So You Live in a Bubble, Now What?

BY Elizabeth Shell and vanessa dennis  March 16, 2012 at 5:12 PM EST

Bubbles
Image by Marceltheshell via Wikimedia Commons. Watch the full discussion: Author Charles Murray on Bubbles, Marriage and ‘Coming Apart’ We saw a lot of responses in comments, on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit to the quiz “Do You Live in a Bubble?” There were some common themes, so we sent some of them to Charles Murray, author of the book “Coming Apart,” where the quiz originated. Here are his thoughts.

1. I know my score. Now what?

Question from Twitter:

I hope that first you say to yourself, “That was kind of fun.” After that, it all depends on your score. If you don’t live an upper-middle-class or elite neighborhood, you probably got a high score, and what else did you expect? If you got an OK score — around 40 or more — and you live in an elite neighborhood, then I’d like you to think about how your children would score. To get a score that high, you probably grew up in a middle-class or working-class setting. You’re now living in the elite bubble, but you still remember what the rest of America is like. How much do your kids know about how most Americans live their lives? If the answer is “not much,” are you happy with that situation? If you got a conspicuously low score — say, less than the mid-20s — then you ought to get out more. Not all of the interesting people in America live in Northwest Washington, Manhattan south of 96th Street or Palo Alto. Next vacation you take, don’t fly to your destination. Drive. Take several days getting there. Check out a broader range of television series (“Modern Family” is terrific, for example.) Watch reality TV once in a while. Watch more movies that do big box office. Watch “Dirty Jobs.” Or do what I do, play live poker. Poker rooms are the most socioeconomically and ethnically diverse places in the country.

2. Do you feel that people scoring higher on the quiz are not culturally sequestered as well?

Question from Reddit: HillbillyThinkTank[S]: “You’re right that everyone lives in a bubble of some kind; the tendency to cluster with similarly situated people is not a behavior limited to the “elite.” The way the quiz is structured, he is suggesting that a low-scoring person is culturally sequestered in a way that a high scoring person is not. I don’t think I agree with that.”

Sure, they’re sequestered. We all live in bubbles of one kind or another. The problem is an asymmetry. As I put it in the book, it isn’t a problem if a truck driver doesn’t understand the priorities of a Yale law professor, or news anchor, or cabinet secretary. It’s a problem if the ignorance is the other way around, because the elites are busily affecting the lives of everyone else. When they haven’t the slightest idea what the rhythms and feel of life are like in mainstream America, they tend to make mistakes.

3. I don’t feel represented here.

Question from a PBS NewsHour blog comment: “Interesting quiz, except it does not take into account the working class of different identities. a Hispanic member of the working class in the Southwest or in California would have a completely different experience then a white working-class member in the Midwest. I think this survey oversimplifies the concepts of identity and experience, although provides an interesting benchmark.”

Fair point. My book is limited to data on non-Latino whites (as a way of getting people to recognize that the problems I describe cannot be explained away as grounded race or ethnicity), and the test has a bias toward “white” questions. But there is an American mainstream, however hard it is to describe. If you send your kids to public school, always eat out at places where your family won’t spend more than $50 (including tip), watch a lot of commercial television, see most of the popular movies and live in neighborhoods where people make their living in a hundred different jobs instead of a dozen (in elite neighborhoods, almost everyone is an owner, executive, senior official or in a handful of professions), you are guaranteed to have a substantial familiarity with mainstream American life, no matter what your region or ethnicity.

4. Why not ask about what books I read?

Question from Facebook: “The one problem I see with the questionnaire is that it never asked about one’s reading habits. I read books more than I watch TV or movies. I presume that what one reads would also have some significance as an indicator of their socioeconomic status and associations.”

I did have a couple of candidate questions in drafts of the test. One was whether you had ever read a Harlequin romance. Another was whether you had ever read a “Left Behind” novel. They didn’t survive the final cut, for various reasons. On Monday, Charles Murray explains his thesis that America is “coming apart” in a video interview with PBS NewsHour business and economics correspondent Paul Solman. This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions.