Controversial author Charles Murray speaks, writes his mind

June 22, 2012|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • Burkittsville, Md., resident Charles Murray is an internationally known political scientist and author. His 2012 book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, says Americas exceptionalism comes partly from people from different classes mingling in neighborhoods. But thats changing, Murray says.
Courtesy of American Enterprise Institute

BURKITTSVILLE, Md. — Author and political scientist Charles Murray is a nationally known libertarian political scientist associated with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. His books have influenced the national dialogue about the proper role of education and social welfare in the United States. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, among other newspapers. His books are regularly reviewed in and national newsmagazines.

He's also a local resident, living just over South Mountain in Burkittsville, Md., with his wife of almost 29 years, Catherine Bly Cox.

Murray, 69, published his latest book, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010," in January. In it, Murray looks at working-age white Americans in the upper 20 percent and lower 30 percent of the socioeconomic scale, and presents statistics to point to several trends that alarm him.

He says America is developing a new, elite, upper class that secludes itself in exclusive neighborhoods such as Bethesda, Md., Chevy Chase, Md., and McLean, Va. This class embodies what Murray calls the four American "founding virtues" -- industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity. Members of the upper class typically work long hours, obey laws, live in two-parent families and attend church.

The poor working class, on the other hand, is in tatters. Murray presents statistics that show a lower class that is deteriorating in terms of Murray's founding virtues -- a large percentage men of working age do not work, even during a strong economy; prisons contain a higher percentage of lower-class people than upper-class people; more than half of babies born to poor working-class families are born to single mothers; and church attendance has fallen off a cliff.

Murray doesn't address America's middle class in his book. But he does point out that the new, elite class governs, teaches and owns businesses but separates itself from the experiences of ordinary Americans. This isolation of the people who run the country from most Americans, Murray says, is a problem.

Since publication, the book and Murray have received international attention, including reviews in The New York Times, the Financial Times, Slate and the Huffington Post, even an appearance on "The Colbert Report."

A few weeks ago, Murray squeezed in a visit with The Herald-Mail before heading overseas on a trip to Asia, where two of his children live.

Your Wikipedia bio says you have a connection to Asia.

I grew up there in effect. I was in my 20s, went over there when I was just out of Harvard. I was in Thailand for six years, from 1965 to '70 and from '70 to '72. And I started out in the Peace Corps and then stayed on.

So those first five years, I was 22 to 27. I fell in love with the country. I married (my first wife), had one child while I was there. And now both of my children from that marriage live in Asia, so we have to go back there just to see the grandchildren.

I wanted to talk to you about "Coming Apart" and your research in general, and how it might map onto Washington County. Fifty years ago, 75 years ago, Hagerstown was an industrial powerhouse. But the economy has changed. Society has changed.

We also have seen, here in Burkittsville, the same kind of things. We have the seen the trends I'm describing statistically reflected in the lives of our friends and neighbors.

One thing you talk about is a decline in industriousness.

When you talk about problems in the labor force, where you have increasing numbers of men who are out of the labor force even in good years, we see examples of that around here.

You can talk to almost anyone who runs a small business (in Burkittsville) — heating, cooling, you name it — and they will talk very openly about it's very hard to get kids to come to work for them at good wages — not minimum wage -- to learn the trade. It's very hard to find people who will come to work every day on time and do a good job.

How do you encourage people to work without being artificial about it or incentivizing certain behaviors?

The book is not talking about the kinds of problems that are easy to solve. If you have a guy who is out of work because there are no jobs available and he is desperate to work, the answer is simple. Get the guy a job. He'll take it, he'll show up. Everybody is happy.

That problem is really easy to solve. But how do you solve the problem of a 25-year-old kid who can't hold onto a job? He gets a job. Two days later, he shows up a hour late. The boss says, "Look, you're supposed to be here on time." The kid goes off in a huff and quits. Or worse, takes a poke at the boss.

That problem is almost unsolvable. We do not know how to take a young man who has never been acculturated to the world of work, and provide mentors or provide a training program. We don't know any methods to do that that work.

It always has puzzled me that young folks don't seem to have the industriousness of earlier generations.

