Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart”

February 28th, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Charles Murray’s Coming Apart is a frustrating book, and not because it fails to resonate but because he identifies a real problem–the increasing distance between income classes–then fails to convincingly document or explain it.  Part of this is the limiting and confusing way he uses data to craft his story, and part is his unwillingness to look beyond individualistic explanations.

First, let me say that despite these foundational critiques, I hear real passion and concern in Murray’s voice, a concern that many readers will share, as I did.  Whatever you think of his work, and I’ve been a longtime critic, Murray is a man who has spent a long career paying close attention to society.  And I found this book to be a lot better than some of his earlier work.  The data problems in Coming Apart—problems that have the potential to mislead readers—are not as bad as the ones in Bell Curve, where Murray was hammered by social scientists for his misuse of IQ as a predictor of various outcomes, along with specious (and incendiary) arguments about race and genetics (Wikipedia has an excellent section on these criticisms).

What’s so frustrating here is the difficulty figuring out what Murray is really talking about.  Many will share his angst about the growing gaps in our economy—the growing economic, and for Murray, cultural and behavioral, distance between different people and their incomes, educations, labor market connections, family structure, and zip codes.  But that’s not news.  The rest of what he’s getting at here is surprisingly hard to tease out.

For example, from his evidence, it’s hard to judge the magnitude of the problem he details throughout these 300 pages.  He clearly believes it’s large, but the groupings he chooses are so idiosyncratic, and leave out so much of the population–including the middle class!–that I found it impossible to judge.

In fact, I believe he’s focusing on a real but shrinking problem, and ignoring a much larger—and growing—one.

Here’s what I mean.  The heart of the book focuses on whites, 30-49.  In order to be able to compare the fortunes of a working class group with an upper-middle class group, he divides a subset of the population into two groups, based on a set of occupations and education.  The working class group works in “blue collar, service, or low-level white collar occupation[s]” and has no more than a high school degree.  The members of the upper-middle group all have at least a BA and are “managers, physicians, attorneys, engineers, architects, scientists, college faculty members, or in content-production jobs in the media.”

He argues that these roughly correspond to the bottom 30 and top 20 percent of the population arrayed along these lines (occupation and education).  But first, that’s 50% of the “prime-age” white population, and second, while it’s the lower end group he’s mostly worried about, it’s actually only a subset of them that have the characteristics Murray bemoans.

How large is that group?  I can’t tell, but I’m quite certain it’s small and possibly getting smaller.  That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve our concern and help.  But there’s something wrong with the diagnostic methods in Coming Apart that leads Murray’s analysis astray such that he misses the larger economic dynamics behind the gaps that have evolved over the past thirty years.

I challenge anyone reading the book to sort this out—following who he’s really talking about here, and who he’s leaving out, reminded me of budget baseline debates.  And it led me to mistrust his findings.

For example, he argues that the men in his working class group have been spending a lot less time in the job market, and in fact there is clearly a long term secular trend toward lower employment rates among prime age men.  But I thought that most grown guys with a high-school degree (and no more) are still quite connected to the job market.  So, courtesy of my colleague Arloc Sherman, I plotted the annual hours worked of men, age 30-49, with a high-school education.

Source: CPS ASEC files

As you see, they pretty much work full-time, full-year (2,000 hours per year) since the mid-1970s, though like everyone else, they got whacked by the Great Recession.

I’m not saying this one simple chart disproves his theory of a disconnected class of people experiencing a variety of social ills—there are unquestionably such people out there—but I don’t think you learn about them from Coming Apart.

Even more importantly, you don’t learn why.  There is no serious discussion in Coming Apart about factors outside of the individuals’ scope of influence that are responsible for the problems we face.  As you’d expect from Murray, there’s considerable discussion of personal failings, framed in this discussion of the loss of industriousness, religiosity, marriage, and honesty.

Like David Brooks—quoted liberally [sic!]—Murray is quite a scold on these issues, but excepting marriage, the analysis gets stuck in the armchair.  Unless you’re predisposed, I doubt you’ll be convinced that a couple of graphs showing diminished attendance at worship services—a common trend across the population, btw—reveal an important determinant of the gaps Murray worries about (I singled out marriage above because there’s much more solid evidence on disadvantages to children who grow up with one parent).

And even if there’s something to his cultural, individualistic explanations as to why we’re coming apart (though that’s hard to see in the graph above), surely the transformative trends that economists have been writing about for decades deserve mention.  Where’s globalization and import penetration by low-wage countries, and the loss of manufacturing jobs?

There’s a sentence about the loss of “high-paying unionized jobs” but Murray immediately dismisses that explanation.  To him, that doesn’t:

“…explain why [working-class men] in the 2000s worked fewer hours, found it harder to get jobs than other Americans did, and more often dropped out of the labor market than they had in the 1960s.  On the contrary: Insofar as men need to work to survive—an important proviso—falling hourly income does not discourage work.” [his italics]

Aha—quite revealing, that, to an economist.  Murray only envisions sliding down a demand curve, he does not entertain an inward contraction of demand.  But it’s the latter that clearly confronted many men as production work dried up from the 1980s on.  Sliding down a demand curve implies more work at lower wages, and Murray wants to know why guys aren’t taking the jobs.  A demand curve that shifts inward, however, means both fewer jobs and lower pay.  And there’s considerable research that finds exactly these impacts in certain parts of country (here’s a great example).

