Bryan Caplan  

Murray's WSJ Solutions for the Formerly-Known-As-Working Class

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If Coming Apart is right, what should we do?  Charles Murray already proposed one frankly bizarre set of solutions in the NYT.  Now he offers a rather different set of solutions in the WSJ.  Or to be precise, one solution. 

At first, Murray sounds like he's going to push my recommendation: Drastic cuts in the welfare state.
Whether because of support from the state or earned income, women became much better able to support a child without a husband over the period of 1960 to 2010. As women needed men less, the social status that working-class men enjoyed if they supported families began to disappear. The sexual revolution exacerbated the situation, making it easy for men to get sex without bothering to get married. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that male fecklessness bloomed, especially in the working class.
But no:

I barely mentioned these causes in describing our new class divide because they don't make much of a difference any more. They have long since been overtaken by transformations in cultural norms. That is why the prolonged tight job market from 1995 to 2007 didn't stop working-class males from dropping out of the labor force, and it is why welfare reform in 1996 has failed to increase marriage rates among working-class females. No reform from the left or right that could be passed by today's Congress would turn these problems around.

If Murray doesn't advocate cuts in the welfare state, what is his one solution?  Increasing stigma:

The prerequisite for any eventual policy solution consists of a simple cultural change: [R]easonably healthy working-age males who aren't working or even looking for work, who live off their girlfriends, families or the state, must once again be openly regarded by their fellow citizens as lazy, irresponsible and unmanly. Whatever their social class, they are, for want of a better word, bums.

To bring about this cultural change, we must change the language that we use whenever the topic of feckless men comes up. Don't call them "demoralized." Call them whatever derogatory word you prefer. 

Unlike Murray's "solutions" in the NYT, raising stigma focuses on the real problem - the dysfunctional formerly-known-as-working class, instead of the near-model citizens of the professional class.  And I can easily believe that a widespread increase in stigma would improve dysfunctional male behavior.  So far, so good.

Unfortunately, Murray is far too quick to dismiss complementary policy changes.  Imagine the welfare state were completely abolished.  Does Murray really think that this wouldn't make it considerably harder for lazy men to sponge off the women in their lives?  Convince a lot of men to swallow their pride and take a low-wage job?  Change the way that women look at a macho but habitually unemployed man?  And that's only the short-run impact.  In the medium-run, what's socially typical changes what's socially acceptable.  Murray has been wisely saying so for decades.  Why on earth should he fatalistically assume that this interaction only moves in one direction?  I say that cutting welfare is a great way to reinvigorate the word "bum."

Murray might object that he never claimed that policy changes are useless, merely that "No reform from the left or right that could be passed by today's Congress would turn these problems around."  But "turning these problems around" is a silly standard.  At this point, we should be happy to moderately reduce dysfunctional working class behavior - or simply prevent their dysfunctions from getting even worse.  Consider: There's no reason to think that name-calling would "turn these problems around" either.  But that's neither here nor there: We shouldn't make the best an enemy of the good.

It's possible that Murray agrees with me, but thinks that cutting the welfare state is too politically remote to bother mentioning.  After all, he merely dismisses reforms "that could be passed by today's Congress," not reform per se.  If so, Murray ought to be clearer.  If policy reform would work if tried, why not say so?  Yes, it's a long shot.  But so is an exogenous upsurge in moral outrage against feckless men.

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COMMENTS (22 to date)
Thomas DeMeo writes:

Take someone in the professional class and put them in a society where much of what currently makes their life healthy is gone, and they might deteriorate morally too.

For example, if Brian wasn't in his bubble, but rather was born in a small rural village in Afghanistan, his considerable skills might be of little use, while his pacifist predisposition might make it difficult for him to compete against other males in the village.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Here is my comment that appears also at the WSJ:

There may be a simpler and more specific diagnosis:

At the various economic and social levels of our "society" ask the following questions, note the detail and alacrity (or slowness) in the answers:

What are your rights?
What are your obligations?
What do you teach your children about their rights?
What do you teach your children about their obligations.
Do your children know their rights?
Do your children know their obligations?

