David Frum Eviscerates Charles Murray’s Latest Book
David Frum begins a withering review for The Daily Beast, "Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 is an important book that will have large influence. It is unfortunately not a good book."
David Frum begins a withering review for The Daily Beast, “Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 is an important book that will have large influence. It is unfortunately not a good book.”
A couple of excerpts will suffice to illustrate the tone of the review.
To understand what Murray does in Coming Apart, imagine this analogy:
A social scientist visits a Gulf Coast town. He notices that the houses near the water have all been smashed and shattered. The former occupants now live in tents and FEMA trailers. The social scientist writes a report: The evidence strongly shows that living in houses is better for children and families than living in tents and trailers. The people on the waterfront are irresponsibly subjecting their children to unacceptable conditions.
When he publishes his report, somebody points out: “You know, there was a hurricane here last week.” The social scientist shrugs off the criticism with the reply, “I’m writing about housing, not weather.”
Murray is baffled that a collapse in the pay and conditions of work should have led to a decline in a workforce’s commitment to the labor market.
His book wants to lead readers to the conclusion that the white working class has suffered a moral collapse attributable to vaguely hinted at cultural forces. Yet he never specifies what those cultural forces might be, and he presents no evidence at all for a link between those forces and the moral collapse he sees.
Let me try my hand:
You are a white man aged 30 without a college degree. Your grandfather returned from World War II, got a cheap mortgage courtesy of the GI bill, married his sweetheart and went to work in a factory job that paid him something like $50,000 in today’s money plus health benefits and pension. Your father started at that same factory in 1972. He was laid off in 1981, and has never had anything like as good a job ever since. He’s working now at a big-box store, making $40,000 a year, and waiting for his Medicare to kick in.
Now look at you. Yes, unemployment is high right now. But if you keep pounding the pavements, you’ll eventually find a job that pays $28,000 a year. That’s not poverty! Yet you seem to waste a lot of time playing video games, watching porn, and sleeping in. You aren’t married, and you don’t go to church. I blame Frances Fox Piven.
The last half of the review, interestingly, strongly echoes a post Steven Taylor wrote here yesterday. I’m not suggesting that Frum cribbed it without attribution. Rather, that a lot of us who were indisputably “conservatives” as recently as the middle of the George W. Bush administration now find ourselves on the outside looking in.
via Andrew Exum and Blake Hounshell
I’m rather curious about this bit:
How is he defining social libertarianism here? The ways I think he could define it are most likely to be more accurately defined as “socially liberal.” And there are a lot of ways we have become notably less socially liberal or libertarian than we were (drugs, tobacco, drunk driving, youth curfews…)
That this book is quite faulty is not surprising considering its author is the same person who co-wrote The Bell Curve…
The flaw in Murray’s reasoning which Frum is highlighting is that much of cultural inequality is an inescapable part of economic inequality. Murray ignores this and wants to pretends it’s all the fault of hippies in the sixties.
Reality has a liberal bias?
“Rather, that a lot of us who were indisputably “conservatives” as recently as the middle of the George W. Bush administration now find ourselves on the outside looking in.”
At least you have a choice. You can go support the Democrats because you revile social conservatism. Those of us who could care less about the social issues, but care greatly about economics are called stupid by you and Frum, and traitors by the Hannity clan.
Also? 28k per year, in most parts of the country, beats the crap out of unemployment. “Outside the Beltway”. I mean. I have three people working for me, entry level, making between $24k and $34k. They’re buying houses and new cars, not whining about what their parents got from the GI Bill. The D.C. types have a habit of being a little too insular.
You are a white man aged 30 without a college degree. Your grandfather returned from World
I am a white male with a college degree. I was an engineer and as such salaried. When I first entered the work force in the 70s I worked 40 or 45 hours a week and made decent money. By the time I left the workforce in the early 2000s, not voluntary, in real dollars I was making about the same amount of money and working 60 plus hours a week. Was I less dedicated to my job and my employer? You are damned right I was. We used to refer to ourselves as salaried slaves.
In the 80s I worked for a Japanese Company. The Japanese managers were initially upset the American engineers worked 40 hours a week instead of 60 hours a week like Japanese engineers. After a couple of months they had to admit that the American engineers accomplished more in 40 hours than the Japanese engineers did in 60.
