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on 29 April 2012
Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010

Much of Charles Murrays recent work has been very predictive/prophetic; as is this. It defines and details the condition of the new white working class in America and illustrates its development since the 1960's and how this correlates with a progressive deviation from the founding father's(of the US) combined pillars of strength, industriousness, marriage, virtue and religiosity. We can see all this here, in Britain and it augurs badly for us. A must read, if you care about these things, if you have read The Bell Curve and others or if you care about the future for your children. A bit chewy at first but graphically (literally) illustrated and accessible to all.
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Charles Murray is one of the most distinguished and insightful social scientists of our time. His work over the past few decades has systematically and methodically probed into some of the most consequential and momentous societal and policy issues. Unfortunately, due to the highly politicized and contentious nature of many of such topics, he and his work have been subject to some very severe and withering criticism over the years. It's a testament to Murray's courage, integrity, and intellectual honesty that he stuck to his guns and pursued his research and intellectual interest, often paying a pretty high price in his professional career.

"Coming Apart" is intended as Murray's valedictory. It's a book that crowns his professional career, recapitulates certain points and topics that have long been at the center of his interest, and offers his views of what the future may hold - both for the society and for the research into these issues. It is also a sequel of sorts to "Losing Ground", Murray's seminal 1980s book that explored the consequences (intended and unintended) of various welfare policies between the 1960s and 1980s. That book has pretty much launched Murray's career as a public intellectual, making his influence well beyond the academic and scholarly circles. "Coming Apart" explores the consequences of those same policies over the period of another thirty years of their implementation, ending roughly around the year 2010.

The first two parts of the book are primarily scholarly and descriptive. Here Murray lays down the facts in a very straightforward and informative way. He has always been incredibly adroit at presenting even the most arcane social science data in a way that makes them seem almost effortlessly intuitive. Using all the statistical and methodological tools that are at his disposal, Murray paints a very grim picture of the drastic divergence of the classes in American society. In order to avoid the false impression that the class division is in fact the racial division, Murray concentrates primarily on the divergence of the "white" classes in America. At a later point in the book he actually includes the figures for other ethnic group, but only to make the overarching point that the class divergence has very little to do with the racial and ethnic factors. Murray concentrates primarily on cultural and sociological measures in which the classes have grown apart, such as out-of-wedlock births, religious attendance, etc. One of the more interesting pieces of insight in this book was that, aside from the few large metropolitan areas (New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco), the elite neighborhoods are in fact very evenly split along the cultural and political lines.

The last part of the book is largely discursive and polemical in nature. Here Murray tries to give his own interpretation of the social forces that have driven America apart over the course of the past half a century. His overwhelming message is that America needs to go back to instilling its "founding virtues" in order return to the kinds of social cohesion and solidarity that was prevalent until the 1960s. (He indirectly blames LBJ for the start of the decline, although he never spells this outright.) The four virtues that he has in mind in particular are industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. I particularly give him credit for including the latter two, especially considering that most libertarians have largely avoided (at best) promoting them. This is one of the main reasons why I have long held Murray in the highest esteem when it comes to discussing policy and social issues.

The founding virtues have in fact never gone out of fashion, and are significantly much more likely to be practiced by the wealthy educated elites than they are by the rest of the society, particularly those in the "underclass." This is very unfortunate, as these virtues are exactly what had enabled many of those in elite circles to obtain their high status. For this state of affairs Murray blames in large part the cultural norms of "inclusivity" and "acceptance," where it has become unfashionable to think that certain cultural norms and behaviors are, in fact, better in every meaningful sense. In Murray's words, it is high time for the elites to start preaching what they practice.

Even though this book is filled with a lot of sobering and depressing statistics, the saddest part for me was in the acknowledgment section. Murray refrained from mentioning ANY of the social scientists that he had consulted while researching and writing this book, because this could prove extremely harmful to their academic careers. It is a really sad that someone who I consider the foremost intellectual giant of our time has to be treated as toxic in the highest intellectual circles. It further highlights how much more someone of far lesser stature must be thought of as unpalatable by the same academics.

This is an outstanding, magnificent work that ought to be read by anyone interested in public policy and the cultural forces that are driving Americans away from each other.
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on 17 February 2012
Don't let Mr. Murray controversial Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life or the criticism you might already heard from this book from keep you away from this brilliant work. As opposed to most recent books dealing with America's decline, this book looks at the cultural and sociological reasons behind the decline, rather than the pure economics view. And another key issue is that the analysis is done using only white Americans as a sample, so there the results are free of any racial bias, and the results are extended to the entire population only near the end of the book.

Nevertheless, Mr. Murray, a declared libertarian, closes the book with a chapter totally biased by his political and moral beliefs. Actually, some of his conclusions are so outrageous, I stopped reading the book short of a few pages to the end (but I did finish it after all). You just wondered how come someone can deliver such a brilliant analysis and reach such wishful thinking, biased and subjective conclusions completely ignoring the effects of globalization and technological change (thus the four star rating instead of five).

Several of the conclusions are so disconnected from reality, that instead of Europe, Mr. Murray just need to look at any of the dozens of developing countries with the same problems among the poor who do not enjoy the welfare benefits Americans do. In fact, just look at the Brazilian example and the well-known "favelas" as the perfect real life example in contradiction of one of his key conclusions. And by the way, the recent cash transfer programs developed by the Brazilian government have lifted millions of poor people to the middle class, and their children now have a better education and health care than their parents. Unfortunately Mr. Murray is blinded by his libertarian ideology and his romantic view of the 200-year + old philosophy embedded in the U.S. Constitution and the philosophy of the founder fathers. The upcoming book The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do about It presents plenty of evidence (from the social and economical point of view) that rebuts and shows many of Mr. Murray's myths, misconceptions, and wrong assumptions about the American Dream and its exceptionalism.

Due to its contribution from the social and cultural perspective, I think that Mr. Murray's book, other than the caveat regarding the final chapter, is an excellent complement to the other books dealing with America's decline, in particular The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity,Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future, and That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.
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on 18 December 2012
Beautifully written and based on an incredible amount of research.
Anyone interested in the American class system and how it has developed during the past fifty years should read this book.
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on 9 August 2016
Excellent work. His central arguments are equally applicable here in the UK; see Brexit. Could have done with some demographic stats to give more weight to his observations on Europe.
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on 31 October 2015
I loved this book. Charles Murray argues that a lot of American ( and probably English as well) social problems are caused by the collapse of old fashioned values. Speaking for myself I realize that the case of every single mother is different but there is no getting away from the fact in my opinion that the rise of single mothers is detrimental to society. This is Charles Murray's thesis and he argues it well.
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Coming Apart is the first book that I have read by the libertarian Charles Murray, and when reading about the author I wondered why he was such a controversial figure. Now I know the answer. He's nuts. Or rather, his ideas are nuts, but he is evidently a highly intelligent man, which makes him dangerous.

I am a little ashamed at only having discovered this recently, because Murray has been around, being nuts, for a long time: he co-authored The Bell Curve, which was published in 1994 and created a storm of controversy - unsurprisingly, since the book's basic premise is that intelligence is largely hereditary and that low intelligence is inextricably linked with anti-social behaviour. Ergo, the state will have no option but to defend itself against people of low intelligence - who are on the increase, because people of low intelligence are having more babies than people of high intelligence. These people of low intelligence will become increasingly dependent on a welfare state, and will prevent America from staying exceptional. 'It is difficult to imagine the United States preserving its heritage of individualism, equal rights before the law, free people running their own lives, once it is accepted that a significant part of the population must be made permanent wards of the states,' wrote the authors of The Bell Curve. By 'wards of the states' they mean permanent recipients of welfare. I don't think they were suggesting that all people of low intelligence should be locked up. That would be crazy, obviously.

But back to the book in question. In Coming Apart, Murray argues that there are two kinds of American: the right kind and the wrong kind, and that the wrong kind is dragging America down. He quite convincingly identifies a 'new upper class' and then he less convincingly identifies a 'new lower class'.(Murray has had a thing about the existence of an 'underclass' for a long time: some of what he writes on the subject is true.) According to Murray, it is the people at the bottom of the pile - the people with the lowest share of America's wealth; the people with the most stunted life expectations - who are dragging the country down. The really scary news is that Murray seems to believe that `science' will soon prove that the wrong kind of people are genetically different from the right kind of people. Now, as you may have guessed, Murray clearly doesn't know anything about genetics. Some of his statements - I'll give you a quote in a moment - are the kind of garbled nonsense that would make a junior high school student fail their biology examination. This is why Murray is not simply a nut but a potentially dangerous nut: there are words for people who believe that the wrong kind of people are dragging a country down, and that science will soon enable us to confirm our suspicions as to who exactly those wrong kinds of people are and why they are different from us. Let's examine what Murray says and see if you agree with my fears about the apparently disturbing political intent behind what sets out to be a work of social science.

Murray likes to play around with published figures about society. By using measures of income and education, he identifies a 'new upper class.' In Murray's words: 'Just about all of the benefits of economic growth from 1970 to 2010 went to people in the upper half of the income distribution. The increase was most dramatic at the very top of the distribution. From 1960 through the early 1990s, the top centile of American families had incomes that began at around $200,000. Then in 1994-95, the bottom end of the top centile careened up from $233,000 to $433,000 ... The top five centiles are important for our purposes because they contain almost all of the new upper class.' This new upper class contains pretty much all of the people who run the country: government itself; the administration; the media; the law; the senior executives of major corporations. Murray uses his measures of education and income to analyse every zip code on the USA and identifies a number of 'SuperZips': areas where the new upper class tend to congregate. These SuperZips are cut off from the rest of the country: they are 'buffered' by other high status areas. As a result, Murray argues, the 'overeducated elitist snobs' (his words) don't get to see what the rest of America is like. They live, effectively, in bubbles. Also, because the children of the new upper class get better access to education, the new upper class manages to perpetuate its strangle-hold on the nation's riches (my words). This does not sound, to me, like the recipe for a healthy society.

Murray, however, doesn't mind this outcome. He argues that the elite have deserved the rewards for their efforts (though he does express some doubts about 'unseemly' levels of reward for some members of the elite). He also believes that it is inevitable that this elite will perpetuate itself. As Murray says, 'When the parents are passing cognitive ability along with the money, the staying power of the elite across generations increases.' Now, you and I might take this to mean that the new upper class pass on their success from generation to generation, not because being successful is a genetic trait but because they pass on cognitive talents (via access to the best education) and money (which usually comes in handy in life) and a strong social network of highly useful contacts to help their children further their careers. But Murray is back on his IQ bandwagon again. He believes that 'The stability of the average IQs for different levels of educational attainment over time means that we can predict the average IQs of children of parents with different combinations of education, and we can also predict where the next generation of smartest children is going to come from.' He's quite serious. Two parents with college educations will have high IQs, so we simply have to take the average of their two IQs, make a small adjustment for regression to the mean, and - hey presto! - we can predict the IQ of their offspring with certainty. Crikey! Do you know any brilliant parents who have really stupid children? Me too. Do you know any complete idiots who have really bright children? Me too. Something wrong with this whole IQ thing then, probably. (One possibility is that education itself improves people's IQ. Murray doesn't like that theory.)

Sadly, Murray is really sold on this IQ nonsense. The obvious corollary of believing that the elite will inevitably produce the brightest offspring (because 'the exceptionally qualified have been so efficiently drawn into the ranks of the upper-middle class, and ... are so often married to people of the same ability and background') is to believe that the other end of the social spectrum will inevitably produce the dimmest children. A vicious spiral is in place. This, asserts Murray, 'is not subject to refutation: Highly disproportionate numbers of exceptionally able children in the next generation will come from the upper-middle class, and more specifically from parents who are already part of the broad elite.' I don't need to give you a list of all of the reasons why this might be true for reasons other than the 'IQ is inherited' argument, and this isn't the place to list some of the things that might be done to change this. In Murray's world, there's no point into trying to change this in any case: it's a brute fact of life, and we should just live with it.

Next, Murray sets out some highly personal and judgemental arguments about what the behaviour of good citizens ought to be like, and then rather arbitrarily defines a group of people (the 'new lower class') who can be shown not to behave like this. The factors that are essential for a successful nation (or at least for the American project) are, declares Murray, 'the Founding Virtues': Industriousness, Honesty, Marriage and Religiosity. He then identifies a 'new lower class' as those people who are in a 'blue-collar, or low-level white-collar occupation, and [have] no academic degree more advanced than a high school diploma.' Murray leaves out 'owners of small business, mid-level white-collar workers, K-12 teachers, police officers, insurance agents, salesmen, social workers' and a myriad of other typical occupations. Why? Because they don't fit Murray's thesis: these latter groups don't behave in the way that Murray wants them to. But his chosen group do behave as Murray wants them to: he looks at their behaviour over the last few decades and finds that this group are getting married less, are less industrious (being unemployed counts as being less industrious for Murray), are less honest (crime levels in their neighbourhoods are increasing) and less religious.

That seems to be it. The so-called `new lower class' is a carefully defined set of people in working class occupations (or non-occupations) who demonstrate declining interest, for whatever reasons, in Murray's founding virtues. I'm not being flippant about this: the existence of any kind of hopeless 'underclass' is bad news for any society, and some of Murray's newly defined 'new lower class' are clearly an effective 'underclass'. One could have an interesting debate about this if Murray did not go further: this new lower class have the power to destroy the American project: 'Most [of the new lower class] don't have anything obviously wrong with them ... Individually they're not much of a problem. Collectively, they can destroy the kind of civil society that America requires.'

The new lower class are condemned to poverty for generations (forever?), it seems, because they pass on their tendency to be pretty hopeless in all departments of life through their genes. This social class of people are genetically different from the rest of us. In case you think that I have myself gone nuts and am putting words into Murray's mouth, try this deeply disturbing paragraph for size: `In a fair society, it is believed, different groups of people - men and women, blacks and whites, heterosexuals and homosexuals, the children of poor people and the children of rich people - will naturally have the same distributions of outcomes in life: the same mean income, the same mean educational attainment, the same proportions who become janitors and CEOs, the same proportions who become stand-up comedians and point-guards. When that doesn't happen, it is because of bad human behaviour and an unfair society.' Murray is attempting to be ironic here: the idea that we should expect people of all sorts to have similar life outcomes strikes Murray as ludicrous, whereas it strikes me as true, based on the simple proposition that all human beings are identical in their essential make up, and that useful things like cleverness, audacity, industriousness and so forth will be equally distributed amongst all groups of people. Murray clearly disagrees. Hot on the heels of the previous passage comes this little corker: `People grouped by gender, ethnicity, age, social class, and sexual preference, left free to live their lives as they see fit, will produce group differences in outcomes, because they differ genetically in their cognitive, psychological and physiological profiles.'

I haven't got enough space to rip that nasty little sentence apart as thoroughly as it deserves, so let's just consider this: on the basis of what possible warped genetic theory would we NOT expect to find - to use Murray's examples - women, black people, homosexuals and the children of poor people amongst any nation's elite, as one would expect to find them in every other strata of society? The answer, sadly, is, 'On the basis of Murray's warped genetic theory.' It is impossible to read Murray and not to conclude that he believes that people of different ethnicities, or of different sexual preferences, or even of different ages (which I assume means 'young people today') are not as fit or able to take part in the great American project as those people who do, in fact, have the right stuff. And this is not a matter of culture, or education, or opportunity, but of genetic make-up.

Murray's final, and remarkably wet, conclusion is that the answer to all of this is that the new upper class should stop being non-judgemental and should `preach what they practice'. Then the rest of America will presumably buck up its ideas and see that they have not been applying themselves properly to the task in hand, which is to sustain the American project. Oh, but ... the new lower class won't be able to heed this message, even if it is preached because (remember?) they are genetically different from other classes: they are doomed to have insufficiently high IQs to be able to join in, after all.

Am I mistaken, or is Murray's suggestion - that being in a particular social class is a genetic condition - not only biologically illiterate but also deeply insulting to the American dream? What happened to the inspirational idea that any citizen could rise from the humblest of backgrounds to the highest positions in the land?

Murray's version of libertarianism sounds to me like the worst kind of elitism combined with more than a hint of fascism: he argues that the American elite have been unmanned by political correctness and are afraid to proclaim their allegiance to the Founding Virtues, while the new lower class are locked into a spiral of decline by their genetic makeup, and may yet sabotage the American Project. Pass me the sick bag.
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on 19 November 2015
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on 28 January 2017
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