Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Charles Murray: "Coming Apart". A pitch for more "social capital", without a nanny government

Author: Charles Murray

Title: “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010"

Publication: New York: Crown Forum, 2012; ISBN 978-0-307-45342-, hardcover, 405 pages, indexed, Prologue, Three Parts, 17 chapters, 7 detailed appendices, endnotes; many embedded sidebars

Amazon link:   (Note the link gives a different version than the direct ad.) 

Shortly after I moved to Minneapolis in 1997, I bought and read Charles Murray’s short book “What It Means to Be a Libertarian”. Everyone in the local Libertarian Party thought he had summed things up pretty well.  Remember, Murray had become controversial with his earlier “The Bell Curve” and in this new book, he refers to his earlier “In Our Hands”.

The basic premise of Murray’s new book is that “class divisions” have become serious, enough to threaten sustainability.  They are no longer so dependent on race.  Murray builds his case, almost like a scientific dissertation, by presenting a series of studies based on numerous surveys, including the Census CPS.  He defines a largely white community in an affluent suburb of Boston, Belmont, and compares it to an old working class neighborhood in Philadelphia. He stratifies and redefines the samples somewhat, and then later brings back in the numbers for minority groups and shows that racial background now means much less than before.

Let’s also lay out his vocabulary. He lays out four virtues that help define American exceptionalism, as family (conceivably more flexibly defined now), faith, industriousness (or work ethic), and honesty. He also lays out the four domains of happiness, as family, community, vocation (including hobbies or avocation in some people), and faith or belief system of some sort.  He says that people can be happy without partaking in all four domains simultaneously. But people do need to take hold of themselves and contribute something. In a real world, people need to find inner satisfaction in marrying and raising families and holding down relatively low-level jobs when "they are where they are".  

He also talks about “social capital” a lot, and sometimes cultural capital.  Santorum’s “moral capital” would relate to Murray’s idea of faith, and intellectual and economic capital would equate to industriousness.  But social capital, if you look it up in Wikipedia, is of many types.  The kinds that would concern Murray the most would be “bonding” and “bridging” capital.

He maintains he is libertarian, in that he is critical of the idea of the liberal or European-style welfare state as defining values for people.  This has an effect on lower income classes as to remove their need to find satisfaction in taking care of themselves.  He is unlike Santorum in that he is not interested in seeing government define moral standards, but thinks these should naturally develop when people with influence, the upper classes who can take care of themselves, show some “bridging” social capital and reach out to set the right examples to those “below”.

I may have gotten ahead of myself here.  Murray starts his book by describing America as it was in 1963, one day before Kennedy was shot.  The differences between rich and poor were not as great, even though racial tensions were great.  Over time, technology, by saving labor and then by providing new modes of self-expression, allowed people to believe that they needed others less.  But this happened much more in lower and middle classes than in upper classes.   People in higher income classes were more cognitively capable, he maintains, and generally still did a pretty good job or raising their kids to be “nice” and to learn a reasonable work ethic.  In “working classes”, however, the interest in keeping families cohesive got weaker.  One reason may be that government “welfare” policies discouraged self-reliance and also inadvertently discouraged marriage and single parenthood (as an unintended consequence). But a deeper reason is that people in more privileged classes had relatively little contact with those less fortunate, did not develop empathy, and yet, when in positions of “cultural authority”, sent out signals where indifference or neutrality became confused with contempt or even nihilism.  Murray at one point has a phrase “preach what you practice”.

Following a chapter called “A New Kind of Segregation”, Murray offers “How Thick Is Your Bubble”? and offers a 25-question quiz to score the reader’s empathy with others in different classes.  I scored 30, which is below average but not much so. 

Murray often discusses “social capital” in terms of joining organizations which provide services, or which look after the community, and also in terms of voting, and perhaps even in willingness to work for candidates or even run for office.  He says that strong social capital does depend on having a community in which a considerable portion are (usually traditionally) married families with children.  He does mention “isolates”, people who sometimes do well on their own pursuing their own lives but who interact very little with others in their own community or other communities.

In a society with healthy social capital, there is strong “bonding capital” within extended families and the immediate community, and strong “bridge capital” to reach out to others in different communities or circumstances.  Both are necessary in some kind of balance.  Some religious denominations, usually the more conservative ones (such as the Mormons, and many evangelicals, as well as many Catholic dioceses) are vigorous in insisting that their members personally add to social capital. He doesn’t mention the Amish, but they would make an interesting example to study.

Murray admits that “social capital” is a difficult concept for many individualists to swallow.  By demanding time and attention to others outside the economy, it can interfere with individual creativity or productivity. It's fair for the reader who thinks he is aloof (as am I) to ask, what does this mean for me? How does Murray expect me to behave? 
He does not get into gay issues specifically (such as gay marriage).  I can only extrapolate into the logical conclusions from what he says. The government is to leave people alone. The effort to take care of needs should be localized (that sounds like Santorum’s “subsidiarity” or even the “natural family” idea, but hold on!).  “Usually”, gay people living in their own communities are not forming traditional families with children. My experience is that there has been strong “bonding capital” in facing issues like AIDS (the buddy programs that go back to the 80s) and some bridging capital with political efforts (helping candidates, sometimes running for office), but less bridging to people faced with raising children.  Eldercare is an area that could force more people to come together and develop several kinds of social capital, outside of the usual ideas of “choice” and “personal responsibility”  We know from the debate over gays in the military that gay people do bond into units much more seamlessly than people had expected.

At one point, Murray takes a swipe at entitlement programs, but mischaracterizes Social Security as a kind of wealth redistribution from the nanny state, when actually it is largely supported by worker FICA contributions (with benefits matched partially to these contributions).

He makes an interesting comment about the “proletariatization” of the values of the upper class at one point.

Here is a YouTube address by Murray from the National Center for Policy Analysis.

Update: March 17:

Richard Sincere has an Examiner article on Charles Murray and same-sex marriage, here.  "It's not a big deal".  Both Murray and Santorum are concerned about the breakdown of "social capital", but for some reason Santorum still seems focused on the physical nature of the marital relationship, as if it set an example for eveyone.

Update: Jan. 19, 2015

(Above.) Picture from Fishtown in Philadelphia, PA, personal trip today. Below, Port Richmond, a similar neighborhood on the other side of an Interstate.

Update:  August 9. 2016

Read the Vox review by Harold Pollack, "This election isn't about right vs. left; It's about 'we vs, I'", concerning the new book by Robert Punam, "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis".  I'll get the book and review it on Wordpress.  I asked Murray, on Twitter, if new book says the same things, and he says, while policy recommendations are different, on substance, "pretty much".  The new book focuses on Port Clinton, OH.

Update: March 3, 2017

Violent protests shout down Charles Murray when he tries to speak at Middlebury College, Vermont; another professor injured. 

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