“They Deserve to Die”?

In “Prosperity Isn’t Everything” I quoted Megan McArdle’s observations about how thing have gotten better and worse for Americans. Here’s some of what she wrote:

By the standards of today, my grandparents were living in wrenching poverty. Some of this, of course, involves technologies that didn’t exist—as a young couple in the 1930s my grandparents had less access to health care than the most  neglected homeless person in modern America, simply because most of the treatments we now have had not yet been invented. That is not the whole story, however. Many of the things we now have already existed; my grandparents simply couldn’t afford them.  With some exceptions, such as microwave ovens and computers, most of the modern miracles that transformed 20th century domestic life already existed in some form by 1939. But they were out of the financial reach of most people….

[Not] everything has gotten better in every way, all the time. There are areas in which things have gotten broadly worse….

  • … Substance abuse, and the police response to it, has devastated both urban and rural communities.
  • Divorce broke up millions of families, and while the college educated class seems to have found a new equilibrium of stable and happy later marriages, marriage is collapsing among the majority who do not have a college degree, leaving millions of children in unstable family situations where fathers are often absent from the home, and their attention and financial resources are divided between multiple children with multiple women.
  • Communities are much less cohesive than they used to be, and while the educated elite may have found substitutes online, the rest of the country is “bowling alone” more and more often—which is not merely lonely, but also means they have fewer social supports when they find themselves in trouble.
  • A weekly wage packet may buy more than it did sixty years ago, but the stability of manufacturing jobs is increasingly being replaced by contingent and unreliable shift work that is made doubly and triply difficult by the instability of the families that tend to do these jobs. The inability to plan your life or work in turn makes it hard to form a family, and stressful to keep one together….

Charles Murray writes candidly but not unsympathetically about the plight of low-income white Americans in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010:

Drawing on five decades of statistics and research, Coming Apart demonstrates that a new upper class and a new lower class have diverged so far in core behaviors and values that they barely recognize their underlying American kinship—divergence that has nothing to do with income inequality and that has grown during good economic times and bad.

The top and bottom of white America increasingly live in different cultures, Murray argues, with the powerful upper class living in enclaves surrounded by their own kind, ignorant about life in mainstream America, and the lower class suffering from erosions of family and community life that strike at the heart of the pursuit of happiness.

Along comes Kevin D. Williamson of the National Review to pour scorn upon low-income whites. Williamson’s article, which appeared in the print edition of March 28, 2016, was originally titled “The Father-Fuhrer,” a reference to Donald Trump. The online version is called “Chaos in the Family, Chaos in the State: The White Working Class’s Dysfunction.” Written before Trump had clinched the GOP nomination, the piece is a transparent attempt to discredit Trump by discrediting a key source of his support: low-income whites in chronically depressed regions of the country.

Here’s a key passage:

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs…. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

Disgusting.

Scott Grier, writing in The Daily Caller (“National Review Writer: Working-Class Communities ‘Deserve To Die’,” March 12, 2016), seems to share my disgust. He closes with this:

While Williamson blames the people living in run-down white communities for their own woes, he does not apply the same principle to run-down minority communities. In his book and articles on the failures of Detroit, for instance, the National Review writer blames “progressivism” and unions for ruining the predominately African-American city.

Spot on. As I say in “Prosperity Isn’t Everything,”

Let’s begin with social norms, which are the basis of social ties. If you and I observe the same social norms, we’re likely to feel bound in some way, even if we’re not friends or relatives. This, of course, is tribalism, which is verboten among those who view all of mankind as brothers, sisters, and whatevers under the skin — all mankind except smarty-pants Americans of East Asian descent, Israeli Jews and American Jews who support Israel, Southerners (remember the Civil War!), and everyone else who is a straight, non-Hispanic white male of European descent. To such people, the only legitimate tribe is the tribe of anti-tribalism.You may by now understand that I blame leftists for the breakdown of social norms and social ties. But how can that be if, as McArdle says, “the college educated class seems to have found a new equilibrium of stable and happy later marriages”? The college-educated class resides mostly on the left, and affluent leftists do seem to have avoided the rot.

Yes, but they caused it. You could think of it as a non-suicidal act of terror. But it would be kinder and more accurate to call it an act of involuntary manslaughter.  Leftists meant to make the changes that caused the rot; they just didn’t foresee or intend the rot. Nor is it obvious that they care about it, except as an excuse to “solve” social problems from on high by throwing money and behavioral prescriptions at them — which is why there’s social rot in the first place.

The good intentions embedded in governmental acts and decrees have stealthily expanded and centralized government’s power, and in the process have sundered civil society….

The undoing of traditional mores began in earnest in the 1960s, with a frontal assault on traditional morality and the misguided expansion of the regulatory-welfare state. The unraveling continues to this day. Traditional morality is notable in its neglect; social cohesion is almost non-existent, except where the bonds of religion and ethnicity remain strong. The social fabric that once bound vast swaths of America has rotted — and is almost certainly beyond repair.

The social fabric has frayed precisely because government has pushed social institutions aside and made dependents of hundreds of millions of Americans. As Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

Now for an ironic twist. Were the central government less profligate and intrusive, Americans would become much more prosperous.

Clearly, Kevin Williamson wants to distance himself from people who don’t share his elevated norms. In that respect, he’s no different from a sneering, leftist-voting yuppie. If he were truly conservative, he’d have compassion for the people about whom he writes.

But Williamson has shown himself to be a faux conservative: all economic efficiency and no heart.

Bubbling Along

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:

Bubble score vs. SES percentile
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.

*      *      *

Related posts:

In Defense of the 1%

Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications

IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition

Alienation

Income Inequality and Economic Growth

A Case for Redistribution, Not Made

Greed, Conscience, and Big Government

The Rahn Curve Revisited

The Slow-Motion Collapse of the Economy

Nature, Nurture, and Inequality

How to Eradicate the Welfare State, and How Not to Do It

Diminishing Marginal Utility and the Redistributive Urge

Tolerance

Privilege, Power, and Hypocrisy

Capitalism, Competition, Prosperity, and Happiness

Are You in the Bubble?

Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, is a hot topic in the sector of the blogosphere that I frequent. Kay S. Hymowitz summarizes Murray’s thesis:

According to Murray, the last 50 years have seen the emergence of a “new upper class.” By this he means something quite different from the 1 percent that makes the Occupy Wall Streeters shake their pitchforks. He refers, rather, to the cognitive elite that he and his coauthor Richard Herrnstein warned about in The Bell Curve. This elite is blessed with diplomas from top colleges and with jobs that allow them to afford homes in Nassau County, New York and Fairfax County, Virginia. They’ve earned these things not through trust funds, Murray explains, but because of the high IQs that the postindustrial economy so richly rewards.

Murray creates a fictional town, Belmont, to illustrate the demographics and culture of the new upper class. Belmont looks nothing like the well-heeled but corrupt, godless enclave of the populist imagination. On the contrary: the top 20 percent of citizens in income and education exemplify the core founding virtues Murray defines as industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religious observance….

The American virtues are not doing so well in Fishtown, Murray’s fictional working-class counterpart to Belmont. In fact, Fishtown is home to a “new lower class” whose lifestyle resembles The Wire more than Roseanne. Murray uncovers a five-fold increase in the percentage of white male workers on disability insurance since 1960, a tripling of prime-age men out of the labor force—almost all with a high school degree or less—and a doubling in the percentage of Fishtown men working less than full-time…..

Most disastrous for Fishtown residents has been the collapse of the family, which Murray believes is now “approaching a point of no return.” For a while after the 1960s, the working class hung on to its traditional ways. That changed dramatically by the 1990s. Today, under 50 percent of Fishtown 30- to 49-year-olds are married; in Belmont, the number is 84 percent. About a third of Fishtowners of that age are divorced, compared with 10 percent of Belmonters. Murray estimates that 45 percent of Fishtown babies are born to unmarried mothers, versus 6 to 8 percent of those in Belmont.

And so it follows: Fishtown kids are far less likely to be living with their two biological parents. One survey of mothers who turned 40 in the late nineties and early 2000s suggests the number to be only about 30 percent in Fishtown. In Belmont? Ninety percent—yes, ninety—were living with both mother and father. City Journal, January 25, 2012)

What is the moral of Murray’s tale? According to Hymowitz, it is that

America has become a segregated, caste society, with a born elite and an equally hereditary underclass. A libertarian, Murray believes these facts add up to an argument for limited government. The welfare state has sapped America’s civic energy in places like Fishtown, leaving a population of disengaged, untrusting slackers. It has also diminished upper-class confidence: the well-to-do dare not suggest they have a recipe for the good life. “The underpinning of the welfare state,” Murray writes, “is that, at bottom, human beings are not really responsible for the things they do.”

Not only that, but as Ilya Somin puts it,

Murray argues that a new elite class has emerged that is much more ignorant about the lives of ordinary Americans than were the elites of earlier generations….

If Murray is right, this kind of elite ignorance is the flip side of the general public’s political ignorance. Public ignorance is dangerous because it reduces the quality of voting decisions; elite ignorance because it reduces the quality of the decisions made by elites once they get into positions of power. (“Charles Murray on Elite Ignorance of Ordinary Americans,” The Volokh Conspiracy, January 25, 2012)

Somin adds:

I am far from certain that the kind of knowledge Murray describes is actually important in improving the quality of public policy. Yes, elites who make policy that affects the lives of truck drivers should have some knowledge of “their priorities.” But it’s not clear to me that knowledge of TV shows, foods, preferred sports, etc., of truck drivers is all that useful to understanding those priorities. Even the experience of living with a low income or working at a job where your body hurts at the end of the day (both stressed by Murray s especially important) may be overrated. You don’t have to do either to realize that poverty imposes substantial constraints on your life, or that physical pain is extremely unpleasant….

To be sure, there is an important sense in which elite ignorance reduces the quality of public policy. In a complex society where people have a wide variety of preferences, not even the most knowledgeable elite experts can really have enough information to impose efficient paternalistic regulations that preempt individual choice. But this problem would persist even if all our elites had a deep and extensive knowledge of non-elite culture. The solution is not so much an elite that is better-informed about the culture of the masses, but an elite whose power over those masses is more limited and decentralized.

To put it another way, the real public-policy problem is that the elites — empowered by the regulatory-welfare state — are able to impose policies that harm the social and economic fabric, and therefore harm the working class. If elites knew more about the actual “priorities” of the working class (whatever those “priorities” might be), the elites would simply concoct more misbegotten policies.

To put it yet another way, the elites relish the power of the regulatory-welfare state. It is the exercise of that power which matters to the elites, not the “real people” of the “real world,” who are an excuse for the exercise of power. In Murray’s view, which I share, those “real people” are unreal to the elites because the elites live in an upper-middle-class bubble, remote from the “real world” of Fishtown and its like.

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, “How Thick Is Your Bubble?” 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.