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A Conversation with Charles Murray

Think Tank Transcripts:A Conversation With Charles Murray

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MR. WATTENBERG: Hello. I'm Ben Wattenberg. Welcome to a specialtwo-part edition of Think Tank. You know, sometimes an arguementwithin the scholarly community is so fierce that it spills over intothe popular press.

For the next half hour, we'll talk one-on-one with Charles Murray,co-author of the new book 'The Bell Curve.' In it he asks what is therelationship between intelligence, ethnicity, race and success inAmerica. A conversation with author and social scientist CharlesMurray -- this week on Think Tank.

Our guest this week is one of America's most prominent socialscientists and no stranger to intellectual combat. Charles Murray isco-author, with the late Richard Herrnstein, of a big new book thatmakes the case that there is a growing stratification of Americansociety based on differences in intelligence. Entitled 'The BellCurve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,' the bookhas already provoked a storm of debate and promises to be one of themost controversial books of the year. Charles Murray is the author ofthe highly influential 'Losing Ground,' which chronicled the failuresof the American welfare system. He is currently the Bradley Fellow atthe American Enterprise Institute, and today we are at his home inrural Maryland.

Charles Murray, you predict that America is in danger of becoming-- and I'll use your words --'a high-tech version of the Indianreservation for some substantial minority of the nation's population.In its less benign forms, the solutions will become more and moretotalitarian.' Why?

MR. MURRAY: We have the thing we call the under class right now,and we have worries about crime and worries about budget problemswith welfare that are still at this point on the level of politicaldiscourse that we've always had. And what I'm saying is that as theunderclass continues to become more firmly mired in the bottom withfewer and fewer jobs that they can hold, with more and more familydisorganization, we are going to have an eruption in the upper class,if you want to think of it that way, or what we call the cognitiveelite in the book, which says, let's just get these people out of ourhair; we'll take care of them, we aren't going to ignore them --

MR. WATTENBERG: That's the Indian reservation --

MR. MURRAY: That's the Indian -- it's sort of, keep them out ofsight, out of mind, spend as much money as we need to do that, whilewe try to go about our business.

MR. WATTENBERG: And you say that the root of this is because thereis a similar stratification in intelligence amongst human beings?

MR. MURRAY: It's -- intelligence is part of the story --

MR. WATTENBERG: A big part, according to you.

MR. MURRAY: A big part of the story, whereby, over the lastcentury, what used to be social and economic divisions have turnedinto a screening structure whereby, if you're real smart in theUnited States today, you'll probably end up going to a real goodschool, you'll probably end up in a profession that pays good money,and your salary's going to continue to go up while other people'ssalaries are stagnating; and at the other extreme of society, you'vegot people who have fewer and fewer jobs they can do that repay thecost of paying for them.

MR. WATTENBERG: I just looked last night at my statisticalabstract about this splitting apart of the income distribution. Andyou know, in the 1980s, that so-called decade of greed, the upperquintile of the population went from -- in other words the top 20percent of the income distribution -- went from 41 1/2 percent to 44percent. So that was -- you know, you're talking about a couple ofpoints and everybody's making this big rain dance about howeverything's splitting apart on the basis of not much of a shift.Those income distribution figures have been fairly stable over time,as you know.

MR. MURRAY: Yeah, but if you talk about the upper quintile you'retalking about the upper 20 percent.


MR. MURRAY: Okay? And I'm saying, look, take it out further. Takewhat's happening with the graduates of Harvard, Yale, Princeton,Stanford, MIT -- go through the next top 15 20 universities, allright -- with top-rate lawyers, top-rate physicians and so forth, andthere you're going to see all sorts of dramatic increase of income.Let me give you an example.

Take the proportion of people in this country who make over ahundred grand a year. Let's say -- let's use that as as rough cutoffpoint for affluence. For a long time that proportion sort of grew intandem with the overall increase in income in this country. In the1980s, actually in the 1970's as well, you had stagnation of ordinaryfamily income. The percentage of families that make over a hundredgrand continued to rise quite rapidly with economic growth -- all ofthis in constant dollars, of course.

