This post is by Paul Cote, a dear friend I met at Northern Illinois University when we were both students there back in the mid-seventies. After completing his masters in public administration, Paul worked in city management in Wheaton, Illinois. Then we both did our M.Divs. at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, graduating in 1983, at which point Paul went back into city management. Paul has loved and served the church faithfully as an elder.
A couple years back, a friend who is an econ prof gave me a copy of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2013). It sat by my bed for a couple years, but I finally picked it up. It was a sobering read. After completing it, I asked Paul if he’d read it? He hadn’t and said he would. Then, a few months later, I received this summary of his thoughts about the book and I publish them here for readers’ interest.
The past election and subsequent frenzied hatred of President Trump and those who elected him on full display among the elites and splayed across the media they control only reinforces the truth of many of Murray’s observations.
Alarming support for this growing chasm between white elites and white non-elites is provided by a paper documenting the radical changes in mortality and morbidity statistics for white non-elites published this year titled “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century” (Case and Deaton: 2017). In their summary, the authors warn of “increases in mortality and morbidity among white non-Hispanic Americans in midlife since the turn of the century,” reporting that:
Increases in all-cause mortality continued unabated to 2015, with additional increases in drug overdoses, suicides, and alcoholic-related liver mortality, particularly among those with a high-school degree or less. Not only are educational differences in mortality among whites increasing, but mortality is rising for those without, and falling for those with, a college degree. This is true for non-Hispanic white men and women in all age groups from 25-29 through 60-64. Mortality rates among blacks and Hispanics continue to fall; in 1999, the mortality rate of white non-Hispanics aged 50-54 with only a high school degree was 30 percent lower than the mortality rate of blacks in the same age group; by 2015, it was 30 percent higher. There are similar crossovers between white and black mortality in all age groups from 25-29 to 60-64.
Mortality rates in comparable rich countries have continued their pre-millennial fall at the rates
that used to characterize the US. In contrast to the US, mortality rates in Europe are falling for those
with low levels of educational attainment, and are doing so more rapidly than mortality rates for
those with higher levels of education.
Case and Deaton go on to state the:
…profoundly negative implication that policies, even ones that successfully improve earnings and jobs, or redistribute income, will take many years to reverse the mortality and morbidity increase, and that those in midlife now are likely to do much worse in old age than those currently older than 65.
Get the paper and read it. The authors’ work supports the Guardian’s March, 2016 thesis explaining working whites’ support of the Trump candidacy.
On then to Paul Cote’s review of Murray’s Coming Apart.
For some time, I have been of the opinion that every old person is a time traveler. Not in the same way that characters travel through time in science fiction—by entering a machine and setting the dial and going to a time that is unimaginable—but by having the experience of living in a time and world that no longer exist. The prologue to Coming Apart reminded me of that, as I could remember the world of 1963 Murray described.
For the record, I have not tried to communicate Charles Murray’s whole argument in Coming Apart. Rather, I have focused on things I agree with and things I would qualify or disagree with. So my thoughts will be of most use to someone who has already read the book. Having said that…
I agree with his basic premise, that classes have formed that are different in their degree of separation from anything the nation has known, and that the continued divergence of these classes will end with America looking a lot more like Europe. And I agree that this is not a good thing.
I disagree with his contention that America’s human capital has blossomed and will result in America being competitive on the world stage. We have seen a relative decline in America’s economic, military and diplomatic supremacy since 1963, and I believe that is inevitable and irreversible. The prominence of America after the Second World War was extraordinary, based on remarkable historical events and an imbalance of power that would eventually even out.
However, I agree that what was unique about America was never its wealth or international dominance, and therefore does not require these things to maintain that unique culture. In fact, I would add that striving to maintain that extraordinary wealth or international dominance will inevitably lead to becoming more like the rest of the world.
Although the first reaction of most people to this book’s subtitle, The State of White America, is an understandable and predictable misunderstanding, I agree that the problems he is writing about cannot be addressed by “attacking the legacy of racism or by restricting immigration” and that there is some point to trying to understand how the reference point for change over time itself has changed without talking about societal statistics for people of color in comparison to whites.
Part I The Formation of a New Upper Class
I agree that what is new about the upper class is that they are not from a variety of backgrounds. When opportunities in society narrow, the elite take care of their own, as they always have, but at a greater cost to the opportunities available to others.
