A New Case for Gloom

There’s not much more that can be said about the Republican struggle to decide who on that side of things should run against Obama. The frontrunners come and go, and Mitt Romney plods along, the man who may or may not be the inevitable nominee. But no one in the party likes him much. The more everyone gets to know him – and that would be Democrats and independents too – the less they like him. Look at this graphic of his evolving negatives – now everyone thinks he’s a jerk. And see Aaron Blake’s Washington Post examination of other recent polling – Newt Gingrich: The Most Disliked Politician in America – also dismaying. And of course the current frontrunner, Rick Santorum, is scaring the living daylights out of everyone but the evangelical far right and the Catholic bishops – see Santorum says birth control is “harmful to women” and suggests married people don’t use it and such things. And the Santorum idea that arrogant elite snobs in the White House are out to ruin American by telling us kids should actually go to college, of all things, and that the Crusades were a damned good idea, and that the government should monitor and regulate what most folks think is private sexual behavior, all seems a little odd. The idea of federal agents busting down the bedroom door to make sure married couples aren’t trying new positions seems beyond creepy. But Santorum is who he is. And there’s Ron Paul, the loveable crackpot, with three good ideas for every ten of his which fall somewhere between absurd and vile. That’s who is left, these four.

And much has been written, here and elsewhere, examining each candidate’s views one by one – with many of us appalled and a few others impressed, and everyone else just stunned and then vaguely depressed. These are the guys asking us to let them run things? Obama, courteous and careful and severely pragmatic, may make many unhappy, on the left and the right, but at least Obama seems to reside on this planet. The remaining Republicans make you wonder about their current planet-of-residency. But beyond the firm and specific policy positions of these four remaining Republicans – assuming for the moment that Mitt Romney might actually have firm and specific policy positions – there is something that seems generally off-putting in what’s coming from the opposition. It’s the gloom – and perhaps it’s natural that the opposition tell us that’s the world is a horrible place, and getting worse by the day, and only they can fix it. But being told, over and over and over, that the world has been going to hell, and it’s filled with awful people doing awful things, and everyone – and particularly every arrogant city-dwelling Volvo-driving college-educated bleeding-heart liberal – is out to get you and take your stuff and give it to lazy black folks who will smirk at you – well, that gets tiresome. Many conservative voters do believe all of that, but gloom isn’t uplifting. And if the idea is to get you angry – angry enough to toss the bums out – there is also the real danger of driving potential voters into flattened despair, where the best thing to do is curl up in a fetal position and whimper, hopeless and bereft, waiting for the end. No one really wants to believe that the world, and specifically America, is badly broken in a fundamental way and going to hell in a handbasket – except the clinically depressed and a few guys dressed as Jesus up on Hollywood Boulevard here.

But that’s what the Republicans seem to be selling, and what they really need is someone scholarly to prove them right – as otherwise they’re just sour cranks. And Charles Murray came to their rescue with Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010:

Charles Murray explores the formation of American classes that are different in kind from anything we have ever known, focusing on whites as a way of driving home the fact that the trends he describes do not break along lines of race or ethnicity. 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. That divergence puts the success of the American project at risk.

That’s the Random House tease. But the New York Times’ Jennifer Schuessler offers better context:

When Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein’s book “The Bell Curve” appeared in 1994, it was denounced by social scientists, liberal pundits and a little-known Chicago civil-rights lawyer named Barack Obama, who in a commentary on NPR accused the authors of calculating that “white America is ready for a return to good old-fashioned racism as long as it’s artfully packaged.”

Anyone who remembers the firestorm over that 845-page doorstop’s dense arguments about race, class, genetics and I.Q. might be tempted to look at the cover of Mr. Murray’s latest book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” and think, “Here we go again.”

But “Coming Apart,” which depicts members of white elites as hypocrites living in a bubble and the white working class as succumbing to moral decay, is hardly a flattering portrait of white people, let alone, Mr. Murray insists, a partisan barnburner.

“It’s not a brief for the right,” Mr. Murray said in a recent interview at the American Enterprise Institute here, where he has been a scholar since 1990. “The problem I describe isn’t a conservative-versus-liberal problem. It’s a cultural problem the whole country has.”

Yes, The Bell Curve caused quite a stir – juggling numbers to prove, beyond all doubt, that blacks simply have far lower intelligence than the rest of us normal folks, pleased only a few AM talk-radio hosts, and the science proved to be flakey. But this new book is a best seller. Schuessler notes that David Brooks has already said that this book is the most important book of the year – “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society.” But she also notes that Jonathan Chait says this book just allows us to start talking about marriage and “industriousness” and “steer the debate back onto comfortable conservative terrain.” Chait seems to think Murray might have mentioned economic inequality.

But we got a book on moral virtues. Murray talks about the top twenty percent living in their semi-splendid isolation, where, as Schuessler explains, “divorce is low, the work ethic is strong, religious observance is high, and out-of-wedlock births are all but unheard of.” And then there’s the bottom thirty percent. For them Murray says America’s four “founding virtues” have simply collapsed. Yes see, they know nothing of marriage, industriousness, community and faith – poor bastards.