Do not pin the "obligations" to society or family - just as a general motivation in living.

B.B. writes:

Murray, like others, looks at half the problem. As the old saying goes, it takes two to tango.

So why focus on the issues with men, and ignore women? Men's behavior has changed (dropping out of the labor force, sponging off of women). But haven't women's behaviors changed also? Have not new women's behaviors enabled and even encouraged the change in men's behaviors?

Murray wants to change social norms, bring back stigma, bring back shaming, bring back judgementalism. For men only? What about for women?

Would all the pathological behavior for men that Murray observes continue if women:

-- did not feel free to have children out of wedlock?

-- did not get government checks by having children out of wedlock?

-- did not see a problem with shacking up with a man for convenience?

-- did not act promiscuously but confined sex to marriage?

-- did not have access to easy divorce and a court system which gave custody to mothers while imposed financial burdens on men?

-- no longer got affirmative action programs in schools and hiring, Title IX privileges, class action lawsuits against all supposed discrimination?

-- no longer had an academic establishment and legal system which aggressively attacked men for supposed sexual harassment and implicitly labeled men potential rapists? (Visit a modern college to see what I mean.)

A working class man can no longer win a life-long wife and acquire a family by being a diligent worker and a loyal spouse. He may, however, get a lot of sex by being a free-spirited stud who plays the field and has no financial obligations.

When you change the rules by which young working class men can acquire sex, their behavior changes. You don't have to be Darwin, Freud, or Skinner to get that.

I think Murray was afraid to make these points. He got blasted by taking on race a few years, and he has the "progressives" going after him for his criticisms of he welfare state; he doesn't want the feminists going after him also.

Collin writes:

Maybe Murray solutions ultimately fail because it is 1960 that is the historical oddity left over from the WWII destruction.

1) He focuses on local solutions that the local elite should both enforce the rules and offers benefits for the right choices. If a 18 year old boy got a 16 year girl "in trouble" then the local elite (probably through the church), would have a shotgun wedding with a matching union card. That local solution no longer exists and people don't expect to stay in the same neighbor they grew up in.

2) Except for 1950 - 1965, when in history was it expected that a man of 22ish have started a career, be married and have children? Look at when average age of men being married in the 1890's, it was past 25 years old. It seems the solution may be to have men get married later after they start a successful career. Maybe increase college participation? :)

3) Is there really in a crisis? Outside of single motherhood, most other social numbers are on the decline. (ie murder and violent crime, teenage pregenacy, divorce, etc.)

4) Lastly, did union signal to potential young workers that they work hard that they would be taken care of?


Emily writes:

Is he wrong that "welfare reform in 1996 has failed to increase marriage rates among working-class females"? That seems like the crucial line here.

blink writes:

Compared to meaningfully influencing endogenous variables like "stigma" and "status" makes eliminating the welfare state or other drastic policy action seem almost likely. Probably you are right that reducing/eliminating welfare would increase stigma, but I would not want to bank on it; reputation mechanisms are simply too complex. Why is it that theorists like Murray (stigmatize fecklessness) and Cowen (raise the status of scientists) turn away from hard-to-control policy levers in favor of impossible-to-control social levers? I do not understand.

Tom West writes:

Wouldn't the abolition of welfare produce a society where a substantial proportion of the populace feel that they would be better off destroying the current political system.

Unless he's willing to follow it with the usual prescription of pre-emptive suppression of the poor to prevent forced redistribution (i.e. uprisings, etc.), why does he expect the population to accept facing starvation, etc. peacefully when they're well enough armed to change the game entirely.

It's never wise to raise the stakes too high at a chess game when at least one side carries a knife.

Arthur writes:

Maybe I'm wrong, but i thought he was talking about the problem of lower marriage rates.

That is the problem no reform can solve.

I does not mean that the reforms can't make society better off.

Jack writes:

This new reality is not at all surprising if you think of the basic micro labor-leisure tradeoff problem. With greater leisure (including unmarried sex, but much more) and a lower cost of living (except for status goods), it is not surprising many men choose (much) more leisure and less work. It is sensible, and not necessarily lazy, so I doubt stigma would work. Reducing the social safety net for healthy young men might help, but could it not instead encourage them to turn to a life of crime? I do not see an easy answer.

