Tyler's Reviews > Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010

Coming Apart by Charles Murray
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's review
Mar 25, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: economics, sociology
Read in March, 2012

In "Coming Apart", social scientist Charles Murray explores class divide in modern United States. The book's subtitle, "The State of White America", and the limit in scope of Mr. Murray's investigation it highlights, is an unfortunate limitation for this, and any, book about class divide.

Murray said the reason for this focus on just "White America" was because he wanted to eliminate the race variable from the equation. Murray warns readers to not "kid yourselves that we are looking at stresses that can be remedied by attacking the legacy of racism or restricting immigration." The focus on just one race of people in the book, Murray argues, is to make the point that not race, but class, is the important reference point around which any debate on what ails America should hinge.

The unfortunate aspect of this choice, which I cannot wrap my head around, is that if Murray wanted to demonstrate that class is the dividing factor in society, so shouldn't he have tried to show that these class divisions exist, even when controlling for the race variable (rather than merely eliminating it as a variable for consideration)? The problem is, that if this book only addresses a divide that exists within one racial subset of America, than we are not in a position to extrapolate any of its findings to society as a whole.

Nonetheless, Mr. Murray presses on with this more limited approach, injecting a palatable narrative into a broad set of sociological findings, ones that cannot be quickly dismissed merely on account of their shortcomings.

To make his findings easier to digest, Mr. Murray creates two prototypical American towns: Belmont and Fishtown. These towns are meant to represent the new upper class (Belmont) and everyone else (Fishtown). The one and ninety-nine percent, if you will.

With these two prototypical towns, Murray, in rather thorough and compelling detail (within the most memorable portion of the book) lays out rich data that outlines the differences in financial and education status between haves and haves-nots in America.

Murray demonstrates how members of Belmont live in what he coins "SuperZips" or clusters of elite Zip Codes usually located around major metropolitan areas (towns like Berkeley, Bethesda, Greenwich, et al). He shows how members of Belmont are far more likely to have gone to a very particular set of elite schools, to have higher IQs, to have married other people with higher IQs, to attend church and religious organizations, to work longer hours, to vote, and to have certain jobs.

One of the more surprising findings of Mr. Murray's analysis is the way he details the various substratum of Belmont. Not all the 1% is created equal, in other words. Mr. Murray breaks down Belmont into centiles, for example, and demonstrates how more members of the top centiles went to the elite schools, or have higher IQs, etc. than those in the lower centiles. The qualities that allow members entry into the SuperZips, it appears, also disperse themselves in a rather tiered, orderly fashion within the SuperZips.

The narrative which Murray lays out, and which his data clearly shows, is that the United States is indeed "Coming Apart" at the seams, in that the living patterns of its citizens is one characterized by the clustering of a "cognitive elite" subset. These elites are the leaders in the information economy. They live and work in a very predictable fashion, and in certain areas, demonstrating certain behaviors and values, and earning (and perhaps creating) a disproportionate part of the country's economic wealth.

While Mr. Murray does present, in the first two-thirds of the book, a compelling array of data and trends, Murray imposes a narrative on top of his findings that cannot be fully supported by his data set. The "coming apart" that is happening today in our society, thanks to the work of Murray and others like him (David Brooks, Richard Florida, etc.), is clear. But why it is happening, or what the ideal solutions to the problems are exactly, are not any more certain to me after having read this book.

Would Fishtown benefit from the very values that Murray highlights they are missing? Surely. But the more perplexing, and perhaps not easily answered, questions are- what caused the decline in marriage, faith, employment, and sense of civic duty in Fishtown in the first place? And what can be done to fix it?

The only answer that Murray offers to the first question is the same conclusion, he admits, which he came to in his previous books. For Murray, the conclusions of "Coming Apart" are nothing more then a peroration of his earlier works.

Murray believes it is the advent of social engineering programs, like welfare, that caused people in Fishtown to increasingly depend on these programs, rather than on self-reliance. With the safety net of welfare, Mr. Murray argues, came an increase in expectations and a decline in work. And Murray's prescriptions to solve this problem seem oversimplified.

But it does seem safe to say- from the very evidence that Murray provides- that Fishtown is not in a position to adequately invest current welfare benefits given to them, in an effort to better secure their futures.

It is perhaps only in the empowerment and the education of Fishtown- teaching them how to adapt and invest in their own knowledge and future within the context of an information economy- that a potential solution exists.

All of Murray's conclusions in this book, not just those of his that have to do with welfare programs, fly far from any grounding in the data before him. They are polemical and opinionated.

Murray's prescriptions for "the new upper class" are odd. He argues that this elite class "still does a good job of practicing some of the virtues, but it no longer preaches them." Murray goes on to argue that Belmont needs to have greater self-confidence in those values (faith, industriousness, community) that Murray's data indicates that it possesses more of than does Fishtown. In what he refers to as the "dominant minority", Murray argues the prevailing code of conduct is one that is a "set of mushy injunctions to be nice." Is a preachy elite really what this nation needs right now? Surely not.

Murray attributes Belmont's silence to its "keeping the good stuff to itself" and to knowing the "secret to maximizing the chances of leading a happy life" while "refusing to let anyone else in on the secret". This denies a myriad of other plausible explanations: society is more litigious and intolerant towards those that cast strong opinions towards others, the younger generations in our society whose parents grew up in an era of racial segregation and terrible intolerance have been taught to and decided to embrace a more tolerant approach towards other members of society and their ways of living. Preaching hardly seems to be the answer. A more plausible way forward is perhaps for society to work to create a social framework within which each member has an equal chance to succeed in the information economy (not outcome, but equal chance). This would require an improved education system, one that is more practical and skill-based and cheaper to execute and provide.

Merely hoping a disconnected subset of the population will reconnect with America's founding values and join the knowledge economy by remembering those values that our Founding Fathers espoused, as Mr. Murray suggests, without a framework within which they can do so quickly and lastingly, is no solution at all. A welfare state is surely not the framework. And I am not sure what is. But Murray does not seem to fully know either. The problem is clear; the solution is yet more elusive. I am as certain of that now after reading this book as I ever was.

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