Bryan Caplan  

The Solutions Murray Should Have Proposed

Downton Abbey... Minimum Wage: Charles Murray S...
I'm fan of Coming Apart.  But I'm baffled by the policy "solutions" Charles Murray proposes in today's NYT.  Impose a minimum wage on internships?  Ban the SAT in favor of achievement tests?  Switch to socioeconomic affirmative action?  Forbid the use of the B.A. in employment decisions? 

The whole point of Murray's book, I thought, was that the working class needs to be more like the professional class.  Indeed, Murray's main complaint about the professional class is that it fails to "preach what it practices."  How on earth is symbolically snubbing the professional class supposed to help put the working class back on the bourgeois path to success?  Even in the most optimistic scenario, Murray's proposals would merely help the 2nd-highest decile at the expense of the top decile.

What should Murray have said?  First and foremost, he should have harked back to Losing Ground's attack on the welfare state  The welfare state isn't the sole reason for the moral decline of the working class.  But it is surely one important reason for this decline.  Free government money is a key foundation of long-term male unemployment and out-of-wedlock births.  Reduce or eliminate that free government money, and you start a virtuous cycle of working class self-improvement.  Males would be a lot more likely to find and hold a job.  Women would be a lot more likely to focus on men's industry and dependability instead of aggressiveness and machismo.  This in turn would raise the status of working class men who actually work for a living.  And if you take behavioral economics seriously, you should be totally open to the view that the working class would be better off as a result.

But welfare state austerity is only the beginning.  There are many complementary reforms that might actually improve the lives of the American working class.  Ending the drug war.  School vouchers.  Vocational education.  Why doesn't Murray propose even one?

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Alex J. writes:

If forbidding the use of BAs in hiring would aid the 2nd decile at the expense of the top one, ending subsidies to universities would aid the 3rd quartile at the expense of the 2nd. It might make the high school degree worth something again as well.

MG writes:

I have to agree with Bryan, much as I loved Coming Apart. Even if one saw the solutions to mean as he stated simply "four steps that might weaken the isolation of at least the children of the new upper class", this op ed was a wasted opportunity. So much was not said (along the lines of what Bryan suggests), that I wonder if Murray was just catering to the ideology of the median reader of the NYT. At best these solutions "succeed" only in that: they only replace "bad" policies/practices (race based affirmative action, credentialing in lieu of best assessment of usefulness,e.g.) with possibly "less bad" policies; or they use bad policies - minimum wages - this time with the intention to destroy jobs - those the elite children seek.

Todd Fletcher writes:

Murray doesn't seem to think the ideas you propose have any chance of happening. He's resigned to the existence of the welfare state, else why propose a minimum income, which he advocates solely on efficiency grounds.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

There is something missing in these discussions, and Charles Murray as a analyst of data has alluded to it (though not in the article cited).

We are looking at U S social organizations as "strata," identifiable by habits, motives and aspirations that are given labels as Cultures.

The separation of the "Upper Strata" from the "Lowest Strata" is occupied by another strata or set of strata, to which reference is made, but not dealt with as a "widening band" between the two strata being analyzed.

It is plausible to assume that, because of the way our society has come to be organized, and because of the ways which have general acceptance for continuing reorganization, any "movements" to reducing any serious social fractures by reason of the Coming Apart will have to occur by transitions through the strata intervening between the "Upper" and "Lowest."

The data analyzed will likely show that the "peeling out" from and "accession into" the "Upper" comes chiefly through the adjoining strata. The same is true in reverse for the "Lowest," and its adjoining strata.

While that sounds like social mobility, it involves much more, such as the transfers of cultures, as well as economic (material) position transfers. Those transfers would have to occur where strata adjoin, absent geological (social) upheavals.

There seems to be no social purpose in eroding the "Upper." There does seem to be utility in transitioning the "Lowest." Solutions may lie in finding ways in which the functions that create and maintain the "Upper" can be adapted to facilitate the transitions of the "Lower," not to become immediately "closer" to the "Upper," but to narrow its differences with the adjoining strata.

Has the previously observed rates of transitions, particularly at the "Lowest," slowed, or stabilized? If so, would analysis to determine those causes and ways of offsetting them lead us to better solutions than attempting to "bridge" across the several strata that separate "Upper" from "Lowest" in so many meaningful ways?