Mercer writes:

If you cut welfare more a likely result would be more abortions. Would conservatives accept that?

Notice the Murray and Caplan do not even consider trying to boost low skilled males income through things like trade or immigration policy. If an AEI donor had stagnant income I think AEI employees would offer more policy suggestions then stigma.

Low skilled white males are not stupid. They can tell that policymakers through immigration, trade, affirmative action, divorce and custody laws are screwing them. The fact that they are working and marrying less should not surprise anyone. You get what you pay for.

Mark Michael writes:

I also suspect that Murray limits his recommendation to "social stigma" for the reasons Caplan says in his last para.:

"It's possible that Murray agrees with me, but thinks that cutting the welfare state is too politically remote to bother mentioning. After all, he merely dismisses reforms "that could be passed by today's Congress," not reform per se. If so, Murray ought to be clearer. If policy reform would work if tried, why not say so? Yes, it's a long shot. But so is an exogenous upsurge in moral outrage against feckless men."

When he published The Bell Curve in 1994, it generated a firestorm of criticism because he assessed minorities in a separate part of the book (maybe 4 chapters out of 22), which implied that blacks might have lower IQs than the general population. The general message of the book was lost on elite liberals as a consequence, who dominate our public discourse.

I'd like to see the phasing out of our 130+ federal welfare programs over a reasonable period of time myself. Let the 50 states each decide what level of government welfare they think appropriate. The transition process is critical, I think, given the politics involved. My thought would be to do it fairly quickly: 4 years to keep it within a single presidential term. Maybe cut it 25% and block grant the other 75% to the states with a lot of the red tape reduced the first year. Then another 25% cut the 2nd year & less red tape. After 4 years, the states would be on their own.

Most states have balanced budget amendments, so they'd be forced to raise taxes or reduce benefits. (Can't borrow it from the Chinese and Japanese anymore!)

The voting public would support this kind of approach, I'd think, although they might be unwilling to tell a pollster that. The 1996 welfare reform act was quite popular, which is why Clinton signed it over against the outrage from his more liberal advisers.

Seth writes:

I may be over-interpreting Murray, but I think he may be saying that such policy change won't be politically possible until irresponsible behavior is once again viewed by society as such.

He's just saying that it's more effective to change the cultural norms than to lead by legislation, no?

IVV writes:

Isn't irresponsible behavior actually viewed as irresponsible, though?

I'm in the professional-class grouping, and I'll tell you, I'd find sleeping around to be a career-limiting endeavor, due to the shame from family, friends, and coworkers.

My working-class old girlfriend from high school who found me via Facebook, however, has different values. Comparing her attitudes to my wife's is quite striking.

Vipul Naik writes:

B.B., you write:

no longer had an academic establishment and legal system which aggressively attacked men for supposed sexual harassment and implicitly labeled men potential rapists? (Visit a modern college to see what I mean.)

How does viewing men as potential rapists *increase* female sexual promiscuity or out-of-wedlock births?

did not have access to easy divorce and a court system which gave custody to mothers while imposed financial burdens on men?

How does this *reduce* women's incentives to marry?

no longer got affirmative action programs in schools and hiring, Title IX privileges, class action lawsuits against all supposed discrimination?

What relation does this have with anything Murray is saying?

Mercer writes:

Vipul Naik

Easy divorce and child custody courts that screw men result in more women divorcing and raising children without a father. It also makes men reluctant to marry when they see what courts do to other men.

Women want to marry men who earn equal or more in salary. Affirmative action contributes to women having better job prospects while reducing mens. When women's earnings rise while men's are stagnant or falling there is less marriage.

Thomas Boyle writes:

I'll second the "look at the changes in family law - men ain't as stoopid as they look" theory.

And "feckless" is a bit harsh when applied to men who are simply avoiding being modern-day slaves by avoiding entanglement in family law.

