Arnold Kling  

Kling on Charles Murray

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So, I downloaded Coming Apart. I am not disappointed. It is well argued. In 1963,

there just wasn't that much difference between the lifestyle of a highly influential attorney or senior executive of a corporation and people who were several rungs down the ladder.

When you try to make that sort of assessment, your thinking is skewed because you may have forgotten what constituted a luxury back then. By today's standards of a luxurious lifestyle, it is easy to see the rich in 1963 as not spectacularly well off. In 1963, as Murray points out, there were no Thai restaurants in the U.S. Today, they are available to people who are "several rungs down the ladder." In 1963, nobody had a mobile phone. Today, everybody does. It could be that by 1963 standards, the rich were definitely different, and from that perspective the differences between the goods enjoyed by the rich and not-so-rich have actually shrunk. I am not claiming that the differences have shrunk, but one needs to be careful. See also Tyler Cowen.

I have more excerpts and my comments below the fold.

Later, he wants to sort consumer preferences by social class, but laments

Much of the specialized quantitative information I need about the new elite's tastes and preferences exists, but I cannot get hold of it. Everybody who sells advertising has data on the demographics of consumer preferences...but such data are proprietary

Oh, it's not that hard. There is a book called The Clustering of America by a firm that links census data with consumer preferences. The company that did that, and one of its competitors,CACI, are both willing to share enough information to be helpful. About 15 years ago, my company got a disc from CACI from which I could deduce, for example, that one of the ways to distinguish high-income zip codes was that they had the highest percentage of people who had purchased a hardback book within the past year.

Outside elite circles, there may be mild angst about whether children get into their first choice in the state university system, but no more than that. Most mainstream Americans lose no sleep whatsoever because their child's college is not in the top ten

I can think of one interesting indicator for being in the "bubble." In the nearest public high school, take the ratio of the number of seniors who will attend an Ivy League school to the number of seniors who will enter the military. Where I live, it is about 0.2. In the better parts of Montgomery County, it has to be at least 5. I would say that if it is more than 1, you are in the bubble.

In the early 1990's, Bill Gates was asked about what competitor worried him the most..."Software is an IQ business...Our competitors for IQ are investment banks."

Murray argues that between 1950 and 1960, elite colleges shifted from admitting according to social class to admitting by IQ. The irony of this is that it greatly increased social stratification. It allowed smart people to separate themselves. Murray says that smart people can learn to get along with people who are not as intellligent, but

it amounts to one of things that people are glad they have done, but did only because they had to

Overall, we are in a world where IQ matters more, where wealth is higher and hence the possibility for disparity is higher, where colleges sort more strongly on IQ than before, and where people are more likely to marry others with similar IQ levels. This makes for unprecedented stratification.

Beyond college, high-IQ people sort themselves into what Murray calls Superzips, which are zip codes that contain a concentration of people with high educational attainment and high income.

It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale professors. It is a problem if Yale professors [and others in the elite] cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers.

I keep thinking that the people designing mortgage modification programs to fix the housing market probably have never met anyone who took out, underwrote, or serviced a subprime mortgage.

Murray argues that America as we know it depends on four founding virtues: marriage, religiosity, a work ethic, and honesty. He uses slightly different terminology, and along the way I think he sneaks in community engagement. That is, he praises social trust and social capital, but sometimes he treats those as independent virtues and at other times he treats them as if they were the product of religiosity and honesty.

As you may know by now, Murray tries to enliven his statistics by describing two quasi-fictional neighborhoods, Belmont and Fishtown. I think I would have preferred just a dry presentation of real data, because what I want to be able to quote hard facts, not stylized facts.

The Coming Apart story is that since 1963 a segment at the top has left the middle class behind and a segment at the bottom has become a permanent underclass. Murray does not use a consistent definition of the top segment from one part of the book to another. Are they the top 5 percent of the income/education distribution? Are they people who live in SuperZips? Are they the people of Belmont? It is hard to keep straight.

The bottom is defined somewhat more clearly. Murray includes: men who do not earn a decent living, defined as roughly $14,000 a year (the poverty line for a household of two); women who have children without ever marrying; and people of either gender who are "isolates," meaning that they belong to no churches, clubs, or other social organizations. Although the definition may be easier, the tabulation is difficult, but Murray makes a case that this lower tier is 30 percent of the population, or more.

