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.