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Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010
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831 of 936 people found the following review helpful
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The last chapter, entitled "Alternative Futures," sounds a note of optimism. All that we need is for America's elites to recognize the problem, come to their senses, and set things straight. Right. As if Murray has not been futilely expounding this message for the past 40 years. He cites Robert Fogel's "The Fourth Great Awakening" as an inspiration for his optimism. America has overcome crises of the spirit in the past, after we lost first the Puritan spirituality, then the secular sense of mission which fueled our independence, then the crisis of the depression which was answered by the New Deal and the welfare state. Fogel argues that today's crisis is a want of meaning in our lives. Murray believes we can reestablish it.

Murray says that there are only about four fundamental personal characteristics undergirding a happy life. The ones he names are two character traits: honesty and industry, and two societal connections: meaningful relationships with one's fellow man, and a satisfying marriage. He provides another, overlapping list of four elements that have historically defined American society which he calls the four founding virtues: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. He goes into some length presenting sociological surveys that demonstrate the importance and the interconnectedness of these characteristics to personal happiness, and their importance to the well-being of society. If only we could recover them, all would be well.

The backbone of his book is a comparison between two hypothetically constructed communities, Fishtown and Belmont. They are based on real places, predominantly white neighborhoods of Philadelphia and Boston respectively, with incomes at the 8th and 97th national percentiles. They exemplify the directions taken by subsets of white America as we are, in the words of his title, "Coming Apart." In constructing his abstract communities he excludes minorities and people outside the age range of 30-49. He goes on to describe how these communities have evolved over the past half-century.

Fortune has put me in a good position to judge the accuracy of his characterization. I am a few months older than Murray and spent my 25 year marriage in Bethesda, one of the Belmont like suburbs of Washington DC, not far from Murray himself, with a wife who was born in the actual Fishtown and some of whose family remained spiritually anchored there. That gave me time on both sides of the tracks. Moreover, I started out that way - in a blue-collar neighborhood close to Berkeley, where my classmates and intellectual peers were definitely Belmont types.

One of the things I enjoyed about the book was Murray's 20 questions to help an Overeducated Elitist Snob (OES) such as almost everybody who's going to be reading this book determine how well, if at all, they know the "real America" where 80 percent of white people live. By virtue of my blue-collar neighborhood and my Army service, experience is that younger men simply don't have, I scored a respectable 41 on his test, placing me well in the category of those with the most experience with the real America. The shock was how low you can go on his scale... how totally out of touch my Bethesda ex-neighbors could be with the country their governing. I knew this intellectually, but Murray brings it home.

Back to the story, in 1960 Fishtown was a very Catholic neighborhood in which the men worked, the women stayed home, and the kids went to Catholic school. My ex-wife was one of them. What they considered to be social problems were excess drinking, quite a bit of it, fistfights and a bit of philandering. Young people, however, knew what was expected of them. They got married, before or after becoming pregnant, and provided families for kids. It was a moral expectation that was generally observed. People had responsibilities and took them seriously. They did not accept welfare, they answered the call when they were drafted, and they participated in church and civic organizations.

Fishtown in 2010 is a very different place. People simply don't feel an obligation to either work or get married. There are many never married people, and many out of wedlock children. A lot of the guys are just bums - don't work, don't want to work, don't want to get married, and waste their time watching television. An inordinately large number have figured how to game the system by qualifying for Social Security disability. Their attitude is that work is for chumps. Quite a few of them have drinking and drug problems, but Murray does not consider these disabilities to be nearly as important as the lack of any of the four foundations in their lives. No more religion, no social connections with the community, either no marriage or an unsatisfactory marriage, and no vocation.

Murray, a longtime libertarian, claims that intrusive, European-style government has taken away the need for these four virtues and undermined the people who attempt to practice them. Kids don't need a father if the government provides money and social workers. Men don't need work if the government gives them handouts. Social connections aren't important if there's nothing really to be done improving the place.

