Bryan Caplan  

An Optimist's Take on Charles Murray's Coming Apart

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On Friday, I read Charles Murray's new book, Coming Apart: The State of White American, 1960-2010, cover to cover.  Murray's given the world another social science page turner, written with earnest eloquence and full of fascinating information.  His main claim: Class divisions in fundamental values have vastly expanded over the last half century.  College graduates in high-IQ occupations aren't just doing well economically; they continue to practice the Founding Virtues of marriage, industry, honesty, and religion.  The working class, in contrast, has fallen apart.  Never mind their stagnant wages; they've almost completely lost touch with the Founding Virtues that allow college graduates to live successful, meaningful lives. 

Murray admits that America before 1960 was, by today's standards, poor and boring.  But he's deeply depressed by what we've become.  Middle America is falling apart - and elites are too busy navel-gazing to notice.

I learned a lot from Murray's book.  But it's a classic case of glass-half-empty thinking.  His results on the white working class didn't surprise me.  I already knew that their marriage rates were way down, their divorce rates were way up, their kids growing up in broken homes.  And I knew that lots of working class men dropped out of the labor force long before the last big downturn.  What I didn't realize was that college grads have been almost completely immune to these changes.

Take divorce.  Between 1960 and 1980, Murray shows that working class whites' divorce/separation rate rose from about 5% to about 15%.*  The trend continued: Between 1980 and 2010, it rate rose from 15% to 35%.  Elites saw a parallel rise between 1960 and 1980: from about 1% to about 7.5%.  No big surprise there, either.  The shocker: the elite divorce/separation rate has been flat for the last thirty years.  The same goes for kids growing up in broken homes: steady increase for the working class, low plateau for elites.  Murray actually shows that the percentage of elites in happy marriages has sharply rebounded, while the percentage of the working class in happy marriages has crashed from almost 60% to about 25%.

Murray repeatedly laments that American elites refuse to "preach what they practice."  Elites are the spiritual heirs of Ozzie and Harriet.  Their values lead to successful, meaningful lives.  But they sadly lack the courage to loudly share their winning formula. 

It's an excellent point.  I've long argued that we should humbly emulate successful people instead of giving them the evil eye.  But all things considered, traditionalists should be delighted by Murray's results.  Consider:

1. Contrary to popular perception, American elites still embody the Founding Virtues.
2. American elites' resistance to the Founding Virtues is largely a fraud.  They're Puritans in Unitarian garb.
3. The amazing success of American elites confirms that the Founding Virtues continue to work.  The more the economy and society change, the more the formula for success stays the same.

The upshot: Traditionalists don't have to sell an ancient, alien lifestyle to get the whole country back on track.  They don't have to convert a radically hostile elite.  They need to bury the hatchet - to embrace the elite and boost its self-confidence.  Then traditionalists and elites can join hands and preach the Good News of bourgeois virtue. 

I'm not kidding.  If Murray is right, traditionalists need to forget populism.  Their "cultural differences" with the elite are largely cosmetic.  Elites are the answer to traditionalists' prayers.  They work hard, avoid trouble, get married, and give their kids a good home.  The sooner everyone realizes this, the better.

* The sample is limited to ever-married non-widowed whites aged 30-49.  See Murray's text (or this primer) for how he classifies people as working class ("Fishtown") and elite ("Belmont").



COMMENTS (22 to date)
nazgulnarsil writes:

Most divorces are initiated by women. And who can blame them with the strong incentives provided to them by law? Without negative social repercussions women have no reason not to take full advantage of the current state of marriage law.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I don't see where the religion part comes in. Data I have seen from 2007 show a one percent decline in church attendance is corrolated with an $900 increase in annual income. None of my peer white college-educated elites of recent vintage regularly attend church. And the gay ones are doing pretty well despite none actually being married...

Zac Gochenour writes:

"3. The amazing success of American elites confirms that the Founding Virtues continue to work."

Elites have high IQs and high conscientiousness, which very plausibly cause success in work and relationships. What's the evidence that "founding virtues" has anything to do with their success, as opposed to just being smart and hardworking?

MS writes:

(i) I second the comment by Zac; there is no good evidence that there is a causal effect from traditionalist living to good outcomes. Correlation, sure, but not more than that.

(ii) Based on all your writings that what parent do does not matter much, you still keep coming back to the virtues of the "nuclear family". Why is that so different? If it does not matter, almost at all, what parents try do to as "do-good-parents", why does it matter if a child is raised by two parents living together or not?

[My hypothesis: After controlling for background factors (i.e. well-educated and smart people are less likely to divorce) it does not make a significant difference to a childs life outcomes if being raised by two divorced parents or by the same parents in a "nuclear family"].

