There’s been a spate of commentary about the (supposedly) growing class divide in America. It all builds on Charles Murray’s four-year-old book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray continues to write about it. His latest entry is a blog post at AEI.org, “Why Should I Have All the Fun? More from the Bubble Quiz.”
The Bubble Quiz, which Murray introduced in Chapter 4 of his book, is meant to measure a person’s distance from working-norms; the lower one’s score, the more one is immersed in an upper-class “bubble,” that is, unattuned to working-class cultural and social norms.
Others have recently joined Murray’s lamentation about the supposedly growing class divide in America. Mark Pulliam, writing at the Library of Law and Liberty (“Horatio Alger Matters“), comments on a new book by George Mason University law school professor Frank Buckley, The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America:
American society, Buckley argues, is trending toward a caste system, in which one’s future economic prospects are largely dictated by the status of one’s parents…. Buckley—who in his Acknowledgments section makes clear his grounding on the political Right— advocates an agenda to restore upward mobility with sensible free-market reforms, which he drolly calls “socialist ends through capitalist means.”
Buckley believes the current sclerosis is largely caused by government policies, not technological change. Specifically, he sees a de facto aristocracy having struck an unholy bargain with the lumpenproletariat to conspire against the middle class…. Buckley posits that America’s wealthy (and mostly liberal) elites support “policies that preserve their privileges and those of their children at the expense of a rising middle class.”…
As surely as contract law spelled the end of feudal serfdom, the rule of law is indispensable to upward mobility. But the rule of law has been hobbled by an overly-complicated legal system that empowers unscrupulous prosecutors, enriches elite lawyers, and reduces the certainty and predictability of everyday commerce.
…The New Class cynically “buys” the acquiescence of the “peasants” (and their leaders) with generous welfare benefits, plentiful government jobs, affirmative action, and Progressive policies that wreak havoc on the middle class, but which largely spare the New Class, ensconced in its gated enclaves, cloistered communities, and private schools. In Buckley’s telling, stagnant mobility in the United States relative to the rest of the developed countries has produced a “Legacy Nation, a society of inherited privilege and frozen classes.”
The thesis explains many things, including why Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street financiers so lavishly support Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, and why the political leadership of both parties is so indifferent to the interests of middle class Americans. (Opinion polls show, for example, that the public overwhelmingly favors significant reductions—if not outright cessation—of immigration levels, yet Congress refuses to act.) The solutions Buckley offers—reforming education (mainly by adopting school choice), paring back government regulation, simplifying the tax code, adopting a Canadian model of immigration (focusing primarily on the skills of the immigrant and the needs of the host country), tort reform, and so forth—are sensible whether or not they would solve the problem of inequality and immobility.
Thomas Edsall of The New York Times comes at the issue from the left in “How the Other Fifth Lives,” citing research that seems to have been inspired by Murray’s work, though Edsall never mentions Murray, who is libetarianish. Edsall is nevertheless in sync with Murray and Buckley:
[Bernie] Sanders’s extraordinary performance to date … points to the vulnerability of a liberal alliance in which the economic interests of those on the top — often empowered to make policy — diverge ever more sharply from those in the middle and on the bottom.
As the influence of affluent Democratic voters and donors grows, the leverage of the poor declines. This was evident in the days leading up to the New York primary when, as Ginia Bellafante of The Times reported, both Clinton and Sanders, under strong pressure from local activists, agreed to tour local housing projects. Bellafante noted that their reluctance reflects how “liberal candidates on the national stage view public housing as a malady from which it is safest to maintain a distance.”
The lack of leverage of those on the bottom rungs can be seen in a recent Pew survey in which dealing with the problems of the poor and needy ranked 10th on a list of public priorities, well behind terrorism, education, Social Security and the deficit. This 10th place ranking is likely to drop further as the gap widens between the bottom and the top fifth of voters in the country.
It turns out that the United States has a double-edged problem — the parallel isolation of the top and bottom fifths of its population. For the top, the separation from the middle and lower classes means less understanding and sympathy for the majority of the electorate, combined with the comfort of living in a cocoon.
For those at the bottom, especially the families who are concentrated in extremely high poverty neighborhoods, isolation means bad schools, high crime, high unemployment and high government dependency.
The trends at the top and the bottom are undermining cohesive politics, but more important they are undermining social interconnection as they fracture the United States more and more into a class and race hierarchy
Before I tell you what I think of these quasi-apocalyptic mutterings, I must quote from a four-year-old post of mine, in which I reported my bubble score:
I am proud to say that I do not live in the upper-middle-class bubble, even though my career, income history, and tastes qualify me as a resident of the bubble. My upbringing (outlined here) inoculated me from elitism. The effects of that inoculation are reflected in my score of 51 on the quiz that Murray presents in Chapter 4 of his book…. Murray gives the following interpretation of scores:
- A lifelong resident of a working-class neighborhood with average television and moviegoing habits. Range: 48–99. Typical: 77.