@Matt: I made $30,000 a year my first year teaching at Troy State. With a PhD. But it doesn’t change the fact that people who saw their parents make great livings with no education or skills and are expected to get a lot of education and training to make far less money are apt to be comparatively unmotivated.
As a matter of sheer economics, the gravy train in which low skill laborers could make fantastic livings in manufacturing was unsustainable. But the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction and huge swaths of the country are finding it hard to make a decent living. Blaming that on the 1960s counterculture isn’t very helpful.
And….I’m not sure what you’re getting at here:
Both Frum and I are in the economic conservative/social libertarian mold. Why are we calling you stupid?
Why? Those “Low Skill Workers” may not have had a college education but that doesn’t mean they weren’t skilled. As an engineer I appreciated the skills of those “low Skilled” people I worked with. And what created the economic miracle that was the US in the 50s, 60s and 70s. It wasn’t the wealthy it was those “low skilled workers” that had money to spend. The wealthy don’t create jobs it’s those “low skilled workers” with money to spend that create jobs.
What’s awesome* about the Murray tendency is the conviction that the wealthy suffering a 2-10% reduction in total income (via increased marginal tax rates) will of course and ought to lead them to massively reduce their dedication to work, but a 50% hit to the incomes of working people shouldn’t diminish their dedication to work one bit – unless the hippies get to them somehow.
* “awesome” here means “simultaneously contemptible and bitterly hilarious.”
I think you mislabel Frum but that aside the brand of economic conservatism we’ve seen practised by Republicans over the last thirty years is the light that failed. It’s central flaw to me has alway been the fact that in a post industrial economy like ours where 70% of GDP is consumer spending the progressive impoverishment of 80-90% of the country doesn’t make a lot of sense.Meanwhile Republican attitudes on social issues have been overtaken by cultural, ethnic and generational shifts and they’ve doubled down on obscurantism. The consequence of these twin economic and cultural events has been to leave intelligent and rational conservatives either marooned (which you imply you are) or driven into the Democratic fold which is what happened to me.
Another politically correct idiot white person supporting the destruction of his own people.
Seriously, what is wrong with white people?
Stand up for your own kind just like everybody else does!
James Joyner, do you realize you’re a Darwin Award Winner?
@Ron Beasley: During my time teaching, I have observed that the academy tends toward feelings of contempt (for want of a better word) for people who are lacking in education. Thus, the “gravy train” comment. While I will admit that working class wages were probably becoming unsustainable in many situations (and In fact, argued the same point while working at a blue collar job in the 80s) I will also assert that professional people and academics making several times the average wage level and managers making incomes that are orders of magnitude higher than averages may be another “gravy train.” Yet, I hardly ever hear Libertarians make this argument–they seem to be too busy talking about makers (themselves) and takers (everyone else, especially those low skilled workers that are robbing companies blind with their unreasonable wage expectations).
The success of the right wing machine has had in denigrating collective action by the middle/lower classes has had a major effect on income for those classes. To a winger, it is perfectly acceptable and natural that executives acting collectively to extract huge amounts of revenue from a corporation (by, for example, putting their friends on each others boards and voting on each others compensation packages). This is not only acceptable but the way the system is supposed to work. Executives should maximize their compensation in any way they can. But god forbid that anyone on the right ever say one good thing about workers acting collectively (i.e. unions) to extract a larger share of a companies revenue stream. The attitude on the right is outrage and offense at the thought. To me, it seems as if it really gets their pants in a twist over members of the lower class putting on airs and acting above their station.
Of course, as Frum points out, the incentive for a man to get a job so that he can get married and have kids obvously goes down as the rewards of that job go down. What is the grandson, in Murray’s scenario supposed to think?…..”Well, my Grandad made fifty k a year doing manual labor, my dad makes forty k, and I can make twenty eight k, so I sure am all eager and fired up to go and get that job, get married, and have a son, so that someday he can, if the trend continues, grow up and go to work and make eighteen k!”
But some stuff seems to have been overlooked….
