Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Great Class Divide

Charles Murray, co-author of the controversial Bell Curve, examines the growing division between lower class and upper class whites in his latest book, Coming Apart. To set the stage for the incredible transformation that has occurred in the last five decades, he paints a charming picture of a largely homogeneous white culture on the eve of Kennedy's assassination. His focus on whites ensures that adequate attention is paid to our most significant cultural problem: class division. As he demonstrates in one of the books later chapters, lower class blacks, whites and Hispanics are faring roughly the same.

The first part of the book examines the new upper class. Contrary to fifty years ago, when a CEO for a company would probably live in, or at least near, the small town in which his business was based, more and more of the rich are living in neighborhoods which are comprised of other rich people. Not only are their neighbors wealthy, a significant number of them attended the same elite universities, which their children then attend. Think David Brook's Bobos in Paradise, which Murray recommends. The result is that the nation's elites, those who set government policy and exert considerable influence over the media, are now completely isolated from their fellow citizens in the lower class.

Murray turns to this lower class in the second part of his book. He argues that four qualities have made the American experiment successful: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. So long as its citizens practice what Murray calls "the founding virtues", the project can expect to continue; once these virtues are abandoned, we have no such assurances.

Like the first son in the Gospel parable, the upper class fails to offer support for the founding virtues, but nonetheless practices them. The picture is different in the lower class: industriousness is being replaced by television and sleep; social capital is diminishing, and crime is still a concern. Marriage has been replaced by cohabitation--which data suggests is "about the same as... single parenthood" as far as the children are concerned.

The results are troubling for religiosity, too: "Despite the common belief that the working class is the most religious group... the drift from religiosity was far greater" in the lower than upper class. Surveys that rely on mere profession of belief are apt to mislead; someone who attends church services once a year is de facto secular, and is highly unlikely to participate civically as do religious members who are regular church goers.

Somewhat curiously, Murray applauds the revolution in the status of women we have achieved since the 60's. I would have liked to see him examine the role feminism has played in the trends he documents, the most disturbing of which is the growing prevalence of single mothers. The welfare state, a concomitant of the feminist revolution, has replaced fathers with the State. It is disheartening that lower class men are refusing to help raise their children, but it's not exactly surprising. As an ardent critic of our welfare system, Murray no doubt appreciates the point. But the link with feminism is sadly unexplored.

Although far from being pollyannaish, Murray is more optimistic than I am about the prospect for a "civic great awakening." One of his arguments is that watching the implosion of the European model will offer a "powerful incentive to avoid going down the same road." This presupposes that the welfare state is not already so large as to ensure that we tread the same path as the Europeans--a dubious assertion.

I suspect that as America proceeds towards bankruptcy, the upper class is far more likely to cut off welfare payments than risk the diminishment of their own status--dependent as it is upon our system of crony capitalism. When Congress bailed out the banks, even though it would have been cheaper to pay off everyone's mortgage, they adumbrated the coming crisis rather nicely.

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