Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Coming Apart

I read Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 the other day. Murray, of course, is controversial. I had lunch back in late spring with a liberal friend from work who mentioned the book in passing - and spluttered in outrage. I wasn't sure why. My friend didn't give arguments, but radiated hostility to the book. So I decided I should read it at some point, although I looked at Murray before, here.

Murray repeats and extends his arguments in the book, with much more data. He argues that America is increasingly not divided by race, but by class. Hence he uses statistical evidence to demonstrate massive declines in social institutions among whites since the early 1960s (specifically, the date Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, marking the end of an era), without needing to consider any racial differences or stereotypes about an underclass.

THIS BOOK IS about an evolution in American society that has taken place since November 21, 1963, leading to the formation of classes that are different in kind and in their degree of separation from anything that the nation has ever known. I will argue that the divergence into these separate classes, if it continues, will end what has made America America. ..

It is not the existence of classes that is new, but the emergence of classes that diverge on core behaviors and values—classes that barely recognize their underlying American kinship.

He has a marked libertarian view, but with a conservartive slant. Government is the enemy because it saps vitality out of the other institutions of society, the "little platoons" as Edmund Burke would have called them.

But the American project was not about maximizing national wealth nor international dominance. The American project—a phrase you will see again in the chapters to come—consists of the continuing effort, begun with the founding, to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems.

The most interesting thing by far is his discussion of the emergence of a new elite university-educated upper class which is heavily clustered into a few narrow districts, the "SuperZIPS". The value of brainpower started rising sharply in the postwar years, he says, as the economy developed from agriculture and manufacturing and towards more sophisticated services and technology. More people, and smarter people, went to college.

The average Harvard freshman in 1952 would have placed in the bottom 10 percent of the incoming class by 1960. The same thing happened throughout the college system.

And the graduates of selective colleges naturally associated with each other.

The human impulse behind the isolation of the new upper class is as basic as impulses get: People like to be around other people who understand them and to whom they can talk. Cognitive segregation was bound to start developing as soon as unusually smart people began to have the opportunity to hang out with other unusually smart people.

The shift in the upper class was dramatic and swift, with consequences that we are still feeling today. The new upper class is very different to the past, he says. He uses alumni data from Harvard and Yale, among other sources, to show that a huge proportion of the graduating classes live in just a few upscale suburbs and cities across the continent. Unsuprisingly, there are clusters in New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco and LA.

The new upper class is liberal, but not notably more so in most of the country. It is very much the four principal major cities which have very liberal upper classes.

They have increasingly little exposure to the mainstream of American life.They are isolated, mostly talking and interacting just with each other. (I of course live in one of those "superZIPS" in Manhattan).

That is not an argument for turning the clock back, he says.

..I have described the America of 1960 in ways that have sometimes sounded nostalgic. But if a time machine could transport me back to 1960, I would have to be dragged into it kicking and screaming. In many aspects of day-to-day life, America today is incomparably superior to the America of 1960.

The increased presence of brainpower in the upper reaches of society starting in the 1960s made a major difference in daily life:

That brings us to the timing of changes in the American standard of living. From the early 1960s to the late 1970s, not much changed in the technology of daily life. ... Then things took off. Beginning around the mid-1970s—the appearance of the Apple II in 1977 is a good symbolic opening—the cascade of changes has been unending. They range from the trivial (it was still difficult to get a really good cup of coffee or loaf of bread in most parts of America in the late 1970s) to the momentous (the Information Revolution is rightly classified alongside the Industrial Revolution as an epochal event). The design, functionality, and durability of almost any consumer product today are far better than they were in 1960.

The social changes are not simply a product of wealth, however. Taxing the upper classes to achieve greater income equality would make little difference in behavior or culture.

The new-upper-class culture is not the product of great wealth. It is enabled by affluence—people with common tastes and preferences need enough money to be able to congregate—but it is not driven by affluence. It is driven by the distinctive tastes and preferences that emerge when large numbers of cognitively talented people are enabled to live together in their own communities. You can whack the top income centile back to where it was in the 1980s, and it will have no effect whatsoever on the new-upper-class culture that had already emerged by that time. Places like Marin County are not fodder for cultural caricature because they are so wealthy.

This is very interesting.

Education and cultural change

He essentially says the cultural change is a natural outcome of sorting and acculturation by higher education. As I see it, perhaps it is a shift in society in a more priestly direction - the triumph of the brahmins, as opposed to the warrior, merchant or lower classes in the traditional fourfold Indian classification , for example.

In the past, a military aristocracy has often dominated society. Now the ruling class is the one which is more skilled at symbolic manipulation and arguments and moral deliberation - traditionally the role of the priests. We have a secular religion with its own upper class factions.

We have discussed before whether the massive social changes of the 1960s came about because humanity for the first time was not impelled by immediate survival needs. The possibility of abundance caused an outbreak of aquarian utopianism, followed by backlash.

Part of it was also technological, like the new possibilities opened up by the contraceptive pill.

And part of it was the rise of a more intellectual, educated upper class.

I'm not sure that higher education is inherently liberal or egalitarian in orientation. Rather, it was in a particularly liberal and secular phase in the 1960s and since. Harvard started off as a training center for the hardline Calvinist ministry, after all. The Jesuits have been famously highly educated, and not particularly liberal. The same applies to Chinese scholar-officials educated in the classics, or many Jewish Rabbis or graduates of the old Islamic Universities like Al-Azhar.

But having an upper class that did pass disproportionately through a few key institutions means it is likely to be stamped with the ethos of those institutions at a point in time. Most of the people would never have attended those institutions had they not become meritocratic. Hence there was natural self-interest in reinforcing those values.

We'll look at more of the book tomorrow.

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