Charles Murray wants you to know something. There’s a phenomenon that he wants you to understand. Unfortunately, Charles Murray has a problem.
The thing that he wants you to understand is quite simple. His problem is that he can’t figure out how to explain it to you without making you catch the vapours.
The phenomenon is this: people are sorting themselves by cognitive ability. Smart people are associating only with smart people. This process continues down the stratum of cognitive ability until you get to the bottom, where the dumb people are all standing around in the same (increasingly blighted) places blankly staring at each other (or the TV). And crucially – and this is where things get dicey – cognitive ability is hereditary, so this sorting phenomenon will naturally accelerate over time.
He tried explaining this to you before, but when he did so, he noted that certain races are over-represented in certain ranges of cognitive ability. The Puritans flipped their shit. (Of course they believe in evolution, unlike those rubes in middle America, they just don’t believe in certain consequences of evolution (which is obviously different than not believing in evolution)).
Having failed in previous attempts to explain this to you, Murray is trying again with this book. He’s focusing on whites this time, to try to keep the Puritans at bay (or at least quietly grumbling in the corner).
I have a lot to say about the book, and I’m going to try to focus on a few areas of the book that I think others have missed or misinterpreted, but let me summarize the book first.
Many reviews have noted that Murray is writing about the decline of America, but they have generally failed to note the sort of decline that Murray is concerned with. Murray notes "the economic dynamics" that he describes "have, paradoxically, fostered the blossoming of America’s human capital." Murray is not sad about the decline of America in an economic sense. He’s sad about the decline of America in the American sense – that which made America interesting and unique is going away.
Murray is concerned with two groups – the elites and the proles (these are my terms, though he uses several terms to refer to the two groups).
The elites are defined in a couple different ways in Murray’s book. In first instance, they’re defined by success in certain fields (managers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists and professors in the top 5 percent – Murray uses the term "narrow elite" to essentially refer to "The Cathedral"). In the second instance they’re defined by income and education.
The first part of Murray’s book notes that the elites of yesteryear did the same stuff that the proles of yesteryear did. For example, they got married and had kids at the same stages in their lives. Nowadays, not so much. Elite parents are often in their forties (the median age of first time moms at the hospital my sone was born at is 39, for example), while prole parents are more likely in their twenties.
Murray also argues that the returns on cognitive ability have gone up over time. These increased returns have enabled the most successful people to isolate themselves from the plebes in ways that they were not able to in the past. Murray doesn’t mention this, but technology undoubtedly helps with this isolation as well.
Murray then introduces the key mechanism for cognitive sorting, which he calls, "The College Sorting Machine." Here again, Murray notes that something has changed between 1950, when elite colleges did not have exceptionally talented students, and 1960, when they did. Since this started in 1960, and since cognitive ability is hereditary, we’re already starting to see that students at elite colleges have more in common than cognitive ability. For example, "79 percent of students at ‘Tier 1’ colleges as of the 1990s came from families in the top quartile of socioeconomic status, while only 2 percent came from the bottom quartile." In other words, "the reason that upper-middle-class children dominate the population of elite schools is that the parents of the upper-middle class now produce a disproportionate number of the smartest children."
This sorting process continues after college, when people geographically sort themselves into the same groups. Or as Murray puts it, "it would appear that the college sorting machine replicates itself with remarkable fidelity as a residential sorting machine."
The first part includes a test of how thick your bubble is. I scored a 7 (out of something around 80), indicating that I have a very thick bubble (more on this in a separate post).
There is another type of sorting that seems to be more important to Murray. It’s perhaps best described as cultural sorting. Essentially, the elites are SWPLs. They have different tastes in movies, TV, etc.
Part 2 of the book is on the changes in the lower class. The new lower class is cumbersome, so I’m going to use the term plebes (as you’ll see, my term is more accurate.)
Murray analyzes the plebes through what he refers to as "the founding virtues," which are the specific characteristics that Murray believes all American shared and those which made America unique . . . until recently. The virtues are: industriousness, honesty (this becomes almost synonymous with law-abiding), marriage, and religiosity.
Then Murray introduces the terms "Belmont," to refer to the top 30 percent of whites 30-49 by education and income, and "Fishtown," to refer to the bottom 21 percent of whites 30-49 by education and income. (I’m still going to use elites and plebes, respectively). Murray notes that in 1960, 64 percent of whites would have met his definition of Fishtown, and 6 percent would have met his definition of Belmont (again, note the improvements, when only measuring economic growth).
Starting with marriage, Murray notes stark differences between plebes and elites. In 1960, about 84% of plebes got married compared to about 94% of elites. The numbers are now 48% and 84% respectively. Divorce is still uncommon among the elites (about 1% to about 6% during the same time), while it’s big among the plebes (about 4% to about 35% during the same time). The realities of Marriage 2.0, appear to be a plebe-only phenomenon.
What Murray is really concerned about in this category is how children are raised. While certain benefits of marriage may be replicable through cohabitation, success at raising children does not appear to be so. "Nonmarital" births increased among the least educated women from under 10% in 1970 to over 60% today (comparable numbers for the best educated women are under 1% and under 5%, respectively).
Murray concludes this section (perhaps the most powerful in the book) with, "the divergence [with respect to the number of children living with biological and married parents] is so large that it puts the women of Belmont and Fishtown into different family cultures. The absolute level in Fishtown is so low that it calls into question the viability of white working-class communities as a place for socializing the next generation."
