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The man who designed the bubble quiz also lives in a bubble

As readers and viewers flock to Charles Murray’s updated Do-You-Live-in-a-Bubble? quiz on our Making Sen$e Web page (more than 70,000 people have taken it online and about a million have read it), complaints have arisen with regard to Murray’s controversial past, the unscientific nature of the quiz and, more importantly, its economic implications.

Murray’s bio is everywhere on the web, as are critiques of what he has said, written and done. Just Google him and you can see (and judge) for yourself.

But we were — and continue to be — focused on his quiz and Bubble Hypothesis. Murray has always said the quiz was impressionistic, not scientific at all, and indeed has admitted that it reflected his own experience coming from the small factory town of Newton, Iowa and now living in Burkittsville, Maryland, population 152 or so — who knows what happened there this morning? (Burkittsville was the rural setting for the home-movie-gone-blockbuster, “The Blair Witch Project.”) Living squarely in what was once called “Middle America,” Murray assumed, back in 2012 when the quiz was first published, that his own relatively high score indicated that he, in contrast to so many people he knew in the big cities, did not live in a bubble.

What shocked Murray was the discovery, in monitoring the Donald Trump campaign, that despite his humble upbringing and latter-day immersion in mainstream America, Murray, too, lives in a bubble. That discovery led to his widely read Wall St. Journal op-ed, “Trump’s America.” I found it compelling enough to interview the conservative Murray as a counterpoint to my interview with liberal Robert Reich on economic anxiety and the Trump/Sanders campaigns. And I also asked Murray to update his bubble quiz, featured in his 2012 book, “Coming Apart,” and adapted by us to post online when our story on the bestseller ran in March of that year. It turns out that Murray’s score has deteriorated in the four years since he first devised the quiz.

On Washington Post’s Wonkblog yesterday, Jeff Guo, “a reporter covering economics, domestic policy, and everything empirical,” writes about the latest version of the bubble quiz and ends with this thought:

The larger argument in Coming Apart is that the schism between the classes has increased inequality. While the elites continue to work hard and marry, the lower classes have mislaid some of those values, Murray writes. The book paints a romantic picture of the 1950s and 1960s, a time when Murray argues that the rich and the poor were more alike than they were different. Richer men may have been able to afford Jack Daniel’s instead of Jim Beam — but by and large, Murray writes, people were buying and consuming the same kinds of things.

Now, it’s almost as if elites live in an entirely different galaxy, with their $50 yoga classes, their single-origin coffees and their NPR podcasts. Murray concedes that some of these differences might seem trifling, but argues that these examples underscore the divergence between fancy people and the rest of America.

But there’s a hole in this argument, as many have pointed out — talking about shared institutions and shared culture is harder when there hasn’t been shared economic prosperity in recent decades.

It’s entirely appropriate, of course, to quote Murray from 2012, though there was ample reason even then to question the author’s contention that white America was increasingly split between a responsible white elite class and the feckless rest. Just how responsible were Bernie Madoff, “the Wolf of Wall Street,” the mongers of liar’s loans, balloon mortgages and the securities they ultimately “backed”? How about the research, which we featured on the NewsHour in 2013, on the pernicious effects of wealth itself?

But most interesting to me about the Charles Murray of 2016 is his realization that in his class analysis of four years ago, he missed much if not most of white America: hard-working people neither more nor less irresponsible than those richer or poorer than themselves, but who feel bitterly alienated, especially from those at or near the top — those who see them as Homer Simpsons, or worse.

These are people whose family income, inflation-adjusted, hasn’t risen in decades. They represent a fair chunk of the “99 percent.” And, to quote Wonkblog’s Jeff Guo, “shared institutions and shared culture is harder when there hasn’t been shared economic prosperity in recent decades.”

Economic inequality: It’s a theme I’ve been reporting on for the NewsHour since the 1980s. (A partial list of links is here.) And it is arguably the main source from which today’s status anxiety springs.

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