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'Coming Apart' — Author points out the widening chasm between haves, have-nots

Published: Sunday, Feb. 19 2012 3:00 p.m. MST

As the chasm between the educated and wealthy elite and the lower-achievement, everybody-else populations has grown, even the economic winners have lost their ties to what has set America apart from the rest of the world. The upper class lives fairly traditional, family-values lives in a bubble. The lower class is scraping by, making it up as they go. And if the two don't get reacquainted, America as we know it will be gone.

That's the view of modern-day America presented by author and political scientist Charles Murray in his just-out book, "Coming Apart."

The rich-poor divide has drawn clear boundaries. "The result is that, unlike in the past, the people who run the country have increasingly tenuous connections to the rest of the county," says Murray. The virtues that held America together, he contends, no longer do.

United States?

Hardly.

In the hotly debated book, Murray contends that the "trends of the last half century do not represent just the passing of an outmoded way of life I have identified as the 'American Project.' Rather, the trends signify damage to the heart of American community and the ways in which the great majority of Americans pursue satisfying lives," he told the Deseret News in a recent phone interview. "The trends of the last half century matter a lot. Many of the best and most exceptional qualities of American culture cannot survive unless they are reversed."

Murray acknowledges he's part of the new upper class, a group that draws some heavy criticism in his book. But at least he has the benefit of remembering his roots, he says. What worries him are the second- and third-generation elites who have never known a life unlike the one they have, who don't know poorer people, who don't relate to everyday challenges.

He remembers all of that, he says: He was born in Newton, Iowa, into a hard-working middle-class family. His parents stressed decency and hard work. He was smart and went to Harvard in the 1960s. Back then, smart could get you into one of the elite universities much easier than today. That's part of the change he credits with reshaping America: Now, a few elite schools attract the most intelligent and often the wealthiest students, picking the top-tier to create a kind of monied and intelligent club that is hard for others to crack — and into which those smarter, richer Americans can disappear with their similar friends and lifestyles.

The shift in who got into which colleges was the start of the birth of the super-elites, he says. Half a century ago, smart kids got in, but they came from all kinds of backgrounds.

After Harvard, Murray joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Thailand. He married a Thai woman; they were later divorced. He is now remarried and the father of four, two from each marriage.

These days, besides writing, Murray is a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. His career has had him lecturing around the globe, and he has written scores of articles and a number of books.

Murray noted that his own children, the second generation, remember their roots. But for the third generation, there's no one left to visit in the "old neighborhood." They only know privilege.

The last day of the old world, according to Murray, was the day before John F. Kennedy was killed. In that world of Nov. 21, 1963, money was really the only thing separating the rich from others. They lived in fairly normal homes in income-integrated neighborhoods and knew those around them through church, through school, through youth activities. They had similar morals and concerns and views. The "SuperZIPS" of a half-century later didn't exist, though they flourish today as exclusive, keep-out enclaves where the upper class build bigger-than-mansion homes and mix with others like themselves and don't know ordinary folks. Old sensibilities about not doing something because of its unseemliness and ostentation are gone, he says.

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