My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have friends who remind me, regularly, that wealth is becoming more and more concentrated among the wealthy. Further, the “not rich” are making less than they used to, relative to the wealthy. In other words, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
There is a divide growing in America, argues Charles Murray in his book “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 – 2010″ but it isn’t necessarily over money. In fact, the divide may be greater because it is cultural, not just economic.
Displaying a dizzying array of statistics, studies, and research, Murray shows an America that is watching the rise of what seems, to me, to be a new ruling class, a group of elites that are well educated (“overeducated elitist snobs”), well-connected, and with a set of values and interests different from much of modern America. The self-segregation is not malicious, but, largely a result of people being attracted to others like them. As a result, their children grow up with a different set of values, more educated, and in turn marry people like them, further segregating themselves.
It works both ways, though, and Murray sets up as a comparison a hypothetical city on the upper (“Belmont”) and on the lower (“Fishtown“) ends of the spectrum to compare them. In his analysis, people in Belmont are better educated, less likely to get divorced (if at all), more involved in their community, work longer hours, are more honest, and are more religious. On the other hand, vital statistics in these areas for Fishmont show a gradual falling off over the last fifty years.
Why is this problematic? One reason is that it has resulted in a culture for the upper class that is completely out of touch with most of America. They watch different movies, take part in different social activities, drink different beers, and read different books. Their interests are not the same, and yet they are a select group that sets policy and opinion, controls wealth and power, for America.
Another problem is that the degradation of values in lower class America over the last fifty years is leading to a collapse of “American civic life,” something exceptional about America. At this juncture in the book, Murray, a confessed libertarian, recaps the roots and history of American civic culture and its uniqueness in the world. Neighborliness, vibrant civic engagement in solving local problems, voluntary associations, and so on. All hallmarks of America up to as recently as the 1960s, the members of lower and upper classes shared through these civic association a culture together that connected them and their values.
Further, although the elite retain some values, they have failed to lead. The elite class is as “dysfunctional in its way as the new lower class is in its way. Personally and as families, its members are successful. But they have abdictated their responsibility to set and promulgate standards.” Instead, its most successful members take advantage of the perks of position without regards to the “unseemliness” of that behavior, showing something of a new “gilded age.”
Prognosis? “If the case I have just made for a hollow elite is completely correct, all is lost,” says Murray on page 294. The lower class is only barely able to care for itself by 2020, while the upper classes enter yet another generation separate from main stream America and further out of touch with the “real world.” Insightfully, then, Murray says that “new laws and regulations steadily accrete, and America’s governing regime is soon indistinguishable from that of an advanced European welfare state. The American project is dead.”
Is all lost? Murray says that for things to turn around, America must see four predictions borne out: America must watch what happens in Europe (and if the turmoil of the last few months is any indication, this prediction is bearing out), science must undermine the moral underpinnings of the welfare state, it will become increasingly obvious that there is a simple, affordable way to replace the entire apparatus of the welfare state, and Americans’ allegiance to the American project must be far greater that Murray’s argument has acknowledged.
Could these be born out? Time will tell. In the meantime, it’s a powerful argument for a retrospection of the great problems of our times and our country.
- Are we still a land of opportunity? (brandrepair.typepad.com)
- What Obama and Romney aren’t talking about: America’s class divide (csmonitor.com)
- Did David Brooks Read Charles Murray’s New Book? Did David Brooks Read the Subtitle? (delong.typepad.com)