This is part of what I mean by Murray missing the larger, growing problem.  His focus on subgroups within subgroups (basically the share of persons that white, 30-49, high-school educated or less, at work in particular occupations, single moms or underemployed) pulls him away from the economic stresses facing a broad array of middle class and low-income families.

These are the families stuck in the cycle I describe here, where inequality feeds back negatively into first, diminished opportunity and mobility, and second, into concentrated political power such that policy becomes uniquely unresponsive to their needs.  Slide six alone poses a huge challenge to Murray’s story.  Here you have working-age, middle income families doing extremely well in the full employment economy of the 1990s, when their incomes grew at something like the rate of overall productivity growth.  Yet, in the 2000s, they were slammed as what growth did occur went right around them on its way to the top of the scale.

It’s inconceivable that their diminished industriousness or religiosity is at fault here, anymore than such individual factors are at play at the end of that figure, when the Great Recession made an already unforthcoming economy for middle and low-income families a lot worse (see these same dynamics at work in poverty rates in slide five—large decline in the 1990s followed by an increase in the 2000s expansion and, of course, the recession).

Charles Murray is right: in important ways we’re coming apart and that’s a serious danger demanding the attention of social scientists, policy makers, and persons of all income classes.  The problem with his book is that if you’ve been paying any attention, you knew that already.  What’s missing from Coming Apart are new insights about it.

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7 comments in reply to "Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart”"

  1. Marwan says:

    Thanks for the lucid review Jared–honest and thoughtful as always. For those interested, David Frum has an even lengthier analysis of the book (and its shortcomings) on the Daily Beast:

  2. PeonInChief says:

    Unfortunately it’s also not true that poorer people are less honest–this morning’s newspaper reports a Berkeley study showing that poorer people are more ethical than richer people.

    What’s really happening is that the bad behaviors of the rich toward the poor are spreading up the economic scale. “Gotcha” contracts used to be reserved for people who took out loans from Beneficial Finance. Now they’re everywhere. Hidden charges aren’t just for people who rent from the Rent-A-Center, but for everything from auto rentals to Platinum Mastercards.

  3. the buckaroo says:

    …”And even if there’s something to his cultural, individualistic explanations”…insert bias for explanations above.

    I fear the problem stems from not adhering to the noble call of the american fabric as understood by the founding revolutionaries, and I quote:

    The Constitution was a product of the Age of Enlightenment, that movement of liberalism & rationality that sought a more humane basis of life.

    peace & cookies

  4. Michael says:

    A good review, but I hope people do not dismiss this work and avoid reading it. You should absolutely read it. One thing he does do is put a face on the divide we have all felt over the past 30 years. While he does go through a tortuous process and explanation to come up with his cohorts, they do serve as statistical proxies for people we all know.

    Some of the statistics are stunning. Once can argue about the meaning of certain statistics, but he does go to great lengths to justify the ones he chooses. The shifts in marriage and out of marriage births are important, and unlike Mr. Bernstein I believe the decline in those working is telling. There is a desire not so much to mooch, but to avoid the rat race of full time, ongoing jobs. They see disability, unemployment, living off friends and loved ones, and equally valuable solutions to making a living.

    Like Mr. Bernstein, I believe the largest flaw is a failure to examine the decline in real wages and other public services as a contributor to the decline in working. Mr. Murray, who is an avid Libertarian, blames welfare and unemployment programs for destroying incentives. There can be no question that, at the margin, some of this disincentive does happen. But the most common cause of quitting any endeavor is not a lack of motivation, but being convinced that one has no chance to succeed. If one is sure that failure is inevitable, then quitting is a rational choice.

    I also object to his “test” to determine how isolated and elitist you are. The entire set of questions presumes that swilling cheap beer at NASCAR races and watching inane and staged “reality” shows is what normal people do, and if not, well then you are elitist. There are plenty of free (or nearly free) museums and plays in every community, libraries are still free (though declining in number), and there are plenty of free educational documentaries on TV. If the underclass chooses not to take advantage of these activities, why are they not the ones who have isolated themselves, rather than being isolated by the “elite?” I do not judge them for not doing so, but object to being called elitist because I do.

    Lastly, while Mr Murray provides some statistics showing that the “elite” are somewhat liberal (he does show that this is really only true in the four, large, coastal cities), he avoids the near certainty that the white underclass he describes has become more and more conservative over the precise period of time when his statistics shifted. I am not sure what to conclude from this coincidence, but surely it is worth exploring. They have evolved to a group of “do as I say, not as I do” people, all the while the supposedly liberal elite ARE doing what they say, and according to Mr. Murray, succeeding as a result.

    It is nevertheless a fascinating and well documented book. I cannot imagine any meaningful debate on the subject without using some of his material.

    • Michael says:

      I’m sorry, but Murray’s not a person who is capable of “well documented.” If you chase down his sources, I suspect you’ll start getting a shock.

  5. cat says:

    The other reason you can’t figure out what Murray is talking about is that he’s not really talking about anything and just whinging that being a white male is no longer enough to end up with a nice stable lifestyle.

    Your chart clearly shows 30-49 men clearly being able to find work, but my recolection, which is maybe faultly, is that if you graphed their incomes over that same time you’d see it flatten and then go down.

    Obviously something happened to cause that and in typical middle class social scold style its the fault of the indivdual for not being moral enough or not hewing to the scold’s sterotypes enough.

  6. K T Cat says:

    Why was it so difficult to figure out what he’s saying? I’ve spent a lot of time working with fatherless boys from poor families and the data wasn’t at all surprising or mysterious to me. It looked like everything I’ve ever seen.