Elitism

02.07.12

Charles Murray's Imaginary Elite

Charles Murray has an inconsistent way of describing America's upper class.

This is Part 2 of a review of Charles Murray's new book "Coming Apart." Click here to read Part 1, Click here to read Part 3, Click here to read Part 4, Click here to read Part 5.

While it is the white working class that receives the brunt of Charles Murray's criticism in his new book, Coming Apart, it is the affluent who are the targets of Murray's most tartly expressed hostility.

Coming Apart opens with a study of what Murray calls the "new upper class." 

In Murray's telling, this new upper class is not defined solely—or even primarily—by income. Murray amuses himself with a mocking evocation of the "eminent Columbia faculty member [who] goes home after giving his speech at the Plaza Hotel to admiring Wall Street executives. While his audience is dispersing in their limos to their duplex cooperatives on the Upper East Side, he catches a cab home to his cramped apartment near the Columbia campus, his standing ovation still ringing in his ears, only to be told by his wife that the shower drain is clogged and he must take care of it before the children get up for school the next morning."

Murray has many harsh things to say about the selfishness and insularity of the new upper class. Yet almost without exception, whenever he shifts from abstractions to particulars, the upper class behavior that most offends him is the behavior of people like his imagined Columbia professor—and not the behavior of the people in the limos and duplexes.

In all the span of Coming Apart, here is the most stringent indictment Murray has to offer on the behavior of business elites.

Again, apologies for length, but this is a case where only seeing is believing:

The collapse of a sturdy code (ecumenical niceness is not sturdy) also means that certain concepts lose their power to constrain behavior. One of those concepts is unseemliness. 

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines unseemly as "not in keeping with established standards of taste or form; unbecoming or indecorous in appearance; improper in speech, conduct, etc; inappropriate the time or place." The ultimate source, The Oxford English Dictionary, requires just three words: 'Unbecoming, unfitting; indecent."

Some examples? Unseemliness is television producer Aaron Spelling building a house of 56,500 square feet and 123 rooms. Unseemliness is Henry McKinnell, the CEO of Pfizer, getting a $99 million golden parachute and an $82 million pension after a tenure that saw Pfizer's share price plunge. They did nothing illegal. Spelling had the money to build his dream house, just as millions of others would like to do, and got zoning approval for his plans. McKinnell's separation package was paid according to the contract he had signed with Pfizer when he became CEO. But the outcomes were inappropriate for time or place, not suited to the circumstances. They were unbecoming and unfitting. The were unseemly.

So they were. But Murray's tone of genteel reproof sharpens into passionate indignation when he confronts the real malefactors in upper-class America: people who disdain junk food.

The culture of the new upper class carries with it an unmistakable whiff of a 'we're better than the rabble' mentality. The daily yoga and jogging that keep them whippet-thin are not just healthy things for them to do; people who are overweight are less admirable as people. Deciding not to recycle does not reflect just an alternative opinion about whether recycling makes sense; it is inherently irresponsible. Smokers are not to be worried about, but to held in contempt.

The people who suffer from this syndrome have been labeled by many other Americans as overeducated elitist snobs [OES]. The OES syndrome does not manifest itself like Margaret Dumont playing society lady to Groucho Marx. Overeducated elitist snobs may even be self-deprecating about their cultural preferences. They just quietly believe that they and their peers are superior to the rest of the population, intellectually and in their nuanced moral sensibility.

No external marker lets us define exactly who in the new upper class does and does not fit this indictment. Those who suffer from the OES syndrome tend to have high IQs, but lots of people with high IQs happily munch on double quarter-pounders with cheese and think that recycling is a farce." 

After the Spelling example, Murray turns to a short, wan discussion of CEO pay. He speculates that executive pay—though generally amply deserved—may have possibly gotten slightly out of hand:

At the individual level, accepting a big compensation package is seldom unseemly. You're the CEO; you've worked hard to get where you are; you think that your contribution is valuable to the company; you know that your compensation package is in line with what CEOs of comparable companies are getting. It is hard to see any ethical obligation to negotiate a smaller deal for yourself than the board of directors is willing to give you.

Then follows a series of hypothetical questions raising the possibility that not all of these negotiations are quite so hands-off as one might wish. Murray concludes: "It looks suspiciously as if there's a lot of unseemliness going on, but I can't prove it."

On the other hand, good news! Even if these activities are unseemly, at least they do not hurt anybody, or so Murray insists—on the basis (as he cheerfully acknowledges) of no evidence whatsoever:

To clarify that question, it may help if I stipulate for purposes of argument that these increases [in CEO pay] were economically rational. I will further stipulate that the dynamics producing these increases promoted economic growth and, ultimately, a better life for people all the way down the line. Now return to the question: Is there anything unseemly about [CEO pay]?

These remarks occur about two-thirds of the way through a book that has extensively argued that we are not seeing a better life for people all the way down the line. As for claims for the economic rationality of surging CEO pay, they don't look so good now that we know that the CEOs of companies like Merrill Lynch were earning their bonuses by running risks they did not understand—and which were ultimately offloaded onto the taxpayer.

But what is really peculiar is the contrast between these delicate musings about CEO pay and the fierce indignation Murray expresses when it comes time to discuss the real malefactors, Hollywood liberals:

Some parents of the new upper class are responsible for producing and distributing the content that represents the worst of contemporary culture, while others are going to great lengths to protect their children from what they see as a violent and decadent culture. Sometimes those parents are one and the same people.

What most deeply irks Murray about this new American upper class—all the those Columbia professors cleaning the showers, all those screenwriters checking their children's homework—is their fundamental vice, non-judgmentalism:

If you are of a conspiratorial cast of mind, nonjudgmentalism looks suspiciously like the new upper class keeping the good stuff to itself. ... Nonjudgmentalism ceases to be baffling if you think of it as a symptom of ... loss of self-confidence among the dominant minority. The new upper class doesn't want to push its way of living onto the less fortunate, for who are they to say that their way of living is really better?

Yet, Murray notes, the new upper class of professors and screenwriters does permit itself some judgments. After spending one-third of his book denouncing the shiftlessness and sexual irresponsibility of the white working class, Charles Murray then launches this angry accusation at the American elite:

When you get down to it, it is not acceptable in the new upper class to use derogatory labels for anyone, with three exceptions: people with differing political views, fundamentalist Christians, and rural working-class whites.

This is Palinism with a bar chart.

—More to Come