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Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Charles Murray

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Member:AfroFogey
Title:Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010
Authors:Charles Murray
Info:Crown Forum (2012), Hardcover, 416 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
Tags:Social commentary

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Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray (2012)

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For Ed Feulner, with thanks for my start! Warmest regards, Charles Murray
  efeulner | Mar 28, 2014 |
I have friends who remind me, regularly, that wealth is becoming more and more concentrated among the wealthy. Further, the "not rich" are making less than they used to, relative to the wealthy. In other words, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

There is a divide growing in America, argues Charles Murray in his book "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 - 2010" but it isn't necessarily just over money. In fact, the divide may be greater because it is cultural, not just economic.

Displaying a dizzying array of statistics, studies, and research, Murray shows an America that is watching the rise of what seems, to me, to be a new ruling class, a group of elites that are well educated ("overeducated elitist snobs"), well connected, and with a set of values and interests different from much of modern America. The self-segregation is not malicious, but, largely a result of people being attracted to others like them. As a result, their children grow up with a different set of values, more educated, and in turn marry people like them, further segregating themselves.

It works both ways, though, and Murray sets up as a comparison a hypothetical city on the upper ("Belmont") and on the lower ("Fishtown") ends of the spectrum to compare them. In his analysis, people in Belmont are better educated, less likely to get divorced (if at all), more involved in their community, work longer hours, are more honest, and are more religious. On the other hand, vital statistics in all of these areas for Fishmont show a gradual falling off over the last fifty years.

Why is this problematic? One reason is that it has resulted in a culture for the upper class that is completely out of touch with most of America. They watch different movies, participate in different social activities, drink different beers, and read different books. Their interests are not the same, and yet they are a select group that sets policy and opinion, controls wealth and power, for America.

Another problem is that the degradation of values in lower class America over the last fifty years is leading to a collapse of "American civic life," something exceptional about America. At this juncture in the book, Murray, a confessed libertarian, recaps the roots and history of American civic culture and its uniqueness in the world. Neighborliness, vibrant civic engagement in solving local problems, voluntary associations, and so on. All hallmarks of America up to as recently as the 1960s, the members of lower and upper classes shared through these civic association a culture together that connected them and their values.

Further, although the elite retain some values, they have failed to lead. The elite class is as "dysfunctional in its way as the new lower class is in its way. Personally and as families, its members are successful. But they have abdictated their responsibility to set and promulgate standards." Instead, its most successful members take advantage of the perks of position without regards to the "unseemliness" of that behavior, showing something of a new "gilded age."

Prognosis? "If the case I have just made for a hollow elite is completely correct, all is lost," says Murray on page 294. The lower class is only barely able to care for itself by 2020, while the upper classes enter yet another generation separate from main stream America and further out of touch with the "real world." Insightfully, then, Murray says that "new laws and regulations steadily accrete, and America's governing regime is soon indistinguishable from that of an advanced European welfare state. The American project is dead."

Is all lost? Murray says that for things to turn around, America must see four predictions borne out: America must watch what happens in Europe (and if the turmoil of the last few months is any indication, this prediction is bearing out), science must undermine the moral underpinnings of the welfare state, it will become increasingly obvious that there is a simple, affordable way to replace the entire apparatus of the welfare state, and Americans' allegiance to the American project must be far greater that Murray's argument has acknowledged.

Could these be born out? Time will tell. In the meantime, it's a powerful argument for a retrospection of the great problems of our times and our country.
( )
  publiusdb | Aug 22, 2013 |
fishtown
  hammockqueen | May 28, 2013 |
This book analyses class in the US from 1960s onwards. It consists of three parts: one dealing with the new elite classe, one with the new lower class, and the third part drawing some kind of conclusion.
In a nutshell, the core thesis is that a new elite class which is isolated from "mainstream" America, while at the same time a new lower class has emerged in which the core values of industriousness, centrality of marraige, religiousity and honesty have been ditched. According to Murray, the problem is that:
The new upper class still does a good job of practicing some of the virtues, but it no longer preaches them. It has lost self-confidence in the rightness of its own customs and values, and preaches nonjudgmentalism instead.
...
Personally and as families, its members are successful. But they have abdicated their responsibility to set and promulgate standards.
It is the first book by Murray that I read, and I think it is a very good read. The style is engaging, and it is packed with factual information.