I think we have an awful lot of 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds who have never in their lives been exposed to a couple things.

One of the causes is not so much political as educational. We have told kids that everybody should go to college. And we have run along that track because if you don't have a college degree these days, you're a second-class citizen. So you have, first, an awful lot of kids that have no interest whatsoever in what colleges teach.

We make it sound as if kids have to choose between flipping hamburgers or being law partners. But there many interesting ways to make a living. But you got to work at it. You got to learn it. You can't walk in and sort of go through the motions. You're going to have to apply yourself. That kind of preparation for the world of work we just don't do very well.

Why shouldn't everyone should get a college degree?

We have denigrated jobs that are both interesting and rewarding and pay good money (and don't require college). Take heating and cooling. There are lots of worse ways to live your life than solving people's problems so they can get heat and air conditioning in their house. At the end of the day, you've done something useful, you've exercised a real skill, and you're making good money.

Your statistics point to a lot of working-age men who are not working. Why is that?

How does a young man get acculturated to the world of work usually? It's because you grow up watching Dad go to work every day, even when doesn't feel like it. What happens when you're born in a home when there's never been a dad (who) gets up and go(es) to work every day? We don't know how to deal with that.

So when I talk about the problems in the breakdown of marriage in the white working class, I'm really talking about a whole cluster of ancillary problems that are generated by that.

In your book, you say children born in single-parent families don't do as well as kids born in two-parent families. You write "I know of no other set of important findings that are as broadly accepted among social scientists who follow the technical literature ... yet are so resolutely ignored by (politicians and journalists)."

(We need) a cultural change in which the role of marriage and the importance of having two parents raise your children once again can be talked about. As opposed to right now, when it is absolutely politically imperative that we say, "Well, there are different kinds of families. It's wrong to say that the traditional two-parent family is better than the other." That's simply (nonsense). And I say that as a social scientist.

So how would you incentivize two-parent marriages?

I think it's the wrong word. I think that these originally developed because of cultural norms. What happened is we incentivized the opposite behavior.

Let's go back to the question of single women having babies. If you think about it for a minute, the amazing thing is that single women haven't had babies throughout history. When you reach puberty, the guys are very eager to sleep with girls. And girls find babies adorable.

So why is it that in every civilization, you have a very strong sociological imperative that every child born into the world have both a male and a female responsible for that child? We've had different forms of marriage in different civilizations, but the child born to a woman without a man assigned to have responsibility for her has been sociologically incomplete. If you are the woman who had the baby out of wedlock, you paid an incredibly painful price.

Like Hester Prynne in "The Scarlet Letter."

Yes, and that happened not because of positive incentives, but because of negative ones. A small community couldn't afford to take care of a woman and a baby like that, and so you starve. That also meant you had stigma associated with it. Very powerful social stigma.

There's not a lot of that nowadays. Norms have been relaxed.

Basically, over the 1960s, we really softened the economic penalties. Well, guess what? When you soften the economic penalties, you get a lot more of the behavior. Then, as it becomes more widespread, the stigma starts to go away. And after a while — this is where we are today — the stigma is so far gone, that it is affecting the behavior of women for whom welfare is irrelevant.

So it is not the case now that the increase in out-of-wedlock births is driven by the welfare system. I don't think it is. It is driven by the fact that, a) you have no stigma associated with it, and b) you have a lot of feckless guys.

So if you go to a working class neighborhood, and ask a woman who's had a child (and has) no husband why she doesn't marry the father, she will say, "Why should I marry that loser?" It'd be like bringing another child into the family.

So the norms of society help to rein in whatever natural  tendencies toward inactivity?

They don't help to rein in. They do rein in. They are the driving force behind reining in all these things. So culture determines the nature of civic life.

And the culture has changed. Civic culture has changed radically in parts of American society, but not in others. That's the message of the book. So in the upper-middle class, people are overwhelmingly married. If you take the numbers on hours worked, people who are in the upper-middle class typically work very long hours. They don't get in trouble with the law very much -- they're still honest. And, oddly enough, they're more religious than the working class is.

I was surprised to see the upper class is religious.

It was a surprise to me. They're more secular than they used to be, but still pretty religious. So in the upper-middle class, you have a pretty good track record on these founding virtues.