Hugh writes:

From my reading of Murray's earlier "The Bell Curve" I am afraid that your optimism may be misplaced: the problem is not that the elites are doing well (that's fine) but that the distance between the top and the rest is increasing, and will continue to increase, in part due to poor lifestyles adopted by the white working class.

I am very much looking forward to reading this book. Amazon is only releasing it on January 31, so I guess you must have got an early copy.

Mordatar writes:

Maybe liberals, who I think you have in mind when you say they should preach what they practice, are more libertarian and don't feel that they should "preach" anything, but tolerate all forms of living.
Anyway, I hardly think that anybody "preaches" divorce, dishonesty and laziness (many people preach an atheistic worldview, and I can bet that liberals are overrepresented in that group).

Leonard writes:
But they sadly lack the courage to loudly share their winning formula.
Which is to be at least one standard deviation up in inborn IQ and conscientiousness? I can see why they don't share that.

They do at least affect to believe that success is not inborn at all, but all due to "education" -- and they do indeed try to share this formula. Thus, the ongoing push to send every child to preschool, and to college, even the imbeciles.

The Snob writes:

In 1960 the value in both economic and status terms of an elite husband or working-class husband with a high school diploma were high. He could probably make a decent paycheck to support the family, and being a spinster or singke mother made you a social pariah.

In 2010 the economic and status benefits of an "elite" husband are still very high. The working class one, much less so on both counts. You're already working full time anyway, so the lifestyle change is less shocking than for a SAHM, which a woman with a high earning husband is more likely to be.

I respect Murray's methods, I'll be interested to see the book.

Floccina writes:

First to those above comments there is evidence that divorce reduces income and economic well being.

2 possible problems with the data:

1. More people go to college now so some included in the elites now would have been in the lower group in the past raising the lower groups rates of the good things mentioned.

2. Elites may not be getting divorced but they also may not be marrying.

@The Snob
It seems that democrats are on a crusade to turn our relatively poor people into middle class people whether the relatively poor people want it or not and they are willing to spend a lot of money on it. You seldom hear them say that maybe the relatively poor people would rather not do school work and live with less money than to spend their youth studying stuff that they find rather boring.

Mercer writes:

" elites' resistance to the Founding Virtues is largely a fraud. They're Puritans in Unitarian garb. "

I think a puritan would not have premarital sex. This does not describe most college grads I know.

Richard writes:
On Friday, I read Charles Murray's new book, Coming Apart: The State of White American, 1960-2010, cover to cover.
Did you really read a whole 416 page book cover to cover in one day? I'm pretty smart, but that's impressive.

Also, "America" not *"America"

Evan writes:

@Zac Gochenour

Elites have high IQs and high conscientiousness, which very plausibly cause success in work and relationships. What's the evidence that "founding virtues" has anything to do with their success, as opposed to just being smart and hardworking?
IQ and conscientiousness are highly hereditable, but that heritability is nowhere near 100%. Living in a culture that values hard work and intelligence would encourage people to develop those attributes.

@Mercer

I think a puritan would not have premarital sex. This does not describe most college grads I know.
I think that's why Bryan put the qualifier "largely" in there. Modern elite culture has done a good job of taking the "good/useful" aspects of bourgeois/puritanical virtues while eliminating the "stupid/bad" aspects. They still value things like hard work and commitment, but have realized that modern contraceptives have rendered premarital sex harmless, and that a moderate amount of divorce is socially useful.

Bryan never offers an explanation for why elites are so resistant to preaching their traditional virtues, but you've given me a good idea as to why they might be. I think they tend to think that such virtues are "package deals" and that you can't preach the "good parts" without also endorsing the "bad parts." You can't preach hard work without also endorsing anhedonic anti-premarital sex memes. You can't preach that maybe you should try some other alternatives before divorcing without also endorsing the idea that "divorce is always bad no matter what." The elites refuse to preach the useful Founding Virtues because they're scared of being confused with the sanctimonious people who preach twisted, useless, and harmful exaggerations of those virtues (i.e. religious fundamentalists).

So it seems like the best way to make Murray happy would be too find some way to decouple the "good" values from the "bad" ones in the popular mindset, so that people can preach them without fear of being confused for odious social conservatives.

@MS

(ii) Based on all your writings that what parent do does not matter much, you still keep coming back to the virtues of the "nuclear family". Why is that so different? If it does not matter, almost at all, what parents try do to as "do-good-parents", why does it matter if a child is raised by two parents living together or not?
I think Bryan probably thinks that living with two parents will increase the short term happiness a child will experience while they are living with their parents, which is a valuable thing even if it has no long term effects on them. To make an analogy, taking a bath today is a good thing to do, even though that particular bath won't make you clean next year.

