What’s Missing From Charles Murray’s Diagnosis of the White Working Class?

David Frum is writing a wonderful review of Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart.  Frum notices that there’s a clear circuit missing from Murray’s critique of the “shiftlessness and sexual irresponsibility of the white working class.”  I have not read Murray’s book (but might now), but I have a clue why something might be missing.

Let’s back up.  I’m reviewing some stuff about political ideology and mass incarceration, so I’m re-reading a lot of Ed Banfield, a professor of Urban Government at Harvard, the chairman of President Nixon’s task force on the Model Cities Program, mentor to James Q. Wilson, and all-around original neoconservative.  (We last reviewed his work trying to get a sense of what Banfield would make of the wonk-blogosphere based on some stuff he wrote in the 1970s for AEI.)

Here’s a fantastic statement from Banfield in 1974, commenting on the urban environment and putting the conservative mind on display:  “The lower-class individual lives in the slum, which, to a greater or lesser extent, is an expression of his tastes and style of life.”

Before it became a way to be belligerent about English literature syllabi and invading Middle-Eastern countries, neoconservativism was a theory of the urban crisis. And for them, there was a feedback loop between shiftlessness and sexual irresponsibility, crime, and the urban decay of the ghetto.  Bansfield:

[T]he indifference (“apathy” if one prefers) of the lower-class person is such that he seldom makes even the simplest repairs to the place that he lives in.  He is not troubled by dirt and dilapidation and he does not mind the inadequacy of public facilities such as schools, parks, hospitals, and libraries; indeed where such things exist he may destroy them by carelessness or even by vandalism…[T]he slum is specialized as [a site] for vice and for illicit commodities generally.  Dope peddlers, prostitutes, and receivers of stolen goods are all readily available there, within reasy reach of each other and of their customers and victims…In the slum, one can beat one’s children, lie drunk in the guter, or go to jail without attracting any special notice; these are things that most of the neighbors themselves have done and that they consider quite normal.

This decayed urban environment leads to a rise in behavioral “present orientedness”, which leads to crime and shiftlessness, which leads to more decay, which completes the circuit.  This dynamic, and how it lead to both incapacitation theory and broken-windows policies, was described in law professor Bernard Harcourt’s excellent Illusion of Order, a book which provides a chart of the feedback loop in the neoconservative imagination:

Why is this relevant for Murray?  Well Murray is trying to describe the upper-left corner of that loop – the “lower-class” culture and situation factors – but doesn’t appear to have a decent feedback mechanism.  David Frum writes the following:

His book wants to lead readers to the conclusion that the white working class has suffered a moral collapse attributable to vaguely hinted at cultural forces. Yet he never specifies what those cultural forces might be and he presents no evidence at all for a link between those forces and the moral collapse he sees.  In an interview with the New York Times, Murray is more specific…The ’60s. Of course. But which reforms are the ones that Murray has in mind? He does not say, and I think I can understand why he does not say: because once you spell out the implied case here, it collapses of its own obvious ludicrousness.

It would, of course, be absurd to think that the white working class is suffering because they live in ghettos which reflect and reinforce their shiftlessness in addition to the idea that our country is too soft on crime and too focused on rehabilitating prisoners.  The last time the neoconservative intellectual movement had to explain something like this it was about poverty concentrated among African-Americans and in urban environments, and this was their answer.  But the white working class lives everywhere – in cities and suburbs, in dynamic towns and dying ones, in conservative ones and liberals ones – and they are having a rough economic time of it everywhere.   And nobody is arguing that our criminal justice system is too lenient.

So instead we get ideas like “the 60s” or “elites” or “culture” which seem to be working only as a “wink-wink nudge-nudge” code among the conservative mind.  But it turns out those problems of deindustrialization, deemphasizing full employment, a collapsing welfare state in scope and size and runaway inequality didn’t just stop.  They’ve keep on moving, causing destabilizing insecurity right up the economic ladder.

Edit: Make sure to read intellectual historian Andrew Hartman’s helpful comment below.

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13 Responses to What’s Missing From Charles Murray’s Diagnosis of the White Working Class?

  1. Great post. My complaint with Frum’s review is that, by way of criticizing Murray’s latest “culture of poverty” thinking about white people, he lauds his older “culture of poverty” thinking about black people, namely, “Losing Ground.” Although I’ve yet to read the new Murray, I gather from the reviews that his argument holds some consistency, though it’s applied to a different category of people. The one salient difference between the old and new Murray might be his shifting sense of causation (the first point on the feedback loop, if there is a first point, might be different). He now seems to imply that cultural shifts–shifts to permissiveness, for example–have malformed how people behave economically, making them less responsible. This is a classic neoconservative position in the mold of Midge Decter and JQ Wilson.

    But Murray used to make the libertarian, microeconomic argument that people’s bad behavior was conditioned by bad policies. Expensive Great Society programs designed to alleviate poverty actually resulted in increased poverty, he argued, the unintended consequence of the ironic incentives built into welfare policy. According to Murray in “Losing Ground,” after calculating the costs and benefits of marrying and seeking employment, a poor couple, whom he imagined as rational economic actors “Harold” and “Phyllis,” would have concluded that it made more sense to remain unmarried and on welfare. They didn’t necessarily want to be sinners, policy forced them into it.

    Both Murrays speak to the significance of the neoconservative mind in bridging economic and cultural conservatism, a combination of antistatism and traditionalism that, once rare, is now common in the GOP and in garden-variety American conservatism. (The interregnum Murray of “The Bell Curve” joined the eugenicist Herrnstein to argue something entirely different, of course.)

    Any discerning reader of Murray should note that the one commonality between the poor black people he wrote about in the 1980s and the working-class white people he’s now pontificating about is economic insecurity. That deinudstrialization happened to black people first and more often is the key to understanding Murray.

    • david says:

      Black people now play a diminished role in the culture war, and juvenile delinquency has even diminished since the 80s, and gentrification has made rich white elites move back to the cities; so now it’s marriage, religion, diet, and other lifestyle elements of cultural identification that make Those White People not quite like Normal White People Like Us.

      So if it is odd that Murray says that black people are harmed by economic policies whereas poor white people are not, it is because Murray is now shifting to a narrative where poor white people are harmed via cultural policies instead. In both the white elite liberal is argued to be hypocritically preserving good policies for themselves.

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  3. Peter Principle says:

    I see now that I was wrong about Murray: He doesn’t hate black people — he hates poor people.

    Of course I say that, and the next thing you know Murray will be claiming that the moral and social decline of the white working class began when white kids started listening to rap and wearing their baseball caps backwards.

    I mean, it would be about as plausible as every other racist, crackpot theory he’s ever come up with.

  4. Riggsveda says:

    Oh God, why is this hack still getting attention? Please make it stop.

  5. Richard H. Serlin says:

    “But the white working class lives everywhere – in cities and suburbs, in dynamic towns and dying ones, in conservative ones and liberals ones – and they are having a rough economic time of it everywhere. And nobody is arguing that our criminal justice system is too lenient.”

    Very good. Very true. In places where there’s not a broken window, or unkempt lawn to be found.

  6. Richard H. Serlin says:

    Here are some points I think are important that I left at Krugman’s post that cites you:

    Some very important things here Paul:

    1) Thank you for putting wage per HOUR, not HOUSEHOLD. The right can say, look, median household income went up over the last generation (but way way less than the rich). But even this paltry gain isn’t a true gain as the typical household works way more hours – and is way more haggard. Maybe a typical 100 hours (50 for each parent), versus 40 hours (40 for just one parent).

    2) It’s not just income per hour, it’s income stability and security (see Yale’s Jacob Hacker’s The Great Risk Shift).

    3) I’ve read the same thing happening in Russia, men too poor to marry and start families. Was that due to the loss of communist values?

    4) “…will be even further from having what society sees as an adequate income”. Positional externalities, the pink elephant of economics, are crucial. Have you read Robert Frank’s, The Darwin Economy?

  7. Richard H. Serlin says:

    And, I wish I had more time to do this justice, rather than a very quick comment, but luck is so much more of an element today. The world is just so complex and fast changing and uninsured and safety netted. Even if you are very responsible and hardworking, great values, you study hard and graduate college, then you have to pick a good earning major. So, you pick computer science, but the work can be very unsteady and piecemeal. And you can work for years in a certain specialty, and then that specialty becomes obsolete, or not much in demand. Or you work at a company for years and years, getting specialized and valuable at that company’s systems, getting higher and higher pay, and getting used to that higher and higher pay with a big mortgage, etc., and then that company goes under. Or they go to a totally new system. You lose, your job, and all of your previous highly specialized knowledge is of little value. You’re unemployed for a year destroying your savings, and then you finally have to settle for a new job making half as much.

    Or you may get lucky and this never happens. Bad luck can constantly wipe out people of high character, who studied hard and graduated college, and much more today than a generation or two ago (of course, it’s even far worse if you didn’t graduate college).

    I have my students for personal finance I do a career plan. I ask them to look at average pay, what the job is like, quality of life, hours, etc., but I also add security of pay. Is it a dentist, where it’s very hard to ever be unemployed for long, or have to take a huge pay cut? Or a business manager, where this can happen very easily.

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  10. Becky Hargrove says:

    As for the poor, the liberal tended to abandon them first, when the grants ran out to provide jobs for them as well as the liberal. The conservative was slower to abandon the poor – that started to happen when the conservatives no longer had enough jobs to employ the poor. But it’s easier for the conservative to pretend the jobs are still there, and easier for the liberal to think that a too high bar of entry all around does not make employment more difficult. What matters right now is that neither liberal nor conservative really has solutions for the poor. Where are the real advocates for the poor?

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