Murray claims that the state of affairs in Belmont is much better. People work hard, get married, stay married, are resolutely and obsessively concerned with their children, and are involved in community. More than that, counterintuitively, they are more involved in church than are the people remaining in Fishtown. They may not believe the dogmas, but they understand the social value of belonging.

What has changed in Belmont is the conviction that the set of virtues they practice really ought to be preached. Belmont now believes totally in moral relativism. If somebody else doesn't want to remain married to his kids' mother, doesn't want to work, or spends all of his money on drink and drugs and all of his time watching TV, they're not going to be judgmental. That's somebody else's life.

Another thing that has changed in Belmont is their acceptance of lower-class culture. A Belmont mother will not prevent her daughter from dressing like a hooker, using gutter language picked up from rap music, or swearing like a sailor. There is not a sense that "Belmont girls don't do that." Also out the door are old-fashioned morality, the idea that you shouldn't seduce girls when they're drunk, cheat on tests, or tell the clerk at McDonald's if he gives you too much change. People just don't have a sense of seemliness anymore. Kids can wear the most outrageous clothes, and their parents can take the most outrageous bonuses from their companies, and rich people can take inappropriate and undeserved handouts from the government without blushing in the slightest.

Murray makes a few huge oversights. Race is one. White people are everybody's least favorite ethnicity. We get called anti-Semites and racists, and are constantly backpedaling in the face of accusations from Hispanics and overwhelmed by the sheer intellect and industry of the Asians. Even in the unlikely event we were to resist in the ways he advocates, society would still sweep us along its unfortunate path. Another oversight is education. All sectors of society are being worse educated year-by-year, Belmont, Fishtown, and most especially the black and Hispanic groups he doesn't mention. The educational system seems dedicated, whether by design or sheer ineptitude, to destroying religion, fostering dependence on government, and stultifying personal industry and ambition. Oh, and it goes out of its way to denigrate anything in American history of which white people might be proud.

My Puritan forefathers hoped to establish a country in which the four founding virtues - industry, honesty, religion and marriage - might flourish. It worked for a few centuries, but now appears to be hopelessly broken. I do not think it is possible within any country. Murray himself relates Toynbee's description of the way in which every great empire contains the seeds of its own destruction. I would advocate that each individual leave countries out of the equation as they seek the best future their family. Find a community - Mormons would be a good place to look - where civic virtues are still in evidence. Find a way to educate your family - homeschooling looks good - to shield them from the propaganda and the mediocrity of the public system. Find a religious community of like-minded people. And do not be afraid to look the world over to find these things - America may no longer be the place.
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249 of 291 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Charles Murray has never been one to shy away from a volatile subject. As a result, he has been able to make startling arguments on topics that are rather taboo in the modern intellectual climate. With the Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (A Free Press Paperbacks Book), he argued that intelligence, which is partly innate, is more important to social success than socioeconomic status. In Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, he ranks the cultural value of different civilizations and assesses the west as by far the greatest. It's clear from his work that Murray does not suffer from delusion--he is no quack. And the content of his arguments is engaging for anyone who is open-minded and willing to consider arguments from new perspectives.

Here, Murray explains that white America has grown increasingly divided along class lines. There is a clear moral case being made here. The lower class is falling into illegitimacy, crime, and poverty while the upper class is excelling in education, career, and family. The main cause is simple: primarily, a devaluation of white middle class values brought on by increased intervention by the government. This intervention takes the form of welfare support, in which the government gives incentive for people to break apart families and avoid work. Meanwhile, the upper class is left alone to prosper in its highly technical fields.

This argument will challenge the reader, whether you agree with the central premise or not. At the very least, it is worth an in-depth discussion. Reflect upon it with regard to George Gilder's Men and Marriageargument, and Eric Robert Morse's argument in Juggernaut: Why the System Crushes the Only People Who Can Save It.

