Charles Murray responds to book critiques

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray responded to several critiques of his recently-released book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” in an interview with The Daily Caller.

Since its release, Murray’s book has been on the receiving end of glowing praise from many quarters on the right.

New York Times columnist David Brooks said he would be “shocked” if another book comes out this year that more “compellingly describes the most important trends in American society.”

Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum even name-dropped Murray and his book in a recent GOP primary debate.

The book describes, in Murray’s words, “an evolution in American society that has taken place since November 21, 1963, leading to the formation of classes that are different in kind and in their degree of separation from anything that the nation has ever known.”

As his subtitle suggests, Murray focuses exclusively on the “state of white America.” On one end of the spectrum, he discusses the “New Upper Class.” In this strata of society, he argues, the American “founding virtues” of industriousness, honesty, marriage fidelity and adherence to religious tradition remain strong. Conversely, in “New Lower Class,” Murray contends that these civic virtues have collapsed since 1960.

One criticism of the book is that Murray didn’t adequately deal with economic considerations while discussing the cultural decline of the “New Lower Class.”

“How you can tell a story about the moral decay of the working class with the ‘work’ part left out is hard to fathom,” former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote in one of the several critiques he has penned about the book.

Echoing Frum, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote, while noting that he hadn’t yet read the book, that his hunch was “that deteriorating social norms are at least partially the result and not the cause of economic stagnation.”

“You can approach this in several ways,” Murray told TheDC in response to the criticism.

“The first is that you can take the rate at which people are dropping out of the labor force, specifically white males, and you can match that up against the unemployment rate, and in fact that graph is in the book. And what it shows is that the white male drop out from the labor force from ages 30-49 is as fast or faster during the boom years as in the lean years.”

“The boom years of the 1990s and some of them in the 1980s and even some in the 2000s were really hot job markets,” he added. “I mean, there were jobs for everybody that wanted to work. … So why is it during those years you had more and more white males dropping out of the labor force?”

Beyond being statistically verifiable, Murray argues that his point can easily be gleaned by talking to ordinary people trying to hire workers.

“The phenomenon I’m talking about is a secret only to academics,” he said.

“You can talk to any general contractor who tries to hire labor for construction, you can talk to just about any electrician or plumber or glazier or anybody else who wants to hire an assistant and they are willing to pay way above the minimum wage, they want to teach their craft to somebody, but they need somebody who will show up everyday on time and work hard. And you cannot find people in that position who will not tell you the same story, which is that you look at white guys — I’m not sure the story is different for black guys, but let’s stick with white guys — and you just can’t find them.”

Murray confided that he “had several journalists, both broadcast and print, say to me that when they have gone out to do stories about the recession, and their objective is to portray guys out there desperately looking for work, and they can’t find it.”

Another Frum criticism of Murray’s portrayal is that what Murray is talking about is a global problem, not merely a problem found in the United States, yet Murray doesn’t address it as such.

“This trend toward inequality varies from country to country — more extreme in the United Kingdom, less extreme in Germany,” Frum wrote. “The subsequent destabilization of working-class social life likewise varies from country to country. But if the trend is global, the cause must be global too.”

“I’m not worried about the deterioration of the civic culture of England or France or Spain or anyplace else,” responds Murray.

“They have never had a civic culture in which it was the boast of the nation, the pride of the nation — that everybody shared a common civic culture and they treasured it. I mean, the American way of life had as one of its pillars this sense of Americans all striving to be members of the middle class — even the ones who obviously were too wealthy to be middle class but wanting to be part of this common culture. That was the civic culture  — that even though you had rich people and poor people — made this country special. And that civic culture is disappearing.”

Asked about Frum’s suggestion that the cause must be global since, as Frum contests, what Murray is describing is a global trend, Murray said he doesn’t talk about causes in the book.

“Where in the book do I ever talk about cause of the ‘New Lower Class?’” he asked.

“I have one chapter which talks about the formation of the ‘New Upper Class’ where I do refer to causes. Nowhere in the entire discussion of the formation of the ‘New Lower Class’ do I address causes, and there is a good reason for doing that — that I want someone who is a liberal to be able to read this book without throwing it against the wall.”

When asked by TheDC if he has yet read an impressive critique of his book, Murray initially said no. Towards the end of the interview, however, he reconsidered somewhat: “I think the most important critique has to do with the labor market because that’s one where if I were rewriting the book I would spend another five pages giving my position,” he said.

“When people say that, ‘well, but white males were demoralized and they thought these jobs were beneath them,’ my response is ‘Q.E.D [quod erat demonstrandum]’. I’m saying industriousness has declined precipitously among working class whites. And you can call it demoralization, but the fact is in 1960, to be a man in your 30s and 40s and not to be even looking for work made you into a bum.”

“To have even the lowest most menial job gave you status in the community compared to the guys who weren’t working,” he added. “And the fact that that has changed is exactly the point I’ve been trying to make. So don’t tell me demoralization explains anything. Demoralization is another word for a loss of industriousness.”

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Jamie Weinstein