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.
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.
In the lower class, what's gone are the "founding virtues" on which America was launched, he says: family, vocation, community and faith. Civic life is collapsing for the poor. They increasingly don't choose traditional families or jobs or church. The dial on the moral compass has been, at the least, weakened.
The very poor — he puts them in an imaginary town called "Fishtown" and they are the bottom 30 percent in types of work and income — have seen marriage rates and education rates and church attendance rates plummet, among other challenges. The rich — the top 20 percent economically and professionally who he places in his make-believe "Belmont" — largely embrace those virtues still, but they are also in many ways responsible because they have isolated themselves and do not preach what they practice, according to Murray.
Family is an underlying theme of "Coming Apart," he concedes. "I see the breakdown of marriage in Fishtown as being central to the effects on male unemployment, religiosity and other issues."
Murray tells the story of his two communities and the huge divide that separates them using statistics only for whites and focused on those 30-49, the high employment years. By doing that, he says, he takes out all the side chatter about racial disparity or age or other things you'd normally have to account for in order to show that what is happening to that white population happens across all groups.
Critics with a broad range of views are using barrels of ink to explain why his views are toxic or tolerable.
As one talks to Murray, it is clear that he is secure in his credentials and competence to back up what he says and withstand criticism, which has been leveled at both his views and his science. He goes to great lengths in the book to explain both, leaving no question how he arrived at his conclusions. That a book about the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots has sparked national controversy and its own deep divide seems to surprise its author not one whit.
"A social Democrat may see in parts one and two a compelling case for the redistribution of wealth," Murray told the Deseret News. "A social conservative may see a compelling case for government policies that support marriage, religion and traditional values. I am a libertarian and see a compelling case for returning to the founders' conception of limited government."
While he points out lots of problems — "The lower class is going through the floor on these founding virtues and that says they can't function in the way we've always expected American to function," he notes — the book has been criticized for its lack of solutions. That's deliberate, he says. "I want readers to take away an appreciation of the problems," Murray said. America is politically polarized and "I want people on the left as well as the right" to see what's happening and address it, he said. Though he sees the reforms of the '60s as "pretty disastrous," fixing things is not a matter of going back in time. "We are where we are."
His target audience, Murray says, "is basically the people who are college-educated and are experiencing this kind of increasing distance from the rest of the country. It's not that others can't understand, but those are the target audience. I hope they'll change their decisions about a whole bunch of things."
Among those is the belief that if you're successful "you must go to the tippy tippy top of the elite neighborhood you can afford" and hang out only with those "as successful as you.
"I am trying to say to my readers, that's really boring when you are all in your four-acre lots or more and everybody is like you and there are no problems to be solved in terms of people in need," he said. "No personal interaction or the stuff of life."
It is in jousting with the city council over policy or connecting with others about a neighborhood cause where life takes on texture, he says.
This is not the first time he's been controversial. The book Murray wrote with Richard Herrnstein in 1994, "The Bell Curve," had a somewhat similar theme. In it, the authors expounded their theory that actual intelligence better predicts how well one will do in life in terms of money, jobs, crime and family than education or socioeconomic status. They were criticized for "scientific racism" then but also attracted serious praise. And, in fact, books were written in direct response, as a rebuttal.
It sparked a conversation.
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