Charles Murray, Author of 'The Bell Curve,' Steps Back Into the Ring

Michael Temchine for World Magazine

Charles Murray's new book argues that the economic problems of America's working class stem largely from their own character flaws, and that wealthier people should be less shy about teaching them how to live responsibly.
February 12, 2012

Publishers, forget about carefully reasoned, nuanced discussions of the issues of the day—that stuff is for college professors, or yuppies off yammering away in their salons. If you print politically oriented books and you want to make the big bucks, you need to think like a boxing promoter and stage fights that will get attention. And nothing, but nothing, draws hype like a match-up between liberal pundits and the man they love to hate, the belligerent behind the The Bell Curve, the warrior against welfare, the proudly politically incorrect Charles Murray.

Mr. Murray's newest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Forum), makes a pretense of making nice. It bills itself as an attempt to alleviate divisiveness in American society by calling attention to a growing cultural gap between the wealthy and the working class.

Focused on white people in order to set aside considerations of race and ethnicity, it discusses trends, like the growing geographic concentration of the rich and steadily declining churchgoing rates among the poor, that social scientists of all ideological leanings have documented for decades. It espouses the virtues of apple-pie values like commitment to work and family.

But Mr. Murray, a Harvard and MIT-educated political scientist, seems wired like a South Boston bar brawler in his inability to resist the urge to provoke. In the midst of all of his talk about togetherness, he puts out there his belief that the economic problems of America's working class are largely its own fault, stemming from factors like the presence of a lot of lazy men and morally loose women who have kids out of wedlock. Moreover, he argues, because of Americans' growing tendency to pair up with the similarly educated, working-class children are increasingly genetically predisposed to be on the dim side.

(This is the point where heads turn, fists clench, and a hush is broken by the sound of liberal commenters muttering, "Oh no he didn't.")

Speaking here last week at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a free-market-oriented think tank where he is a resident scholar, Mr. Murray, 69, argued that the nation's greatness arose from its founders' belief in industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. In today's working-class communities, however, religious people are seen as "oddballs," he said, and men deride each other for getting off the couch and taking perfectly adequate jobs commensurate with their training. Divorce and crime rates are exceptionally high, and the "collapse of social trust" has left people unable to count on others to be fair, trustworthy, or helpful.

Assuring the crowd that his book is not politically partisan, Mr. Murray took shots at the wealthy as well. He waved his arms toward the neighborhoods of northwest Washington and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs that he calls "SuperZips" because of their residents' exceptionally high incomes and education levels, and he argued that people clustered in such communities are losing touch with mainstream America and much of what it has to offer. He protested that the upper class "has lost self-confidence in the rightness" of the value system that brought it wealth, and, rather than proclaiming the importance of hard work, religious faith, and family commitment, instead abides by "a set of mushy injunctions to be nice."

His audience—a standing-room-only crowd consisting heavily of white, male SuperZippers in button-down business attire—seemed unoffended. It applauded enthusiastically as C-SPAN's Book TV broadcast the event nationwide. His book has hovered near the top in Amazon's sales rankings since its release in January.

Bursting Bubbles

Mr. Murray's willingness to poke hornets' nests often earns his books buzz. He first made a name for himself by calling for the abolition of welfare in his 1984 book Losing Ground, which profoundly influenced the subsequent overhaul of federal welfare policy authored by Republicans in Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1996.

His 1994 book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, written with the late Richard J. Herrnstein, a Harvard University psychologist, spent weeks at the top of best-seller lists. Arguing that IQ is mainly inherited and suggesting that genes might help account for racial and ethnic differences in academic achievement, it sparked intense controversy in the news media and outrage among scholars who argued that it was based on false assumptions about human intelligence.

"I am sure there are still sociology departments where people would cross themselves if I came into the room," he said in an interview last week.

Last month's official release of Coming Apart came on the heels of an impressive publicity campaign. It included a Wall Street Journal essay by Mr. Murray previewing his book's findings, and the American Enterprise Institute's online distribution of a quiz from the book's fourth chapter, titled "How Thick is Your Bubble?" Billed as a gauge of how out of touch the quiz taker is with mainstream America, it asks questions such as whether you have ever purchased a pickup truck, watched an entire episode of Judge Judy, eaten at a chain restaurant like Waffle House, or participated in a parade not involving global warming, a war protest, or gay rights.

Just before the book's formal release, David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, published an op-ed that said "I'll be shocked if there's another book this year as important," which "so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society." (His article did not mention that Coming Apart repeatedly cites and excerpts his own 2001 book on the upper class, Bobos in Paradise.) In a review in The Wall Street Journal, W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said Mr. Murray painted a "sobering portrait ... of a nation where millions of people are losing touch with the founding virtues that have long lent American lives purpose, direction, and happiness."

Hard to Ignore

The attacks on the book have been equally passionate. Joan Walsh, editor at large of Salon, wrote, "There are so many problems with Murray's cause-and-effect arguments it's hard to know where to begin." David Frum, a contributing editor to The Daily Beast Web site who admits to having had a personal falling-out with Mr. Murray, called the book's arguments "Palinism with a bar chart" and accused its author of ignoring evidence that contradicted his own politics, such as data from 1910 to 1960 showing that working-class families had grown more stable and law-abiding during a time when the federal government became less economically libertarian. 

New York magazine's Jonathan Chait, who admitted he hadn't read the book, protested that Mr. Murray's arguments represent "an attempt to change the subject" in the national debate over the inequality gap and "safely steer the debate back onto comfortable conservative terrain."

In an interview, Claude S. Fischer, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley who co-authored Inequality by Design, a 1996 book refuting The Bell Curve, predicted Coming Apart would generally be ignored by academics. "Charles Murray," he said, "seems to be read much more by journalists and policy folks than by the social scientists who specialize in the topics he covers."

