Monday, March 19, 2012

Coming Apart: The State Of White America, 1960-2010 By Charles Murray

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010

Coming Apart: The State Of White America, 1960-2010 By Charles Murray

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From the bestselling author of Losing Ground and The Bell Curve, this startling long-lens view shows how America is coming apart at the seams that historically have joined our classes.

In Coming Apart, Charles Murray explores the formation of American classes that are different in kind from anything we have ever known, focusing on whites as a way of driving home the fact that the trends he describes do not break along lines of race or ethnicity.

Drawing on five decades of statistics and research, Coming Apart demonstrates that a new upper class and a new lower class have diverged so far in core behaviors and values that they barely recognize their underlying American kinship—divergence that has nothing to do with income inequality and that has grown during good economic times and bad.

The top and bottom of white America increasingly live in different cultures, Murray argues, with the powerful upper class living in enclaves surrounded by their own kind, ignorant about life in mainstream America, and the lower class suffering from erosions of family and community life that strike at the heart of the pursuit of happiness. That divergence puts the success of the American project at risk.

The evidence in Coming Apart is about white America. Its message is about all of America.

Product Details
  • Amazon Sales Rank: #94 in Books
  • Published on: 2012-01-31
  • Released on: 2012-01-31
  • Original language: English
  • Number of items: 1
  • Dimensions: 9.59" h x 1.40" w x 6.41" l, 1.44 pounds
  • Binding: Hardcover
  • 416 pages
Editorial Reviews Review

Featured Guest Review: Niall Ferguson on Coming Apart

Niall Ferguson is professor of history at Harvard, a fellow of the Hoover Institution and the author of numerous books, most recently Civilization: The West and the Rest and The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World.

Since the advent of "Occupy Wall Street," there has been a tendency to assume that only the Left worries about inequality in America. Charles Murray's Coming Apart shows that conservatives, too, need to be concerned.

This is an immensely important and utterly gripping book. It deserves to be as much talked about as Murray's most controversial work (co-authored with Richard J. Herrnstein), The Bell Curve. Quite unjustly, that book was anathematized as "racist" because it pointed out that, on average, African-Americans had lower IQ scores than white Americans.

No doubt the same politically correct critics will complain about this book, because it is almost entirely devoted to the problem of social polarization within "white America." They will have to ignore one of Coming Apart's most surprising findings: that race is not a significant determinant of social polarization in today's America. It is class that really matters.

Murray meticulously chronicles and measures the emergence of two wholly distinct classes: a new upper class, first identified in The Bell Curve as "the cognitive elite," and a new "lower class," which he is too polite to give a name. And he vividly localizes his argument by imagining two emblematic communities: Belmont, where everyone has at least one college degree, and Fishtown, where no one has any. (Read: Tonyville and Trashtown.)

The key point is that the four great social trends of the past half-century--the decline of marriage, of the work ethic, of respect for the law and of religious observance--have affected Fishtown much more than Belmont. As a consequence, the traditional bonds of civil society have atrophied in Fishtown. And that, Murray concludes, is why people there are so very unhappy--and dysfunctional.

What can be done to reunite these two classes? Murray is dismissive of the standard liberal prescription of higher taxes on the rich and higher spending on the poor. As he points out, there could hardly be a worse moment to try to import the European welfare state, just as that system suffers fiscal collapse in its continent of origin.

What the country needs is not an even larger federal government but a kind of civic Great Awakening--a return to the republic's original foundations of family, vocation, community, and faith.

Coming Apart is a model of rigorous sociological inquiry, yet it is also highly readable. After the chronic incoherence of Occupy Wall Street, it comes as a blessed relief. Every American should read it. Too bad only the cognitive elite will.

"I'll be shocked if there's another book this year as important as Charles Murray's 'Coming Apart.'"
--David Brooks, The New York Times

"Mr. Murray's sobering portrait is of a nation where millions of people are losing touch with the founding virtues that have long lent American lives purpose, direction and happiness."
--W. Bradford Wilcox, The Wall Street Journal

"'Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010' brims with ideas about what ails America."
-- The Economist

"a timely investigation into a worsening class divide no one can afford to ignore."
--Publisher's Weekly 

"[Charles Murray] argues for the need to focus on what has made the U.S. exceptional beyond its wealth and military power...religion, marriage, industriousness, and morality."
--Booklist (Starred Review)

"Charles Murray ... has written an incisive, alarming, and hugely frustrating book about the state of American society."
--Roger Lowenstein, Bloomberg Businessweek 

About the Author
CHARLES MURRAY is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He first came to national attention in 1984 with Losing Ground. His subsequent books include In Pursuit, The Bell Curve (with Richard J. Herrnstein), What It Means to Be a Libertarian, Human Accomplishment, In Our Hands, and Real Education. He received a bachelor's degree in history from Harvard and a Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He lives with his wife in Burkittsville, Maryland.

Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews

317 of 362 people found the following review helpful.
5Murray's valedictory ends on a note of optimism. But the book doesn't support optimism.
By Graham H. Seibert
The last chapter, entitled "Alternative Futures," sounds a note of optimism. All that we need is for America's elites to recognize the problem, come to their senses, and set things straight. Right. As if Murray has not been futilely expounding this message for the past 40 years. He cites Robert Fogel's "The Fourth Great Awakening" as an inspiration for his optimism. America has overcome crises of the spirit in the past, after we lost first the Puritan spirituality, then the secular sense of mission which fueled our independence, then the crisis of the depression which was answered by the New Deal and the welfare state. Fogel argues that today's crisis is a want of meaning in our lives. Murray believes we can reestablish it.

Murray says that there are only about four fundamental personal characteristics undergirding a happy life. The ones he names are two character traits: honesty and industry, and two societal connections: meaningful relationships with one's fellow man, and a satisfying marriage. He provides another, overlapping list of four elements that have historically defined American society which he calls the four founding virtues: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. He goes into some length presenting sociological surveys that demonstrate the importance and the interconnectedness of these characteristics to personal happiness, and their importance to the well-being of society. If only we could recover them, all would be well.

The backbone of his book is a comparison between two hypothetically constructed communities, Fishtown and Belmont. They are based on real places, predominantly white neighborhoods of Philadelphia and Boston respectively, with incomes at the 8th and 97th national percentiles. They exemplify the directions taken by subsets of white America as we are, in the words of his title, "Coming Apart." In constructing his abstract communities he excludes minorities and people outside the age range of 30-49. He goes on to describe how these communities have evolved over the past half-century.

Fortune has put me in a good position to judge the accuracy of his characterization. I am a few months older than Murray and spent my 25 year marriage in Bethesda, one of the Belmont like suburbs of Washington DC, not far from Murray himself, with a wife who was born in the actual Fishtown and some of whose family remained spiritually anchored there. That gave me time on both sides of the tracks. Moreover, I started out that way - in a blue-collar neighborhood close to Berkeley, where my classmates and intellectual peers were definitely Belmont types.

One of the things I enjoyed about the book was Murray's 20 questions to help an Overeducated Elitist Snob (OES) such as almost everybody who's going to be reading this book determine how well, if at all, they know the "real America" where 80 percent of white people live. By virtue of my blue-collar neighborhood and my Army service, experience is that younger men simply don't have, I scored a respectable 41 on his test, placing me well in the category of those with the most experience with the real America. The shock was how low you can go on his scale... how totally out of touch my Bethesda ex-neighbors could be with the country their governing. I knew this intellectually, but Murray brings it home.

Back to the story, in 1960 Fishtown was a very Catholic neighborhood in which the men worked, the women stayed home, and the kids went to Catholic school. My ex-wife was one of them. What they considered to be social problems were excess drinking, quite a bit of it, fistfights and a bit of philandering. Young people, however, knew what was expected of them. They got married, before or after becoming pregnant, and provided families for kids. It was a moral expectation that was generally observed. People had responsibilities and took them seriously. They did not accept welfare, they answered the call when they were drafted, and they participated in church and civic organizations.

Fishtown in 2010 is a very different place. People simply don't feel an obligation to either work or get married. There are many never married people, and many out of wedlock children. A lot of the guys are just bums - don't work, don't want to work, don't want to get married, and waste their time watching television. An inordinately large number have figured how to game the system by qualifying for Social Security disability. Their attitude is that work is for chumps. Quite a few of them have drinking and drug problems, but Murray does not consider these disabilities to be nearly as important as the lack of any of the four foundations in their lives. No more religion, no social connections with the community, either no marriage or an unsatisfactory marriage, and no vocation.

Murray, a longtime libertarian, claims that intrusive, European-style government has taken away the need for these four virtues and undermined the people who attempt to practice them. Kids don't need a father if the government provides money and social workers. Men don't need work if the government gives them handouts. Social connections aren't important if there's nothing really to be done improving the place.

Murray claims that the state of affairs in Belmont is much better. People work hard, get married, stay married, are resolutely and obsessively concerned with their children, and are involved in community. More than that, counter intuitively, they are more involved in church than are the people remaining in Fishtown. They may not believe the dogmas, but they understand the social value of belonging.

What has changed in Belmont is the conviction that the set of virtues they practice really ought to be preached. Belmont now believes totally in moral relativism. If somebody else doesn't want to remain married to his kids' mother, doesn't want to work, or spends all of his money on drink and drugs and all of his time watching TV, they're not going to be judgmental. That's somebody else's life.

Another thing that has changed in Belmont is their acceptance of lower-class culture. A Belmont mother will not prevent her daughter from dressing like a hooker, using gutter language picked up from rap music, or swearing like a sailor. There is not a sense that "Belmont girls don't do that." Also out the door are old-fashioned morality, the idea that you shouldn't seduce girls when they're drunk, cheat on tests, or tell the clerk at McDonald's if he gives you too much change. People just don't have a sense of seemliness anymore. Kids can wear the most outrageous clothes, and their parents can take the most outrageous bonuses from their companies, and rich people can take inappropriate and undeserved handouts from the government without blushing in the slightest.

Murray makes a few huge oversights. Race is one. White people are everybody's least favorite ethnicity. We get called anti-Semites and racists, and are constantly backpedaling in the face of accusations from Hispanics and overwhelmed by the sheer intellect and industry of the Asians. Even in the unlikely event we were to resist in the ways he advocates, society would still sweep us along its unfortunate path. Another oversight is education. All sectors of society are being worse educated year-by-year, Belmont, Fishtown, and most especially the black and Hispanic groups he doesn't mention. The educational system seems dedicated, whether by design or sheer ineptitude, to destroying religion, fostering dependence on government, and stultifying personal industry and ambition. Oh, and it goes out of its way to denigrate anything in American history of which white people might be proud.

My Puritan forefathers hoped to establish a country in which the four founding virtues - industry, honesty, religion and marriage - might flourish. It worked for a few centuries, but now appears to be hopelessly broken. I do not think it is possible within any country. Murray himself relates Toynbee's description of the way in which every great empire contains the seeds of its own destruction. I would advocate that each individual leave countries out of the equation as they seek the best future their family. Find a community - Mormons would be a good place to look - where civic virtues are still in evidence. Find a way to educate your family - homeschooling looks good - to shield them from the propaganda and the mediocrity of the public system. Find a religious community of like-minded people. And do not be afraid to look the world over to find these things - America may no longer be the place.

145 of 169 people found the following review helpful.
4A Valuable Analysis of a Widening Social Chasm
By Steve T
"Coming Apart" offers a very effective analysis of the diverging economic prospects and social values of American society since 1963. I should say first off that many people seem biased against this book because of the controversy surrounding Murray's prior book, "The Bell Curve." Murray has taken great pains in this new book to avoid the issue of race, focusing specifically on white Americans. I could find nothing offensive or even politically incorrect regarding race in this book.

The author's main premise is that over the past 4+ decades, America has divided strongly into two classes, that he illustrates with fictional town names. "Belmont" refers to the cognitive elite: The top 20% with college or graduate degrees, who hold jobs in knowledge-based occupations. And "Fishtown" refers to the working class: The bottom 30% with at most a high school diploma and (if employed) working in blue collar or low wage service jobs. Murray demonstrates quite effectively (using statistics) that the people who make up "Belmont" have become more industrious and more traditional in their attitudes toward marriage, family and community, while the people in "Fishtown" are living in communities that are basically falling apart and where traditional nuclear families are becoming harder and harder to find.

While the book bases its arguments on solid statistics, I have two primary complaints. First, it does not always do a good job of distinguishing cause and effect. For example, the author points out the working class men now choose to engage in much more "leisure" and less work. He then conjures up a vision of a typical male, who all bent out of shape because he doesn't have the opportunity has grandfather had at the GM factory, turns down a $12 per hour job driving a delivery truck. I find it VERY hard to believe that $12/hr delivery jobs are going begging. If, in fact, a lot of working class men are not actively pounding the pavement looking for these jobs, there could be reasons: Maybe competition is so intense it is hopeless. Or maybe the jobs get given out based on networking or cronyism, so someone out of the loop has little chance. But I fail to see how "laziness" is the primary cause here.

The second thing is that the book does not anticipate the future very well. Just about everyone will agree that technology and globalization have hit "Fishtown" hard. What fewer people seem to see is that BELMONT IS NEXT. If you doubt this, consider how IBM's Watson computer won at Jeopardy. Or consider the number of information technology and software engineering jobs getting offshored. Or look at what the internet is doing to journalism. These are all jobs that Murray puts in the "Belmont" category. But in the future, a lot of these people are not going to be able to afford to stay in Belmont. Of course, Belmont will still be around; it will just be occupied by fewer and fewer people.

To get an idea of how technology and globalization are likely to change the workforce (and society) of the future, read The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future. Don't assume that today's status quo will continue indefinitely!

163 of 191 people found the following review helpful.
5Challenging argument on a critical theme
By CS2011
Charles Murray has never been one to shy away from a volatile subject. As a result, he has been able to make startling arguments on topics that are rather taboo in the modern intellectual climate. With the Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (A Free Press Paperbacks Book), he argued that intelligence, which is partly innate, is more important to social success than socioeconomic status. In Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, he ranks the cultural value of different civilizations and assesses the west as by far the greatest. It's clear from his work that Murray does not suffer from delusion--he is no quack. And the content of his arguments is engaging for anyone who is open-minded and willing to consider arguments from new perspectives.

Here, Murray explains that white America has grown increasingly divided along class lines. There is a clear moral case being made here. The lower class is falling into illegitimacy, crime, and poverty while the upper class is excelling in education, career, and family. The main cause is simple: primarily, a devaluation of white middle class values brought on by increased intervention by the government. This intervention takes the form of welfare support, in which the government gives incentive for people to break apart families and avoid work. Meanwhile, the upper class is left alone to prosper in its highly technical fields.

This argument will challenge the reader, whether you agree with the central premise or not. At the very least, it is worth an in-depth discussion. Reflect upon it with regard to George Gilder's Men and Marriage argument, and Eric Robert Morse's argument in Juggernaut: Why the System Crushes the Only People Who Can Save It.

Definitely a five-star book for the provocative ideas alone.


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