In other words, what I'm saying is, you're getting a larger andlarger affluent class up there at the top of society with lots andlots of clout.

MR. WATTENBERG: And that's because you say there is a differenceamongst human beings in intelligence and there are group differencesin intelligence.

MR. MURRAY: Well, let's talk about the role that intelligenceplays in creating this affluent class. Brains are worth more thanthey used to be. I'll give you an example. Suppose you're anadvertising copywriter and you're real good at that -- which takesbrains -- but you have a company you're working for where a point ofmarket share is worth $2 million. Well, your value is a certainamount. Suppose a point of market share is worth $100 million or $200million and you can increase market share by half a point orsomething. You become worth a fortune.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, the usual formulation is that poverty causeslow intelligence, and what you and the late Dick Herrnstein are doingin 'The Bell Curve' is reversing that causation and saying that lowintelligence causes poverty. Is it --

MR. MURRAY: We're adding that formulation, because we would alsoagree that an impoverished background could very well have an effecton IQ. But we're also saying, if you're low in IQ, you have a lothigher probability of being poor, because having low IQ makes it alot harder to earn a living.

MR. WATTENBERG: You say that the IQ tests are accurate inmeasuring people's intelligence. There's been a big argument aboutthat.

MR. MURRAY: There's a dirty little secret that we try to expose inthe book which is that the conventional wisdom in the media about IQtests and what they measure and don't measure, and expert opinion,are 180 degrees opposite. I mean such things as 'Oh, everybone knowsthat IQ doesn't really predict anything worth knowing,' which is theconventional wisdom? I'm sorry, IQ is a very important predictor notjust a of academic success, but of economic success. 'IQ tests areculturally biased.' That issue has been sliced in a dozen differentways. There is not only no evidence that they are; there is powerfulevidence that they measure the same thing in lower and uppersocio-economic groups, and in different racial groups. And so forthand so on.

MR. WATTENBERG: But, I mean, the argument would be made in acountry where, although I think we have made a great deal ofprogress, there is still -- I don't think anybody would argue thatthere is still racism in America. That, isn't it plausible to say,were it not for the environment, were it not for racism, people wouldtest out closer?

MR. MURRAY: Well, there are ways to look into that.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, how, in a country that we are both preparedto acknowledge is still racist?

MR. MURRAY: Well, there are, for example, all sorts of items thatdon't call on any verbal content whatsoever. They don't call on anability to know math. They involve certain kinds of abstract patternsand how you manipulate those, which are not part of any culturalupbringing whatsoever. Okay? And you say, do these items correlatefirst with the larger IQ test? Are they predictive of the social andeconomic outcomes? And the answer is yes.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right. You were talking that experts are inagreement about this. Christopher Jencks has said this: 'If a childhas been neglected and abused for many years, this experience may beas irreversible as having inherited the wrong genes.'

MR. MURRAY: Oh, that's absolutely true. See, we were asking twodifferent things. When you say is a test culturally biased, whatyou're really saying there is that the level of performance that thatperson would have if they actually got the job or they actually gotinto the college would be higher than the test predicts. That's whatcultural bias means. What Christopher Jenks is just saying is theenvironment can have a powerful, irreversible effect on intelligence,and he's certainly right.

MR. WATTENBERG: And you in the book, in 'The Bell Curve,' as Irecall, say that a person's intelligence is 60 percent genetic,inheritable, and 40 percent environmental? Is that --

MR. MURRAY: We use that as a midpoint. If you take all theestimates of the last decade or so, which are getting more and moresophisticated, they all fall between the range of 80 percent and 40percent being hereditary, of IQ.

MR. WATTENBERG: So if you had been brought up in rural Mississippion a little farm, a shanty with an outhouse, it is likely that youwould not be as intelligent as you are.

