graphs.  Yet some of the most important passages, such as on the “hollowness” of the elites and the alleged rise in their “unseemliness”, are nothing but bald assertions without any empirical evidence cited.  There are approximately 300 pages of text; 50 of appendices where Murray details his statistical methods (but provides no raw data, as he did in Losing Ground); the index is largely useless.

Even as a work of intellectual journalism, the book does not persuade.  Murray fails to convince us that the trends he is calling attention to are real, or if they are real that they are important.  Even assuming that the trends are real and important, he fails to connect them to his gloomy conclusion.  Instead, there is a flutter of handwaving.   And I say all of this as someone who would not be averse to accepting his claims if he showed them to be true.  It is all the more difficult to imagine this book shifting the opinion of, let alone convincing, those in the center or on the left—unlike, say, Daniel Patrick Moynihan on the crisis of the black family or James Q. Wilson on crime.

Murray begins the book calling attention to the advent of a New Upper Class “qualitatively different from any that the country has ever known,” often called the cognitive elite and the creative class. Confusion begins when Murray explains that the New Upper Class is a “subset” of the upper-middle class of managers and professionals. It is fair to say that most social scientists group the upper-class (old money, large landholders, owners of great capital) as being above the upper-middle-class, not part of it.  Is Murray implying that the New Upper Class has replaced the old upper class or that the New Upper Class includes the old?  Likewise, Murray later similarly explains that the New Lower Class is a subset of the working class, even though the working class is usually thought to be above the lower class of non-workers and social cases.  Confusing matters still more, throughout the book, Murray shifts back-and-forth between references to the New Upper Class, the upper class, the upper-middle class, the broad elite, and the narrow elite, and similarly for the classes at the bottom end.

The New Upper Class, we are told, is historically distinctive in its members’ shared tastes and culture (think: NPR, Baby Einstein, and chardonnay), increasing geographical and social isolation (due to the desire and feasibility to live near only similar persons), high IQs (selected and promoted by efficient college-sorting), and great wealth (due to the increased market value for brains in the new economy).  This class is perpetuating itself through homogamy—i.e., the marriage and mating of similar persons—which facilitates the eugenic inheritance of high IQs.  It is thus a natural aristocracy (insofar as high-IQ professionals are “better” people) that is also a de facto hereditary aristocracy.  Murray does not say so, but he surely thinks, and wants readers to understand, that the New Lower Class is the result of the flip-side of these trends—above all, dysgenic homogamy.

The great danger Murray sees is that these elites, largely clustered in a relatively few contiguous postal codes, increasingly live in a bubble that prevents them from understanding, and thereby effectively leading, the mass of American citizens.  (One wishes to ask, if this bubble is so big, how did Murray himself pierce it?  His research is entirely based on statistics, not ethnography a la Tocqueville.)  This decrease in class mixing is harmful to democracy, though he never gives actual examples of the present or future harms.  One might think that the existence or lack of a shared national identity matters far more than any effects of social mixing as such, yet Murray is interested in Americans’ tastes and mores, not their beliefs and allegiances.  Consider that such patricians as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Churchill unified their peoples despite being exceedingly far removed from the common man.

Moreover, to what extent is there a knowledge bubble around the New Upper Class if much of their success is predicated on selling products or services to the great mass of Americans?  Hollywood producers are experts on the tastes of their largest possible audience, just as Warren Buffet made a fortune understanding the role of Coca-Cola and hamburgers in the larger scheme of things.  Even if there is such an elite bubble, might it be mitigated by market forces?  Among the most successful elites will be those who burst or remain outside of the bubble. Likewise, the most successful politicians will be those who appeal to the greatest number of constituents, a skill that requires inter-class understanding.

While it might be the case that the upper/upper-middle class has less interaction with the working/lower class than before, it is not clear why that should matter much.  It could even be a good thing insofar as familiarity breeds contempt.  Separate but equal might be highly workable in regard to class, at least if there is the perception of equality; Murray himself notes that the vast majority of Americans consider themselves middle class, even if their belief is objectively absurd.

This touches upon a glaring omission from the book: the largest segment of the population—namely, the middle class. The fate of a democracy depends as much if not more on the middle class than the upper class.  One might even roughly define democracy as rule by the middle class.  Why should the divergence between the very top and bottom matter most, particularly if most social mixing is between economically adjacent classes?  If there is less divergence between the lower and middle class, and less divergence between the middle and upper class, that might suggest that there is less overall “coming apart” than Murray claims.

In any case, Murray suggests that the trends affecting the middle class are heading in the same direction as those affecting the New Lower Class, but he never discusses the degree to which that is true.  Is he suggesting that the middle class will ultimately sink deeper and merge with the lower class?  If so, his prognostication is strikingly similar to Marx’s prediction that capitalism will lead to a two-class society, with capitalists at the top and an immiserated poor at the distant bottom.

Another oddity in the book is Murray’s approximation of the upper/upper-middle and working/lower classes as fictional places called Belmont and Fishtown.  Murray invents these towns so as to track the statistics on the “founding virtues,” which he originally wanted to call “republican virtues.”  Murray sorted research subjects according to their occupation (also factoring in education): high-prestige professionals and managers belong to Belmont, blue collars and below in Fishtown.  By giving these statistical groupings the names of towns, Murray will unfortunately cause many readers to reify them, to think they are real places.  Murray himself equivocates about persons “moving out” of a town when the meaning is statistical not physical.  The Belmont/Fishtown terminology is also likely to cause readers to overestimate the degree of geographical homogeneity; some Belmonters do not live in real-world Belmonts, just as some Fishtowners (particularly prisoners) do not live in real-world Fishtowns.

Murray excludes from both Belmont and Fishtown mid-level white collar positions and high-skill technical occupations (such as teachers, police, and nurses)—the heart of the middle class that could be called “Levittown.”   Limiting his study still further, he looks only at non-Latino whites because, he asserts with scanty evidence, the trends he is examining exist independent of race and ethnicity.  He also defends this limitation despite admitting that whites are projected to be a minority in the near future; Murray also entirely sidesteps the issue of immigration.

Murray restricts his populations even more, to whites between the ages of 30 and 49.  This, he claims, is to focus on persons in the “prime” of their lives; he therefore excludes the ages when many Belmonters are still in school and many Fishtowners are prematurely disabled or in early retirement.  But isn’t it plausible that the prime age for Fishtown (where by definition no one has more than a high school diploma) is between 18 and 49,  while the prime age for Belmont is from 30 to 65?  The overlap between 30 and 49 is not obviously indicative of the two groups’ respective prime ages, though Murray never mentions this.  Murray also does not discuss how any differences over time in the population pyramids (youth bulges, etc.) for Belmont and Fishtown could affect the relative trends.

A severe difficulty that Murray does attempt to address is that the compositions of Belmont and Fishtown have presumably changed between 1960 and 2010, both due to major changes in education (a greater proportion of American obtaining high school and college diplomas) and in the economy (including a proportional decrease of skilled blue-collar jobs relative to managerial jobs).  As he puts it, “In 1960, 64 percent of prime-age white Americans qualified for Fishtown, a number that had fallen to 30 percent by 2009.  In 1960, only 6 percent of prime-age white Americans qualified for Belmont, a number that had risen to 21 percent by 2010.”  (Doing the math, that means the middle class Murray ignores rose from 30 percent of the population in 1960 to 49 percent in 2010.) Although Murray does not want to admit it, this sounds like progress at all levels.  These substantial changes in proportions, huge in the case of Fishtown, should give one serious pause.  If Fishtown is shrinking as a percentage of the total U.S. population, doesn’t that undercut the magnitude of any negative trends within it?

Furthermore, one might reasonably suspect than any negative changes in Fishtown over the prior 40 years should be largely attributed to the “creaming off” of those who rose into the middle class.  To handle this problem, Murray aims to discover “what the trends would have looked like if Fishtown had consisted of 30 percent of the white prime-age population in 1960 instead of 64 percent, and what Belmont would have looked like in 1960 if (using a round number) it had consisted of 20 percent of the white prime-age population instead of 6 percent.”  I don’t see how this tack can surmount the problem, since Murray is concerned with classes as determined by occupation and education, not classes as determined by fixed intervals of the population distribution.  Nonetheless, he makes these estimations (and subsequent comparisons) by creating a custom index in which he rank-orders occupations according to their supposed IQ requirements.  Whether or not this method is legitimate, in applying it he ignores the Flynn Effect (the observation that average IQs have been rising for decades for unknown reasons) as well as the fact that, based on his own assumptions, the correlation between IQ and occupation must have been weaker in 1960 than in 2010.  Also, why should we use the 1960 population intervals rather than those in 2010?  In other words, why not compare the trends by estimating the bottom 64 percent and top 6 percent in 2010?

The book is unfortunately replete with such questionable assumptions.  Grounds for skepticism are strengthened still further when one notices the small General Social Survey sample sizes Murray relies upon—as tiny as 413 persons (i.e., approximately only 200 males and females each).  Yet who but a book reviewer is likely to notice such devilish details in the appendices?  The typical reader of Coming Apart—for whom Murray feels the need to define “standard deviation”—is unlikely to dwell on something as boring and difficult as methodology.  But until Murray’s methods are vetted by a statistician, it is premature to look at his analysis of the trends in Belmont and Fishtown, let alone to the conclusion he draws from them.  The proper response is that idiosyncratic Scottish Verdict: Not proven.