Charles Murray on Downton Abbey, Smoking During Pregnancy

BY Paul Solman and elizabeth shell  March 21, 2012 at 5:35 PM EDT

Charles Murray

Recently, the Making Sen$e team traveled to tiny and picturesque Burkittsville, Md., to interview author Charles Murray at home about why he thinks America is coming apart. We interviewed him for hours in the book-lined office shack behind his house before heading to a cash-only diner one town over to finish the conversation.

Though the NewsHour is known for longer-than-normal soundbites and segments, it couldn’t very well air the full interview, or in fact even much of it. But given that more than 70,000 people have already taken Murray’s “How Thick is Your Bubble?” online quiz and our segment with him Wednesday night was among the most watched in recent memory, we thought we’d share more of the interview here, and especially some of the more provocative things Murray had to say.

Making Sense

We’ll follow up with more over the next few days. Here, we start with the basics: why Charles Murray decided on this topic in the first place.

Paul Solman: First question: Why the book?

Charles Murray: I’ve been worrying about these problems for years. I’ve seen a lot of it happen out here in the area where I live, a lot of the problems developing with the working-class, of whom there are lots of people out here, and I also was familiar with the kind of isolation that’s occurring in the new upper-class because I live in that world too when I go to Washington. So I’d been thinking about it a long time, and finally decided to write a book about it.

And what’s the basic thesis?

The basic thesis of the book is that we have developed classes in this country that are different in kind from anything we have known before. 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, and we have a new upper class that’s increasingly isolated from and ignorant of mainstream America.

You’re just talking about white Americans.

I limit the book to white people to focus my reader’s mind. You know when you’re talking about social problems it’s a natural thing to ask yourself: Well, to what extent is this a national issue? To what extent is it concentrated let’s say in the black community, or it’s in the Latino community? And by using for numbers only non-Latino whites, you get rid of all that.

How do you define the classes?

When I’m talking about the white working class, here’s what I’m defining: high school degree, no more, and working in a blue-collar job or a low-skilled service job. When I’m talking about the white, upper-middle class, I’m talking about people who work in the professions or managerial jobs and have at least a college degree.

And the people at the top, the 20 percent, how do you characterize them?

We have 20 percent in the upper-middle class as I’ve defined it, managerial jobs, professional jobs, college education. Within that group there is the very successful, the top 5 percent of the 20 percent alright, who run the country. Now some of them run the country in terms of their local city, they’re influential wherever they live. Some of them just run the country — period — if you’re talking about Washington, D.C., if you’re talking about financial centers in New York, Hollywood, that kind of thing. They are different, they have become different over the last several decades in all sorts of ways. They have essentially a very distinctive culture. They get married a lot later than the rest of the country, they have somewhat different child-rearing practices.

The new upper class devotes incredible amounts of effort to raising their kids but that also includes incredible amounts of effort in getting their kids into the right preschool in some elite communities which I think is going a little bit too far. And they also have given rise to what are called “helicopter parents” because they hover. So there are lots of good things about the way the new upper class raises kids. Pregnant women, if you’re a member of the new upper class, and you’re a woman, and you have a whiff of pregnancy not a drop of alcohol, not any exposure to secondhand smoke, no drugs, and they take care of themselves magnificently while the child is in utero. That’s good! The lengths to which they go is sometimes kind of extreme. I could form a mosaic of these distinctive cases and preferences but you know what? An awful lot of the people who watch the NewsHour know exactly what I’m talking about already.

The average American watches TV about 35 hours a week. Among the new upper class you have sort of two basic attitudes toward TV. One is you still have one, but you use it to watch the NewsHour and “Masterpiece Theatre” and maybe “Downton Abbey.” The other says that we don’t even have a TV anymore — that kind of attitude. Well, do I think watching 35 hours of TV a week is a terrific thing to do? Not particularly. But do I think you’re shutting yourself off from a lot of American culture if you are so completely isolated from what goes on, on popular TV? Yeah, you are! And if you don’t see the movies that other people see, if you don’t eat at the same kinds of restaurants, if you don’t engage in the same kinds of interest and sports and the rest of it, none of these are terrible things, it’s not good vs. bad. It is isolation however of the new upper-class from the mainstream of American culture.

But if it’s bad for you to watch too much TV, or to smoke when you’re pregnant, or to be fat…

Yeah, new upper-class is skinny, or they’re fit anyway.

And the bottom 30 percent as you say in the book, is fatter.

A lot fatter. The obesity figures are pretty scary.

So the new upper class are doing consistently…

That’s what’s so aggravating about them. So often the new upper-class is doing things that in a technical sense are healthy things to do and so forth, and they’re so supercilious and superior about it, that’s what irritates me.

Well, why do you roll your eyes if they’re doing the things that they’re supposed to be doing?

Paul, we are conflating two issues. One is my exasperation with the self-satisfaction of the new upper class. The other thing is the isolation of the new upper class, and the ignorance of the new upper class about mainstream America. That’s, that’s my main point in the book and so even if you say well, some of these things are good, which they are and they’re different from the rest, and the rest are actually not behaving in such a good way, you grab that. But you don’t have the option of saying, “Well, I will be in touch with mainstream America about one subset of things, but I will feel contempt for them on a set of others.” I want to have the new upper-class a lot more in touch with their fellow countrymen.

On Thursday, we’ll continue with more intimate details about the cloistered upper crust.

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions