Saturday, February 18, 2012

Is Murry's "The New American Divide" Intended to Divide Us?

On January 21, 2012, Charles Murry wrote a controversial piece for the Wall Street Journal entitled “The New American Divide.”  Based on research for his new book, Murry argues that wealth inequality today is a symptom of growing cultural inequality in America.  In effect he argues that poor people are poor because they are culturally inferior to the wealthy. His premise begins with a whopper of an historic lie, albeit one derived from a false narrative that runs deep in our history books.  He writes, “For most of our nation's history, whatever the inequality in wealth between the richest and poorest citizens, we maintained a cultural equality known nowhere else in the world—for whites, anyway.”
 Whites?  How about just white males, or more specifically, rich white men who owned property and could read?  From this controversial assertion Murry goes on to detail why this cultural equality no longer exists.  He identifies this cultural equality as "the American way of life."  Whole books have been written to debunk this view of American history. (Read, “The People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn, for one example.)
The WSJ introduces Mr. Murry this way: “Mr. Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His new book, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010" (Crown Forum) will be published on Jan. 31, 2012.” []
Charles Alan Murray has elsewhere been described is a libertarian political scientist, author and columnist, but search his name on Google Scholar and you will find no peer reviewed publications by him.  Perhaps his scholarly works are listed in other scholastic databases.
The WSJ also didn’t mention in their introduction that he is co-author of the controversial book that you might remember called “The Bell Curve.”  Published in 1994, “The Bell Curve” argued that human intelligence plays a key role in America’s society stratum.  Its central point is that a persons intelligence level better predicts outcomes in family income, job performance, unwed pregnancy, and crime than does their socio-economic status at birth or there level of education.  The book went on to argue that the "cognitive elite" are becoming separated from the general population, those with average and below-average intelligence.  The authors also wrote about what they saw as enduring differences in intelligence among different races.  Does it sound familiar now?
Using data only from white American’s to avoid racial complications, Murry identifies several sets of social factors or qualities that he believes are important for social success.  These include marriage status, single parenthood, industriousness, criminality and religiosity.  He then creates two statistical comparison groups of middle aged American’s from two different income groups.  He playfully assigns these comparison groups to two fantasy towns.  Those in the upper middle income group are assigned to “Belmont” and those in the working income group are assigned to “Fishtown”.   He then examines statistical data related to his selected social factors over different points in time between 1960 and 2010.  What he finds is that in each of the social measures he selected  white, middle age folks from upper-middle or working income groups were more similar 40 years ago than now.   For example, someone in the working income group are more likely to have a child out of wedlock or not attend church now than was true in 1960.  (Big surprise, right?) 

Murry goes on to make a number of questionable assertions about the significance of his social factors.  For example, he identifies people as secular if they don’t attend church more than once a year rather than on the bases of how individuals would characterize their own religious status.  He say secularists are less philanthropic, but apparently includes all money given to churches as philanthropy.  Most money donated to churches don’t go to philanthropic causes, but to the maintenance of the church, religious instruction and evangelism.  Even his decision to use only data on white American’s comes off as a plausibly deniable way to impugn the culture of ethnic American’s who earn working wages. Perhaps most importantly, it is unclear how his analysis of these two comparison groups over time accounted for the fact that the absolute income disparity between these two groups have grown in the last 40 years.  Is it really possible to say that working wage earners in 1960 are economically the same demographic group as they are in today’s economy?  And is it fair to say that cultural decline (read moral decline) is causing white American’s to fall out of the middle class?  Or is this a pseudo-scholarly effort to launch an alternative narrative to the Occupy movements success in raising awareness of income inequality?  


  1. Very well written, Brian. Nice takedown of Murry's incompetence and deception.


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