Charles Murray: U.S. ‘Class Society’ Is Losing its ‘Exceptional’ Characteristics

BY Paul Solman  March 22, 2012 at 10:10 PM EST

Paul Solman and Charles Murray

Updated March 23 | Since our coverage of Charles Murray and his new book, “Coming Apart,” received a strong reception from viewers and online constituents who took Murray’s “Do You Live in a Bubble?” quiz, we felt obliged to offer more of my too-long-for-broadcast interview with him.

Murray laments America’s increasing divide as played out in the white community. I asked him some provocative questions given the nature of his thesis and career.

Making Sense

Paul Solman: This is a Doomsday scenario, a recipe for disaster? Jesus, it’s not clear what he meant, but he said the poor are always with us. I think of Dickens’s London, I think of the cellar-dwellers of Birmingham or Manchester, the slums of Mumbai.

Charles Murray: Why is this a big deal? It’s a big deal because it’s America’s civic culture which is really at the heart of American exceptionalism, I think.

What makes America exceptional, different, in some sense better?

Our civic culture, which was really unique. It was unique in a variety of ways. The desire of all Americans to be middle class, which is kind of cute because you have people who are obviously affluent who kept insisting they were part of the middle class, and you also had people who were working class who identified themselves as being like everybody else. I’m not saying that we had an egalitarian culture, but boy, were there connections through it.

> And a lot of the connections among the different classes were based on the common attitudes towards marriage, common behaviors towards marriage, religiosity, industriousness and honesty. 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 …

We have so much evidence that is agreed to by liberal social scientists as well as conservative ones saying on average, after controlling for socioeconomic status, race and everything else, kids born to single women do worse in life on average. Nobody wants to say that because as soon as you say that, you are ignoring all those women who are doing their damnedest to raise their children well in the face of difficulties. You don’t want to make them feel bad, you don’t want to make the kids feel bad because they aren’t in a married family, and yet there is this stubborn fact out there that is very damaging to kids, to be born into certain kinds of family structures. And nobody’s willing to say that.

Do you get off on being perverse?

No, I get really irritated at people who want to be nice guys at any cost.

So you think the new upper class has contempt for the working class and the working class knows that.

They wouldn’t say that.

But you think it. Yes?

Yeah, yeah.

And the working-class knows that.

I don’t know about that, but I suspect they do. A lot of the Tea Party’s animus I think toward the elites comes from that.

But since the new upper class’ contempt for the people below is because they’re doing bad things, according to your own data.

No, wait a minute, it’s not just contempt for smoking, all right.

Well, no. It’s not getting married, not going to church, committing crimes — all the things that you talk about. You may not have contempt for these things, but you certainly have a wringing-your-hands attitude, right? The end of the question is: Don’t you think they’re both right? That the lower class is right that the upper class is contemptuous and the upper class is right to be contemptuous. I know it’s uncomfortable, but your data say that.

No, I’m thinking of the totality of the difference in culture. Let’s take something like beer. I guarantee you or at least 99 times out of 100 in a new upper class home you are not going to be served a Budweiser. You will be given a nice obscure boutique beer made in some small town in Western Pennsylvania. There is also a certain amount of contempt, a strong word, but there is a looking down on people who like domestic beer.

On the one hand you can say that looking down on people who are fat. OK, it’s not good to be fat so maybe there’s some justification in that. There is no justification in feeling contemptuous of people who like a different kind of beer than you do.

Well, people are contemptuous of folks who are fat, but I don’t think because they drink Budweiser.

I don’t think people look down on people because of one thing such as the beer they drink, but you take a constellation of behaviors that are associated with that and I think if you say they’re not looking down on, I think that’s wrong, I think there is a lot of looking down on those people who do those kinds of things.