No one seems to be mentioning that marriage, for men, had become something of a crap deal. That is a real change of the “Sixites” (or, more accurately the Seventies) that has had a negative effect on family creation and cohesion. No fault divorce, phony domestic violence charges, alimony, alimony cloaked as child support, etc, etc. Many, many men now feel that getting married is like playing Russion Roulette, only the wife is holding the gun. At any time, she can call nine one one and make a fake abuse charge. After that, his life is basically over. Not as bad, but still terrible, she can simply file for divorce for no reason at all. The guy will get skinned financially in Family Court. Worse yet, his kids will be taken away from him. Modern fathers are much more involved in their kids’ lives than most Dads were in the halycon days of mid century. And that’s great, but it makes it that much more painful to have their kids yanked away from them. One need not be an MRA to feel that marriage is no longer such a good deal for men…so many things have changed. A husband and father used to be the head of the household. Now, supposedly, things are “equal.” Which sounds good in theory, but in reality means the wife holds all the cards…don’t please her? she’ll cry “abuse” or simply divorce you or withold sex. Time was, married men were assured of sex, NOT because it was “OK to rape your wife” but because wives felt it was their duty, that it was part of the deal, to have sex with their husbands, even when they didn’t feel like it. Now, no wife thinks that way. Wives use sex as a weapon. At the same time, the Sexual Revoluton means that sex, and not just sex with “Bad Girls” or prostitutes, can be had outside marriage….
So, if men aren’t getting married, what are they doing? Murray adopts the by now hackneyed cliche of the “Peter Pans.” All day long they play video games and watch porn. Well, that may describe some men, but hardly all. Rather, men in their twenties and thirties are simply doing what they want to do. That may mean porn and games for some men, but for others it means focusing on their hobbies, travel, something creative, adventure sports, relationships with their male friends, and so on. Really, which sounds better to you: go out and sweat a menial, twenty eight k job with no future, no chance for promotion, no job security and no benefits, or focus on what pleases you, work as little as possible (maybe part time, maybe off the books, maybe seasonally) and live with your parents? Many young men, who are not full time employed, enjoy a much better lifestyle than their counterparts working for peanuts and living alone. Living with one’s parents usually means plenty of in kind benefits…nominal rent and board, mom doing the laundry, free utilities and so on. Plus a room of one’s own in a nice stand alone middle class house.
Thirdly, according to Murray, it’s basically all on the men…why won’t they go to work for peanuts and form families? Well, last time I checed, it took two to form a family, and at least one of them (except for Gays) has to be a woman. Where are all these single moms coming from? Are they all rape victims who eschewed abortion? Did they all have kids with seemingly responsible men who, once the baby came, switched from Jeckel to Hide overnight and flew the coop? It is much more likely that these women are simply irresponsible. They had sex, often unprotected sex, with bad boys and playas. Or, at a minimum, with high school boys or with men whom there was no reason whatsoever to believe wanted to be fathers or would make good fathers. A twenty eight year old guy playing vids and watching porn may not be the ideal, but the real problem is the children of single moms…. the girls who are promiscuous at a young age becuase they never had a daddy, and go on to replicate their mom’s lives, the boys who lacked a father figure and a father’s discipline and end up being petty thugs. That’s what makes “Fishtown” what it is, not “Peter Pans.” And these women are hardly lining up to marry twenty something, “responsible” men making twenty eight k, pre tax, as a cleaner in a building, even if the men did want to marry them.
Frum points out the Murray’s claim that the “Founders” were all small government libertarians is bunk is of course true. Really, the claim is non sense. Many of the Founders wanted a much stronger Fed than what was agreed on in Philly, but they knew it would be hard to ram it through the States. As it is, the Fed government created in Philly was much, much stronger than the one that preceded it (the Articles of Confederation government). And, of course, what no one ever mentions, is that almost all the Founders (of whatever stripe and whatever their other disagreements) had no problem at all with State governments with well nigh total power. The general government, “police” power of the States was not even questioned, nor was it serously limited by the new Constitution. The Bill of Rights did NOT apply to the States, the limitation to enumerate powers was for the Fed only, and the original Constitution contained only a few restrictions on State power. Economic libertarianism was not really invented even as an idea until the nineteenth century. Social libertarianism not until the twentieth.
