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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

David Brooks and Charles Murray

Interesting column today by David Brooks, who recommends Charles Murray's latest book ("Coming Apart") as describing the trends (Murray's WSJ article on the book is googlable, but not permalinkable, as far as I can tell [here's today's link]).  Both of them point to the way life has changed for the top 20% vs. the bottom 20%.  And Murray's statistics use only white people, to eliminate any effect due to race.  In the 1950s, it didn't make much difference if you were in the top -- you watched the same TV shows, stayed married at about the same rate, went to church at the same rate, were employed at the same rate, lived in the same neighborhoods, went to the same schools, etc. as those in the lower 20%.  Culturally, the country was more unified.  Now the rates have diverged -- in the bottom 20%, 1 in 8 males in the 30-49 age group is unemployed, fewer than 50% of the marriage-age people are married, lots of kids are born out of wedlock, etc.  Whereas in the upper 20%, everything is still almost the same (although marriage rates have gone down).
Interestingly Brooks says that these "findings" (which have been obvious to anyone who watches daytime TV for some time now), show that both the Republicans and the Democrats don't get it:

"Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.

"Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent. The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness."

Both of Brooks's points are profound non-sequiturs.  Just because a high percentage of the cultural elites supposedly live"traditionalist" lives doesn't mean they aren't playing a part in corrupting regular Americans.  After all, they control the media, and the media is a corrupting influence.  Who knows, perhaps that's how the bottom 20% got to where they are!  I hasten to add that I'm not trying to defend the "cultural elite" fallacy; I'm just saying Brooks is not even addressing its argument, much less proving it false.  But it's certainly interesting to see Brooks bashing the Republican platform that way.

He then says that the 1% narrative is a "distraction," because the real social gap is between the upper 20% and the lower 30%. That criticism doesn't make much sense either.  Yes, Murray has identified a problem that should be addressed.  But so has Occupy Wall Street.  That means that there are TWO problems to address, not that one can simply be dismissed as a "distraction."

Brooks concludes by proposing a National Service Program:

"I doubt Murray would agree, but we need a National Service Program. We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years. We need a program in which people from both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement."

I tend to agree with Brooks that there should be a National Service Program, although his rationale here seems a bit paternalistic, as if the good habits of an upper-20% 18 year old (or whatever) will somehow rub off on someone who grew up in the bottom 20%. 

That doesn't seem likely.  Instead of hoping for self-improvement by osmosis, we should run the National Service Program like the military, where young people from the bottom 20% are routinely made into disciplined, productive members of society.  

It would be very interesting to see someone produce statistics on that -- i.e. how well members of the bottom 20% who join the military fare (say, 20 years later) compared to those who don't.  If those statistics turn out the way I think they would, then that would be a truly compelling argument for a National Service Program -- where our young people would get the benefits of military service, without the risk of getting killed, and without the risk of coming home with PTSD, and without having to participate in the taking of human lives.

And my vision for a National Service Program would include identifying occupations in which even people without strong educations can succeed, and perhaps where more competition is needed.  A high school graduate could be a decent real estate broker, or mortgage broker, for example -- and there's tons of money to be made in those professions!  They could also learn to be plumbers, electricians, or auto mechanics -- all areas that could benefit from more competition and competitive pricing.  Likewise, there is probably a need for more health care workers, to staff clinics that will offer a low-priced alternative to doctors.  A few years working with patients in a National Service Program clinic ought to be the equivalent of a nursing degree.

1 comment:

  1. One of the comments to Murray's article points out that Murray is making a mistake by comparing the current era to the 1950s, since the 1950s was such an anomalous period in American history -- we were the only superpower, we had a great manufacturing base, employment for everybody, etc. That's a very fair criticism -- in part, we've fallen to where we've fallen because the rest of the world has caught up with and in many cases surpassed us.

    So Murray's deeper problem might be that he seems to overlook cause and effect, both in the root of the problem and in searching for a solution. (Of course, I haven't read the book, so I can't be sure about this.)

    It's no longer possible for an unskilled worker in the US to make a middle-class wage, like it was in the 1950s, and the result is that unskilled workers today don't enjoy the stability of middle class life.

    It's not really clear how getting the top 20% to mingle more with the bottom 30% is going to solve any of the country's systemic problems. In other words, simply getting the bottom 30% to go to church and stay married is not necessarily going to cause them to become employed.