I think readers of any political persuasion can safely sail through the first two parts - the last one is the more political, but in fairness to the author he makes his position clear at the outset:
Data can bear on policy issues, but many of our opinions about policy are grounded in premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data. Try to think of any new data that would change your position on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage, or the inheritance tax. If you cannot, you are not necessarily being unreasonable.

So it has been with the evidence I have presented. A social democrat may see in parts 1 and 2 a compelling case for the redistribution of wealth. 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.
In the concluding chapter, I try to explain why I see the facts in this light.
Although the exposition appears to at least try to be objective, it does not always manage to: for instance, as a European I feel his description of what he calls "the Europe Syndrome" are exaggerated. Also, many people (me included) will disagree with large parts of his analysis, and a feeling of nostalgia for the good old days pervades the exposition - still, a very stimulating book even for people whose position in the political spectrum is quite far from that of the author.
( )
  PaolaM | Mar 31, 2013 |
This was an incredibly frustrating book.

It starts off with a statistical analysis on income disparity and social segregation. The basic topics are well-established in American discourse. However, he ascribes an unusual cause - the rise of liberal technical classes, and the lack of the 'moral character' of the poor. The elites are sorted out due to technical skill and intelligence, so he says, and place themselves in nice little ritzy neighborhoods and thus refuse to enact meaningful social help for the proles.

To be fair, it is possible for those with technical education to move away from their rural hometowns and live in nicer areas. That's social mobility, especially possible for those with technological or knowledge-based occupations. His later discussion of community-based thinking is a position that is treasured by both left and right. Communities bring people together. But as he turns to the discussion of the poor, the analogy starts to fall apart.

The leftist policies which the 'liberal elite' espouses at least attempt to address some of the worst effects of income discrepancies. Welfare reform, health care reform, education reform, etc. If he wanted to get into the idea of elites, it would only be fair to bring up Super-PACs and how single plutocrat individuals are able to keep political campaigns afloat far more than the average prole.

It is a myopic view of history, claiming that the social policies of the Great Society in the 1960s were responsible for the moral decay of the American public. Why didn't the New Deal and the subsequent 'Moral Decay' afterwards, of World War 2 and the 1950s? Or is that contradiction too inconvenient for this hypothesis?

And what of western Europe and Scandinavia, with its social democracy? Granted, they have their own share of economic problems, but the larger industrial powers aren't as bad off as we are. Why aren't these heathen nations suffering, with their laziness and atheism?

And why are the lower classes down on their luck? Is it because of outsourced jobs, a judiciary which defines corporations as people and allows the free reign of lobbyists to spread plutocratic interests? A truly indolent legislature? The collapse of the union system? The dismantling of the welfare system, heralded by libertarians and social conservatives, with pseudo-racist rhetoric on mythical welfare queens? A minimum wage which has fallen behind a living wage standard?

Of course not! Instead, the poor are such because they are Lazy and Indolent and Immoral and will Never Amount to Anything Unless They Do As I Say. They will 'pull themselves up by their own bootstraps', but the bootstraps are gone, and only 'I told you so' rhetoric will save them. An idealized Libertarian version of the Founding Fathers is described (to say nothing of the fact that 1) they were not a homogenous political group to begin with, and 2) some advocated a form of proto-social security for the common good), as well as conservative legislation which will claim to be in support of Families, while directly hindering them (women's reproductive rights, gay marriage rights, etc.)

Even worse than The Bell Curve. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
In "Coming Apart," Murray seems to have learned a little bit from the racial controversies that greeted his earlier work. Now he sets out to show how similar forces are at work among white people. But his premise and arguments in this book are no less skewed or more persuasive.
added by lquilter | editSalon.com, Joan Walsh (Jan 30, 2012)
 
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A critique of the white American class structure argues that the paths of social mobility that once advanced the nation are now serving to further isolate an elite upper class while enforcing a growing and resentful white underclass.

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