And of course Murray knows just how this happened. It was the damned sixties – “The elites put in place a whole set of reforms which I think fundamentally changed the signals and the incentives facing low-income people and encouraged a variety of trends that soon became self-reinforcing.” Damn those hippies!

But Murray has the solution. The people at the top should stop being so judgmental of the riff-raff bottom thirty percent and, out of kindness, lecture the riff-raff, telling them about the importance of marriage and personal responsibility, and how being dependent on anyone else, or the government, is very, very, very bad. Murray thinks these lectures will fix everything. All you need to do is explain industriousness and traditional marriage to them – problem solved.

But Schuessler also notes this:

Mr. Murray’s critics jump on such moralizing arguments, saying they blithely ignore a large body of research on the causes of family breakdown among the working class.

“He wants to go back and blame the counterculture for everything,” Claude S. Fischer, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a telephone interview. “But the huge majority of social scientists would say it’s the economic downturn suffered by the less educated in the last generation.”

And as for the other embedded ideas, Schuessler also notes that “it seems unlikely that any politician will take up Mr. Murray’s call to replace all federal income-transfer programs with a modest guaranteed income for all Americans age 21 and over.” But the idea is to end income-transfer programs like welfare and unemployment benefits and Medicare and Social Security. Just give the riff-raff some money and a few Horatio Alger Meets Jesus lectures about work and marriage and let them sink or swim on their own. It’s a free country.

And one of the New York Times’ two house conservatives, Ross Douthat, is just not that impressed:

What’s exasperating is what the author suggests policy makers can do about the social crisis: in essence, nothing.

Or at least nothing realistic. Instead, Murray argues that our leaders should embrace his own libertarian convictions, scrap all existing government programs (and the dependency and perverse incentives they create) and replace them with a universal guaranteed income. This is a fascinating idea; it’s also fantastically impractical, and entirely divorced from American political realities. Which means that it’s divorced from any possibility of actually addressing the crisis that Murray so vividly describes.

But Douthat is even-minded:

If Murray’s prescription for the social crisis is an exercise in libertarian wishful thinking, this liberal alternative is a mix of partisan demonization and budgetary fantasy. It was globalization – not Republicans – that killed the private-sector union and reduced the returns to blue-collar work. It’s arithmetic, not plutocracy, that’s standing between the left and its dream of a much more activist government. Even if liberals get the higher tax rates on the rich they so ardently desire, the money won’t be adequate to finance our existing entitlements, let alone a New Deal 2.0.

So let’s step back. The crisis in working-class life Murray describes is arguably our most pressing domestic problem. But we are not going to address it by gut-renovating our welfare state to fit a libertarian ideal, or by dramatically expanding the same state in pursuit of an unattainable social democratic dream.

So he suggests a few modest steps “to make it easier for working-class Americans to cultivate the virtues that foster resilience and self-sufficiency.” Douthat would like to change the tax system, for example, so they, like the very rich, get to keep far more of their money. And he also suggests that “if we want lower-income Americans to have stable family lives” we really should take family policy seriously – and maybe even allow paid family leave or get serious about childcare centers or some such thing. You can’t work your butt off if there’s no place to park the damned kid, after all. And of course Douthat argues we should keep all new immigrants out and rid ourselves of the ones we have – yes, the riff-raff need the jobs the other riff-raff have – although Douthat puts that more elegantly. And finally Douthat argues we put far too many of these folks in prison, and everyone knows that “prison is a school for crime and an anchor on advancement” – so let’s have less of that and far more “certain punishment and larger police forces” to keep crime low in the first place.

Does that fix Murray? Maybe it does, or maybe it’s just another conservative wet-dream of a massive police force keeping the poor in line and no one paying any taxes. But at least it’s not just Murray’s call for the suddenly-kind rich giving the suddenly-thankful poor those live-like-us lectures. On the other hand, Murray really does help bolster the views of the current Republican candidates – America is going to hell in a handbasket because the parasitic poor have none of the old All-American virtues, and someone just needs to slap them around. And Charles Murray proved it.

And then George Bush’s former speechwriter, David Frum, really dismantled Murray’s entire book:

Part 1: Is the White Working Class Coming Apart? [nope]

Part 2: Charles Murray’s Imaginary Elite [they’re not the paragons of virtue Murray imagines]

Part 3: What the Founders Would Tell Charles Murray [the “vast inequality of fortunes” destroys republics, not moral lapses and sin or whatever]

Part 4: Social Science Minus the Science [this man had his facts wrong]

Part 5: Now All Americans are Losing Ground [the top tier and middle is getting hammered as much as the virtues-deficient poor]

But Douthat still defends Murray:

Even acknowledging all the challenges (globalization, the decline of manufacturing, mass low-skilled immigration) that have beset blue collar America over the last thirty years, it is still the case that if you marry the mother or father of your children, take work when you can find it and take pride in what you do, attend church and participate as much as possible in the life of your community, and strive to conduct yourself with honesty and integrity, you are very likely to not only escape material poverty, but more importantly to find happiness in life.

Yeah, Ross, that is true, except when it isn’t, like right now.

But Douthat persists:

This case for the persistent advantages of private virtue does not disprove more purely economic analyses of what’s gone wrong in American life, but it should at the very least complicate them, and suggest a different starting place for discussions of the common good than the ground that most liberals prefer to occupy.

Well, virtue is nice. But it really may be irrelevant here. An assertion of relevance doesn’t prove relevance. But David Brooks is with Douthat, now writing that the half century between 1912 and 1962 was a period of “impressive social cohesion.” But of course since then everything has just fallen apart:

In the half-century between 1962 and the present, America has become more prosperous, peaceful and fair, but the social fabric has deteriorated. Social trust has plummeted. Society has segmented… The American social fabric is now so depleted that even if manufacturing jobs miraculously came back we still would not be producing enough stable, skilled workers to fill them. It’s not enough just to have economic growth policies. The country also needs to rebuild orderly communities.

Yeah, yeah, gloom and doom – what the Murray book lays out – social breakdown and the absence of traditional virtue – what Santorum and the rest, and the Catholic bishops, have been storming on about. But Kevin Drum wonders what’s really going on here:

Violent crime rose during the 60s and 70s but it’s dropped steeply for the past 30 years. Violent crime rates today are one-third the rates of the early 80s.

High school graduation rates are a little hard to get a handle on. The official statistics say that graduation rates have risen steadily for all races over the past 40 years. James Heckman says that a better look at the data suggests that graduation rates have actually fallen by 4-5 percentage points. But an EPI [Economic Policy Institute] study using high-quality longitudinal data suggests an increase of 3-4 percentage points. …

The non-elderly poverty rate fell during the 60s and has stayed relatively flat since then (though the current economic downturn has temporarily sent it up a few points). The Census Bureau produced a new measure of poverty last year, but it didn’t differ a lot from the standard measure.

Illicit drugs tend to go in and out of fashion, which makes it hard to draw firm conclusions about drug use in general. Roughly speaking though, it’s probably safe to say that drug use among teens and young adults went up in the 60s and 70s, declined in the 80s, rose during the early 90s, and then began falling modestly starting in the late 90s. Illicit drug use today is certainly higher than it was during the first half of the last century, but it’s been on an overall downward trend for the past 30 years.

Marriage rates are down and divorce rates are up.

So what can one make of this?

Of these five markers, the only one that’s indisputably worse and in long-term decline is marriage rates. The others are either better or about the same as they were 40 years ago. So what exactly is it that makes us think the social fabric of America is unraveling? The whole argument seems to hang awfully heavily on the decline in marriage rates.

There are other markers you could look at, of course. Income inequality. Churchgoing. Labor force participation. Membership in civic organizations. Charitable giving. Union membership. Political polarization. If you pick just the right markers and tell just the right story, you can probably make a case for a decline in the social fabric. But if you look at them all, you see some that look good and some that look bad – and we don’t even agree on which is which. I think the decline in union membership is bad; David Brooks probably thinks it’s good. Conversely, Brooks probably thinks the decline in churchgoing is bad; I’m not bothered by it at all.

And Drum says he doesn’t see that American society has “segmented” either:

I can be convinced otherwise if there’s good evidence, but my sense is that the main thing that’s changed here is that we’re increasingly aware of our fragmentation thanks to living in a media-saturated environment. What did backwoods Appalachians have in common with New York bankers half a century ago? Pretty much nothing. But if you relied on the national media for your news, you barely even knew they existed. Maybe Life ran an occasional photo spread, but that was it. Ditto for black communities, Hispanic communities, evangelical communities, and a hundred other communities. … That might make it seem like things are on a downhill slope, but it’s really just a trick of the light (and perhaps advancing age).

Drum is not so sure America is really is going to hell in a handbasket:

Maybe our social fabric really is disintegrating. But anyone who tosses this stuff around really needs to provide some solid evidence that it’s happening – and needs to contend with all the evidence, not just a few cherry-picked trends. Let’s hear the argument.

And the New Yorker’s George Packer sees things this way:

Visit most towns or rural areas where factories are boarded up and all the economic life is confined to strip malls and you have to acknowledge the force of Murray’s picture. Rampant drug use, high dropout rates, out-of-wedlock births, epidemic obesity, every other working-age person on disability – it’s true even though Charles Murray says it’s true. And the predictable left-right argument over causes and solutions doesn’t help. Is it disappearing jobs, or disappearing values?

This isn’t an analytical choice I find very useful. Jobs and values are intertwined: when one starts to go, the other is likely to go with it, and the circle becomes truly vicious.

So the case for gloom can be made, but Murray’s call for the suddenly-kind rich giving the suddenly-thankful poor those live-like-us lectures about marriage, industriousness, community and faith – which seems the sum and substance of what the Republican candidates are proposing – doesn’t address the problem. If you’re going to run on doom and gloom you’ll have to do better than that.

But maybe you just want people to be angry. And that’s fine, as long as they’re not angry at you for being a sanctimonious sour jerk. There’s a reason those poll numbers are falling.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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