MR. MURRAY: That's right. It would have an effect. The problem isthis: You also say then, ah, what you want to do with the kids in theshanties in Mississippi is provide them with a better environment.And that's a good thing to do for lots of different reasons. But whathas puzzled the people who work in this area is how extremely hard itis to take the environment, enrich it, and then produce the increasesin cognitive functioning that you think you ought to get. It's realtough to manipulate the environment to improve IQ.

MR. WATTENBERG: But no matter what one thinks, there is that 40percent to work with.

MR. MURRAY: Right. There is potentially a big effect that you canhave through the environment. What I am saying is that nobody knowshow to do it.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Let's move on now to chapter 13, in whichyou say in your opening line, I think, 'How come so many of you arestarting this book in chapter 13.' So we are not -- this is thechapter about IQ and race.


MR. WATTENBERG: Why don't you tell me first just where you comeout on it?

MR. MURRAY: In the last paragraph to that 50-odd-page chapter, Ithink we say the central finding is that you can face all of thefacts about ethnicity and IQ and not run screaming from the room. Anda lot of the reason why we spend so much time in that chapter is tobring to the surface a topic that all sorts of people talk aboutprivately among themselves or they think about is very politicallyincorrect, and we say, 'Okay, folks, you want to know what's goingon; we will tell you to the best of our ability what the state ofknowledge is about this subject.'

MR. WATTENBERG: And it is what?

MR. MURRAY: If you take the mean on most tests of cognitiveability that have been given, including up to recent times, there'sabout a 15-point difference between blacks and whites. I would hastento add there is also a --

MR. WATTENBERG: In IQ score, there is a -- if whites --


MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, if whites average 100, blacks average 85.

MR. MURRAY: That's roughly -- that's the ball park.

MR. WATTENBERG: And that means, as I recall your numbers, that 80-- that 16 percent of blacks --

MR. MURRAY: Are at or above the white mean.


MR. MURRAY: Now --

MR. WATTENBERG: And, therefore, 84 percent are below the whiteaverage.

MR. MURRAY: Yeah. Having said that, there are a whole bunch ofother things that ought to be said along with it. And this is not inorder to run for cover; it's in order to be realistic of one of thethings that ought to be said. What that means is that there areblacks along the entire range of intelligence from bottom to top, andthere are whites along the entire range of intelligence from bottomto top. It means that IQ is one important aspect of a person'sabilities -- it sure isn't the only one -- and if you add in all theother things like determination and imagination and humor andsensitivity -- you can go through the whole list of human qualities.The reason I'm saying all this is, Ben, that we're dealing with veryexplosive stuff here --

MR. WATTENBERG: You sure are. MR. MURRAY: -- and when we said youcan face all these facts without running screaming from the room, oneof the things that bothers us is that people are all too eager to runscreaming from the room. Are there things that -- does this haveimplications for some aspects of society? Yeah, it does. There are awhole bunch of things that it has absolutely no implications forwhatsoever. For example, it has absolutely no implications, as far asI can tell, for the way that any individual white and any individualblack should interact with each other. Because when you approach anindividual, you aren't approaching a mean and a standard deviation,you're approaching somebody with his own bundle of qualities.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, but you're also -- if you believe yourconcept --

MR. MURRAY: Mmm-hmm.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- you are also approaching someone who, in theback of your mind you are saying, is, 'I've never met this personbefore, but on average, he is 15 points less smart than the white guywalking alongside him.'

MR. MURRAY: And that's one of the things that bothers --

MR. WATTENBERG: And that is called -- I mean, heretofore, whenpeople said that, they were labelled racists.


