Monday, February 13, 2012

Charles Murray Defines a New American Divide

Breakfast with my friend, the conservative
My friend, let’s call him Bill, a conservative and life-long Republican, provided me a copy of Charles Murray's article in the weekend (1-21-22, 2012) Wall Street Journal, "The New American Divide" (a review, really, of his book, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010"). Murray is the "W.H. Brady Scholar” at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative "think tank." Bill and I talked about Murray’s article over breakfast one cold, rainy Thursday morning in February.
Bill found Murray’s article compelling and worked hard to convince me that Murray had it right, no pun intended. I am writing this post to elaborate on the points I made (or failed to make) in that talk, during which Bill, the conservative, wolfed down bacon, eggs, hash browns, and toast; a breakfast he’s had every time we’ve breakfasted together (sometimes he adds biscuits and gravy). I had oatmeal. I’m a liberal, so sometimes I’ve had an omelet, or pancakes. Once I had a waffle.
Mr. Murray characterizes the poor
In the interests of brevity, I will pass over some of Mr. Murray's statements with which I disagree, since in my view, they are irrelevant to his main thesis, which is that there has developed in America a "new upper class" and a "new lower class," these classes are moving further apart, and the wedge driving them apart is, “changes in social policy during the 1960s.”
It is important to understand that Murray is addressing only “white America,” because, he argues, the cultural divide is “not grounded in race or ethnicity.” One might be tempted to point out that there are significant cultural differences grounded in race and ethnicity (I’m Italian-American and I can testify to this) and these differences would confound any serious attempt to analyze “America’s cultural divide” (visualize a bunch of overlapping venn diagrams).
According to Murray, the lower classes are "characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America's core cultural institutions,” which he posits are: marriage, honesty, industriousness, and religiosity. Now this statement in and of itself I’d find laughable, if I were in a laughing mood, which clearly I am not.
The poor are characterized by their state of poverty, pure and simple. They live in “the projects,” plagued by violence and drugs. Parents, often single mothers work multiple jobs, often during off-shift hours, leaving children to fend for themselves. The kids go to decrepit, cinder-block built, windowless, inner city schools that look like prisons, except for the gang graffiti, and that struggle to attract qualified teachers (read this frightening and heartbreaking description by a teacher, Frank Marrero).
The poor shop at bakery outlets and they get whatever food they can with food stamps or at food banks. The family’s health care consists of going to the emergency room when seriously injured, or too sick to tough it out. They couldn’t evacuate the Ninth Ward when Katrina hit New Orleans because too few of them could afford to own an automobile, so they stood on roof tops while we watched them die.
Mr. Murray’s class consciousness 
Now that I have that off my chest, let’s get back to Mr. Murray’s withdrawal symptoms. Are marriage, honesty, industriousness, and religiosity America’s core values? I find it surprising that a conservative like Mr. Murray would leave out liberty. For myself, I agree with how John F. Kennedy characterized America’s core values when he said, “I believe in human dignity as the source of national purpose, in human liberty as the source of national action, in the human heart as the source of national compassion, and in the human mind as the source of our invention and our ideas.
According to Mr. Murray’s data, the new lower classes are:
  • getting married much less frequently than the new upper classes (although marriage for both classes has declined);
  • they are much less honest (according to his crime rate statistics);
  • they don’t work nearly as hard; and
  • they are markedly less religious.
For Mr. Murray, these differences define the new cultures of the new upper classes and new lower classes. Now anyone who doesn’t understand that Mr. Murray is simply stating the facts (as he sees them) would suspect him of being prejudiced against the poor, and this would be unfair, because Mr. Murray is not [necessarily] prejudiced against the “lower classes,” he is prejudiced against helping the lower classes. We’ll get to that later.
Before we examine the “changes in social policy” to which Mr. Murray ascribes the expanding division between the classes, let’s examine his statements regarding the abysmal state of what he considers America’s core values in the lower classes. As conservative Republican journalist and former speechwriter for George W. Bush, David Frum, says in a review in the Daily Beast. Murray details the social problems that have burdened the working class with “remarkable – and telltale – uncuriosity as to why any of this might be happening.”
Poor people get married less frequently than people who aren’t poor. Why is that? Are they less morally upright than people who aren’t poor? Is it  because they’re less religious and therefore less morally upright? But we don’t want to conflate the issues, so let’s hold off on that proposition. Let’s instead examine the facts, which indicate that poor people get married less frequently because studies have shown that there are social and economic disincentives for them to get married.
Social barriers include marital aspirations and expectations, norms about childbearing, financial standards for marriage, the quality of relationships, an aversion to divorce, and children by other partners. Economic barriers include men's low earnings -- unemployed/under-employed men are less attractive marriage partners -- women's earnings, and the marriage tax (Edin and Reed, 2005).

I'm sure my friend, Bill, and other conservatives will be cheered by the fact that in our state, Washington, same sex couples can now be legally married.
According to Murray, violent crime has “ravaged” the lower classes, while remaining at approximately the same rate for the upper classes. If Mr. Murray would broaden his view of crime to include non-violent, so-called “white collar crime,” and look at it in terms cost instead of rate, he would find that the lower classes can’t hold a candle to the upper classes when it comes to crime.

According to the FBI, white collar crime costs the United States three hundred billion dollars annually -- that’s $300 billion every year. You don’t make that kind of money selling dime bags to college students.
The biggest criminals in America come from the upper classes, they have always come from the upper classes, new or old, and in 2008 they came very close to destroying the American economy. Some day we may actually see some of these upper class people prosecuted.
In the meantime, for the lower classes justice is swift. According to  the Equal Justice Initiative, “In America, poor people accused of crimes, even in death penalty cases, are appointed lawyers from the local bar who are often unprepared and always underpaid.” The poor are cajoled, bullied, and fooled into plea bargains by prosecutors and overwhelmed public defenders whose priority is rapid adjudication, not justice. In the United States, we may not be able to put poor people to work, but we can sure as hell put them in jail.
Let’s face it, life is tough for poor people, but if only they’d work harder it could improve, right? He becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand: but the hand of the diligent maketh rich” (King James, Proverb 10).
Murray argues that men in the “lower classes” simply aren’t making themselves “available for work.” This makes it sound as if employers are beating at the doors of the these shiftless men and being greeted with, “Leave me alone! I’m not available for work.”
But good, middle income jobs are disappearing faster than 2012 Republican presidential candidates. According to Business Insider, middle-income jobs have been replaced by low income jobs, which now make up 41% of total employment. Manufacturing has declined as a share of GDP, and productivity growth has enabled factories to produce more with fewer people. Where more people are needed, they are found in Mexico, China, the Philippines, and elsewhere than America. Although Murray’s lower class Americans are struggling, America’s “corporate citizens” are not. The Department of Commerce reports that corporate profits accounted for 14 percent of the total national income in 2010, the highest proportion ever recorded.
One of the most compelling object lessons for Americans concerned with where our labor situation is headed comes from Apple’s experience with the much admired iPhone, which is now manufactured not in America, but in China -- it’s a very scary story. 
Technological advances require higher skills. For the low-skilled, low demand has meant lower wages, both relative and absolute. This in turn reduces the incentive to find a job, especially if disability payments or a working spouse provide an income. The fact is that structural changes in rich economies have reduced the demand for all less-skilled workers. The U.S. and other G7 economies are all disadvantaged relative to the abundance of cheap labor available in many emerging economies.
In the post-industrial societies of the G7, job growth must be linked to aggressive, ahead-of-the-curve training and education programs; programs promoted by farsighted governments. When we fail to do this, we find just the situation we have today, with some 35% of 25- to 54-year-old men with no high-school diploma having no job, up from around 10% in the 1960s. Of those who finished high school but did not go to college, the fraction without work has climbed from below 5% in the 1960s to almost 25% (The Economist, 2011). Given this situation, Mr. Murray might have asked, “Are the poor poor, because they are uneducated (under-educated), or are they uneducated because they are poor?” He didn’t.
In the 1970s America was at the cutting edge of policies to get the hard-to-employ into work. Jimmy Carter’s administration experimented with wage subsidies, ran an array of training schemes and introduced a public employment program, which at its peak provided more than 700,000 jobs. But these policies were tainted by association with “big government.” Ronald Reagan scrapped them, slashed funding and reoriented training towards the private sector. America’s government today spends 60% less, after adjusting for inflation, on “active” labour-market policies than in 1980, and much less as a share of GDP than almost any other rich country. (The Economist, 2011).
In today’s bizarre political climate instead of bipartisan support for job growth programs,  Republicans thwart the President’s jobs bill, attempt to cut training and job search programs, intensify their long-running attack on unions, and promote putting school children to work as school janitors. Their solution to unemployment in the lower classes is a balanced budget amendment; something for which every unemployed American surely pines.