But, leaving that aside, how does Murray think that small government libertarianism would end the destructive culture of Fishtown? Cultures are not unmalleable, but small government libertarianism must mean, if it means anything, that the government would not even be in the business of attempting to change anyone’s culture. A self destructive culture left to its own devices, one would think, would go right on being self destructive. So, while it is at least theoretically possible that the Big Government liberals have “the answer” (more government programs, stronger unions, a more equitable society through taxation, minimum wages, etc) or that Big Government conservatives have “the answer” (government intervention to favor family formation, end no fault divorce, ban abortion, teach abstinence, ban porn, etc), it is hard to see even a theoretical case for libertarianism having “the answer.”
My own view is that some combination of the more equitable, democrative social welfare state of the midcentury halcyon days, combined with a rollback of some of the worst excesses of feminism (particularly in terms of family law) would go a long way towards ending the “Fishtown” problem. Murray’s solution is laughable. According to him, rich folks should go and mingle with the Fishtown folks, and their good living will somehow rub off on them (even though their good jobs and education won’t). As living proof of this, Murray himself has moved to some small town in Maryland. But, even that turns out to be joke. The town that Murray has moved to is, in fact, quite wealthy, being composed mostly of transplanted DC types looking for a “horse farm” or a McMansion. Murray himself lives in some sort eighty acre compound with an indoor swimming pool and so on. Yeah, that’s gonna get the poor folks in Fishtown married with kids and in those twenty eight k blue collar jobs!
@Ron Beasley: Having a college education doesn’t necessarily make one skilled, nor does a lack of one mean one can’t be skilled. Tradesmen–plumbers, electricians, machinists, carpenters, and the like–are absolutely skilled labor.
What I’m referring to are old-style assembly line workers doing repetitive, mindless labor. They were exploitable as cogs in a machine until they banded together as unions and were able to bargain collectively. Over time, though, that model became unsustainable in a global economy.
Those jobs haven’t been replaced by comparable ones. There just aren’t a huge number of places where people can go right out of high school, make a decent wage right to start, and then expect to make handsome wages after putting in a few years.
@MarkedMan: Mostly, I don’t think average people understand how corporate salaries are set, whereas unskilled laborers banding together in unions to extract higher-than-market wages are obvious to anyone. Whatever the merits of the latter, however, they just don’t work when we’re competing against goods made in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other low-wage countries. Unskilled, repetitive labor is too easily outsourced.
@James Joyner: You’re eliding what actually happened: starting in the 70s and accelerating through the 80s and 90s those “cogs” were reoriented to use the Japanese methods (originally devised by Deming) and became part of the QA loop in manufacturing. The result were large gains in productivity and product quality. But simultaneously, all the financial gains from those changes were vacuumed up by management (and to a lesser degree the stockholders). Then the big push in off-shoring decimated the working classes even further.
It’s greed that’s destroying this country, pure and simple. Blaming the workers is just another example of projection by those who are reaping the benefits.
What no one is willing to point out is that it is impossible to avoid poor people while living on even 50K a year these days. Most jobs are in large urban areas and thus more people live in large urban areas. Try living in DC on $50K a year with a family. there is no way to avoid living around poor people and those poor people usually have very poor decision skills.
I think Frum is arguing that the only difference between rich and poor people is the money and Murray is arguing that there is more to it than the money.
That’s because 50k in DC for a family of four IS poor.
I wish the Republicans would nominate Dwight Eisenhower. Now there was a president.
A good, sensible Republican.
This new party has been taken over by the Birchers and the religious crusaders of Eisenhower’s day. Remember how Reagan used to say he didn’t leave the “Democrat Party”, the “Democrat Party” left him? This is what he meant, I guess.
And that is why DC does not have any middle class white families. That is why the school system is 4% white.
What the blue collar whites are really upset about is that there are fewer places in the U.S. where they have live and survive. Of course, elite progressives keep pushing for more immigration and increasing growth in the poor and make it even harder to be a blue collar white family in the U.S.
It would help even any Republican would bother to actually be a fiscal conservative. But the Rove’s of the Republican Party are convinced that the survival of the Republican brand name depends of increasing government spending and making more people dependent on the government.
What the moderate Republicans forget is that they will never be able to out pander the Republicans and thus, need to be the responsible party who can think past tomorrow.