But Dalton Conley, a professor of sociology and dean for the social sciences at New York University, cautioned against dismissing the work of Mr. Murray, whom he described as "probably the most influential social-policy thinker in America" thanks to his engaging writing style and his ability to make complex ideas accessible to wide audiences. "He is like the Carl Sagan of social policy," Mr. Conley said, "but with an ideological slant."

The Gutting of Fishtown

Mr. Murray characterizes his latest book as a response to his fear that a growing cultural divide between the classes threatens "the American project"—a vision of life, conceived by the nation's founders, holding that government should restrain people from hurting one another but otherwise leave them alone to pursue the happiness that comes from having a family and being a self-reliant, solid member of their communities.

He does not predict ruin if the trends he observes go unchecked, but, he says, the nation risks morphing into something like a Western European welfare state, with citizens who rely heavily on the government, view work "as a necessary evil," see marriage as unnecessary and children as a burden, and lead secular lives, content "to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible."

To help explain how the classes are pulling apart, Mr. Murray describes two fictional communities, both named after real places but representing statistical composites. Fishtown, named after a Philadelphia neighborhood, is a working-class community whose residents have not advanced beyond high school and work blue-collar or low-skill jobs. Belmont, named after a Boston suburb, is an upper-middle-class community whose residents have at least a bachelor's degree and work in management or as professionals. To keep his findings from being muddied by life changes such as retirement, he confined his analysis to data on people from 30 to 49 years old.

Since 1960, his analysis found, the lives of residents of Fishtown and Belmont have sharply diverged, greatly expanding whatever gaps had existed between them. The share of Fishtown adults who are married has steadily declined from 84 percent to less than 50 percent. The share of Fishtown babies born to unwed mothers rose from less than 6 percent to more than 44 percent. The share of men with no more than a high-school diploma who were out of the labor force has risen from less than 5 percent to about 12 percent.

On all such measures, and in terms of the share of its residents who profess a religion and attend church more than once a year, Belmont started out better and has experienced much less social deterioration. Its divorce rate leveled out in the 1980s, and its violent-crime rate remained somewhat flat, in contrast with a Fishtown crime rate that stands at nearly five times what it was five decades ago.

Mr. Murray rejects the idea that Fishtown's problems stem from cyclical unemployment or long-term trends such as the decline of America's manufacturing sector, because its decline, in work-force participation and other measures, continued in good times as well as bad. The way he sees it, life in both Belmont and Fishtown began to change drastically after about 1964, as a result of forces such as the sexual revolution, the women's movement, the counterculture, and the social-welfare programs that came about as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty and left women less fearful of the economic consequences of having children on their own.

The Virtue of Shame

Belmont has acquired a distinct set of problems, Mr. Murray says. While he rejects suspicions that the Great Recession was triggered largely by white-collar crimes committed by members of the financial elite, he does fault the upper class for "unseemliness" displayed through acts such as the acceptance of exorbitant pay packages and the construction of massive homes.

He worries that the upper class has lost its moral bearings, citing its embrace of fashions once found solely on the other side of the tracks, such as tattoos and what he calls "the hooker look." He believes Belmont parents are far too preoccupied with getting their children into elite colleges, which, he said in an interview, socialize students into a worldview "dismissive of people who aren't as smart as they are" and which, truth be told, really are not worth the price. "I am among those who have a very hard time pointing to any time in my life where I got a deal, or I got a chance, because I went to Harvard," he said.

Mr. Murray's libertarian leanings lead him to emphatically reject the idea that the government has any role to play in stopping or reversing the trends he describes. The solution, he argues, is for the upper class to rethink its priorities, to choose to live outside wealthy enclaves and stop obsessing about offering its children an exclusive education.

In addition, he says, the upper class needs to abandon its nonjudgmentalism, start "preaching what it practices," and stop being afraid to send the rest of America messages such as: People should not be having children out of wedlock. Hard work and religious faith matter. Contrary to the image of the rich conveyed by celebrity news, they are committed to their families and live fairly tame lives, and that's a big reason why they raise high-achieving children and have money. He suggests newspapers could do society good by including, in every article about a celebrity single mother, a line suggesting that giving birth out of wedlock was a mistake.

Although his descriptions of societal problems echo a lot of research performed by other scholars, he takes leaps in naming the causes or proposing solutions. Mr. Conley of New York University said the idea that certain values, such as religiosity, lead to financial success "is a big, big assumption that outpaces the evidence," because social scientists cannot conclusively prove such causal relationships without conducting randomized experiments on humans.

It is entirely possible, he said, that religiosity and financial success go hand in hand not because the former causes the latter, but because the latter causes the former, or both are the product of some other force not being considered.

Most social scientists continue to argue that it is economic hardship that leads to deterioration of working-class social conditions, not the other way around. "I don't think there is any question that Americans in the working class, and those below the poverty line, have been hammered by the economic transformations that have robbed them of stable employment, and privileged those who are really well educated, giving them access to the only good jobs we have," said Katherine S. Newman, a professor of sociology and dean of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University.

As for those unemployed working-class men who don't take available jobs, Mr. Fischer at Berkeley said it is unfair to think a lack of values is at work. Experiences such as prolonged periods without work are ones from which "you don't just spring back."

At the end of the day, the cultural and economic divide most illuminated by Coming Apart might be one found in scholarly publishing. On one side are authors and publishers who produce nuanced books that offer only conclusions stemming from research, and tend to be too esoteric for wide readership. On the other side are authors and publishers who cash in by producing best-selling polemics, in which research is used to buttress foregone conclusions.