Our daughter attended Lexington Christian Academy from 2003 through 2008, and even though it was to outside observers at the bottom end of the spectrum, it was nevertheless an elite prep school. And it served her well, by God’s grace, but at her graduation one of the parents spoke. The speaker was Mr. Stuntz, a professor at Harvard Law who died a few years ago, and his main point was that young people should not be obsessed with and tie themselves into knots to achieve the next rung on the ladder to success. That they would miss out on life. And this obsession of students and parents at LCA did mean that more often than not, they had no time to be teenagers.
In Murray’s discussion of the increasing market value of brains, I was struck how faith in brains and their use has replaced the working and value of tradition. In a more tradition-driven society, you don’t have to be brilliant to succeed. You can rely on the wisdom of your elders. Not so in modernity. Having ‘freed’ ourselves from tradition, traditional wisdom can no longer help us. Very smart persons are of more value in a time of rapid change and chaos. But it is, in part, a situation of our own making, because of our choices as a culture.
The only flaw in his argument here is that the most powerful people are not always the smartest; or if they are, their IQ obviously fails them sometimes because they do and say stupid things. Surely sometimes they only seem to be the smartest because of their power and position. But I grant that, as a rule, to be admitted to the real power elite requires some evidence of being very smart (even if that is only having attended an elite college).
And I agree that wealth has enabled the development and isolation of the new upper class. And I think this greater attribution of wealth to the smartest and most powerful in society is a reflection of the degeneration of social mores and morality. I recall back in the 90’s a survey of graduates of Harvard Business who said on the one hand that the economy was in bad shape andthey expected the future to be grim, but on the other hand, they believed their own future as an individual was bright. This decoupling of their fate from the fate of the economy is surely not a good thing for America.
A free market system only works if it operates within certain social limits. If you are faced with competition and your answer is to assassinate your competitor, or burn down his business, then you have the mafia, not a market. Hence Murray’s statement on p.136 “an assumption that people will follow the rules is indispensable for making a free market work.” And the rules include social mores about how people will be treated, quite apart from market forces. Therefore, there are social limits to strict libertarianism.
I agree with Murray’s assessment of the problems created by drawing all of society’s leaders from people who, in their formative years, only spend time interacting with other exceptionally able students who also come from the same communities and culture. And throwing in students from elites around the world makes them more cosmopolitan but gives them no deeper understanding of humanity. They are like someone who travels around the world and stays in each country for only a few days: their understanding of the world is broader, but still only an inch deep.
I agree that greater mobility has enabled people who are very smart to meet and marry other people who are very smart, and that this has some ominous implications for the separation of society into classes that do not understand each other.
I agree there has been a secession of the successful, which may be no less damaging than the last secession from America.
I can attest based on my 34 years of working and spending 40 hours a week in Concord, Massachusetts, that, indeed, the overwhelming majority of very smart people who come to live in Concord, and there are quite a few, want to live in a place that is filled with people who are like them, and also very smart. I can also attest that it is possible for them to ‘bear with’ grace others who are not, for example at our open Town Meetings. Nevertheless, when deciding where they want to locate, this is definitely what they are looking for.
And most Town employees, who are above average in income and education, including the Town Manager, still cannot afford to live in the Town without special help. This was not true in the 1970’s.
I thought Murray’s point on page 105 was significant: “It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale professors. It is a problem if Yale professors, or producers of network news programs, or CEO’s of great corporations, or presidential advisors cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers.” There is a reason why the rulers in Plato’s utopia, ‘the guardians,’ were to devote themselves to the arts, and to have no private property but live in community. He understood that wealth and self-focus would make for poor rulers.
I took the test in Chapter 4 and it’s probably no surprise that I scored 45. The middle of the middle.
I had a few more bones to pick with Murray in Chapter 5, the Bright Side of the New Upper Class. Without much reasoning behind it, he asserts “the new upper class must get some credit for the good things that have happened, especially those having to do with economic growth and improvement in the standard of living.” I have my doubts. Are they creating the wave, or just riding it? It’s like saying, who won the battle of Gettysburg, the generals or the soldiers and lower ranking officers? It’s arguable that a few generals lost it, but I’m inclined to give credit to the Union soldiers and their first line officers.