Richard writes:

*"American"

NZ writes:

Bryan, you wrote that Murray's book confirms that the following things are true, and thus these should be reasons for optimism:

1. Contrary to popular perception, American elites still embody the Founding Virtues.
2. American elites' resistance to the Founding Virtues is largely a fraud. They're Puritans in Unitarian garb.
3. The amazing success of American elites confirms that the Founding Virtues continue to work. The more the economy and society change, the more the formula for success stays the same.
I think most conservatives' pessimism isn't rooted in doubts about whether these things are true ("Well of course they're true, we've been saying that all along!"), but in doubts about whether many people will continue to listen to or care about these truths.

QP writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Yenrab writes:

So why doesn't this actually work?

I am a college grad with a professional degree, married to the same woman for 25+ years, regular church-goer, who stays in touch with neighbors and friends, following Murray's formula for success.

On top of that I am a self-employed Republican.

But I am doing less well year after year for the past few years, economically, and I have to count pennies just to get by these days.

What's more, even though I have never been a Libertarian, Ron Paul is starting to look better and better to me every day, and that fact is really scaring me.

Somewhere there is a path to success in life, but I don't see how it is revealed fully in Charles Murray's monograph.


Floccina writes:

@Yenrab

Nothing works for everyone. Since you are intelligent and disciplined (graduated from college and married 25 years) you could try this:

http://ymoyl.wordpress.com/

I bet that you do well in the long run anyway but there are rare cases with high medical bills or other uncontrollables where some will not do well despite having he virtues mentioned. I hope that you do well.

ohwilleke writes:

The observation that the last thirty years have held the upper middle class harmless, while punishing the working class is certainly true.

The observation that there is a not insubstantial cultural divide sometimes described as "Blue State" and "Red State" cultures with different publicly espoused values is also true.

But, economics and the relentless reality that even people who are conventionally disparaged for being unenlightened very consistently respond accurately to the incentives that they face given their circumstances seems to be something that Murray is giving too little credit.

It may sound cynical, but one of the best predictors of marital stability is economic dependence. Stagnant income prospects, declining job security, loss of health insurance, and relatively frequent bouts of unemployment in a non-college educated husband make it less feasible to be dependent upon him; so do improved job prospects for women who as noted above, usually need to have full time jobs anyway. An absence of meaningful property accumulation to divide, or potential to pay alimony also makes the economic cost of divorce (and the economic need for marriage) much smaller.

Upper middle class wives can safely rely on their husbands' reliable income, job security, continous supply of health insurance benefits, and very infrequent and brief unemployment, so they face less economic risk by taking time to be homemakers for an extended period when they have children. Steadily improving economic circumstances as the upper middle class wins all new economic growth in the economy is good for happiness too.

Even more importantly, the economic penalty in the form of reduced income potential that a college educated woman in a profession that requires college attendance pays for taking extended time off to be a homemaker with young children is immense, relative to working class women in far less skilled work who suffer little or no lost income potential from taking some time off to have and raise young children (waitresses and receptionists don't earn premium pay for experience, lawyers and business chiefs do). Even if a college educated couple starts out with equal income potentials and a commitment to equality, once a college educated woman makes the leap of trust to stay home for a few years, that equality of income potential is irrevocably lost, and the economic dependence that holds marriages together comes into being. Societies where having kids reduces your income potential even more than it does in upper middle class America, like Japan, have fewer out of wedlock births and fewer divorces. Societies where there are fewer economic penalties for having kids like Sweden, have more out of wedlock births and more divorces.

Also, in the last three decades, work done by working class people, like factory work and rote book keeping and telephone switchboard operating, has been much more succeptible to outsourcing and required fewer workers due to technological advances, while upper middle class hasn't been nearly so vulnerable to these developments.

Furthermore, the liberal commitment to meritocracy in education has also allowed the upper middle class to incorporate and co-opt a lot of smart people who otherwise would have become uneducated but smart entrapreneurs, union leaders, journalists, and so on. Working class work has be deskilled in part because the people who would have been working class workers in the past have now earned degrees and been promoted to junior management, while young middle class men who could have once gotten by with charitably granted gentleman's Cs while they partied and networked in college are no longer indulged to the same extent and often fail to earn their degrees (the college drop out rate approaches 50% overall and is higher at less selective schools).

While the values divide does exist, it persists as much as a symptom of the different economic circumstances that people face as anything deeper. The maxim that hope is the best contraceptive is empirically valid; women with bright economic futures if they play by the rules are much more likely to postpone child bearing and insist on marriage than women who have little chance due to poor academic abilities or personal circumstances of getting a college degree, landing an economically successful husband that they can depend upon economically, or even finishing high school, and so the culture has to find some way to deal with that reality. "Family values" is more stirring to people for whom a marriage falling apart because it has no economic substance and relies of cultural norms and love alone to survive than it is for people who can afford to take marital stability for granted due to their economic circumstances.

