Losing Ground

Now All Americans Are Losing Ground—David Frum

What responsibilities do America's elites have to the lower classes?

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

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

At the beginning of this review of Coming Apart, I said I'd finish with a consideration of Charles Murray's seemingly odd decision to write a history not of America, but only of white America.

Murray himself explains this decision as a prophylactic measure, a means to avoid hot-button issues of race and ethnicity.

For decades now, trends in American life have been presented in terms of race and ethnicity, with non-Latino whites (hereafter, just whites) serving as the reference point—the black poverty rate compared to the white poverty rate, the percentage of Latinos who go to college compared to the percentage of whites who go to college, and so on. ... But this strategy has distracted our attention from the way that the reference point itself is changing.


My message: Don't kid yourselves that we are looking at stresses that can be remedied by attacking the legacy of racism or by restricting immigration. The trends I describe exist independently of ethnic heritage.

Murray here makes a fair point, I think. The deteriorating life prospects of America's white working class is not only a grimly important fact in itself, it also casts powerful new light on the troubles of Black and Latino America.

Intuitively, it would seem that adding in the rest of America must make the situation even bleaker for [the statistical working class], and the separation with [affluent America] even sharper.


It was a surprise to me and perhaps it will be a surprise to you: Expanding the data to include all Americans makes hardly any difference at all.

Murray then presents a sequence of charts showing that marriage numbers for prime-age adults in the white working class have deteriorated to the point of indistinguishability from the numbers for all working class Americans regardless of race and ethnicity. Ditto for the numbers for children living at home with both parents, ditto for labor force participation by prime-age men, ditto for full-time work by prime-age adults. While the white working class remains somewhat less likely to be arrested for violent crimes than the working class generally, that gap is closing fast.

Saddest of all is the last chart in the sequence: Back in 1970, more than 45% of affluent Americans described themselves as "very happy." More than 35% of affluent Americans still do so, regardless of race. In 1970, more than 35% of working-class whites—and nearly 35% of all working-class people—likewise described themselves as very happy. Today, only a little more than 15% of working-class people describe themselves as happy, and working-class whites are actually slightly less likely to do so than working-class people generally.

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These are important observations, and they constitute (to my mind) the most valuable portion of Coming Apart. Working-class America is an increasingly troubled and dysfunctional place. More than 20 years ago, the sociologist William Julius Wilson predicted "the declining significance of race," and Charles Murray's work corroborates Wilson's foresight. More bluntly, the broadcaster Tony Brown used to warn white listeners that black America was functioning as the "canary in the coal mine" for the whole country. I hosted Brown at a lunch at the Wall Street Journal editorial board in or about 1990, and I still remember his fierce insistence what is happening to us will happen to you. He was right.

Murray writes:

We are one nation, indivisible, in terms of whites and peoples of color. Differences in the fortunes of different ethnic groups persist, but white America is not headed in one direction and nonwhite America in another. We are divisible in terms of class. The coming apart at the seams has not been confined to whites, nor will its evil effects be confined to whites. Coming Apart may have told the story of white America, but its message is about all of America.

Stirring words, and true.

But the more true Murray's vision, the more depressing and inadequate is his program. Scoldings and program cuts? Is that really all that the flourishing American elite owes to the sinking American mainstream? Even Charles Murray himself, in his second most recent book In Our Hands, advocated some form of mandated and subsidized universal health coverage for all. Intellectual fashions have changed among conservatives since In Our Hands was published in 2006. Yet if he could see the merit of some such proposal then, is it really impossible to imagine that there is anything now that upper America might do to avoid an outcome for lower America that Murray himself regards as catastrophic for all?

Murray writes:

The problems that poor suffer because of poverty disappear when the community is no longer poor. The first two-thirds of the twentieth century saw spectacular progress on that front. But when families become dysfunctional, or cease to form altogether, growing numbers of children suffer in ways that have little to do with lack of money.

But what if the progress against poverty goes into reverse? Working-class America is genuinely a poorer place today than it was in 1970, not only in relative terms—it's very, very much poorer in relative terms—but simply in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars. Working-class America would be poorer still but for programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, which enhance working people's pay above the level that the labor market alone would provide.

Murray laments the collapse of the "sturdy elite code" that (in his telling) prevailed in the America of the first half of the 20th century. Yet when it comes time to describe that code, Murray emphasizes gender relations to the exclusion of almost everything else:

To be a man means that you are brave, loyal, and true. When you are in the wrong, you own up and take your punishment. You don't take advantage of women. As a husband, you support and protect your wife and children. You are gracious in victory and a good sport in defeat. Your word is your bond. Your handshake is as good as your word. It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. When the ship goes down, you put the women and children into the lifeboats and wave good-bye with a smile.

As far as it goes, that statement probably does encapsulate many of the conventional beliefs of a typical upper-class American of the first half of the 20th century. But it seems to me wholly wrong to contend, as Murray does, that such beliefs are rejected by upper-class Americans today. I am a member in good standing of the top 5%, and so are virtually all of the people I know—as are indeed, virtually all of the people Charles Murray knows. It is plainly absurd to write, as Murray writes, "If you hear or see any of those cliches used today among the new upper class, it is probably sarcastically. The code of the American gentleman has collapsed, just as the parallel code of the American lady has collapsed."

What has declined among the top 5% is not our sportsmanship, not our familial commitment, not even our truthfulness in our personal dealings.

What has declined is our spirit of civic responsibility, our acceptance that privilege carries obligations, our willingness to shoulder the economic costs of social leadership.

Let me propose an alternative list of cliches that truly would command less assent today from upper-class Americans than they would have done in 1962:

To be an employer means that you pay a fair day's wage for a fair day's work. If your firm goes broke, you go broke too. You don't take advantage of clients or customers. As a voter and citizen, you try to think about what is best for everyone, not just you. You eschew ostentation when times are good, and you pay your fair share of the cost when times are bad. Your good name matters more than money. Your contributions to your community define your good name. Whenever you are inclined to criticize anyone, just remember that not everybody was born with the advantages you had.

Here is where it seems to me that Charles Murray is most deeply wrong.

He insists Americans are facing an unprecedented situation. That is not true. We have been here before. In the years between the Civil War and the Great Depression, we also saw increasing concentrations of great wealth—at the same time as many working Americans, moving from farm to city, suffered the pain of moral dislocation and social breakdown. Crime, prostitution, and drunkenness ran then at least as rampant as the analogous ills run today.

And in those days too, there existed writers and thinkers who insisted that these trends represented the necessary consequences of ineluctable social consequences. Murray's claim that the "reality that has driven the formation of the new upper class [is that] brains have become much more valuable in the marketplace" has its almost exactly precise analogues in the writings of Social Darwinists like William Graham Sumner.

There was however at least one hugely important difference between those days and our own. Back then, the lower class, rather than sink meekly into its immiseration, periodically erupted in violent strikes and riots. American labor relations in the period from 1880 through 1920 were the most violent on earth. In 1901, an anarchist murdered President McKinley; in 1919-20, a bloody wave of bombings culminated in an explosion on Wall Street that killed that killed 38 people and wounded 400 more.

Many elite Americans decided something had to be done. Yes, they engaged in a great deal of the lecturing and scolding recommended by Charles Murray. (See Part 3 of this review.) But they also worked to find ways to ameliorate conditions for working Americans. Violent strike-breaking went of style, to be replaced by gentler managerial practices. State governments enacted wage and hour laws. Even the federal government acted to enforce national food safety standards in 1906. This was the famous Progressive era. Although there was much about Progressivism that we'd rightly reject today, there was much that could stand rediscovery and renewal.

These attempts at social redress made a real difference. Labor violence dwindled in the 1920s. And from Depression and war emerged a middle-class society—the society that Charles Murray remembers so fondly from his youth in Newton, Iowa. That society did not spontaneously materialize. People who wanted to live in a world that offered more chances to more people consciously built institutions that extended opportunity and provided security to more Americans than ever before. Obviously what they did then cannot be repeated now. Conditions are different. But we can be inspired by their example.