This is not to discount the contributions of genius. But from my experience with Gary Gygax,1 I would say that genius also requires the right circumstances to exercise that genius. If the Beatles had not had an opportunity to work every night for months as a garage band in Hamburg, would they have stuck together or become the Beatles? There are plenty of people playing in garage bands today, and it would be hard to say there is no genius among them. But what is their path to greatness? It is weak to say that in the current culture, no genius would go into pop music, or that the people making pop music today are geniuses.
Greatness requires a great man, but also a situation that requires greatness, and even a great man cannot create that. You can only ‘make your own luck’ up to a point.
When Murray says on page 121 that “The effects of upgrading cognitive talent in an organization are less obvious now…,” he gives a wonderful example of putting men with high IQ in the NY police department in 1940. But in his situation of choice there was an organization that needed an infusion of IQ. Once that has happened, does ongaoing sorting by IQ continue to bring benefits on the same scale? I doubt it. And having a separated elite has its own bad side effects that are quite predictable.
In the context of post WWII there was certainly a situation where extraordinary cognitive ability could make great contributions and deserved to be rewarded. But what about in the context of ‘stagflation’ or overall economic decline? Persons with extraordinary cognitive ability may get ahead individually, but what if there is no improvement in the standard of living, only a change in the lifestyle? What credit do they deserve then? As is so often the case with libertarians, there is an underlying assumption that things will get better. During the depression, I dare say that being a libertarian was not a popular stance. I recall a quote from Galbraith in Money, that I always associate with libertarians: “It’s every man for himself, said the Elephant, as he danced among the chickens.” The notion of unfettered freedom for all rarely resonates with common people, in sober moments.
When he says, “the design, functionality and durability of almost any consumer product today are far better than they were in 1960” (p.123) does he really think that’s because of the cognitive elite? I don’t deny they had some role in some, maybe even most, improvements in consumer products, but to say these improvements are the result or benefit of the work of the cognitive elites is quite a stretch. Life is getting better, materially, in many ways, but again, that’s like saying every victory in battle belongs to the Generals. It’s nonsense.
When he says “the new upper class will change only if its members decide that it is in the interest of themselves and of their families to change…and because they decide it is in the best interest of the country they love” (p125) I would ask, where are the examples of this happening in history? This would be both sage and selfless for any new upper class. Especially since he just said it’s human nature for them to secede from the rest of the country and surround themselves with people “just like them.” I fear that the normal course of events is much more like the Deuteronomic cycle: God blesses, men wander and lose faith in God (or any transcendent power, in the case of the ancient world, a la The Everlasting Man) and God chastises with War (including revolution) Plague and Famine. Unless there is an extraordinary moving of the Holy Spirit, for which I pray, “Like the ancient Roman Empire, this world is doomed to fall…”.
Part II The Formation of a New Lower Class
I have no quibble with the importance of industriousness, honesty, marriage and religion as necessary virtues for a society of self-governing people.
The key to understanding the appearance of unique industriousness in America is surely the abundance of opportunity, based on vast underutilized natural resources, as Murray says on p.135. One can lament the fate of nomadic native North Americans, and one must lament their treatment by Europeans, but there is no doubt that some people with settled, non-nomadic culture would inevitably spill into North America and put an end to their nomadic culture. All that unsettled land provided enormous opportunities that were seized on by European Kings and commoners.
In addition, we see too many young men still dependent on their parents, satisfied with video games, drugs and porn, that have no motivation to build a life (which includes marriage and family), even if it is a modest life.
And that recalls the conversation we had back in 1975 or 6, I think, just before you got married. We said “it’s time to start building our lives.” I had shared my reaction to a movie review in the New Yorker by Pauline Kael where she talked about the mindset in the 60’s. She said everyone was flushed with enthusiasm for the adventure of their lives, and people were trying everything not just in a search for meaning, but also in a spirit of “I wonder what that’s like’—so sex, drugs, and personal quests were pursued without any thought of how that might affect other areas of their life, or others. She used the metaphor of a child playing with a watch by taking it apart, curious to see what went on inside, without any thought of putting the watch back together again so it would work. We could understand and identify with something there, but the point for us was, now it’s time to start building, not just exploring for new worlds.
Murray’s point about marriage as the foundation of morality, and its transmission to the next generation on page 139 is profound and irrefutable. Children cannot learn that morality is good if their parents are habitually unfaithful to their partners.
