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.

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Related posts:

In Defense of the 1%

Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications

IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition


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


Privilege, Power, and Hypocrisy

Capitalism, Competition, Prosperity, and Happiness

Dan Quayle Was (Almost) Right

Regarding The New York Times piece by Jason DeParle, called “Two Classes in America, Divided by ‘I Do,'” Rick Garnett says, “Maybe the piece should be called “Dan Quayle was right”? There’s no “maybe” about it. Dan Quayle was right when he said this in 1992:

Right now the failure of our families is hurting America deeply. When families fall, society falls. The anarchy and lack of structure in our inner cities are testament to how quickly civilization falls apart when the family foundation cracks. Children need love and discipline. A welfare check is not a husband. The state is not a father. It is from parents that children come to understand values and themselves as men and women, mothers and fathers.

And for those concerned about children growing up in poverty, we should know this: marriage is probably the best anti-poverty program of them all. Among families headed by married couples today, there is a poverty rate of 5.7 percent. But 33.4 percent of families are headed by a single mother are in poverty today.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Where there are no mature, responsible men around to teach boys how to become good men, gangs serve in their place. In fact, gangs have become a surrogate family for much of a generation of inner-city boys….

The system perpetuates itself as these young men father children whom they have no intention of caring for, by women whose welfare checks support them. Teenage girls, mired in the same hopelessness, lack sufficient motive to say no to this trap….

Ultimately, however, marriage is a moral issue that requires cultural consensus, and the use of social sanctions. Bearing babies irresponsibly is, simply, wrong. Failure to support children one has fathered is wrong. We must be unequivocal about this.

It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown – a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman – mocking the importance of a father, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another “lifestyle choice.”

I know it is not fashionable to talk about moral values, but we need to do it. Even though our cultural leaders in Hollywood, network TV, the national newspapers routinely jeer at them, I think that most of us in this room know that some things are good, and other things are wrong. Now it’s time to make the discussion public….

Quayle’s message was derided by the usual suspects, of course. But Quayle’s remarks now apply just as much to whites as to the inner-city blacks whose behavior Quayle cites.

Indeed, DeParle focuses on the example of two white women, Jessica Schairer and her boss, Chris Faulkner:

They are both friendly white women from modest Midwestern backgrounds who left for college with conventional hopes of marriage, motherhood and career. They both have children in elementary school. They pass their days in similar ways: juggling toddlers, coaching teachers and swapping small secrets that mark them as friends. They even got tattoos together. Though Ms. Faulkner, as the boss, earns more money, the difference is a gap, not a chasm.

But a friendship that evokes parity by day becomes a study of inequality at night and a testament to the way family structure deepens class divides. Ms. Faulkner is married and living on two paychecks, while Ms. Schairer is raising her children by herself. That gives the Faulkner family a profound advantage in income and nurturing time, and makes their children statistically more likely to finish college, find good jobs and form stable marriages.

Ms. Faulkner goes home to a trim subdivision and weekends crowded with children’s events. Ms. Schairer’s rent consumes more than half her income, and she scrapes by on food stamps.

DeParle also hammers at inequality in a companion piece to the article quoted above:

An interesting pattern over the last four decades is that inequality has grown much faster for households with children than it has for households over all — an indication that changes in family structure (as opposed to wages and employment alone) have increased inequality….

While the decline of two-parent families is most striking in the bottom quarter, that is a familiar story and had largely occurred by 1990. Much of the recent growth has occurred in the second-lowest quarter, sometimes called the working class. In that group, the share of households with children headed by unmarried parents has soared to nearly 40 percent and the growth has continued in recent years:

The focus on inequality is perverse but predictable, inasmuch as DeParle is writing for The New York Times. Yes, DeParle eventually gets around to mentioning the choices made by the women in question:

College-educated Americans like the Faulkners…

Less-educated women like Ms. Schairer, who left college without finishing her degree….

[Ms. Schairer] got pregnant during her first year of college, left school and stayed in a troubled relationship that left her with three children when it finally collapsed six years ago. She has had little contact with the children’s father and receives no child support. With an annual income of just under $25,000, Ms. Schairer barely lifts her children out of poverty, but she is not one to complain. “I’m in this position because of decisions I made,” she said.

Why, then, the focus on economic inequality, which is an unsurprising consequence of the kinds of decisions made by Ms. Schairer and growing numbers of white women? DeParle eventually acknowledges the latter point:

Long concentrated among minorities, motherhood outside marriage now varies by class about as much as it does by race. It is growing fastest in the lower reaches of the white middle class — among women like Ms. Schairer who have some postsecondary schooling but no four-year degree.

But Ms. Schairer finds herself in “the lower reaches of the white middle class” because of her decisions — not because of a mysterious force called inequality, which has become the left’s all-purpose excuse for social ills.

The focus on inequality is surely meant to suggest that there is a “problem” about which government should do something. But the real problem is not economic inequality, which (though inevitable) is exacerbated by the rising trend toward broken families and one-parent homes. And that is the real problem, because its victims are innocent bystanders: the children of broken families and one-parent homes.

Rick Garnett asks, what “[c]an can law [i.e., government] do, if anything, about the challenges identified in [DeParle’s] piece?” The correct answer is that government should not compensate women like Ms. Schairer for the consequences of their bad decisions. Where government, through various welfare schemes, does compensate the Ms. Schairers for the consequences of their bad decisions, the result is to encourage more such bad decisions. (Economists call it moral hazard.)

The most that government can and should do is to cancel the perverse incentives that it has created in the past several decades: lax divorce laws; favoritism in employment and child-care subsidies that lure women into the working world, away from their children;  and, of course, the welfare programs that reward bad decisions.

Government can’t do anything about the real problem, which is the decline of Judeo-Christian values as a guiding force in the affairs of Americans. Government has hastened that decline, but anything that it might do in an effort to reverse the decline is sure to be counterproductive.

Dan Quayle was almost right when he closed his infamous speech with this:

So I think the time has come to renew our public commitment to our Judeo-Christian values – in our churches and synagogues, our civic organizations and our schools. We are, as our children recite each morning, “one nation under God.” That’s a useful framework for acknowledging a duty and an authority higher than our own pleasures and personal ambitions.

Quayle’s counsel is one of lip-service and, strangely, reliance on government.

Judeo-Christian values, to be vital and effective in the affairs of society, must be inculcated within the family circle. Only when government stops breaking up families will there be hope for a broad resurgence of Judeo-Christian values in America.

I am a realist, however. And so I must close by paraphrasing the conclusion of a recent post. I do not believe that America can recover from its descent into hedonism. Therefore, the “single-parent problem” will not go away, and the dwindling fraction of Americans who conduct their lives conscientiously will subsidize an ever-growing fraction of Americans who make bad “life choices.” America is becoming (has become?) a moral wasteland, replete with one-parent “families,” broken families, and children who suffer spiritual neglect.

Given this state of affairs, it is prudent and desirable for traditional families to insulate themselves, as much as possible, from “mainstream” America. This can be done by limiting one’s social relationships (other than superficial ones) to those persons who share one’s values (even to the exclusion of family members, if necessary), and by home-schooling one’s children or sending them to private schools  that can be relied on to transmit Judeo-Christian values.

Related posts:
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Nature Is Unfair
A Declaration and Defense of My Prejudices about Governance
Why Conservatism Works