If you ask me the thing that worries the most about what’s been going on, is that we are moving away from first-generation members of the new upper class to second- and third-generation. The first generation in the new upper class grew up in a working-class family, grew up in a middle-class family. They were fully in touch with all the things I’m talking about and they remember that. So they’ve moved out to Wellesley Hills or to the North Shore of Chicago but they still remember all that. When you have the second generation of the new upper class who has grown up in Wellesley Hills or the North Shore, they’ve had no experience of that whatsoever. Here’s a dramatic example, not exaggerated at all. If you send your child to a good private school in one of the major metropolitan areas, the admissions policy for that school pretty much guarantees there will be nobody in that school who is below the national mean in IQ, or if you don’t like IQ tests, below the national mean in academic ability however you want to define it.

The person who graduates from a school like that thinks about a person who is dumb, to use the vernacular, in terms of the people in the school but those people who are at the bottom of the class in that school are actually at the national mean.

So you’ve got a situation where somebody who’s gone to a private school in a big city probably has never had any personal experience with the half of the population that’s below the mean in academic ability. That’s really cutting off exposure to a big chunk of the population and it creates a couple of problems. One of those is that to the extent that they’re aware that they went to a school where everybody was above average, they tend to think that “Oh, the people who are below average must be really you know not worth talking to,” and that’s wrong. You take the bottom half of ability in academic terms and I guarantee you there are lots of people out there that are really fun to have a conversation with and spend an afternoon with, to talk to about all sorts of things and admirable in all sorts of ways that in some cases you will envy.

Big-hearted, passionate …

Passionate, loyal. And for that matter lots of common sense. And they also will surprise you constantly because you’ve underestimated them. I can’t tell you how many times I have made judgments about people which I did not think were condemning them in any way, but I just assumed, well, surely they wouldn’t be interested in “X,” and it turns out they’re not only interested in “X,” but they know more about “X” than I do.

So you’re one of the OESs, the Over-educated Elitist Snobs you’re talking about?

I fight against it every day but, yeah, there is a sense in which it’s real easy to make assumptions about the person that you run across that doesn’t share your patina of whatever you got at the schools you’ve attended and the neighborhoods you’ve lived in. Let’s take as I did in the book, 14 elite neighborhoods that were elite in 1960 as well as now: North Shore Chicago, Southern Westchester Country outside New York, Beverly Hills. In 1960, the median income in today’s dollars was $84,000. That’s not affluence, and yet half of the population had incomes below that. The percentage of people with college degrees in those 14 elite neighborhoods was I think 26 percent. So yeah, those were the elite places to live, but you had a lot of diversity in terms of the people who lived there. You go to those same 14 in the 2000 Census, you’re up to $163,000 median income and you’re up to I think 67 percent with college degrees. There’s just a lot more affluence, a lot more uniformity of college education, and furthermore you’ve got a really disproportionate number who come from the elite schools in those neighborhoods.

Now, let’s talk about the why. You make it clear at the beginning of the book, on the dust jacket, that you’re not talking about the why and you’re not talking about what we do about it. You’re trying to document this.

There’s a reason for that. I didn’t want to make this an ideological book, and I’d written “Losing Ground,” which says the 1960s have a lot to answer for all these problems, and government policies in the 1960s too. I’ve made that case. I would like people who don’t agree with me politically to join with me in a conversation about the problem we’re facing because I don’t think it’s a partisan problem. I don’t get that impression when I talk to people who are in the new upper class. I can talk to people who are on the left. They’re kind of worried about their kids growing up in a hothouse environment where they don’t know anybody except other people like themselves. So, for heaven’s sake, Paul, if we have a situation where there can be some common conversation across the ideological divide, let’s do it. And if I start to talk about causes they’re going to throw the book against the wall.

Well, but I’m going to force you to anyway, or try to.

So I’ll just lose the entire NewsHour readership?

No, I suspect not, because I’m going to start with this — the thing that I found most striking about the book was until the last little bit of it, was that you were laying out the argument that [Harvard's] Robert Putnam has made, [Yale's] Andrew Hacker, who I see on your bookshelf here — you’re making the case that the left has been making since the 1980s.

I’m so glad you noticed. It’s a somewhat different case but it’s got a lot of common elements.

Well, it’s inequality in America.