- A ﬁrst- generation middle-class person with working-class parents and average television and moviegoing habits. Range: 42–100. Typical: 66.
- A ﬁrst- generation upper-middle- class person with middle-class parents. Range: 11–80. Typical: 33.
- A second- generation (or more) upper-middle-class person who has made a point of getting out a lot. Range: 0–43. Typical: 9.
- A second- generation (or more) upper-middle-class person with the television and moviegoing habits of the upper middle class. Range: 0–20.Typical: 2.The scoring of the archetypes reﬂects a few realities about socioeconomic background and the bubble
I defy Murray’s categorization, for I am a first-generation upper-middle-class person with working-class parents and the television and moviegoing habits of the upper middle class. But no matter. My quiz score indicates my comprehension of the “real world” and the “real people” who inhabit it. They are not faceless game pieces to be shunted about in the name of “society” for the sake of my ego or power cravings. That is why I am neither a “liberal” nor a pseudo-libertarian like this fellow and this bunch.
Having said that, I don’t put much stock in the bubble score or in the scare-mongering of Murray, Buckley, Edsall, and others. First, there’s a lot of mobility between income groups — persons who are in the bottom-fifth aren’t doomed to stay there, just as persons who are in the top-fifth (and higher) often fail to stay there. See, for example, my post “Mass (Economic) Hysteria: Income Inequality and Related Themes,” which gives many links to supporting material.
Second, the illusion of a greater gap between “rich” and “poor” is fostered, in part, by what some call the disappearance of the middle class. Well, the middle class is shrinking, if one measures the middle class by the fraction of persons or households with incomes in a certain income range. But the reason for that shrinkage is simple: a general upward migration toward the upper-income classes. Mark Perry neatly summarizes the state of affairs in “Yes, America’s Middle Class Has Been Disappearing…into Higher Income Groups.” (There’s more here: “Sorry, Everyone: The American Middle Class Is Winning.”)
Third, there just aren’t the kind of sharp class divisions that Murray et al. like to moan about. Murray himself (unwittingly) offers evidence to support my point. It’s found in a spreadsheet that that gives SES percentiles and bubble scores by ZIP (https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Public-Use-Zip-Code-File.xlsx), to which Murray links in the AEI.org piece mentioned in the first paragraph of this post. I derived the following graph from Murray’s spreadsheet:
SES percentile refers to a measure of socioeconomic status that takes into account a person’s income, education, and occupation.
Where’s the dividing line — the “knee of the curve” in pseudo-scientific parlance? There’s isn’t one: As a brilliant former colleague put it, curves don’t have knees. In fact, there’s a lot of overlap in bubble scores across the full range of SES values. That overlap is consistent with the r-squared of the polynomial fit, which means that SES explains only 40 percent of the bubble score.
The real problem with American “society” is a kind of moral decay, brought on in great part by dependency on government. Working-class people of my father’s generation didn’t look to government for betterment; they just went out and worked, and usually bettered themselves.
Moreover, working-class people and upper-class “liberals” weren’t inundated by a lot of envy-inducing media blather about “crony capitalism” and “assortive mating.” (See the articles by Buckley and Edsall.) Crony capitalists (a relative handful among 320 million Americans) are the kind of people who would do well under any system — even including Soviet-style communism, which rewards ambition and intelligence, just in different ways than capitalism.
The whining about assortive mating is pointless and hypocritical. Those who engage in such whining would be appalled if government required mating across income levels — a kind of social engineering on a par with China’s one-baby policy. I doubt that affluent left-wing graduates of prestigious universities would countenance such a policy. And if they wouldn’t, what are they whining about?
And what about the obvious fact that high-income persons live in areas that poor people can’t afford. That’s hardly a new thing. But thanks to (relatively) free markets that reward the combination of intelligence-education-effort, there are proportionally more people who are in a position to live in areas that poor people can’t afford. Isn’t that exactly what most striving poor and middle-income persons want? What’s the problem?
I can understand Edsall’s preoccupation with social distancing; he’s a left-leaner who probably wants government to “do something” about it. Murray’s motivation is harder to understand given his libertarianish politics. But it’s evident that he’s been playing into the hands of do-something leftists, albeit unintentionally.
What will happen if government tries to “do something,” that is, more than it has already done (in vain) about supposed social distancing? The “something” is unlikely to be deregulation, tax-code reform, or anything that reduces government’s economic role. The “something” is more likely to be more preferences and handouts that reinforce and expand the cycle of dependency, thus lessening the urge to strive. The spreading rot will bring calls for yet more government action, which will further spread the rot, and so on into America’s dark, dystopian, “European” future.
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