I had not thought much about arranged marriages until recently when we met a Korean brother and sister in the Lord who had an arranged marriage. It does seem to me that, while arranged marriages have some advantages, they do seem to weaken the sense of covenant if they are entered into as directed by others. And certainly in a modern society where tradition is weak, there is always the thought, “well, I didn’t choose this so am I really bound by it? I’d like to make a better choice for myself.”
Regarding religion, I’d add that only transcendent vision based on sincere belief in a god can motivate moral behavior and allow the creation of Civilization, if Kenneth Clark is to be believed. And I think Murray’s comment on page 146 that at some point it became assumed that “the American system would work under any circumstances as long as we got the laws right” replaced the belief that being a good American involved behaving in certain kind of ways, points to an important failure of current thinking.
Most of what Murray has to say about industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity is interesting, and while one could qualify here and quibble there, I am in overall agreement with what he says in Chapters 6-13. I don’t think he’s off base.
I agree that when a significant number of persons in society can’t get their act together, that is a real problem, and that a community with lots of children without fathers is in trouble. Of course, it’s amusing to see him discover that the churchgoing population generates “social capital” which is vital to a free society, even if the society does not appreciate the contribution.
The distinction between taking care of a child and raising a child (page 219) is insightful, and also points to the problem with children left in daycare. And the description of husbands who act like another child and want to be taken care of by their wife is pathetic because it rings so true.
Regarding industriousness among the masses, he does mention the very real problem with men on unemployment and collecting disability as a way of life. In Boston, a significant portion of men working on the “Big Dig” went on disability, and the ins and outs of getting there were commonly known. And the peer pressure to “not work a menial or strenuous job” did not just bring approval of the scam, but also disrespect for anyone stupid to keep working. This is an interesting point I hadn’t thought about.
Part III Why It Matters
I like Murray’s observation that, when the facts change, it is not unreasonable to not change your mind. That is the essence of being principled and it is completely contrary to the modern way of thinking. Although I am not a libertarian, I do believe in the value of limited government for the preservation of individual freedom. Government cannot possibly carry the weight of running everyone’s life.
Broader than government, the purpose of culture, traditions and societal norms is to help the individual think and act in a way that is good, and to make that somewhat easy while at the same time discouraging bad behavior. But one problem with modernity is the lack of conviction about what is good.
I have no doubt that the amoral familism Banfield described is the nature of most communities around the world, and is probably more ‘natural’ for evil man than democracy and limited government.
Speaking to the unparalleled civic engagement in local problems, I would point out that it is local problems that get addressed this way. In local government we call this “municipal socialism.” People who would vigorously oppose state or federal government rules about property have no problem insisting on enormous local control over what their next-door neighbor does with his property, etc. In Concord, this emerged, in the 17th century, long before the United States, and grew out of parish life of the congregational church. Town meetings were not only held in the church building, but were definitely modeled on the congregational meetings that Townspeople were accustomed to.
Murray’s concept of social capital is helpful. We know all too well that, despite their unique, individual contributions to the church, in general single people take more from the community and rely on the existence of a community. Married people give more to the community and really form the basis of community. A church of just single people would be amazing, but fragile as a community. The connection that Murray does not make is that the social trust that makes community possible is based on the aforementioned moral vision of god. Without it, there is no basis for rising above the amoral familism Banfield describes.
I suspect that the erosion of public trust by ethnic diversity is real, although I would add that Christianity’s moral vision is uniquely able to overcome this effect.
In his remarkable book, A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander argues that self-governing communities must exist as physically identifiable places. Although it is counter-intuitive he says “The mosaic of subcultures requires that hundreds of different cultures live, in their own way, at full intensity, next door to one another. But subcultures have their own ecology. They can only live at full intensity, unhampered by their neighbors, if they are physically separated by physical boundaries. …People need an identifiable spatial unit to belong to….The strength of the boundary is essential to a neighborhood. If the boundary is too weak the neighborhood will not be able to maintain its own identifiable character. ”
Obviously the physical layout of modern suburban America does not embody this idea, and so self-governing communities rarely exist, except for the super-zips, like Concord, where millions are spent on preserving open space, by the Town (or in the case of Walden Woods, by Don Hendley), and the effect is often to preserve a community boundary.
