Murray’s “Coming Apart”: A fix for US inequality?

This book bears a superficial resemblance to the rest of the angst literature on Anglosphere inequality, but it is much better than The New Few or The Spirit Level. Its use of evidence about the separations between top and bottom in US society seems fairer and brighter. Yet more to the point, though flawed where it most matters (in its proposed solutions), Charles Murray’s cultural and social arguments seem far more interesting than most.

The nuts and bolts underpinning the Murray case are pretty straightforward and even routine. Occupy would have little difficulty with the data in Coming Apart: The state of white America, 1960-2010. The top one percent of Americans are rich, and have been getting richer at a new rate of acceleration such that they are leaving everyone else behind. But the picture is a little complicated: the rest of the people in the top 10 per cent, that is those just below the top one percent, are also getting richer quite a bit quicker than anyone below them, but they lag the one per cent by a long way. Another way of putting this is to say that the 99th decile are doing spectacularly much better even than the successful 90-98th deciles. Everyone else – comprising the lower 90 percent of society in their various strata – are getting very, very slightly richer, at a very slow pace.

Charles Murray shows us things which are news, at least to me, though some of it is in Manning Up. He says there is a New Upper Class. He identifies it economically as being composed of about the top five percent of earners. But this sort of person is defined by very much more than their wealth. They tend to live close to one another in Super Zips; they marry each other (and are a class not least in being able to reproduce their status); they have European tastes; they get and stay married; they obsess about the success of their children. They are often rapacious but it is more surprising how often they are precious. I don’t recall Murray saying so, but I think he thinks his New Upper Class don’t like the rest of America much. Or rather, they are scared of it. Anyway, since he cites the denizens of thirtysomething and Frasier as precursors of this class, you will perhaps see where I might get the idea.

It is perhaps worth inserting here the understanding that for many decades America has had a schizophrenic attitude to a schizophrenic society. There was a strong defensive middle class perception of people from the “wrong side of the tracks”, more recently identified as trailer trash. For all England had different classes, I think there was much more intermingling than cliche has it, and there much less intermingling in America than cliche supposes.

Anyway, Mr Murray identifies a class at the bottom of America’s pile. He marks it as composed of economically weak men and women, the latter often bringing up young children alone, somewhere at the bottom end of the 30 percent of Americans who are working class people. This class is also new, especially in its size, prominence and separateness. It doesn’t do stable paid work, or stable marriage; it is prone to crime; and it is of course poor and unhappy and it – like the New Upper Class – increasingly reproduces itself. For some reason, perhaps to do with the amorphousness of this class, Mr Muray doesn’t accord it capital letters.

The important reason why Charles Murray is different and good is that he admits the main differences between these two classes are cultural. Their extremely divergent appetites for (and perhaps access to) education makes them seem like creatures from different species. In particular much of the economic success at every level within the top echelons of earning flows from success in the new and powerful cognitive economy; the new lower class endure a mirror image of failure in brain, IT and creative work.

In their different ways, these two new classes strike Charles Murray as not being very American. For a start, in their different ways they both abandon aspects of American Exceptionalism, and in particular its obligation to public, activist virtue. Whilst Mr Murray can see lots of qualities in the New Upper Class, he turns this into an injunction that they have failed to “preach what they practice”. Indeed, his plea is especially American in another way: he says that the quite plentiful Democrats amongst the New Upper Class are happy to abdicate their obligation to look after the poor by instead drifting toward European sorts of welfare state.

I am in favour of arguing that the advantaged in the Anglosphere have abandoned their elitist role and went on at length about that in an essay for the New Culture Forum. But I rather resist the ideas enshrined in what in the UK we call  the Big Society, as I argued at an Axess Foundation outing on Gotland in the summer of 2011. So this is where I begin to part company with Mr Murray.

Mr Murray’s take on the new lower class is of course depressing and it is useful because it factors into the plight of the very poor the post-60s decline – the deliberate decline, led from the top – in sociability in society. That’s to say that the old American (and European) values of faith, flag and family have been under-rated for generations, and various forms of public glue have been denied to those who need it most.

Mr Murray seems to think, and argues, that the upper classes of America could reinvest in their wider public role, and fix what’s wrong with the new lower class. If the US upper echelons are anything like our own, I don’t think that’s terribly likely on a much larger scale than we are already familiar with.

I don’t think this is much of  a problem and I suggest that the “coming apart” in society may well be fixed in all sorts of other ways. For a start, the negligences of the advantaged in the Anglosphere were much more pronounced amongst the educated than amongst the rich, and more interesting amongst the not-very-rich thinking classes who unmake modern culture than amongst the money-minded who make the modern economy. In short, what ails the Anglosphere underclass can be fixed by taxes (mostly from the rich) and by nurses, teachers, social workers and entertainers (mostly from the not-rich).

Mr Murray has his finger on the feature of modern society that leads to run-away affluence and social division: it is a cognitive division, which propels some people to amazing affluence – and, I should add, aspiration and activism – and others to all sorts of poverties and angry inertias. The New Upper Class won’t fix this divide, but the cognoscenti (alongside quite a lot of welfare spending) can and probably will.

There is quite an interesting series of subtleties in Mr Murray’s work. One is that he seems to be suggesting that there are an upper 20 percent and a lower 20 per cent in American society between which there are quite important divides in wealth and welfare, and cognitive achievement, which might amount to zones of separation and concern. He may not stress this because it is less dramatic situation than that posed by the separating extremes. I don’t think there’s a continuum from advantage to deprivation in economics, or from a matching well-being to disaster in well-being. But I think it is quite possible that the problem of a lack of cognitive aspiration may be dangerously prevalent almost everywhere except the top 20 percent and may be very serious even in much of the bottom 20 percent.

One might mend all these things and still decide society allows some people to get too rich in too unequal a society and one might still agonise about the sadness of some quite large component at the low end of modern society. Those might need fixes of the kind conventional politicians have always argued over, or new ones. But there are important solutions much nearer to hand, and demanding much less of the romanticism which I think Mr Murray very charmingly and expressively has.

Mr Murray has done fabulous work in identifiying the problems we face and I hope I have usefully improved on his recipe for fixing them, if only by proposing some quite standard right-wing nostrums to them..

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Publication date

09 February 2013