Coming Apart: The State Of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
"Coming Apart" is quite possibly more mendacious than "The Bell Curve." It's certainly more hypocritical, and given that Murray's whole thesis is ultimately a screed against the Great Society more spiteful.
In this long review, I'm going to list in exquisite detail all the problems it has, which lead me to note that Paul Krugman, in an oped column about the book, was far, far too nice. (I blogged about his and Nick Kristof's columns on this book here.
The single biggest statistical/demographic/historical problem with “Coming Apart” is that the lesser income inequality and narrow class differential of the middle third of the 20th century is something that Charles Murray, with little evidence, assumes is the American norm.
Rather, in reality, large chunks of American history have shown as much if not more class differentiation than today, albeit without a specific knowledge (or alleged knowledge) caste at the top. And, yes, in other periods in history, classes were able to separate themselves, and were not confined to a “Northeastern establishment.” Coastal planters vs. Tidewater and further inland was a staple of the slave-era South. Being able to live further away from work due to ownership of horses or even a coach also allowed for separation.
Ergo, Murray’s relatively narrow slicing of American history is either ignorant or mendacious. Given an almost visceral dislike he has for European social democracy and its paler U.S. cousin that culminated in the Great Society, one must say that mendaciousness is the likely candidate.
In fact, that leads to another lie. Murray claims he’s not primarily discussing the “whys” of this allegedly new class divide. But, in reality, America’s Great Society “wrong turn” lies behind his starting date for all his comparisons and more.
All other errors, misconstruings of fact and misstatements in this book flow from that.
1. Murray goes wrong from his prologue, claiming illegal drugs were rare in 1963, among other laughers. Heroin was starting to gain underground popularity by then, marijuana never went away, and cocaine never totally did, either. This also shows the problem with arbitrary timelines, something that plagues this book in general. If we want to go pre-1914 and various criminalization laws, of course, cocaine was all over the place among the well-to-do white upper class, which in turn feared blacks’ alleged increased use of pot, etc. Cocaine itself was prescribed by Freud, among others, as treatment for morphine addiction., But, because Murray uses the day before Kennedy’s assassination (and the day before LBJ could be in office to start that evil, individualism-sapping Great Society), you won’t hear about illegitimacy in the 19th century. You won’t hear about the Gilded Age. You won’t hear about a lot of other sociological American history. (One of the few things about which Murray is right is also in the prologue, namely that Camelot was largely a myth and that JFK never would have pushed for a Great Society.)
2. It’s arguable that the separation of America into upper and lower classes with largely different values, contra Murray, is nothing new. He likes to cite things like rising illegitimacy rates, but again, what about pre-New Deal days, or certainly, pre-Progressive days? (We know from Britain that in Victorian Scotland, 1 in 3 brides was pregnant at her wedding. I don’t know, the story I saw that didn’t say, how many women had their first child, at least, out of wedlock back then.) The point is, Murray’s careful slicing dates give the impression that mid-20th century America was the norm, rather than, quite possibly, an exception of sort, as far as divisions by economic class, social class, and more. (This is certainly true of religiosity; the mid-20th century’s high point is a definite anomaly compared to much of the 19th century.)
3. In his take on the modern “elite,” Murray claims that the rich of the 1950s likely ate much the same types of food as the rest of America. The Kennedy White House puts a partial lie to that.
4. In looking at the new upper class and elite colleges, Murray ignores the “legacies” effect of Ivy League and near-Ivy schools. There isn’t a tremendous amount of information to support his claim that elite schools have, in recent years, engaged in major talent segregation vs. lesser ones. Rather, and contra claims he makes against liberals elsewhere, the combination of legacies and the effects for random chance in a population more than 50 percent greater than in 1960 must be taken into consideration.
5. On marriage being upheld more in the early U.S. than in Europe, Murray again glides over something that should, from the Bell Curve if nothing else, star him in the face – the number of Southern planters having “affairs” with slave women, and even the occasional planter’s wife doing that with a male slave. In many ways, on how early Europeans viewed early Americans, in fact, one wonders whether Europeans, in something similar to poll bias today, weren’t in fact reporting what they thought their fellow Europeans wanted to hear.
6. His claim that lower crime rates mean nothing, and that, since in part they’re due to high incarceration rates, that means we actually have higher criminality levels among whites, is tendentious at best and mendacious at worst. This ignores that much of the incarcaration is for drugs, which Murray, a professed libertarian (I love staunchly religious people who nonetheless claim to be libertarians) should well know. Also, he knows well that many of those drug-related incarcerations are of minorities, and therefore, the argument about incarceration meaning higher criminality is more tendentious yet in a book focusing on white America.
7. Second, his statement that it’s hard to believe more Americans are on disability today than in 1960. First, a graying population alone explains it. So too does the fact that while manufacturing as a percentage of jobs has declined, a smaller percentage of manufacturing jobs are unionized than 50 years ago and that federal safety enforcement started declining in the 1980s. Finally, Murray ignores the great rise in depression and lesser rises in other mental health problems, some severe enough to indeed qualify people for federal disability filing.