Now, you have a separate set of problems that I discuss in the book about the formation of a new upper class, which a subset of the upper-middle class. But that's a different story.

You talk about upper class and lower class mixing being important to preserving America's values. The public school system I've always thought was a good thing because you get people from different neighborhoods mixing.

We moved out to Burkittsville in large measure because Catherine and I wanted our children to be exposed to lots of kids. And they were.

Our (two) kids went to school in Brunswick, and my daughter's best friend in high school was the daughter of a guy who drove a bakery truck. Which is exactly right. When you're doing overnights at each other's houses, you're having a real good time, but you're also getting a sense of what life is like in different parts of society. That's great for everybody.

But living with people of your social standing seems like a natural thing. You want to find your own kind.

Yes. You want to be around people who get your jokes and understand what you're talking about, when you talk about issues. It's a natural impulse.

And it's a natural impulse in this country to have a nice house, and to live in a nice neighborhood and send your kids to good schools. The sorting process occurs because America got very good at giving kids with talent a chance to develop their talent, no matter what their background is.

Talk a little bit about the upper class. Even in Hagerstown, you'll have an upper class neighborhood.

Actually, the Hagers-towns of this country are pretty close to exemplifying the upper-middle class culture that used to prevail.

I'm sure you have people in Hagerstown who have a pretty high net worth. I seriously doubt if you have an enclave of several thousand such people all living in the same part of town. We're talking hundreds, if that, and maybe only dozens. So their kids usually attend public schools, they live in neighborhoods that have a good mix of people.

And so I expect there's not much broken that needs to be fixed, that they are already likely deeply engaged in their neighborhood. They understand Main Street America perfectly.

The only thing I would say to them is make sure your kids get some of the same kind of exposure you got. But again, in Hagerstown, that's not hard. In Chevy Chase, it's hard.

There are still a lot of families whose parents or grandparents worked in World War II factories in Hagerstown.

And then what will happen is a lot of those kids will go off to elite colleges, and they will end up in Chevy Chase. And then their children will be part of the problem I'm talking about.

How is it a problem that elites tend to live together and socialize together?

You're looking at hundreds of thousands of people living in zip codes that have income and education that put them in the top 1 percentile of the people in the country.

Go to Northwest Washington and the adjoining suburbs of Potomac (Md.), Bethesda, Chevy Chase, McLean, and you will see a culture there that varies in all sorts of ways from mainstream America. Walk through a mall. I guarantee you the people will be a lot skinnier than people in the malls in Frederick or Hagerstown. Because it just so happens the new upper class is extremely concerned about what they eat. They exercise, which is good. But it also is a cultural difference.

Take TV. In America, the average TV is on 35 hours a week. In the new upper class, the average TV shows three, four hours of prime time television.

So you take 20 cultural differences like that, and, again, that's not necessarily bad, but it does mean you have an isolation of the new upper class from everybody else. Their entire lives have taken place in this bubble.

That's very new in American culture, and disturbing because it implies a kind of class consciousness and separation of the upper class from the rest of America.

That's a tough one. You want people to make that choice, a sort of a libertarian deal, but on the other hand, when you're looking at a society, these choices ...

They have a downside. These very natural choices can have a downside, and the solution to that is not to prevent people from making choices. The solution is to say, "Have you considered some alternative choices?"

(I want) members of the new upper class to examine their lives, and ask, "Do you really want your kids to grow up as hothouse flowers in this artificial bubble? Or do you not really love what has made America exceptional?"

What has made America exceptional is this civic culture in which our common bond as Americans was much more important than where we stood on the social standing.

To a great degree, we've gravitated toward this increasingly segregated society without really thinking it through. And what I'm trying to do is encourage people to think it through.

About the author

Name: Charles Murray

Age: 69, of Burkittsville, Md.

Day job: Political scientist

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

Genre: Political science

Cost: $27 at; also available at most bookstores

Quick synopsis of book: Statistics show that America is developing a new elite upper class that governs and influences middle-class America but separates itself from middle-class America. Also, four American "founding virtues" of industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity are badly deteriorating among the lower class.

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