Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Fishtown and Belmont

City Journal's Clark Whelton talks about Charles Murray's new book Coming Apart in which Murray describes a deterioration of the moral character of the white working class. It's Murray's prescription for this deterioration that Whelton focuses on:
Murray blames a deterioration of shared values such as honesty, hard work, marriage, and religion, a decline especially damaging to working-class Americans. For this cultural malaise, Murray proposes a cultural cure:
The prerequisite for any eventual policy solution consists of a simple cultural change: It must once again be taken for granted that a male in the prime of life who isn’t even looking for work is behaving badly.

There can be exceptions for those who are genuinely unable to work or are house-husbands. But reasonably healthy working-age males who aren’t working or even looking for work, who live off their girlfriends, families or the state, must once again be openly regarded by their fellow citizens as lazy, irresponsible and unmanly. Whatever their social class, they are, for want of a better word, bums.
It’s startling to see “bums”—a word rarely heard now outside the world of baseball—in cold print. But that’s just Murray’s point: “We need to drop our nonjudgmentalism.” If men of disreputable conduct are treated respectfully, Murray says, they will never abandon their bad habits.
This is exactly right, and it applies to women as well as men. When women choose to have children out of wedlock, for example, they should not be condemned but neither should they be cooed over and congratulated. To do so not only evinces an appalling lack of understanding of the difficulties the child will face, but it also sends exactly the wrong message to other girls in the young mother's ambit. It tells them that unwed motherhood is a wonderful thing.

Nothing could be further from the truth for most women and their children (or society). Unwed motherhood frequently results in diminished prospects and increased likelihood of poverty for both mother and child, especially if there are no grandparents in the picture to provide support.
To bring to life this wealth of disturbing data on white America, Murray creates two theoretical communities: an upper-class town he calls “Belmont” and an urban working-class neighborhood called “Fishtown.” Though both of his constructs are fictional, they are also the names of real places: Belmont, Massachusetts, is a pleasant, well-to-do suburb just west of Boston, while Fishtown is a lower-income neighborhood in northeastern Philadelphia.

Murray’s task is to persuade the successful residents of the real Belmont and similar communities that they can help repair America’s damaged culture if they show some constructive disdain toward feckless men who live in the real Fishtown....some men in Fishtown have steady jobs. But many others are not steadily employed and not necessarily looking for work, either.

These men get by thanks to a combination of government programs and a variety of personal-subsistence strategies: food stamps, Medicaid, welfare, unemployment checks, manipulating the disability and foster-care systems, pushing a little dope, scavenging, misdemeanors, working off the books, hustling odd jobs, vending their blood, and attaching themselves to working women in the classic style that’s been part of urban America for decades.
Murray calls this way of life unmanly, and indeed it is, but Whelton has a different word for it. He calls these feckless men "remittance" men after the 19th century British practice of paying the family ne'er-do-wells to stay away:
In nineteenth-century Britain, sons, brothers, and uncles whose disreputable conduct made them an embarrassment to their families sometimes received an offer they couldn’t refuse: “Move to Capetown, Jamaica, or Tasmania, and—provided you never come back to England — we will send you a monthly remittance. It won’t be a lot, but you’ll be able to live without working.”
Today we do the same. We in essence pay taxes to keep Fishtown's denizens from overflowing into Belmont. Our entitlement programs are a way of buying off the lower classes, of bribing them to not riot and to confine their slothful, violent, and morally improvident lifestyles to Fishtown:
Do the residents of Belmont (median household income $95,000) and countless other communities like it have a similar understanding of Fishtown’s feckless men? The Belmonts of America help fund the various government payments that keep neighborhoods like Fishtown afloat. In return for remitting to the tax man, Belmont, Massachusetts (83.5 percent white, 11.1 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic, and 1.8 percent black) gets a measure of isolation from the troubles and failures of urban neighborhoods....For years Murray warned that anti-poverty programs can become traps, with “perverse incentives” that lure the poor into lives of permanent dependence.

Perverse incentives create perverse cultures: in ours, being a moral person means a willingness to send money. Belmont expresses moral concern for Fishtown the way that Victorian remittance-payers dealt with Uncle Henry: by sending cash. Did relatives in England really care if Henry blew his stipend in a Hong Kong [casino]? Or if he got mixed up in shady schemes in Calcutta? Did they call him a bum for not marrying the women who bore his children? Everyone understood that Henry’s job was not to lead an exemplary life. His job was to take the remittance money and stay away.
This is, of course, what our modern welfare system does. Whether the recipients are white or black, they're given enough to pacify them. No one really thinks that anyone is actually helped by these programs, no one thinks that a government handout improves anyone's moral fiber. The only purpose, other than to allow ourselves to feel good about not letting the indigent starve, is to serve as a bribe. If our largesse only serves to perpetuate their dysfunctionality, well, that's too bad but at least we're "doing something."

Whelton concludes with this:
In remittance culture, morality equals money. Raising taxes, therefore, becomes a moral crusade. New sources of revenue must be found, and quickly. If the remittance dries up, remittance men might come home. This lesson has not been lost on Occupy Wall Street. They will continue to play Uncle Henry until someone remits.
Indeed. Entitlement programs are, to a large extent, a kind of protection payment we make to keep those who lack the virtues necessary to earn an honest living in society from showing up at our front door. Whelton's essay and Murray's book are both very much worth reading.