Monday, February 10, 2020

Charles Murray at the University of Chicago, Kent Hall, May 9th, 2012

On May 9th., 2012, I attended a talk Charles Murray gave at the University of Chicago, part of the speaking tour for his book Coming Apart. I wrote up this account of the talk immediately afterward, and posted it to Facebook. Since I've deleted my account there, and Murray has an(other) book out rehashing the same risible themes, though with heavier emphasis on the race science given where elite politically-adjacent "social science" has gone since early in the 2010s, I'm re-posting this here now (February 10th, 2020).


Perhaps what everyone wants is my account of last night's speech by Charles Murray.

The gist of Murray's presentation is that in the past, and up until around 1960, there was a unitary "civic culture" in America, that unity is what distinguished America from Western Europe, that starting in 1960 that civic culture began to stratify, and that now there is an elite that doesn't know or care about the cultural mainstream, which has gotten much worse off since 1960 not because people in the mainstream have become poorer but because they have lost access to the four things that make life worth living:
-marital morality
These four values were upheld unanimously by the founding fathers and by the unified culture that prevailed from the American origin to 1960. They are still enjoyed by the elite but not by the mainstream.

Where to begin?

First of all, we're only talking about white people. Murray said that doing so is "a way to concentrate the mind," that if he included the entire population he would confound the story, and that stipulating we're only talking about white people has allowed the commentary to be more frank. He said the left would be "walking on eggshells" were non-whites to be involved in the discussion.

Second, throughout the presentation he declared that he was not going to offer a causal story; he was merely going to address "facts." Nonetheless, he concluded in part by saying that although the trend he describes was initiated by "economic causes" in the 1960s, it cannot be reversed through "merely" economic policies because what he's talking about are changes in social mores. My interpretation of this pablum is that Murray believes the Great Society caused the trends he's talking about, but that he won't be tied down to policy recommendations because, at base, he simply doesn't know what he's talking about and would be utterly destroyed were he to enter that arena rather than dealing in unsupported and cliched narratives.

Third, as he went through his narrative of moral-religious decline and disattachment from the labor force by working class white men that he believes results therefrom, it became obvious that he doesn't think women entering the workforce and thus having bargaining power within relationships/marriage is a Good Thing. He stated outright that young men are emasculated by the decline in the expectation that they will get a job that supports a wife and children, though he said elsewhere, incoherently, that the idea of a working class wage that supported single-earning households has always been a myth. Presumably this latter point is a swipe at the presumed union-originating argument that a unionized unskilled manufacturing wage was once sufficient for stability and now isn't. But his point was that young men are sitting around doing drugs and playing video games and not getting jobs because they are unmanned by competing with women rather than dominating them.

(As an aside, he made the preposterous claim that women have always "chosen their husbands" in America by way of contrast with Western European society, which was oppressive. Yet he clearly is deeply uncomfortable with the decline in patriarchy. I would say that his very clear, specific anti-feminism was the most surprising aspect of the talk for me, though in retrospect it shouldn't have been. After all, the point of the Bell Curve is that we screwed up when we started treating black people as people; in the book about white people, it's not surprising his main point is that we screwed up when we started treating women as people.)

Fourth, the largest portion of his talk was a portrait of the "new elite," which consists of older, stable married couples, both with degrees and living in homogeneous neighborhoods, with a healthy but culturally foreign diet and exercise regimen and admirable pre-natal healthcare and habits. This contrasts with the socio-economic elite of the 1960s, which shared its origin in the mainstream (as it was then). He offered essentially no evidence for this characterization of the ex-ante elite, except that among married couples in wealthy zipcodes in 1960 and before, both partners tended not to have college degrees, which made them similar to the non-higher-educated mainstream. The fact that this particular contrast is quite obviously the result of widespread higher education among women--and the marriage competition that it is both caused by and causes--went unmentioned. He also said that among the ex-ante elite, corporate executives chose to drive Buicks rather than Cadillacs (as the latter was perceived as unacceptable flaunting of wealth), whereas now there is no such compunction about conspicuous consumption among the ex-post elite.

Fifth, his prognosis for America is bad. He says that the likely (with probability=0.7) outcome is that the US becomes indistinguishable from Western Europe (whereas, recall, American exceptionalism as-was took the form of a unitary society rather than the European class-stratified one). With P=0.3, America will be warned off the European fate by the utter failure of that model in the near future, as well as by the growing body of social-scientific research that he says vindicates traditional morality on utilitarian lines, and thus promptly reverse the trends he identifies. As a final minor aside, one way he specifically mentions of avoiding the European fate is for the contemporary elite to get comfortable judging the immoral behavior of the poor: out-of-wedlock births, irreligiosity, disattachment from the labor market, etc.

My conclusion:

The whole idea is obviously incoherent. On the one hand we have an elite that's reprehensible for being culturally distinct, and on the other an elite with morally (and thus economically) superior lifestyle choices. Furthermore, he stated outright that the increase in income inequality was due to "crony capitalism"--the belief on the part of the elite that they "don't have to play by the rules that other people play by"--his words, not mine. Yet because they get divorced less and never have children out of wedlock, they are (and should see themselves and be seen by others as) the moral beacons for society.

Moreover, this strikes me as a contraption cobbled together to explain the class-stratification and inequality in a way that carefully avoids assigning responsibility where it  belongs. The whole point of his lengthy shtick castigating the elite is to locate the self-criticism where it will, in fact, be harmless to the interests of the incumbent wealthy and powerful. He wants the elite to feel self-conscious eating sushi and organic cereal and visiting a personal trainer; he doesn't want them to feel self-conscious when they pass laws mandating that their investment portfolio will not decline below a certain value and that food stamps and unions must be eliminated as part of any responsible macroeconomic policy. A key tell here was that in the question period, he rejected the notion of mandatory national service as a possibly unifying policy proposal on the ground that since it will most certainly not involve the Uniform Code of Military Justice, it will be more like the Peace Corps than the draft. Apparently actually requiring the elite to do anything just wouldn't work due to slacking off, whereas a society that doesn't expect or require non-elite men to work is destined for failure.

He closed by saying "every successful civilization had confidence in the rightness of what it was doing." Ignoring the oddness of anthropomorphizing a "civilization," that surely doesn't actually mean that "what it was doing" was right, does it??

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