MR. WATTENBERG: I mean, it --

MR. MURRAY: And one of the things that worries me is that peoplewill do that more than they should. Then, here is another one of theutterly key misapprehensions.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right, I want to get --

MR. MURRAY: Let's get this one out on the table. The fact that IQhas a substantial heritable component for individuals, which we'vesaid, and the fact that there is a mean difference between whites andblacks, does not mean that that difference between the two races isgenetic, and I'll give you an example of why. Look --

MR. WATTENBERG: You say it's not environmental, and you say it isheritable.

MR. MURRAY: Wait a minute. No, no. Here's the reason. Okay, thinkin terms of a bag of seed corn. All right, so it's been bought fromthe store, it's genetically identical, every bit of corn in that bagis identical genetically. You take out two handfuls (sic) of them,okay? You plant one handful in the Mojave Desert, and you plant theother handful in Iowa. At the end of the growing season, you aregoing to have a huge group difference between those two handfuls ofcorn and how well they've done. It is not going to have a single,solitary genetic component in it, even though seed corn has a highlyheritable, highly genetic component in terms of individual seeds.Let's just assume, for a moment, that we're comparing just whites.Okay, forget about blacks, we're just --

MR. WATTENBERG: No, I want to talk about -- (cross talk.)

MR. MURRAY: We'll take a whole bunch of whites, and we're allthen, genetically, you know, all the same and all that. You raisehalf of them in impoverished Appalachian towns and you raise half ofthem in affluent, nurturing, intellectually stimulating suburbs, youare going to get a group difference between those two populations ofwhites which will have no genetic component.

My basic point is one that I want both you and our audience tohave firmly in their minds, which is that just because there is agroup difference in intelligence does not mean that it has to begenetic, even though IQ is substantially inheritable on an individuallevel. That's just a statement of fact.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let's try to finish up on this race issue. Youwrite in the book that this question is still riddled with morequestions than answers, and yet you write a book with Dick Herrnsteinthat is, I think, going to create a fire storm on this issue. Ifthere are more questions than answers available, isn't thatirresponsible?

MR. MURRAY: No. I think that sentence you're quoting is withreference to the genes versus environment source of the difference.That's riddled with more questions than answers, and our conclusionat the end of that discussion is no one really knows. That's notirresponsible, that's the only thing we could say.

But there's a very different question, which is, is there adifference, for whatever reasons, whether it's environmental orgenetic, at the present time is it a difference that reflectssignificant differences in cognitive functioning? And on that, Ithink the answer is pretty straightforward and pretty clear, and weknow a lot, and the answer to that is yes. Now having said that it'syes does not tell you what policy prescriptions should flow fromthat, but that answer itself is squarely in the middle of thescientific mainstream.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right, what are your and Dick Herrnstein'spolicy implications for all of this?

MR. MURRAY: Point number one is that the book's purpose is not asa setup for a five-point plan. 'The Bell Curve' is written to bringto a general audience some really important issues, and the policyrecommendations are secondary to that.

Having said that, there are a bunch of very specific kinds ofthings that the book points to. I'll give you an example. You want tohave a job training program for welfare mothers? You think that'sgoing to cure the welfare problem? Well, when you construct that jobtraining program and try to decide what jobs they might qualify for,you had better keep in mind that the mean IQ of welfare mothers issomewhere in the '80s, which means that you have certain limitationsin what you're going to accomplish.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now hold. You have written about welfare, and oneof the things that you and many other conservatives have said, as Ihave understood it, is that the way we have foolishly set up ourwelfare system makes it a smart economic decision for people to go onwelfare and stay on welfare. And now you're telling me, hey, thosearen't smart people. First you say they're smart people, now you saythey're stupid people. Now who are they - you've got to get your acttogether.

MR. MURRAY: Ben, you haven't been listening to me. We've saidshort-term decision. In the short term it looks like the smart thingto do. And since I've given this answer lots of times, I know exactlywhat I say subsequently, which is in the long term it's a disaster.And guess who is most likely to make short-term decisions that ignorelong-term consequences. It's people who aren't very smart.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Back to the policy implications. You sayit's not a five-point program, but I know there must be a program --

MR. MURRAY: No, but we're also talking about policy implicationswith regard to that. If people think they are going to get out of thewelfare mess, for example, by having these subtle long-termincentives, forget it. The way you are going to have an effect onbehavior is with very large, simple, easy to understand, short-term,immediate consequences. That's the kind of policy implication that alot of our stuff has.

