Knives out for Charles Murray (mine too)
Two points about Paul Krugman’s review of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart:
1) Krugman blames the rise in “social dysfunction” of the traditional working class not on liberal cultural values but on the decline in economic opportunities for “lower-education working men.” Makes sense to me. But I wish Krugman wouldn’t keep calling this phenomenon “inequality”– a term that conveniently ropes in an Occupyish disgust with rising incomes at the top. It’s really a problem of the bottom, not the top, no? You could conceivably raise incomes for the unskilled at the bottom without doing anything to reduce the riches at the top. (The minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit basically aim to do just that.) Likewise you could drastically reduce the overall income inequality in the U.S.–cutting top incomes, expanding the middle, putting the Gini back in the bottle–without doing much at all for the folks near the bottom.
Unless Krugman wants to make a more complicated argument than he’s making–not that the rich were made much richer and unskilled workers poorer by the same process (globalization?), which is plausible, but more precisely that now, post-globalization, you can’t make unskilled workers richer without somehow making the rich much poorer, which is iffy–he should stop conflating the concepts of “unskilled wages” and “inequality.” You get the feeling he conflates the concepts because he doesn’t want to have to try to make those arguments. … Defensive note: This doesn’t mean liberals shouldn’t or should try to prevent the very rich from having so much, or to reduce money inequality generally. It means that if inequality’s a problem it’s a different problem (see below). …
2) If you are looking for causes of declining unskilled wages, one of them is increased competition from unskilled (and, in many cases, harder-working) immigrants. You would therefore expect Krugman to resist the Hispandering Dem opposition to an “enforcement before amnesty” approach. In fact, he has–not too loudly, but when it counted. …
One point about Virginia Postrel’s review of Coming Apart:
Virginia Postrel reminds us that overeducated snobs scorned the white working class even during the fabled 50s and 60s “consensus.” (Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a good book about it 20 years ago.) Postrel notes this breathtaking quote from Jackie Kennedy:
Jacqueline Kennedy said after [JFK’s] death that before her elegant young husband came along, “Politics was just left to all the corny old people who shouted on the Fourth of July.”
Maybe this quote seems breathtaking because we cognitive elitists are in some ways a less snobby today than we were in the days of Adlai and Jackie–and not just in public either. For one thing, there’s a whole hi-lo culture that Murray seems to have missed–at least the lo part. I can’t think of many things more unfashionable in NY these days than scorning NASCAR. Conversely, it would be hard to find a small town in the Alabama where folks didn’t have some kind of critical take on the films of Quentin Tarantino.
It’s true that some of the institutions that kept everyone on the same cultural pages–most significantly, the draft–have atrophied. It’s also true that one of the main social forces driving affluent Americans into walled-off isolation–crime–has weakened. Is the net sum of all the various complex forces more social inequality or less? I wrote a book in 1992, before the crime decline, arguing that the sum was, as Murray argues, greater stratification. That still seems true to me. It also still seems true that you don’t have to try to push back on social inequality through the roundabout and probably futile “money liberal” strategy of trying to equalize ever-more-unequal incomes. You can pursue a democratic common culture directly, by building and rebuilding institutions in which it lives: schools, communities, national service, and maybe a universal health care system. … More tk. …