Yeah, yeah, except I focus on cultural inequality, and downplay economic inequality. But yeah.

Well, but you just said the upper class used to make only $80,000 a year and now their average income is double that.

Oh yeah, it’s part of the picture. I’m so glad to hear you say that as a reader of the book, and in fact in the last part of the book I say that some of you can reach this point and think I’ve made a compelling case for economic redistribution. And it’s a perfectly valid conclusion to take away from that. Great. I’m glad you read it that way.

But the argument on the right — the side of the economic debate that you are so certainly publicly associated with — is that this isn’t happening, and that anybody who brings it up is engaging in class warfare. Right?

I wouldn’t characterize it that way, but never mind, you have a point.

I guarantee you. I get the emails. I’m called a socialist, just for reporting that economic inequality in increasing.

Yeah, and the thing that people never noticed about “The Bell Curve” [Murray's 1998 book, co-authored with Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein, that tied economic success to inherited intelligence], was the degree to which we were raising some of these problems then, and talking about the ways in which inequalities exist that are the result of the unfairness of life. You know, the conversation we are having about these arguments are ones the leftists have talked about for a long time. I’m a libertarian, and these problems scare the hell out of me as a libertarian because of what I value about America’s civic culture and America’s, what I call the American Project. And that libertarians and social democrats can both be concerned about this is one of the major reasons for hope that maybe the culture can be changed.

Do lots of libertarians care about this? Not in my experience.

You’ve been hanging out with the wrong libertarians. The libertarians that I hang out with are deeply concerned about community, are deeply concerned about all the ways in which civic culture is rich and vibrant and rewarding in a free society when communities are free to work out their problems. So we come at it from a very different angle but we are distressed by what we are seeing in our view as the unraveling of a culture that was wonderful and unique in the world.

Both Occupy Wall Street and Herman Cain’s Republican presidential campaign talked about the American Dream being over. In the end, is that what you’re saying?

No, in fact I don’t think that’s true. I think that if you are a young person with talent, I don’t care if it’s academic talent or other kinds of talent, and you also are ready to go out and work really hard, that it’s never been more open. In the case of academic talent it’s pretty obvious because the college sorting system has gotten really good and if you show up with top SAT scores and super grades, you have Harvard, Yale and Princeton who are willing to give you a free ride and want you to go there. It’s also true, I think, of other kinds of talent. If you have a talent for cabinetmaking these days, you have so many more customers for high-end super custom-made products that you never had before and you can make really good money. If you are a man who can work in marble, you’ve got people who will pay you $50 an hour to do that. No, the American Dream is not dead, the thing is you have to bring stuff to the table which you always did.

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

Right. Right in the second part of it about innate for the talent, wrong in the first part about so many satisfactions in life. . .

I didn’t say satisfactions, I said rewards.

All right. Right in the second half. 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, guess what? When you analyze the quantitative data, which I think are reflected in real life, vocation — that is, having a job that you find satisfying, and marriage, and religiosity and community which are accessible to people on the bottom of society as the top — those are still there as potential rewards, and the real problem with what’s gone on in the working class is those potential rewards are much less accessible than they used to be.

But then what do you do about it?

What’s the five-point plan? … There isn’t any. You know, we are facing a culture that has changed, and it’s changed in ways that the government could help in some cases, speaking as a libertarian, by getting out of the way. I think the government artificially creates some problems. But in terms of a program of national service as David Brooks suggested, or other measures to increase jobs, you name it, we’ve been there, we’ve done that, we have a long track record of these kinds of government programs, 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.

Well, they do a good job of solving the unemployment problem, David Frum, a fellow conservative but a big critic of this book of yours, points out that in 1971 Richard Nixon, in his State of the Union address, decried an unemployment rate at that time of 6 percent.

6 percent, yeah.

And so Nixon thought we had to do something about it. Better to have people at work than not at work, better to have people not laid off than laid off. That takes a terrific toll mentally and physically, we know that from the data. So, some kind of program to increase employment …

Paul, you’ve lost me. Tell me what Richard Nixon did to drive down the unemployment rate through the use of government programs.

