Tuesday, February 14, 2012

David Brooks on Charles Murray's New Book

The January 30, 2012 New York Times has an article by their pet "conservative" (in quotes for a reason) David Brooks about Charles Murray's new book Coming Apart.  It is sobering what Brooks has to say, and it makes me inclined to read Coming Apart.  Brooks tells us that Murray describes the emergence of a two-caste society in America:
His story starts in 1963. There was a gap between rich and poor then, but it wasn’t that big. A house in an upper-crust suburb cost only twice as much as the average new American home. The tippy-top luxury car, the Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, cost about $47,000 in 2010 dollars. That’s pricey, but nowhere near the price of the top luxury cars today. 
No surprise.  America was simply not that rich of a country (nor was anywhere else) in 1963.  National productivity has risen in quite astonishing ways in the last fifty years.  I tell young people about what it was like making a deposit in a bank account in the 1960s, as the teller updated your bank book with quarterly interest payments since your last transaction.  Computers?  For something like this?

Tax rates are also part of the story.  The top marginal income tax rates were insanely high, and doubtless this plays some part in the relatively small difference between top and bottom.  Sure, if you were a Kennedy, or a Rockefeller, or a DuPont, you had enormous wealth, but this was a pretty small part of the upper class.

More important, the income gaps did not lead to big behavior gaps. Roughly 98 percent of men between the ages of 30 and 49 were in the labor force, upper class and lower class alike. Only about 3 percent of white kids were born outside of marriage. The rates were similar, upper class and lower class.
Roughly 7 percent of the white kids in the upper tribe are born out of wedlock, compared with roughly 45 percent of the kids in the lower tribe. In the upper tribe, nearly every man aged 30 to 49 is in the labor force. In the lower tribe, men in their prime working ages have been steadily dropping out of the labor force, in good times and bad.

People in the lower tribe are much less likely to get married, less likely to go to church, less likely to be active in their communities, more likely to watch TV excessively, more likely to be obese. 
This is an area where income and wealth differences do not explain the change.  I am just old enough to remember 1963 in bits and pieces, and the mid to late 1960s with considerable detail.  I recently enjoyed reading Stephen King's new novel 11/22/63, a time travel story.  One thing that King does very well is capture how dramatically different the world of today is from the world before the innocence was lost forever in the late 1960s.  There were some very good things about that time, and some very bad things, too.

There were standards of behavior enforced by social pressure and law.  Not everyone actually did what they were supposed to do.  I've talked to many victims of sexual abuse from that era, and the same sexual prudery that made some people behave also made it difficult for others to explain what was being done to them.  Still, for all the dark secrets, there were a lot of people who stayed married, were fairly faithful to their spouses, worked at jobs they did not like because collecting welfare was disgraceful, stayed sober (mostly) because drunkenness was considered disgraceful, and would not even think of using illegal drugs.


  1. Unfortunately no one actually listens when you talk about what has been lost, and think, regardless of the words you use, that you are saying you want to repeal the 13th Amendmdent.
    Reading and listening comprehension is not Leftists' long suit.
    I miss a lot of the honor and respect of self and others from that era, but I don't miss segregated schools and sundown towns.

  2. Speaking of not being the US not being that rich - I think one fact that's slowly starting to leak out about income inequality is that income curves get flatter almost exclusively when the rich suddenly lose income. IIRC this is becoming evident as people study the results of the crash of 2008-2009.