8. His lamenting of lower-class whites not taking more involvement in social programs like PTA ignores issues like the possibility of them working more than 40 hours a week, working split shifts or other “non-traditional schedules,” working two jobs, etc.
9. Yet more cherry-picking – Murray talks about how presidential election voting declined 22 points from 1960 to 1996, and STOPS THERE! (He also ignores the high turnout of 1960.) We know it went up again after that. In fairness, he stops other data on changes in communitarian participation in the mid-1990s, but that fairness is just a thimbleful – it’s possible that he did that to cherry-pick a lot. He does go to 2008 in a later graph, which also looks at income disparities in voting, but again, presents no “whys.” For a political scientist, this is again, mendacious, or cherry-picking, or, for someone who worked with a professional statistician on The Bell Curve, simple laziness.
10. He does little to discuss the role of the rise of the Net in “online communitarianism.” He offers little explanation of the “why” of these changes, otherwise. In many cases, most likely, though, these declines are in part due to what I note in point 3, above. If you’re working extra hours, multiple jobs, or whatever, you can’t be so involved. Murray also ignores that, whether many Americans are truly conscious of what it means to live in a nation of 310 million people today vs. less than 200 million in 1960, and maybe have gotten less involved either because they feel their voice gets less hearing in a bigger population or because “somebody else will do it.” These stats are also mendacious in a book about growing white class divisions because Murray presents them by all races/ethnic groups, ignoring the likelihood in this case that Hispanic immigration, especially of the illegal kind, has an influence on the numbers.
11. His chapter on happiness is flawed from the start since it has “faith” as one of its four domains of happiness. Arguably, the “vocation” domain relies in part on the “Protestant work ethic,” and on naïve views about how easy it is to find FULFILLING work. He does claim this can include “avocations” or “causes,” but that’s lame. I could say that “ideals” should be a fifth domain, and included avocations, causes, and other things, too. This chapter also ignores the psychological and philosophical fact that some people are more introspective, internally motivated, etc. Besides that, we will always have less desirable jobs. There will never be a Lake Wobegon of the American labor market, where all the jobs are above average. And, it’s not just Europeans who think we work too much; so do Japanese, Australians and others. American “industriousness” could rather be seen as a a fault, or even worse – a symptom of psychological neurosis, of a people culturally unable to relax.
12. And, two chapters later, when comparing America’s past, present and future to “the European option,” it seems clear that Murray deliberately stacked the deck on how one can achieve happiness. As a libertarian, he hates social democracy. As a libertarian who’s also religious, he hates the fact that many countries of western Europe have higher happiness levels than the U.S. HATE is not too strong of a word, here, since there’s plenty of sociological statistics to undercut Murray, hate is a driver. His claim that European social democracy restricts human freedom is, overall, laughable. Rather, it’s arguable that many aspects of social democracy, such as extended family leave time, are liberating and that they might even encourage some of the communitarianism whose American decline Murray regrets. Even more laughably, in the next breath, Murray exalts the general rise in fortunes of African-Americans and women while ignoring that this happened through massive government intervention.
13. Related to the two points immediately above, Murray has a simplistic understanding of religion, and certainly of its development. He has zero “informing” from sociologists of religion or psychologists of religion. A Scott Atran would rip his ideas to little shreds.
14. Murray claims that, at one time, using Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story as an example, that all American social classes adhered to the same moral codes. Outside of ignoring Jim Crow, etc., this too is laughable. Robber barons and the organized theft, no robbery, of company towns, payment in script rather than money, etc., are just two of many counterexamples.
15. Related to that, his scolding of today’s upper class for the unseemingly gaucherie of how they parade their wealth ostentatiously? Again, nothing new. Happened in the Gilded Age and later. Murray ignores that the massive government intervention of a federal income tax, making it stronger during WWII, and the start of a true social safety net during the Depression were part of what reined in previous such gaucherie.
16. Finally, he ignores that his libertarian capitalism is what produces the problems of the two points above, plus other unseeminglyness like massive CEO pay.
17. Related to that, on the issue of business ethics, he cites the fact of fewer IRS tax fraud actions against businesses. However, this ignores the IRS’s declining audit rate in recent years, especially against businesses and upper-income individuals.
18. In this chapter on “alternative futures,” he chides opponents of his point of view on some issues for not being able to prove a negative. We all know the response to that in formal logic, at least. And, in excoriating “old Europe,” he ignores that both government and business leaders of old Europe excoriate not only huge CEO pay, but the perceived over-abundance of managers in U.S. businesses. Actually, in a number of ways, in a quasi-Jeffersonianism updated for the 20th century, “old Europe” meets some American ideals from the past in some ways better than America does.
19. His claims about American exceptionalism ignores the “whys” of it, as well as fatuously claiming Americans have never had “class envy.”
In sum, then, this book, as it progresses, demonstrates again that Charles Murray is not only a liar but also a hypocrite.
It’s also interesting to see how many libertarian types simply can’t bring themselves to openly condemn the New Deal, because of the third rail of Social Security, even though unemployment benefits also stem from then.
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