I’m not using Richard Nixon as an exemplar of successful employment programs. I’m only saying that even someone like him understood the importance of lowering unemployment.

Who’s ever against reducing unemployment? I guess I would say, as a social scientist, go look at the government’s attempts to lower unemployment, and the record is not good. Jobs programs have not been a shining success.

You’re a libertarian. A libertarian says people should be allowed to do what they want to do. Presumably, if people are living in the lower class, or the working class, not getting married, not going to church, doing the other things that they’re doing, they’re doing it because they want to.

Absolutely. And they should have every legal right to do so.

So what are you complaining about? It’s the libertarian’s dream.

Not everything that is legal is a good idea, and that’s why I’m not advocating laws. I’m advocating talking about these issues in a different way. So instead of saying for example, Jeez, you know, whether people get married or not really doesn’t have anything to do whether, with whether they’re happy in life. Well, let’s start to talk about it more realistically which is, if you’re a social scientist, yeah, it actually does have a lot to do with whether you’re happy in life. And as individuals, is there anybody who is listening to this telecast who is in a happy marriage, who is in any doubt about the huge impact of that happy marriage on their total quality of life? And I’d say the answer is no. We all know that a good marriage is just about the best thing that can happen to you. Let’s start talking that way in this society, let’s stop being so non-judgmental and say, “No, if your dream is to live one way, you’ll just have as good a chance as being happy in some other way.” It’s not true.

You document increasing inequality of material reward in our culture. There is an enormous amount of data to suggest that the further you are from the top, and the more of a split there is, the more demoralizing it is to be at the bottom. So you think given that reality, that if we talk more about this, we on the top, that that’s going to make people feel better, change their behavior?

Come on, that’s way too simplistic. Take a community which is like all communities, it’s not just working class, not just middle class, it’s a mix of people. Within that community, there are lots of people who are doing the right thing in every way. They’re great parents, they’re great family people, they’re active in their communities. They are. They are the spine around which the change in the culture can occur. Right now, they are getting no validation from the larger culture for the great things they are doing. So when we start to talk about it in a different way, the transmission line is not from somebody living in the richest suburb in the country to somebody living in the slum, it is a transmission of a norm which people who are doing the right thing can use as validation of what they are doing and validation of their attempts to spread it in their own communities.

And you think validation is not where you stand in the actual earnings hierarchy of the country, and how far you are top to bottom? You think validation is just whether or not I’m willing to be judgmental as opposed to non-judgmental?

All I can say, Paul is that one of the most endearing qualities of Americans has been that they have not rated people according to where they were on the economic hierarchy in talking about their worth.

On the contrary, you go back a century and read what was thought of the rich and they were the effete morally suspect ones. Being on top economically historically in the United States has never been equated with any kind of moral superiority.

And when you talk about the deterioration of values at the bottom — one of them is honesty — you don’t think that honesty has deteriorated at the top arguably even more than at the bottom?

The word I use is unseemly. What’s happened at the top is a lot of times not technically illegal behavior, there’s a lot of unseemly really unseemly behavior out there. I think Occupy Wall Street is right in that regard that you have people who are rigging the rules in their own favor in ways that used to be frowned up on internally within that class as being unseemly. The concept of unseemliness has gone, and that’s a huge part of the problem.

We were at Babson, the entrepreneurial business school outside of Boston a few years ago after Enron, and I took a vote in a class and asked them how many of them would tout a stock they didn’t believe in if they got $20 million for that one stock tip. How do you think the vote went?

I’m really curious.

Whereas in the first vote when I just posed the question hypothetically with no dollar amount, no hands went up. For $20 million, almost every hand went up and then I asked: How many of you think that this generation, their generation, is less moral than your parents’ generation? I believe it was every single person in the room.

Wow. That’s consistent with the kind of hollowness in the new upper class that has really bothered me.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown- NewsHour’s blog of news and insight. Follow Paul on Twitter.