Jeff writes:

If you believe as Murray does that better behavior by the upper classes is an important reason why they make more money, and you also believe that even lower-class people respond to incentives, then the solution to bad behavior by the lower classes is obvious. We need more income inequality!

But you're not going to hear him say that.

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:

Wow, I've seen some non-sequiturs in my time, Jeff, but your, 'We need more income inequality!', is a doozy. Bryan is on stronger ground with;

First and foremost, he should have harked back to Losing Ground's attack on the welfare state....

One doesn't have to look very far for suppport for that; illegal Mexican immigrants don't apply for welfare, because they fear authority. Instead they start small businesses

Cmot in Chicago writes:

The elite got there via the status quo, so Murray proposes only things that amount to self flagellation by the elite, rather than anything that might actually change the status quo. Appeal to their moral vanity but don't threaten their status.

I think Murray has learned his lesson after the Bell Curve - don't challenge the elite's sense of self ...

Becky Hargrove writes:

The obvious solution: an exact mirror in the marketplace of consumer options to income differentials. After all, our country supports income inequality, and the producers of our goods and services should honor their consumers for that. Plus, it would simplify our lives greatly and take away a lot of unneccesary blame.

Collin writes:

The whole point of Murray's book, I thought, was that the working class needs to be more like the professional class. Indeed, Murray's main complaint about the professional class is that it fails to "preach what it practices."

How is that "practices what it practices working?" Then please explain why Romney can not win the blue collar vote?

Mercer writes:

" Free government money is a key foundation of long-term male unemployment "

What government money do males get? You are ignoring that marriage is declining because female earnings have grown while male earnings are flat.

Jeff writes:

@Patrick Sullivan,

It's not a non-sequitur, it follows logically from the premises. More income inequality gives the lower classes more incentive to behave better, as that will get them a higher income. To see this, ask yourself what happens if the upper classes are taxed enough to provide the lower classes with the same after-tax income as the upper class. The lower class then has no reason to behave at all.

So long as you think better behavior leads to better income, you're always going to find that redistributive policies reduce the incentive of the lower class to behave. What it does to the upper class incentives is not so clear. It could be that higher taxes spur them to even better behavior as they try to make up the income lost to taxation. Or it could be that since the return to good behavior has been lessened, they practice it less. But for the lower classes, only the second effect operates, so they always behave worse.

See how much fun social engineering is?

(I sure hope you know what sarcasm is.)

Mark Little writes:


You and I are fundamentally at one here, but with respect to Charles Murray's column at least one of us is being naive.

Note that Murray explicitly disclaims the practicality of his suggestions, and claims only "There may, however, be a symbolic value in these reforms. The changes that matter have to happen in the hearts of Americans."

You hark back to his Losing Ground (a momentous work which persuaded me when it first came out). I refer instead to his later work with Richard Herrnstein.

The Bell Curve had two main themes. First, they affirmed (by evidence, and at length) the reality and importance of variability in human intelligence (which was then violently denied by most social scientists, and by all educated right-thinking people), and they explained how omission of this factor vitiated much of what then (and still now) passes for social science research.

Second, they discussed the rising dominance of the cognitive elite, and the baleful effect this has on those of us who are less well endowed on this dimension of human diversity.

Rule by the cognitive elite yields a world that is structured for the benefit of the smart and the educationally credentialed. It is a world in which those of us who are not-so-smart and not-college-material are at a serious disadvantage.

Ultimately, the difference between Belmont and Fishtown is not that the Fishtowners lack morals, but that the game is rigged in favor of Belmont. Under this regime the bourgeois virtues have less of a payoff if you're not smart and appropriately credentialed and sporting right status markers. The incentive distortions of the welfare state are the least of it.

Bottom line, "symbolically snubbing the professional class" may ultimately be more constructive than you think.

James A. Donald writes:

To see the effect of money on the poor, observe what happens when an underclass person has a windfall. He rents a big limo. He fills it with cocaine, three whores, a driver (since he is too high to drive), and two bodyguards to be his pals at all times and threaten people who fail to show him sufficient respect.

Less money, better behavior. Rather than welfare, we need a poll tax and tax on illegitimate children. And people that cannot pay it should get sold into slavery.

Of course not all poor people are underclass. If someone is poor because he is elderly, or has been struck down by some illness, simply giving him money has a good effect on him, (though relieving him of the need to save probably had a bad effect on his younger self). But most of the poor, are poor because they are the kind of people for whom money, choice, and freedom is harmful.

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