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Author Charles Murray: Elites Should Teach Working Class How to Live

March 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The super-educated upper class is out of touch but it could teach lower classes better ways to live, according to conservative lightning rod Charles Murray. As part of his series on Making Sen$e of financial news, Paul Solman speaks with Murray about his new book, "Coming Apart," which examines America's "class society."

GWEN IFILL: Next, the author of a new bestseller talks with NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman about the economic plight and social values of working-class Americans. The book is already receiving a heated reception.

The discussion is part of Paul’s ongoing reporting Making Sense of financial news.

CHARLES MURRAY, author, “Coming Apart”: It’s not too dramatic to say this. We’re losing a lot of what has made America exceptional as we become increasingly a class society in which a big chunk of the people on the bottom no longer behave in the ways that are essential for a self-governing, free society.

PAUL SOLMAN: Conservative lightning rod Charles Murray, who wrote “Losing Ground” in 1984, blasting welfare programs for making poverty worse, co-wrote “The Bell Curve” in 1994, arguing that economic success comes increasingly from genetic differences in I.Q.

Both books offended blacks in particular. He returns to these themes in his latest bestseller, “Coming Apart,” which restricts its scrutiny to white people to emphasize the issue of class, not race.

CHARLES MURRAY: We have developed classes in this country that are different in kind from anything we have known before.

PAUL SOLMAN: The new super-smart, super-educated upper class is out of touch, says Murray, tucked away in exclusive zip codes, he calls the “SuperZips.” But Murray reserves his actual anxiety for the 30 percent at the bottom.

CHARLES MURRAY: We have a new lower class that’s large and growing that has fallen away from a lot of the basic core behaviors and institutions that made America work.

PAUL SOLMAN: That’s because, he argues, they’re less honest, less religious, less responsible than white working-class people were half-a-century ago, violent crime, for example, way up, at least as measured by arrest rates.

CHARLES MURRAY: In 1960, it was still — no nostalgia here — an age when you could leave your door unlocked even in urban neighborhoods. Even after the reductions in crime that we’ve seen since the 1990s, you’re still at about four to five times the level of violent crime in these neighborhoods that you had before.

PAUL SOLMAN: Regular worship, meanwhile, way down.

CHARLES MURRAY: If you define sort of the core religious population as being people who go to church regularly and say they have a strong affiliation with their faith, you’re down to 12 percent in the white working-class who have that kind of relationship to religion.

PAUL SOLMAN: But perhaps the widest gap over the past 50 years, says Murray, is in marriage rates.

CHARLES MURRAY: Is collapse too strong a word? I’m not sure, but it’s really close to that. 1960, you’ve got about 94 percent of the upper-middle-class whites who are married, compared to 83 percent of the white working class. It’s the norm in both groups.

You turn to 2010, you’re still at 84 percent for the upper middle class.

PAUL SOLMAN: Eighty-four percent married.

CHARLES MURRAY: Right. For the white working-class, you’re down to 48 percent.

PAUL SOLMAN: According to Murray, nearly half of all white working-class kids are now born to single moms, who look at the dads and say:

CHARLES MURRAY: Why should I marry these losers? You know, the guy who impregnated me was a nice guy, but he can’t hold on to a job.

PAUL SOLMAN: And that’s because of a final piece of Murray’s dreary data. Over the past 50 years, lower-rung white males have left the labor force.

CHARLES MURRAY: You know, 1960, guys are supposed to work. That is as universal a social norm as there is. You don’t work, you’re a bum. And just about everybody either did work or was looking for work.

Turn to 2008, before the recession, you’re up to about one out of eight white working-class males ages 30 to 49 is not even looking for work.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, as with Murray’s previous books, the coverage has often been withering, and the main critique is that he’s left out the most important factor in working-class decline: economics.

On the left,’s Joan Walsh mocked Murray’s insistence on culture over economics, claiming her next book will be called “Coming Together: How the White Working-Class Woke Up and Realized the Right Now Thinks They’re Dumb and Lazy Too.”

On the right, David Frum asked, “How can you tell a story about the moral decay of the working-class with the work part left out?”

What Murray’s saying, “Coming Apart,” you know, these people are — they’re dissolute.

THEA LEE, deputy chief of staff, AFL-CIO: As opposed to rich people.

