Thursday, February 2, 2012

White Tribes

Charles Murray is a sociologist of some repute having to his credit several very prominent books on race and class (The Bell Curve, Losing Ground). His newest book, like his others, is generating a considerable amount of discussion.

Bradford Wilcox, for example, has a piece about it in the Wall Street Journal and David Brooks writes on it in the New York Times.

It's often assumed, at least by conservatives, that the repository of traditional values (faith, work, family), and the key supporters of traditional institutions (church, family), had always been the middle class and that the greatest threat to these values came from liberal elites in the upper middle class and higher. What Murray has shown is that this paradigm is not true, or at least is no longer true. Today it's the upper classes which cherish the traditional values of religion, family, work, etc. and the lower classes that are sloughing them off, at least this is the case among whites (Murray didn't study other racial or ethnic groups).

His book is titled Coming Apart: The State of White America, and its message is important.

Here are some excerpts from Wilcox's column:
Mr. Murray contends that a large swath of white America—poor and working-class whites, who make up approximately 30% of the white population—is turning away from the core values that have sustained the American experiment. At the same time, the top 20% of the white population has quietly been recovering its cultural moorings after a flirtation with the counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s. Thus, argues Mr. Murray in his elegiac book, the greatest source of inequality in America now is not economic; it is cultural.

He is particularly concerned with the ways in which working-class whites are losing touch with what he calls the four "founding virtues"—industriousness, honesty (including abiding by the law), marriage and religion, all of which have played a vital role in the life of the republic.

Consider what has happened with marriage. The destructive family revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s has gradually eased—at least in the nation's most privileged precincts. In the past 20 years, divorce rates have come down, marital quality (self-reported happiness in marriage) has risen and non-marital childbearing (out-of-wedlock births) is a rare occurrence among the white upper class. Marriage is not losing ground in America's best neighborhoods.

But it's a very different story in blue-collar America. Since the 1980s, divorce rates have risen, marital quality has fallen and non-marital childbearing is skyrocketing among the white lower class. Less than 5% of white college-educated women have children outside of marriage, compared with approximately 40% of white women with just a high-school diploma. The bottom line is that a growing marriage divide now runs through the heart of white America.

Who would have guessed, for instance, that the white upper class is now much more likely to be found in church on any given Sunday than the white working class? Or that, just before the recession struck, white men in the 30-49 age bracket with a high-school diploma were about four times more likely to have simply stopped looking for work, compared with their college-educated peers? By Mr. Murray's account, faith and industriousness are in increasingly short supply among working-class whites.

Mr. Murray's sobering portrait is of a nation where millions of people are losing touch with the founding virtues that have long lent American lives purpose, direction and happiness.
As I read this I found myself wondering which way the cause and effect arrow points here. Has the loss of values created poverty and unhappiness, or is it the other way around? I suspect it's largely the former. When people no longer value family, hard work, and faith they, or their children, almost inevitably wind up inhabiting the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, but the reverse is far from true. People who value the traditional virtues may start out poor, but they're often able to rise out of it.

In any event, David Brooks adds these thoughts:
I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart.” I’ll be shocked if there’s another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society.

America has polarized. The word “class” doesn’t even capture the divide Murray describes. You might say the country has bifurcated into different social tribes, with a tenuous common culture linking them.

People in the lower tribe are much less likely to get married, less likely to go to church, less likely to be active in their communities, more likely to watch TV excessively, more likely to be obese.

Murray’s story contradicts the ideologies of both parties. Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.

Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent. The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.

It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites.

The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.

Members of the lower in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.
All of this is fascinating and perhaps - for those of us of a certain age and sociological background - counterintuitive. Brooks, however, isn't content to simply describe Murray's analysis. He feels compelled to give voice to his inner progressive and offer a typically liberal solution to the problem:
I doubt Murray would agree, but we need a National Service Program. We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years. We need a program in which people from both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement.

If we could jam the tribes together, we’d have a better elite and a better mass.
Egads. This prescription is absolutely execrable. People work hard and sacrifice so that they can get away from those who don't, but Brooks calls for government to force them to live together whether they want to or not. Like so many on the Left Brooks labors under the delusion that if you throw people with weak values and lousy social habits together with those who possess strong values and good social habits the good will pull the bad up to their level. Perhaps no dogma in the liberal catechism has been more thoroughly discredited by human experience than this one.

It flies in the face of the accumulated wisdom of centuries. Good apples don't make bad apples good. Good money doesn't drive out bad. Putting weak students in classrooms with good students only slows down the good students and frustrates the weak students even more. The examples are legion.

But Brooks is a liberal and liberals cling to their fantasies and superstitions regardless of what traditional wisdom teaches or empirical facts demonstrate. His solution has all the attractiveness and merit of the old forced busing nostrums of the 1970s.

Mr. Brooks opines that the solution to our increasing tribalism is to forcibly "jam the tribes together." I wonder how economically diverse his own neighborhood is.