Coming Apart, Coming Together

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David Brooks glosses Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart:

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 pricy, but nowhere near the price of the top luxury cars today.

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.

Since then, America has polarized. The word “class” doesn’t even capture the divide Murray describes. You might say the country has bifurcated into different social tribes, with a tenuous common culture linking them.

….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.

I haven’t read Murray’s book, and probably won’t. But I’m not unwilling to take his thesis seriously. The part that keeps pushing back at me, though, is the idea that this is something new. I don’t doubt that Murray can show that there’s a much larger group of very well-off people today than there was in 1963: these are the folks buying the McMansions and the $100,000 cars. That’s not news. And the behavioral changes in the bottom third are real too.

But is it really true that back in 1963 the “upper tribe” and the “lower tribe” were more similar than they are today? It might seem that way in retrospect, but it sure didn’t at the time. It didn’t seem that way to Gunnar Myrdal or Michael Harrington, anyway. Overall, I can pretty easily buy the “Apart” piece of the title, but I’m a lot less sure about the “Coming” piece. For every example of a way in which top and bottom have diverged over the past 50 years, I suspect that you could also find an example of ways in which they’ve converged. It’s just that Murray wasn’t looking for any of those.

But as I said, I haven’t read the book. Perhaps someone over at Crooked Timber, or someplace like that, would like to read it and do us all the public service of commenting on it? Thanks.

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