I could go on and on and on, but unlike Mr. Murray, I am not writing a book. The bottom line is that structural changes in rich economies like America’s could have been anticipated, and worker training and education programs could have prepared America’s workforce to succeed in the new economy, but it didn’t happen, and libertarian-leaning people like Mr. Murray would have fought government involvement in promoting structural realignment in any case. So, we are where we are, but not because Americans don’t want to work.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I hold with no organized religion. According to Mr. Murray, more Americans are leaning my way, “the U.S. as a whole has become markedly more secular since 1960,” but the decline in religious affiliation is more pronounced among the lower classes; something Mr. Murray finds, “especially worrisome.” Why?
Perhaps Mr. Murray, like Karl Marx, sees religion as “the opium of the people;” something the lower classes need as, “the heart of the heartless world.” In religion, the poor, unemployed, oppressed lower classes can be comforted by the illusion that when they die, things will get better. Well, if we leave the future of our poorer fellow Americans in the hands of libertarians like Mr. Murray, that’s about the only hope they can have.
When Catholics read that their bishops have been shuttling known pedophile priests from parish to parish like communion wafers from mouth to mouth; and evangelicals watch with horror as their pastors, like Ted Haggard, Paul Barnes, and Lonnie Latham, and most recently, Albert Odulele, confess tearfully to soliciting male prostitutes or sexually assaulting men and boys; or when the aforementioned white collar criminals are seen leaving their churches with bibles clutched prominently in their grasping hands, as Ken Lay did in 2006, it’s no wonder that people are leaving organized religion. The fact that the new lower classes are leaving faster than their new upper classes brothers and sisters may simply show that they have less need to seem morally upright.
Or maybe the poor see the absurdity in the church’s anti-choice, anti-contraception stance? Even people who aren’t college educated see the contradiction in this.
Changes in Social Policy
According to Murray, “The elites put in place a whole set of reforms which I think fundamentally changed the signals and the incentives facing low-income people and encouraged a variety of trends that soon became self-reinforcing” (Jennifer Schuessler, NYT, 2012).
As David Frum has pointed out, Murray gives us no specifics on either who “the elites” are, or just what reforms they put in place. But it’s not hard to figure this out, since Murray is a libertarian, thus by definition, anti-big government, and the 1960s saw the introduction of a plethora of large, far-reaching social programs that dramatically changed the landscape of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the disenfranchised in America.
The so-called elites referred to by Murray were scholars and experts formed into task forces by John F. Kennedy and later used, as well, by Lyndon Johnson in crafting Kennedy’s New Frontier  and then Johnson’s Great Society. These programs encompassed civil rights (Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act), poverty, education (including Head Start), health care (Social Security Act of 1965, medicare and medicaid), consumer protection, labor, and other areas of the economy and society, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. Conservatives fought these programs at their inception and forever after. We would all, not just the poor, be poorer were it not for these programs.
But Murray, although not coming right out and saying so, is leaving us with the impression that the great social justice programs of the 1960s actually resulted in a whole segment of society, the “new lower classes,” not getting married, having children out of wedlock, being uneducated/under-educated, being “unavailable” for work, and deserting the church. Why doesn’t Murray just say this? Because his data don’t support the conclusion, and any attempt to construct such an analysis, given holes in the data and all the confounding factors, would be futile.
An America Divided
America is divided, that’s clear. What’s not clear in Murray’s exposition is what really divides America. Wealth, wealth, and wealth. Anyone who doesn’t know this by now hasn’t been paying attention.
In the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. As of 2007, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 50.5%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 85%, leaving only 15% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers). And there’s been an astounding 36.1% drop in the wealth (marketable assets) of the median household since the peak of the housing bubble in 2007. By contrast, the wealth of the top 1% of households dropped by far less: just 11.1%. (Domhoff, 2011).
As Charles Krugman has pointed out, changes in tax rates have strongly favored the very, very policy has very much leaned into that growing inequality, not against it, and anyone who says otherwise should not be trusted on this issue, or any other (Krugman, 2011).
One thing that Murray says that we can agree with is that the top tier of the new upper classes “run the country.” Murray says, “they are responsible for the films and television shows you watch, the news you see and read, the fortunes of the nation’s corporations and financial institutions, and the jurisprudence, legislation and regulation produced by the government.” This is a remarkable admission by a man who decries a divided America, but seems blind to where the real division lies.

1 comment:

Richard Badalamente said...

William H. Brady (1915-1988) was a prominent Milwaukee industrialist, for many years the CEO of the W. H. Brady Company, and a founding supporter of National Review (the conservative’s mouthpiece), the Heritage Foundation (another conservative think tank), and the Ethics and Public Policy Center (a conservative advocacy group).