His discussion of happiness is interesting and rings true. In particular, his challenge, “show me someone who thinks deep satisfactions in old age come from having been rich or famous, and I’ll show you someone who’s never been old.” Yes, most people don’t really know what will make them happy, and spend way too much time on things that will not contribute to the satisfaction that Murray describes.
My father in law, who is now 89, also says that old age is not necessarily the happiest part of life, (that’s usually when you are young or middle-aged and life is full of family and activity), and I think for a lot of people that is true, with bodies failing and friends and family dying or gone, and a long list of things you can no longer do. There is isolation in the life of most elderly people and it goes largely unnoticed by others. Think John Prine’s “Hello in There”.
The reason happiness requires both religious belief and attendance at church is surely the profound sense of community that comes with sharing your life with people who share your deepest convictions. And of course, it makes sense that social trust is required for meaningful involvement in community.
I am more sceptical when it comes to his statistical analysis of which of the four virtues is more important for happiness, according to a survey. The statistical analysis is fine, but the tool of survey answers may not be adequate to the task of mining the basic information.
I agree that people don’t get happier when they go from modest income to affluence, and that the qualities that make them happy are likely to make them successful at work. And I agree with his basic conclusion in Chapter 15, that for the common man happiness has deteriorated for reasons related to the four virtues.
I agree that our nation is coming apart at the seams of class more than it is coming apart at the seam of race or ethnicity.
I agree that, inevitably, great nations cease to be great, and this will be true for the United States. Certainly, satisfaction or happiness in regard to self-respect, intimate relationships, and self-actualization all require freedom and freedom requires responsibility, and his example of parents who rely on others to raise their children is a good one. (In the case of the person who gets a promotion they don’t deserve, what usually happens is that, in time, they change their mind and convince themselves they do deserve it.)
I agree that when government intervenes to help, they do weaken the institutions that are needed for people to lead satisfying, happy lives. Also that bureaucracies are the clumsiest of all tools for giving people what they need. Of course, when nothing is working, people will try to get the job done with the wrong tool if it’s the only tool they have (not an endorsement but an observation). What government can’t do, tradition used to do, providing norms of good behavior that support families and communities in performing their functions.
What Murray is lacking is clear vision of how his alternative to the Europe Syndrome can actually take place. Where does the motivation to build a life come from?
Murray is confident that the new upper class holds so much power, that they must support an intervention. Frankly, I doubt they will. It is true that cultures sometimes do an abrupt about face, but it was not Louis XIV who did it in France. It was Napoleon, after the revolution. And Napoleon really defeated himself. The English were just there to push him over when he was tottering. And advances in technology, science, and the fine arts in Regency England were hardly the result of the intervention of the degenerate aristocracy.
Yes, there is a loss of self-confidence among the elites, and that is surely a clear sign of their decadence, and it surely has the effect of losing their power to constrain bad behavior.
The great civic awakening Murray expects will not come as a result of reacting to the failure of Europe, (“fall mountain, just don’t fall on me”); science that does not fit current thinking is likely to be ignored and discounted, and countered by other, less honest science. It would be wonderful if we could replace the entire apparatus of the welfare state, but is anyone listening or running for president on that platform? No. Not even the libertarians among us.
Murray describes two important fallacies of the American welfare state: 1. Thinking generous unemployment benefits would not affect how hard people tried to keep or find jobs, and 2. Properly designed government interventions can correct bad human behavior.
And it incorporates two assumptions about people: 1. That significant differences in people from different groups cannot exist (white men can jump…?) and 2. People are not responsible for the things they do. I’m pretty sure the first is wrong, and know the second is wrong.
I agree that it is absurd for society to insist that it be proved that alternatives to the traditional family cannot work in the face of clear evidence that alternative family structures have not worked. And I agree that society can never compensate for the lack of married biological fathers in producing children who lead happy, satisfying lives.
I do like the simplicity and intellectual elegance of Murray’s proposal to provide a basic income for all Americans ages 21 and older.
There is always a tension between the ideas of equality of opportunity and equality of condition, because in the world, neither is perfect. So I believe we need to be aware of both, and that means putting much more focus on equality of opportunity—and this must be communicated to everyone.
I agree that the new upper class should stop being patronizing and preach what they practice. Also that a life well lived and happy requires engagement with those around us—as opposed to focusing on ourselves.
Well that’s it in a nutshell. I enjoyed reading the book.