PAUL SOLMAN: Thea Lee is deputy chief of staff at the AFL-CIO.

THEA LEE: Go to any private school in Washington, D.C. You know, take the level of drug use, you know, at private high schools. Or look at Bernie Madoff. I’m just trying to get my head around this idea of morality being the purview of the wealthy, the elite and the intellectually accomplished.

PAUL SOLMAN: Besides, says Lee.

THEA LEE: If you look at the big economic picture in the United States, it’s one of a weak labor market, wage stagnation, and growing inequality. The U.S. economy is in a dead end right now because there’s been too much focus on cutting costs, cutting labor costs, laying people off, making due with less.

And in the end, what you see is an economy that’s shrinking, that’s failing, that’s not providing a middle-class lifestyle.

PAUL SOLMAN: You really think it has nothing to do with all the jobs that have been shipped overseas and, more importantly perhaps, the technology that has made so many jobs obsolete?

CHARLES MURRAY: I don’t see the relationship between the changing nature of the distribution of working-class jobs and the increased dropout from the labor force. It’s not as if assembly line jobs were so much fun and the jobs that are available now are so much less fun that you are discouraged from taking those jobs.

PAUL SOLMAN: No, they paid more. They paid way more.

CHARLES MURRAY: You aren’t going to fix it by bringing back unionized assembly line jobs.

PAUL SOLMAN: Instead, Murray advocates cultural changes, encouraging the lower class to emulate the more virtuous behavior of those above, who might as well living on another planet, so clueless have they become about what’s going on in the rest of the culture.

You have got a quiz in the book.

CHARLES MURRAY: “How thick is your bubble?”

PAUL SOLMAN: The quiz, which you can take on our Making Sense website, measures upper-class familiarity with working-class America.

CHARLES MURRAY: Have you ever held a job that caused a body part to hurt at the end of the day? Because my feeling is, if you can’t answer yes to that question, you are in big trouble in trying to understand the country you live in.

PAUL SOLMAN: Though Murray, Harvard grad, MIT Ph.D., qualifies as what he calls an OES, an overeducated elitist snob, he grew up solidly in the middle in small-town Iowa, nothing whiter, he’s called it. And he stayed close to mainstream America. Since 1989, he’s lived in tiny Burkittsville, M.D., way outside the Washington Beltway, the nearest town of any size, Brunswick, where Murray and his wife sent their kids to public school.

I told him I had one final line of questioning. He suggested we stop in at Mommer’s Diner to discuss it.

To you, so many of the rewards in our society come from talent, which is, to a large extent, innate, right?

CHARLES MURRAY: Right in the second half. Okay?

The first half, which says so many of the rewards in our society come from talent, if you’re talking about money, yeah. But if you’re talking about rewards in life, meaning deep satisfactions in life, vocation, that is having a job that you find satisfying, and marriage and religiosity and community, which are as accessible to people on the bottom of society as the top, those are still there as potential rewards.

PAUL SOLMAN: Since Murray denies that the lack of economic rewards are the cause of cultural decline, he’s not pushing any government economic solutions.

CHARLES MURRAY: It’s a very well-verified social science finding that government programs don’t do a good job at solving the human problems that I’m discussing.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, Murray says the upper crust should try to share their — or perhaps I should say our — superior virtues with those who have lost them.

CHARLES MURRAY: We have right now an upper class that will not say out loud, as elites really need to do in any society, this is a good way to live. This doesn’t mean they’re passing laws. It doesn’t mean they’re forcing people. They are setting a standard.

THEA LEE: And how do we do that exactly? Do the people just wander into a poor neighborhood and start instructing people in how to not have sex before marriage or. . .

PAUL SOLMAN: Again, the AFL-CIO’s Thea Lee.

THEA LEE: I’m trying to imagine the picture of the wealthy elite sharing the benefit of their knowledge and superior situation with the less fortunate. And that just might not be that much fun.

CHARLES MURRAY: The way that social norms become social norms is not through any systematic process. It is through a flowering of an understanding within a culture. And here’s the good news, Paul. I think these are ideas whose time has come.

PAUL SOLMAN: With the coming of “Coming Apart,” ideas that Charles Murray is doing everything he can to propagate.

GWEN IFILL: You can find out if you’re living in a bubble by taking the quiz on our website’s home page.