Increasingly, middle-class men too are learning to avoid marriage and (intentional) children. Watch for single motherhood to keep creeping up the income scale.

Tom West writes:

Wow. Who knew this would bring so many men's right's activists out of the woodwork.

I'd have to say that if you aren't getting married because you can't trust your potential spouse, you probably shouldn't be getting married.

Outside of having a child, marriage is *the* commitment. If you aren't ready to trust your partner with your life and future happiness, it's not time to get married.

And yes, tragic mistakes *do* happen, same as with any other life-changing choice.

liberty writes:

What if - shock and horror - falling rates of marriage isn't necessarily a bad thing?

In the past, marriage was often done out of necessity, convenience, economic reasons, because it was expected and women had little choice in the matter. Today people marry more often because they have fallen in love. Do we expect as high a percentage of people to find this kind of love as had found convenience or stigma or economic reasons? No, of course not. So, as society evolves we would expect a lower rate of marriage.

Furthermore, why even bother to get married, despite being in love? In England many couples do not marry, even if they have children and stay together - they simply do not feel the need. I have two cousins who have each been with their spouse for more than 10 years, both with children, and neither couple bothered to marry. So what?

Legal marriage often introduces complications, especially in the unfortunate circumstance of the couple breaking up. I find that separations of couples who have children often go better without a court's involvement. Many parents I know in the UK stay involved in their child's life after a break-up, and the couple stay friends, and hence the kid can have outings with both parents even though they are no longer together. I have rarely seen such amicable breakups in the US or among parents who had been legally married.

Bottom line: I question the premise. I see falling rates of marriage (and later marriages!) and births out of wedlock as a GOOD thing.

Michael Hamilton writes:

I don't think we have the data to make claims about most of the important issues raised here.

Central to Bryan's point is that 'bums' can have sex with women despite their laziness. But what about white collar twenty-somethings? They still carry more prestige than their lazy counterparts, and are likely having more premarital sex.

If 15 years from now these currently young, white collar men do not follow the marriage patterns of the "model citizens" would this model still be valid?

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ liberty

Your anecdotal examples aside, the evidence is overwhelming here in the US that births out of wedlock result in extremely negative consequences for the children. Children born out of wedlock in the US have substantially diminished cognitive development, substantially diminished educational attainment, substantially lower standards of living, substantially greater likelihood of physical and sexual abuse, and substantially higher rates of incarceration than children born in wedlock.

The Department of Health and Human Services produces a statistical fact-sheet that, in my view, counters your assertions that children born out of wedlock are a "good" thing. The statistics (from HHS Child Abuse and Neglect: Statistics and Intervention) clearly show that children from such families are significantly at higher risk for a host of maltreatments, up to and including murder. Regarding fatalities the report describes the 'typical' perpetrator as follows:

"There is no single profile of a perpetrator of fatal child abuse, although certain characteristics reappear in many studies. Frequently, the perpetrator is a young adult in his or her mid-20s, without a high school diploma, living at or below the poverty level, depressed, and who may have difficulty coping with stressful situations. Fathers and mothers' boyfriends are most often the perpetrators in abuse deaths; mothers are more often at fault in neglect fatalities."

I suspect the people you have referred to in your anecdotes do not fit the above profile. However, the majority of children born out of wedlock in the US are indeed raised by those who fit one, and often all, of the above attributes. It is well known that males are substantially more likely to abuse (physically and sexually) children who are not their own. It is much more likely that a child born out of wedlock will share a household with an unrelated male (the mothers' "boyfriend") than those born in wedlock. Additionally it is much more likely that this male will be marginally employed, will have lower educational attainment than average, more likely to be illegitimate and hence more likely abused himself as a child. The results, though predictable, are in my view tragic. Your anecdotes are all fine and well, however, the statistics show that births out of wedlock too often lead to tragedy and that is not good...

liberty writes:

Marriage per se does not prevent abuse. There have been many times and places with much worse abuse of children, in which marriage was ubiquitous (even if abuse went unreported). Religion does not prevent people from being abusive either - as the Catholic Church has shown us. Whether or not your statistics show a causal relationship is highly questionable, but even if it did, it would not mean that encouraging or forcing people to marry would prevent abuse, neglect, alcoholism, poverty, or anything else. The marriage would have to come first in order to prevent those things - and would have to emerge in the appropriate circumstances. More likely, it is just that people who are not alcoholic, impoverished etc are more likely to marry!
In any case, you are trying to change culture. But rather than changing it back to old-fashioned standards, why not move with it, and change it in a positive forward-looking direction. This is how its being done in England, and I think its positive. Marriage rates are lower, but nasty divorces are almost unheard of, and fathers are much more included in the lives of their children. This is far better for children.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ liberty

I am afraid that you have imputed to me a motivation that I do not possess and a political philosophy to which I do not adhere. I am not attempting to change the culture nor do I desire a return to a mythical idyllic past. Human society has always had to grapple with the consequences of those on the margins of society having children. I am not advocating the encouragement of marriage or of forcing people to marry. I do not contend that marriage, by itself, would prevent the numerous social pathologies that often attend illegitimacy. Those social pathologies stem from a raft causal factors and children born out of wedlock is but a symptom of those underlying causes. In addition, just to further define my political perspective, I support allowing contraception, abortion, and adoption to be legal, cheap, and readily available.

On the contrary, there is an ongoing multi-generational attempt to change US culture for a segment of the US population through social engineering by the provision of perverse natalist incentive structures. In my view, the outcome of this social engineering has been very negative particularly for the children involved.
My concern is not about the relatively wealthy, well educated, and well-adjusted members of society having children out of wedlock. I couldn’t care less. This segment of society may behave differently in the UK or Sweden with no measurable increase in social pathology, and again, this is not what concerns my argument. The reality in the US is that those who are relatively wealthy, well-educated and well-adjusted still marry at rates no different than in the 1950’s. It is only the relatively poor, uneducated, and maladjusted members of US society that have changed their behavior.

US Census data details in full the profiles of those households which contain children born out of wedlock. In contrast to the European experience, in the overwhelming number of households with children out of wedlock (95%+), the father of the children does not legally cohabit the household. The father of the children is usually marginally employed. Additionally, the average income of these households is below the poverty line and the vast majority of these households receive public benefit. The US system reduces public benefit for every dollar of gross income earned through work by any household member. Consequently, a household with a worker who works at even the minimum wage full time would receive virtually no public benefits. Since it is the female who typically receives public benefits, there is a perverse incentive to maximize benefits by reducing household hours worked. A woman receiving benefit that chooses to legally cohabit with an employed male must then choose between benefit and the income of the employed male. If the male is marginally employed then the benefit package (cash subsidy, health subsidy, food subsidy, rent subsidy) can easily dwarf the income of the marginally employed male thus making the males’ income a liability rather than an asset.

In my estimation, this perverse incentive system in the US arose through a perverse set of political objectives. There are natalist political forces that wish to prohibit or curtail contraception, abortion, and adoption. Other forces seek to create employment in unionized bureaucratic agencies and a clientele perpetually dependent upon said agencies. They both wish to have the poor segregated in either the decaying rural hinterland or decaying urban centers, areas bereft of jobs, decent schools and any opportunities. The US system, by design, discourages internal migration from these blighted dysfunctional economic sinkholes to those areas where there actually are jobs, decent schools, and ample opportunities. Instead, we have welfare for poor women and prisons and the armed forces for poor men. I see little opportunity in the current US political climate to change these outcomes toward a positive forward-looking direction. And as long as these poor souls remain hidden from view of the affluent (which, of course, is what the system was designed to accomplish), I don’t see any move towards a better future for those children trapped by the system.

By the way, I have spent two years living in fair England (in Norwich and London), and in my travels I did stumble upon a couple of blighted parts of the UK. I once got lost alone amongst the housing estates of Glasgow after leaving a Celtic match, and the atmosphere I encountered there was earily similar to those admittedly more numerous blighted parts of the US. However, as bad as Glasgow can be, I can assure you that there are far worse and dysfunctional places in the US and these are not good places to be raised as a child.

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