Working long hours to accumulate savings looks less sensible if the probability of losing those savings during a bout of unemployment or underemployment before it can be spent leaving you no better off and probably forcing you into bankruptcy is great rather than remote. Insecurity of employment as much as stagnant wages, in particular, can discourage savings in easy to seize bank accounts, economic risk taking by wives in marriages, and can make all sorts of other "Founding Values" irrational. And, no amount of personal virtue will prevent you from losing your job at a factory if your employer moves the work to China or Mexico. "Founding virtues" are rational only if your individual work efforts will reliably translate into significant rewards.

James A Donald writes:

The reason the elite does not preach what they practice is the same as the reason it is impossible to discuss, or even accurately report, black and hispanic disfunction (try getting foreclosures by race, or accurate statistics on fatherlessness)

We are ruled by an overclass/underclass alliance, thus underclass behaviors are purportedly high status. Members of the elite gain status by pretending to sexual behavior characteristic of the underclass, hence the fact that they behave as born again Christians are supposed to behave, (but don't) is a shameful and furtive secret, much as the fact that they don't trust blacks to refrain from violence and theft, nor expect blacks to be capable of understanding or speaking complex sentences, is a shameful and furtive secret.

Thus we see members of the overclass having sex change procedures for what are quite obviously status reasons, for example a female claiming to be a male homosexual, and then practicing monogamy, enthusiastically engaging in political transexualism, but not actual sexual transexualism.

JayMan writes:

I wrote a response to Murray's article summarizing this book over at HBD chick's blog. I still have yet to read the book (and I suppose that now I will), but the basic gist of my response was very similar to what posters Zac Gochenour and MS stated, and goes something like this this:

1. New opportunities that have opened up for talented people (and the new importance of signalling this talent) means that the classes are now more genetically stratified than they were in the past. The higher classes are now overwhelmingly composed of genetic elite and the lower classes have been largely stripped of such talent.

2. As ohwilleke points out, there has been massive erosion of manufacturing and other well-paying blue collar jobs that were the bread and butter of those with middling IQ. This has eroded the middle class, widening the divide between the extremes.

3. Part of the reason that the underclasses suffer from greater social ills today is because the lowest class has a considerably lower average IQ today than they once did, thanks to 1. & 2.

4. Cultural changes—primarily women's liberation and the sexual revolution—have altered the landscape with respect to marriage and family. Not only is marriage no longer a prerequisite for sex and childrearing, it makes less economic sense today, as ohwilleke beautifully explains it:

But, economics and the relentless reality that even people who are conventionally disparaged for being unenlightened very consistently respond accurately to the incentives that they face given their circumstances seems to be something that Murray is giving too little credit.

It may sound cynical, but one of the best predictors of marital stability is economic dependence. Stagnant income prospects, declining job security, loss of health insurance, and relatively frequent bouts of unemployment in a non-college educated husband make it less feasible to be dependent upon him; so do improved job prospects for women who as noted above, usually need to have full time jobs anyway. An absence of meaningful property accumulation to divide, or potential to pay alimony also makes the economic cost of divorce (and the economic need for marriage) much smaller.

5. As you've pointed out in your response to MS, "broken homes" and single motherhood aren't necessarily the causes of the problems suffered by the lower classes in and of themselves, for the reasons you noted.

6. For the same reason, elites do well because, as Zac noted, "Elites have high IQs and high conscientiousness, which very plausibly cause success in work and relationships."

7. As HBD chick notes, the "founding virtues" that Murray describes aren't really "American", they are more accurately NW European ones, values of people who went down a special historical and evolutionary path.

Breck Jack writes:

Caplan correctly sees a silver lining: the propaganda that elites are un-American degenerates is clearly hogwash. But the country still has a problem. Stats show that the more education you have, the more likely you are to be a Democrat and the less likely you are to call yourself a conservative. You can live in accordance with traditional values, yet still think a healthcare mandate is a good idea, for example. Or higher income tax rates. Or cuts in the defense budget. Is Mr. Caplan really ready to embrace people with left wing views just because they tend to have traditional lifestyles?

Abelard Lindsey writes:

Caplan's suggestion of an alliance between social conservatives and the so-called cognitive elite would not work. The social conservatives are more obsessed with promulgating a particular religion/ideology than they are with particular character traits.

For example, note the social conservatives' hostility towards Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate despite the fact he is the living embodiment of the family values they claim to profess.

Also, consider that the social conservatives are well aware that a person can be of good character (work ethic, future time orientation, etc.) and yet have no interest or involvement in religion.

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