Charles Murray's New Book 'Coming Apart' Shamelessly Blames the Victims of Our Economic Collapse
Charles Murray, the man who blamed welfare and a host of other liberal sins for weakening the moral fiber of the poor, has redirected his focus to the white working-class. And guess what? The problem with the declining fortunes of those on the losing end of the economic spectrum, he argues in his new book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, is not the loss of jobs. It's not about the increase in contingent hiring that makes the remaining jobs less stable. And it's certainly not the disappearance of unions that once fought for worker protection. Instead, the problem with the working class is – surprise, surprise – the working class. In the world according to Murray, they have lost their moral fiber, giving up on the values that once made America great. Instead of eagerly accepting the $10/hr, no-benefit jobs that remain, they work less and attend church less often. The men fail to support their families and the women respond by refusing to marry the ne'er-do-wells and foolishly raising children on their own.
Murray, to his credit, seems to agree that the six-figure bonuses of the new economy are “unseemly,” but rather than connect those bonuses to the corporate practices responsible for the job losses, he reserves his criticism of the new upper class for their isolation. They have deserted their less successful brethren by failing to “preach what they practice” and presumably by failing to insist on the necessity of hard work and marriage on wages of $10 an hour. The problem with Murray’s account is that he chooses not to hear the message of the new upper class or see their efforts to make the terms of their success available to the newly impoverished working class. He fails to see or hear these messages because, in fact, Murray is in league with those who actively oppose efforts to help the working class realize the terms that succeed in the new economy.
Many liberals in the elite zipcodes Murray despises would, in fact, like to help the working class achieve these new terms. They support tax increases that keep public university education affordable. They promote efforts to increase jobs paying a family wage. They seek to separate access to healthcare from employment so that young families do not have to choose between denying their children antibiotics and leaving them unattended while the parents work long shifts. They fight for universal comprehensive sex education that couples strategies to make abstinence possible (the poorer a woman is the less likely the sex that conceives her child is welcome) with scientifically reliable information on contraception. They would make sure that every woman has access to affordable and reliable birth control, the morning-after pill, abortion or adoption in accordance with her individual religious preferences.
Murray, like many self-appointed moral czars who make a handsome living preaching to others (he’s the W.H. Brady scholar at the American Enterprise Institute), doesn’t get the new morality of the upper class. Instead, he insists on seeing the family as an unchanging institution ordained when God created Adam and Eve. He does not see that the wage-earner Dad and homemaker Mom he cherishes are the creations of an industrial economy that sought to promote the education of the middle class by redefining the mother’s role within the home.
He also doesn’t see that the middle-class system was extended to the working class in large part through free public education in the 19th century and to new generations of working-class immigrants through mandatory school attendance and child labor laws in the 20th century. He similarly does not see that the success of the upper middle-class he celebrates is the product of a 21st-century strategy. That strategy says invest heavily in both girls and boys, delay childbearing until the parents have reached financial independence and emotional maturity, and embrace more flexible gender roles. Above all, as we argue in our book Red Families v. Blue Families, treat childrearing as a sacred (in both the religious and secular senses of the word) undertaking that requires substantial parental investment to prepare young people for a more competitive and demanding economy.
Murray doesn’t hear these messages, in part, because he mistakes morality for fire and brimstone sermons. But the upper class that Murray idealizes (and excoriates) has a different brand of morality, one that is, on its own terms, quite stringent. The upper class is not out there insisting that its own children remain abstinent until marriage – real abstinence would interfere with marriage to a fellow investment banker at 32. Instead, they are teaching their children that the birth control pill helps with menstrual cramps at 14 and that sex at later ages requires responsibility.
We avidly followed the blogs during Bristol Palin’s much publicized pregnancy and her subsequent breakup with her finance Levi Johnston. Conservative women applauded her decision not to have an abortion, recognizing that many wealthy, supposedly religious parents not only accept their daughters’ decisions not to continue a pregnancy but insist on it. They also celebrated (alongside the Palin parents) when Bristol broke up with Levi; every woman had Levi’s number and almost none held out hope that a marriage would last. It was the women on the liberal blogs who were astonished at her decision to bear and raise the child on her own – because going ahead with motherhood at 17 necessarily limits Bristol’s and the child’s life chances.
Murray does not and cannot deal with these contradictions. For Murray, the solution to working-class woes lies in their character alone. His new book notes in a throwaway line that the exception to three decades of working-class family decline came during rare periods of shared economic prosperity. Yet, every student of human behavior has found that hope is a better motivator than despair. Fixing the economy will do wonders for the character of the working class -- and it really is easier than fixing Levi Johnston.