He documents the decline in ethics at the bottom of his scale. For example, he points out that disability claims have soared even though the proportion of jobs that would give rise to disability has fallen and even though health care has improved. This indicates a decline in the work ethic (and, yes, he does address other potential explanations).

Concerning the decline in the work ethic, I found myself wondering about the impact of (a) marginal tax rates and (b) immigration. Because of the way many social benefits are tied to (low) income, the marginal tax rate for working must be pretty high. Maybe immigrants are doing jobs that "Americans won't do" because of this high marginal tax rate. (Of course, once the immigrants get more solidly situated as citizens and figure out the marginal tax rate, they too may stop doing these jobs.)

Murray's evidence for a decline in honesty is rather weak. He looks at crime rates (which reflect a thin sliver of the population) and bankruptcy rates. However, in a later chapter, he shows a dramatic decline in favorable answers to the question "other people can be trusted" in his artificial lower-tier community. That probably is the strongest indicator of a decline in honesty.

By this point in the book, I am starting to ask myself if Murray is not simply taking values that matter to him and decorating them with sociological jargon and statistics. This is something that social scientists on the left do all the time as they "diagnose" conservatives.

One of the questions that is always in the background in reading Murray is whether today's elite is truly more isolated than the elite of the country club in 1950 or the elite of the "better church" in 1850. Murray's best defense is a quote from Theda Skocpol's Diminished Democracy to the effect that in the 1950s elites participated in local clubs and organizations (think Rotary or Kiwanis) to which ordinary people also belonged.

Murray recycles a number of statistics from Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone that show major drops in civic participation (declining PTA membership, etc.). However, Murray sees civic participation alive and well in the top tier. Where it has fallen off a cliff is in the bottom tier.

Without using the term "externality," Murray makes a case that poverty per se is not a negative externality. However, he argues that the decline in the work ethic, honesty, marriage, and religiosity are negative externalities.

Murray's solution is what he calls a "Civic Great Awakening" led by the elite. He wants the elite to "preach what they practice." The way I would put it, using terms from Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, the Vickies should speak up for their values. (But what if the thetes resent this and push back?)

He thinks that the U.S. will step back from becoming a social welfare state that trades what Deirdre McCloskey would call its "bourgeois virtues" for a European system when we see what is happening in Europe. Hmm. Perhaps the left is going to say, "Oh, gee. Europe's troubles prove that we were wrong. We surrender." But I am not holding my breath.

My favorite sentence in the book:

How in a country where most people don't need a penny of income transfers to begin with, can we spend $1.5 trillion on income transfers and still have material want?

That line stands on its own, regardless of how much of the rest of Coming Apart you buy into.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (22 to date)
ajb writes:

I think the democratization of material luxury today is part of what Murray misses. But he is right that on other margins -- namely the safety of middle class areas, the relative cultural homogeneity of life, and the homogeneity of a broad general culture (or overtures to that effect) made life good for the the working man and the true middle classes. Education was also important. Public schooling was not necessarily outstanding but it didn't require intense efforts to get your children to areas free of gangs and drugs. And at least through the early 60s, cultural expectations (pre feminism, pre multi culti) were stable for white americans. Most of all there was no big split on religion. I think the latter is not a bigger deal to writers because part of elite culture is a disdain for middle class religion.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

"How in a country where most people don't need a penny of income transfers to begin with, can we spend $1.5 trillion on income transfers and still have material want?"

I would have thought the answer was obvious -- the political economic structure -- by which I mean the cultural, sociological and institutional contexts of society. Just follow the money, and the significance of these factors will become obvious.

rpl writes:


Permit me to quote from Wikipedia:

A rhetorical question is a figure of speech in the form of a question without the expectation of a reply. Rhetorical questions encourage the listener to think about what the (often obvious) answer to the question must be.

Finch writes:

> (Of course, once the immigrants get more solidly
> situated as citizens and figure out the marginal
> tax rate, they too may stop doing these jobs.)

Because they aren't eligible for _all_ welfare benefits, perhaps they face a lower effective marginal tax rate, and that in turn drives them to accept lower wages for equivalent work?

So it's not a matter of them being stupid and taking time to figure it out; things really change in their tax situation.

Bryan Willman writes:

There are some rude conflicts and inconsistencies in this line of argument.

"Isolates" - has he ever met the people who helped Bill Gates become so rich? (And who became rich ourselves?)

"Religiosity" - to the extent that some set of shared beliefs are necessary for a society to function at all - sure. Belief in supernatural powers? Again, has he ever met the technical members of these elites?

I wonder do if "honesty" relates to "believes he or she will get a fair deal by following conventional behavoir" - if you view employment as hopeless because of low prospects and very high effective marginal rates, you might well think "work ethic" is a way to get screwed.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

If Kling's question is rhetorical, how does it rate as a "line stands on its own, regardless of how much of the rest of Coming Apart you buy into" ?

Bryan Willman writes:

somewhat responsive to:
"Concerning the decline in the work ethic, I found myself wondering about the impact of (a) marginal tax rates "

(I suspect Arnold meant "implicit marginal tax rates" and very much knows this.)

See the chart McArdle includes in:

Incentives work, even perverse ones.

There's a kind of economic hydrofoil effect here. If you are doing well enough to be "up on the wing" you can go fast (do well) with relatively stable energy input, and adding effort yields good results. If you cannot get "up on the wing" you will really struggle, and may never have enough energy to get to the hyrdofoil to fly.

Mark Michael writes:

Re: honesty/behavior of the lower classes - indications

No mention is made that in the 1950s - 1960s only 250,000 or so were incarcerated in all of our prisons, jails, lock-ups. Today, it's 2.3 million. If you adjust for population growth, there are still around 7 times as many incarcerated today as then. Now, presumably some of those are there because of harsher drug laws, but not 7 times that many. (Perhaps this is mentioned in Murray's new book; I haven't read it, yet.)

Murray does discuss a "virtual crime rate" in one of his books: if you released the least-dangerous of the incarcerated until the same percentage were incarcerated today as in the 1960s, what would the crime rate be? Presumably, it would balloon, since many have a long string of arrests before they are incarcerated.

Most incarcerated are from the lower-income groups that live in Murray's "Fishtown." This, for me, is a measure that also supports Murray's contention about the prevalence of honesty.

Eddy Elfenbein writes:

The problem is that not standing up for bourgeois has itself become a status symbol.

This was best captured by Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities. The low status DA overhears his English nanny say, "The colored don't know how good they've got it in this country."

Until then, he and his wife had believed the perfect, perky Englishwoman was their better. Wolfe writes:

Thank God in heaven! What a relief! They could let their breaths out now. Miss Efficiency was a bigot. These days the thing about bigotry was, it was undignified. It was a sign of Low Rent origins, of inferior social status, of poor taste. So they were the superiors of their English baby nurse, after all.

What a (deleted) relief.

Mercer writes:

"most people don't need a penny of income transfers to begin with, can we spend $1.5 trillion on income transfers and still have material want?"

He defines lower class as under 14k a year. Does he think people earning under 14k have no problem finding housing?

ed writes:

I haven't read the book, but I'm concerned that Murray might be making a fundamental statistical error when comparing 'Belmont' and 'Fishtown.'

Consider another well known fallacy: Say there are two countries, country A (rich) and country B (poor). Now assume that some of the most capable people from country emigrate from country B to country A in order to earn higher wages. It can easily be the case that AVERAGE wages in BOTH counties go down, even though no individual has lower wages than before. It is also quite possible that the gap between the average wages in the two countries increases.

I wonder if something like this isn't going on in Murray's story. As more and more middle-class people attended college, it is as if many of the most capable/responsible people from Fishtown "moved" to Belmont. This could lower the average levels in both "tribes", and also increase the gap between them, even if there was nothing more going on than increasing college attendance.

Maybe something like this explains part of the story. Does Murray account for this effect?

AJ writes:

My favorite sentence in the book:

How in a country where most people don't need a penny of income transfers to begin with, can we spend $1.5 trillion on income transfers and still have material want?

ARNOLD, Break it down further. Add the social program spending to the $1.5 and you have what, at least $2.3 trillion to "help people" like poor people. Next, how many people are poor or needy? 10% of the U.S. 15%??? If you say 45 million people, then the social spending is $51,600 per capita or $155,000/year for a family of three.


kiwi dave writes:

I haven’t read Murray’s book yet; I do wonder though, if maybe you and Murray are both right — I think it’s fair to say that over the last 50 years (contra the increased academic and popular focus on growing income inequality) the upper tribe and lower tribe have come a lot closer in their basic material living standards, and for that reason, class distinctions are shown much more by cultural, intellectual and recreational and culinary etc. choices than by overall economic living standards.

[cross-posted from MR]

Steve Sailer writes:

By the way, can you think of a prominent name in the news who has lived in the real Belmont, MA for the last 40 years

Steve Sailer writes:


Good question. The answer is that, yes, Murray looks at the classes both defined in absolute terms (education and occupation) and in relativistic terms (top 20% v. bottom 30%). Similar trends are seen under both methodologies, perhaps not as extreme in relativistic terms, but still quite similar.

Mark Little writes:


Thank you for the review.

I haven't read Coming Apart yet, but from the reviews I've see it sounds like this is Murray's effort to document the coming to pass of the result he and Herrnstein warned of in The Bell Curve.

As I recall of my reading of it 15 years or so ago, a central concern of Herrnstein and Murray was that stratification of the cognitive elite leads to a ruling upper class that rigs the system in their favor, yielding a system of complex rules and regulations, favorable to the employment of lawyers, etc., but in which the less cognitively able are disadvantaged.

This strikes me as closely related to the theme of Unchecked and Unbalanced. You stress the growing dispersion of specialized knowledge, in contrast to the concentration of power. This is true--greater specialization and more detailed articulation of the division of labor goes with economic growth and technological advancement. (In a sense, 'high tech' is just another way of referring to a high degree of indirection and specialization in production, or to more complex PSST, as we might call it. The wonders of science and modern engineering are themselves largely the product of the increasingly elaborated PSST.)

But the important knowledge in society has always been dispersed, and concentration of power has always been a problem and has always lead to destructive results. The more fundamental question is what drives the growing concentration of power today, and here I think the Herrnstein and Murray story helps to inform the Unchecked story.

From your review, it sounds like Murray is now taking a more conventionally conservative view of the social disfunction he documents. If so, that's unfortunate. He might have done better to bring in the Unchecked and Unbalanced perspective.

@Eddy Elfenbein:

You raise a very good point. I seem to remember Herrnstein and Murray also addressing this. Somewhere they point out that while the Cognitive Elite gain status by flaunting bourgeois conventions (in superficial ways) and can get away with this, the non-elite cannot, and imitating the anti-bourgeois values that the upper class appear to espouse lead in the poor to disaster. (Or something like that; those we not their words.)

mike shupp writes:

Been a bit more than 40 years, but back in the 1960's, Belmont's most noteworthy citizen was probably Robert Welch. Belmont was the home of the John Birch Society.

sconzey writes:

Your point about marginal tax rates struck me directly a couple of days ago. The UK government wants to put a cap on benefits, so the total amount claimed by a household cannot exceed the UK median wage.

The BBC did a news story on a fellow who had seven kids, and had been out of work for over a decade, giving his weekly receipt and expenditure. I shoved his weekly benefits into a UK tax calculator and worked out that it corresponded to a pretax income of £42 000 a year, which isn't a mile away from what I earn as a financial software developer.

There is no way a guy who's been out of work for over a decade could get a job that pays that well, particularly in Wales, so the rational thing for him to do is to sit at home watching Sky. Which he does.

Floccina writes:

I agree with AJ when you divide the amount spent by the number of poor people the result is amazing. The problem is most of the outlay goes to the not poor. SS pays more to those who earned more. The middle class and rich send their children to public schools when they could put them in private for less that what the Government schools spend.

J writes:

There is no need to fear USA's new IQ based class stratification. The same system was practiced in China for centuries and it worked quite nicely. the British Empire was also run by an elite selected through IQ exams, and it was well run. Moreover, in spite of the efforts of the upper class to stabilize itself and become permanent, it never happened. The upper class never replaces itself and it has to be fed from below. Like the candle, it burns brightly on the top but it is fed by the tallow in its base.

Derek Scruggs writes:
I keep thinking that the people designing mortgage modification programs to fix the housing market probably have never met anyone who took out, underwrote, or serviced a subprime mortgage.

I thought it's supposed to be a bad thing that Barack Obama was once a community organizer...

FreeDem writes:
The Clustering of America

Which came out, what, two or three decades ago? Is there any current data that's publicly available?

Does Murray try to address one of the biggest obstacles facing Putnam style obsessions with social capital: most studies of social capital, civic engagement and religiosity tend to find they are correlated with poorer, less economically vibrant geographies?

It seems Murray's new social elite exhibit social conservatism/traditionalism (hard work, marriage) without the need for the traditional institutions (church and fraternal organizations) or being rooted to a place (I'm guessing they are more likely to hop around, from Chicago to NYC to LA, than the underclass).

Seems like this could end up with a very Strauss-ian conclusion that the elites don't need the "crutch" of religion but it's necessary to control "the masses."

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