Murray himself pays lips service to the ideal that upper class Americans should exert more leadership on behalf of their fellow-citizens:

The members of the new upper class are active politically, but when it comes to using their positions to help sustain the republic in day-to-day life, they are AWOL.

Unfortunately, because Murray is so signally uninterested in discerning the causes of the social deterioration he has described, he has little content to insert into his vague good wish.

Because he takes for granted that the concentration of wealth is the inevitable (and to a great degree appropriate) consequence of the superior intelligence of the new upper class, he can imagine no changes in the organization of work that might even very slightly redress the balance of reward between the top 5% and the bottom 80%.

Because he regards new social programs (now apparently including the health care mandate he once endorsed) as tantamount to the death of the American project, he can imagine nothing that might be done outside the marketplace in favor of the bottom 80%.

And anyway, really, when you get right down to it, Murray does not really want to do anything for that bottom 80%, because his most bedrock condition is that the bottom 80% deserve their nasty and deteriorating fate.

[A]n intellectual underpinning of the welfare state is that, at bottom, human beings are not really responsible for the things they do. People who do well do not deserve what they have gotten - they got it because they were born into the right social stratum. Or if they did well despite being born poor and disadvantaged, it was because the luck of the draw gave them personal qualities that enabled them to succeed. People who do badly do not deserve it either. They were born into the wrong social stratum, or were handicapped by personal weaknesses that were not their fault. Thus it is morally appropriate to require the economically successful to hand over most of what they have earned to the state, and it is inappropriate to say of anyone who drifts in and out of work that he is lazy or irresponsible.

Science, he predicts, will shortly discredit these absurd ideas.

Pending that day, the great challenge ahead is to repeat and insist that "people must be free to live life as they see fit and to be responsible for the consequences of their actions; that it is not the government's job to protect people from themselves; that it is not the government's job to stage-manage how people interact with one another."

And for those of us for whom life is sweet and getting sweeter? Who discover that we are becoming ever richer than 95% or 99% or 99.9% of our fellow citizens? Who can ever more easily afford to buy more of the good things of life even as the great majority of Americans are discovering that the global marketplace will pay less and less for their work? (I began this fifth post in a restaurant in London's Mayfair district where the cheapest appetizer cost more than the average hourly wage in the United States.)

For us, Murray recommends that we "take a close look at [our] lives, and ask whether those lives are impoverished in some of the ways [described in a passage a few paragraphs back about the spiritual deprivation of the materially rich], and then think about ways to change. I am not suggesting that people in the new upper class class should sacrifice their self-interest. I just want to accelerate a rediscovery of what that self-interest is."

It's tempting to sign off here with a joke or jibe that the new upper class seems to have a very good idea of where their self-interest lies, and it is "the good old rule, the simple plan, let them keep who have the power, and let them take who can."

But no. Give the author the final word, and let him explain what he means. What then is our self-interest in a country where it is no longer just an underclass few who are "losing ground" but now the overwhelming majority?

Here are the words that immediately follow the above quoted words about the rediscovery of self-interest:

Age-old human wisdom has understood that a life well lived requires engagement with those around us. A civic Great Awakening among the new upper class can arise in part from the renewed understanding that it can be pleasant to lead a glossy life, but it is ultimately more rewarding - and more fun - to lead a textured life, and to be in the midst of others who are leading textured lives.

What it comes down to is that America's new upper class must once again fall in love with what makes America different. The drift away from those qualities can be slowed by piecemeal victories on specific items of legislation or victories on specific Supreme Court cases, but only slowed. It is going to be stopped only when we are talking again about why American is exceptional and why it is so important that America remain exceptional. That requires once again seeing the American project for what it has been: a different way for people to live together, unique among the nations of the earth, and immeasurably precious.

That's the end of the answer and the end of the book. I leave it to each reader to assess for himself or herself what to think of such an answer to what Charles Murray himself identifies as the supreme social problem of our times.