Turning to other kinds of large policy implications, certainly wehave policy implications regarding affirmative action. We assert and,I think, document very thoroughly that the way affirmative actionactually operates in this country cannot stand the light of day; thatthe nature of the edge that has been given to protected minorities,as the phrase goes, in the universities is not a little advantage inthe admissions process, it's a very large advantage, which means thatyou have in most universities almost two separate populations of kidsin terms of their academic ability, blacks and whites, and, ofcourse, Asians being usually at the top; and that this creates allsorts of terrible consequences.

So we would argue very strongly for a much more 1960-ish, early1960s definition of affirmative action, which says cast a wide net,lean over backwards to make sure you're giving people a fair shot.There's that kind of policy implication.

There are also implications in terms, I think, of economics. DickHerrnstein and I think that in an era when low-paying jobs areincreasingly not rewarded in the marketplace, and in an era whencoming up in the short end of the stick in the IQ lottery means thatthat may be the only thing that's open to you, we're sympathetic tothe idea of certain kinds of income supplements. We don't say a lotabout them, we don't have any prescription, but we're sympathetic tothat.

But we don't really think the solutions lie in economics. We thinkthat what we have to get serious about in this country is asking thequestion: How is it that people of a very broad range of abilitiescan find what we call valued places in society, places where, if theywere gone, they would be missed? And we argue -- and then I'm givingyou a 10-second answer to a 30-page question -- that one of the waysthat we have to do this is by radically decentralizing the functionsof life. That we've got to take a lot of the things that we pouredinto large bureaucracies in the center of town and return thosefunctions to the neighborhood, not because it's more efficient to dothat but because that's the way that you engage people in a communityin the important stuff of life.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me go on to one other thing. You link manysocial pathologies --crime, welfare, dependency, out-of-welfare --out-of-wedlock births -- to low IQs. Now, in theory, that would meanthat the general -- that as these things have gone up, that IQ scoreswould be going down, but IQ scores are --

MR. MURRAY: Not necessarily.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- IQ scores are not going down.

MR. MURRAY: No, no, Ben, what is more -- much more plausible thanthat is to say something has changed in policy which makes peoplewith low IQs a lot more vulnerable to these things than they used tobe. And I would say that out-of-wedlock births is a classic example,that what you're really saying in this case is that in the 1960s andearly '70s, with lots of changes in the policy, what happened is wechanged things such that, for someone with a low IQ, it suddenly madea lot more sense to have a baby out of wedlock or became much morepossible to them in terms of their view of the world than it didbefore.

So I don't think you let social policy off the hook when you talkabout the current relationships of IQ to these problems.

MR. WATTENBERG: You say in the book you are not indifferent to theways in which this book, wrongly construed, might do harm. What areyou afraid of as this thing goes through the journalistic mill?

MR. MURRAY: I am afraid, first, of racists taking what we say as abasis for conclusions that Dick Herrnstein and I think are utterlyunfounded. I am worried -- we were both worried about all the ways inwhich people are too inclined to take something like IQ and make itinto fate. You know, 'Well, if they have a low IQ, then they can't dosuch and such.' And so on. Throughout this whole process of writingthis, therefore, we constantly had to say to ourself, 'Are we sayingexactly what we mean?' And I think that is the reason why, inpublishing this book, we are confident that it's going to be a forcefor good. It may very well be in the short term there will be peoplewho try to do bad things with it. I like to think that we did a goodenough job that there will be enough other people of goodwill whowill point to what the book says and say, 'Those guys didn't say whatyou're trying to make them say.'

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Charles Murray, thank you very much. END

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