@James Joyner: James, I think you may have something when you say that some of the outrage differential may be due to not being aware of how the system actually works at the top end. But there are other things at work too. Just look at how apoplectically angry the California conservative crowd got when supermarket workers were trying to preserve their unions, and how willing that crowd was to pass laws to make it harder to keep a union much less unionize a new shop. And those are workers that cannot be outsourced to China .
BTW, as someone living in China and hiring people here I can tell you that the labor advantage here is rapidly diminishing for all but the most mindless and repetitive tasks. My engineering managers in Shanghai aren’t making what they would in the US Northeast, but they are making about what they would in Florida or Alabama.
No offense, dude, but I’d like to hear your ex-wife’s take on this.
This is one of those things that “everyone knows that just ain’t so”. US manufacturing output has continued to increase, even as jobs declined. And likewise, manufacturing jobs have been declining globally.
The jobs aren’t going overseas, they’re disappearing entirely do to increasing levels of automation. Much as society previously went through a change from one where huge swaths of the population were involved in farming to one where a few percent can produce all the food, we’re going through a similar shift where in a few decades a few percent can build all the things.
@James Joyner: James, you’re falling into telling passive constructions when you talk about how things “became” unsustainable over the period of globalization and the offshoring of industrial production into low-wage countries. It elides all the active agency involved in that process, especially collective action by the 1%. (For instance, money-center banks, Wall Street analysts and big investors bidding down the stock value of a very profitable Costco because it treated its line workers “too well.”) It also elides an enormous amount of state power that the US and other countries have applied toward making offshoring viable.
This includes murderous efforts to make sure workers in a given country remain “low-wage workers” (e.g. in Colombia and parts of Southeast Asia). In many cases, the US at best looks the other way when making trade arrangements with these countries; in others it functionally rewards murder as a tactic of wage suppression (Colombia again). It includes the US government investing in foreign infrastructure while neglecting domestic infrastructure. It includes how both foreign and domestic labor are treated in the tax code (state action) and GAAP (collective action by economic elites). Even USN “freedom of the seas” missions amount to a taxpayer-provided subsidy for foreign imports.
We may decide that the Navy really should be doing freedom-of-the-seas duty. And we might calculate that it’s a relatively small contributor toward driving down US wages, once we bother to calculate its effect. But we should recognize that political actors make an active decision to do that. GAAP makes an active decision to value an experienced workforce at zero (so the vast majority of the work force gets treated as pure expense on the GL and no value on the balance sheet). Foreign elites and governments make active decisions to suppress domestic agitation for better wages and working conditions, and US elites make actively connive to overlook or outright support that suppression.
None of this just happens.
Really? So how do they manage it in Gerrmany and much of Northern Europe Jim?
@Brummagem Joe: In Northern Europe, I think it’s that Lisbeth Salander kills all the right-wingers over time . . .
Frum seemed to be becoming more of an orthodox conservative Republican. As an example see his piece in Newsweek in response to Sullivan’s defense of Obama. Good to see this from him .
Actually it’s partly true. In a globalised economy with low barriers to the movement of capital and goods manufacturing tends to migrate to the lowest cost manufacturing environment commensurate with the technical requirements of the product. It’s an economic reality. Now obviously the managers of businesses who have a fiduciary duty (and very often a personal pecuniary incentive) to maximise profits are going encourage this process. The only way it is arrested is by government invtervention to either raise the barriers to the movement of goods/capital or by incentives to persuade companies to keep jobs at home. Germany has been particularly successful in this respect. It’s not a accident that manufacturing still constitutes around 23% of the German economy whereas here or in Britain it’s 10-11%.
@Brummagem Joe: “It’s not a accident that manufacturing still constitutes around 23% of the German economy whereas here or in Britain it’s 10-11%.”
Yet, if you suggest doing ANYTHING to protect the U.S. manufacturing base, all you get are hysterical protests about how that’s impossible.
I like your history fairly well, but I think you neglect that prices fell (or rose less) as a result of that transformation.
I needed an HDMI cable recently. I went to eBay, clicked “free shipping,” and “buy it now” and then sorted for low price. What did I pay for delivered product? $2.18, tax included. I did actually search the local brick and mortar stores, the lowest price was $11 at Fries.
I don’t actually like James’ word choice, with “unsustainable,” but there is no doubt that there was a special window when there was plenty of margin for US workers, and it reinforced a “mass production, mass consumption” society.
Any book with the sub-title of “…The State of White America…” should be ignored completely. The fact that most Republican Pundits are in support of a book sub-titled “…The State of White America…” tells you everything you need to know about most Republican Pundits.
lolz. I lined up this week at one of those shops where you get tortillas and carnitas by the pound. It was me, a bunch of day laborers, and a rich blond lady who showed up in her Mercedes. We all got along.
I get the history, but you can’t just blame management when basically “buy American” only worked as a niche market.
Indeed you do and they are nonsense as the German case demonstrates but this what economists mean when they talk about the Anglo Saxon model versus that of the European model. I said above that Republican economic policies were the light that failed and this resistance to efforts to protect US manufacturing industry is part of this picture. Not that the Democrats have been much better in this particular area. Ultimately it does reflect prevailing economic orthodoxy in the Anglo world. Don’t get me wrong I’m not against free trade because it is an enormous creator of global wealth but we haven’t handled the process very skilfully largely because of a political consensus.
This is largely a cultural thing. As a general rule if it’s the cheapest Americans will buy it wherever it came from whereas in Germany if there is a slightly more expensive German option the Germans will go for that.
@Jim Henley: I don’t doubt there’s significant agency involved. But it’s also true that the market pressures to replace high wage, low skill workers with machines and cheap foreign labor are enormous.
@Brummagem Joe: Germany is a very special case, workable through a combination of an almost unique corporatist mentality and a beggar-thy-neighbor policy leveraging the protections of the EU. Even if we decided to start propping up wages in the US and doing obvious things like nationalizing healthcare and thus taking the burden off of big business, the fact of the matter is that Americans will run toward cheap alternatives. There seems to be no innate preference to buy, say, American cars in preference to the Japanese and even Korean alternatives.
Depends on what you mean by “free.”
I think abundant trade is good, but zero-tariff is probably an error. We tax all kinds of things, good things, like on-shore US labor. A light tariff can balance that.
Basically the economist’s argument about comparative advantage was mistakenly taken to mean that you can only tax internal economic activity and be OK.
That’s rather my point. And marketing efforts to shift that culture have only sustained the niche, not expanded it.
If you don’t think there is a real problem with phoney, “made for divorce” DV claims, then you don’t know what you are talking about.
Any data supporting that?
From here it just sounds like you’re really paranoid about teh devious ladies, or extremely bitter over a personal experience (and it’s probably not best to extrapolate from one’s own experience and assume that’s the norm).
Opportunity cost lowers for low cash entertainment as wages/income lower.
One of the reasons why I had so much fun with my college girlfriend was a day in bed ran to a dollar or two in condoms which we could afford even when we could afford very little else.
“Yet, if you suggest doing ANYTHING to protect the U.S. manufacturing base, all you get are hysterical protests about how that’s impossible.”
Here are some tariff graphs comparing countries:
China Jan 2008 Jan 2008 8.67 %
South Korea Jan 2008 8.51 %
German Jan 2008 5.59 %
United States Jan 2008 3.28 %
@Matt: “I have three people working for me, entry level, making between $24k and $34k. They’re buying houses and new cars”
You really think anyone can afford “houses and new cars” on that kind of money?
I detect a likely combination of family help, working spouses, and credit.
@Matt and @Anderson: It really does depend where one lives. I was making $30,000 a year teaching in rural Alabama and had a 3-bedroom house and a brand new car and was in no way struggling to maintain that lifestyle. Granted, that was in 1999 and there’s been modest inflation since then–but not much.
OTOH, there are relatively few places in the country where that’s the case. Further, where it is, it’s hard to make $30,000 a year! I was making that as a college professor; they weren’t paying that to checkout clerks at the Wal-Mart or guys changing oil at the Jiffy Lube.
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(here’s the same comment without the links)
“Yet, if you suggest doing ANYTHING to protect the U.S. manufacturing base, all you get are hysterical protests about how that’s impossible.”
Here are some tariff graphs comparing countries:
China Jan 2008 Jan 2008 8.67 %
South Korea Jan 2008 8.51 %
German Jan 2008 5.59 %
United States Jan 2008 3.28 %