The next virtue is industriousness. Instead of blowing your mind with similar statistics about plebe men refusing to work, I’ll just note that the trends for marriage are similar to the trends for industriousness. In general, plebe men of today don’t seem to work very hard compared to plebe men of the 1960s.
The next virtue is honesty, which Murray analyzes largely through crime statistics. Again, the same trends hold. Low crime across all time periods for the elites. Initially low crime for the plebes, but now lots of crime. Murray also analyzes honesty through other variables, like the number of bankruptcies (he acknowledges the potential flaws of this measure), with interesting results.
The final virtue is religiosity. The same trends hold.
The third and final part of the book explains why these trends are problematic (in case you somehow managed to interpret them in a way that would suggest that they were not). Murray believes that the founding virtues are the things that make people happy. Most fundamentally, Murray believes that the plebes of today are living in culture that – for the first time American history – is antithetical to happiness. To be happy, man needs meaning from some combination of family, work, community and/or religion. Increasingly, none of these components of happiness are present among the bottom stratum of American society.
At the end, Murray presents two options for the future of America. In the first, these trends continue and worsen.
In the second, there is a "civic great awakening," in which America sees the failure of Europe (which is further along the path the US is heading down), "science [particularly advances in biology] undermines the moral underpinnings of the welfare state," it becomes obvious that there is a cheaper way to replace the welfare state, and Americans recommit to the "American project."
A lot of reviewers state that Murray’s recommendation is that elites move into prole neighborhoods. I don’t agree that this is Murray’s recommendation. Other reviewers have gotten closer, for example Ross Douthat, who argues that, "Murray argues that our leaders should embrace his own libertarian convictions, scrap all existing government programs (and the dependency and perverse incentives they create) and replace them with a universal guaranteed income."
Murray’s libertarianism (though he doesn’t admit it) is colored by some Old Right positions (of which I am quite fond). Murray’s major problem with the welfare state is ethical. He believes that it undermines virtue (this is the Old Right critique of the welfare state). For example, pre-welfare-state, there was something noble about a man who worked hard at a menial job to take care of his family. Post-welfare-state, there isn’t, since his family (if he has one) is taken care of by the state. The welfare state – to the Old Rightist – is best understood as the end of responsibility. And, without responsibility we cannot be free – we are perpetual children, immune from the ultimate consequences of our actions.
If I had been asked what Murray’s recommendations were, I would have said that he recommends that the elites preach what they practice. The elites live by an ethical code that – when judged by their actions – appears to be extremely rigid. However, their words are always relativistic or "non-judgmental." As Murray puts it:
the members of the new upper class are industriousness to the point of obsession, but there are no derogatory labels for adults who are not industrious. The young women of the new upper class hardly ever have babies out of wedlock, but it is impermissible to use a derogatory label for nonmarital births. You will probably raise a few eyebrows even if you use a derogatory label for criminals. When you get down to it, it is not acceptable in the new upper class to use derogatory labels for anyone, with three exceptions: people with differing political views, fundamentalist Christians, and rural working-class whites.
When you see a redneck, you call him a redneck. Perhaps, when you see a bastard, you should call him a bastard. Shame is a powerful force.
That’s the book. I’m going to look at some other implications of Murray’s work.
Economic growth fetishists
There are some people (and many economists) who believe that increasing economic growth has no downsides. This book challenges that viewpoint in a couple of ways.
First, Murray seems to suggest that the sorting mechanism itself (i.e. the source of the problems Murray identifies) may be a major contributor to economic growth. American society is now very good at getting the smartest people into the occupations that require the most intelligence and on down the line. Therefore, economic growth may create a very rigid class society – an aristocracy of merit.
Second, Murray cites the four main sources of human happiness as: family, work, community and faith. At a certain point, economic growth may attack these sources of human happiness. As people get wealthier, and as they have their basic needs met by the state, they may not seek mates based on who would make a good long-term partner. Instead, women will seek alpha men, and men will seek alpha women and family will disappear. Work, for much of the citizenry, will be unnecessary, unfulfilling and unrewarding. Community (largely as a consequence of the first two) will disappear – and the same fate awaits faith. Do we get less happy as we get richer? Are morals antithetical to very high standards of living? The early results are in, and they’re not pretty.
Murray’s work raises some potentially difficult questions for race realists (or at least those with some white nationalist sympathies).
When Murray expands his analysis to include minorities (as opposed to whites only) he finds . . . not much difference (Murray doesn’t note the relative size of black Belmont and black Fishtown – I’d guess the former was relatively smaller than its white counterpart and the latter was bigger, which is certainly relevant). The one exception was the crime statistics, where including minorities led to lots more crime. As Murray states, "white America is not headed in one direction and nonwhite America in another."
John Derbyshire, recently made some remarks about Murray’s work that are very interesting – read them. But, I have to disagree just a bit.
It would be great if people got more willing to discuss race, but Murray shows us that there’s more to discuss. I have no desire to live by the black underclass – so, fine, let’s have that discussion. But Murray’s analysis also shows living by the white underclass wouldn’t be much better. Trading a black underclass for a white underclass still leaves us with . . . an underclass.
If Murray’s right, a realistic conversation about race won’t solve these problems, though it might change the size of the problem.
Social scientists like to find correlations between various variables. I think most of it is junk, to be honest. If you can find anything that Murray’s elites do a lot of, that thing will probably be highly correlated with success.
For example, everyone I know militantly breastfeeds their children. And . . . look, breastfeeding and higher IQ go together! I bet kids whose parents have watched every episode of The Wire do better on the SATs. So you better watch The Wire while you’re pregnant, just to be safe!
The college education bubble
My thoughts on this topic are here.