Definitely a five-star book for the provocative ideas alone.
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241 of 288 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2012
Format: Hardcover
"Coming Apart" offers a very effective analysis of the diverging economic prospects and social values of American society since 1963. I should say first off that many people seem biased against this book because of the controversy surrounding Murray's prior book, "The Bell Curve." Murray has taken great pains in this new book to avoid the issue of race, focusing specifically on white Americans. I could find nothing offensive or even politically incorrect regarding race in this book.

The author's main premise is that over the past 4+ decades, America has divided strongly into two classes, that he illustrates with fictional town names. "Belmont" refers to the cognitive elite: The top 20% with college or graduate degrees, who hold jobs in knowledge-based occupations. And "Fishtown" refers to the working class: The bottom 30% with at most a high school diploma and (if employed) working in blue collar or low wage service jobs. Murray demonstrates quite effectively (using statistics) that the people who make up "Belmont" have become more industrious and more traditional in their attitudes toward marriage, family and community, while the people in "Fishtown" are living in communities that are basically falling apart and where traditional nuclear families are becoming harder and harder to find.

While the book bases its arguments on solid statistics, I have two primary complaints. First, it does not always do a good job of distinguishing cause and effect. For example, the author points out the working class men now choose to engage in much more "leisure" and less work. He then conjures up a vision of a typical male, who all bent out of shape because he doesn't have the opportunity has grandfather had at the GM factory, turns down a $12 per hour job driving a delivery truck. I find it VERY hard to believe that $12/hr delivery jobs are going begging. If, in fact, a lot of working class men are not actively pounding the pavement looking for these jobs, there could be reasons: Maybe competition is so intense it is hopeless. Or maybe the jobs get given out based on networking or cronyism, so someone out of the loop has little chance. But I fail to see how "laziness" is the primary cause here.

The second thing is that the book does not anticipate the future very well. Just about everyone will agree that technology and globalization have hit "Fishtown" hard. What fewer people seem to see is that BELMONT IS NEXT. If you doubt this, consider how IBM's Watson computer won at Jeopardy. Or consider the number of information technology and software engineering jobs getting offshored. Or look at what the internet is doing to journalism. These are all jobs that Murray puts in the "Belmont" category. But in the future, a lot of these people are not going to be able to afford to stay in Belmont. Of course, Belmont will still be around; it will just be occupied by fewer and fewer people.
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269 of 326 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Slog through this book - it's a must read.

Keep in mind, however, that this is an infuriating book in many ways, because it's got a deep pro-libertarian political agenda that is awkwardly melded with evidence that shows how libertarian policies and politics can tear apart the very society the author describes as "ideal" - the honorable but poor nuclear family living in a community of racial, social and religious uniformity.

While it was at times disturbing to see how accurately he was able to describe the "bubble" that I increasingly live in (his 25 question "test" of the thickness of your middle class bubble was very interesting), what surprised me was how myopic his views on the influence of globalization on society's lowest-paid workers are. Like most libertarians, the role of externalities is often downplayed, leaving the fault of economic failure and the praise for economic success exclusively with the individual, and all other factors are nearly irrelevant.

Much of the statistical evidence he cites in the book is based on a few surveys, and where there's no data, he just invents information that supports his thesis, and then backs in the "evidence" to fit his views. That can be frustrating at times, because it leads to "trending" a data item even where there is no valid data longitudinally over the periods of time in which he's citing a trend.

In many ways, those are nitpicks, because the real core of the book is an interesting, and by my own experience, accurate view of the United States today. This is despite his juvenile certainty that the individual's motivation is all that matters to success or being able to survive economically (basically a classic position of Libertarian politics, which are roughly identical to those of a 15 year old boy).

He correctly identifies the huge differences between the people from "Belmont" (a fictional place where white people have jobs, a stable home life, go to good schools, stay married, don't watch much TV and never smoke) and "Fishtown" (another fictional place where they smoke, watch lots of TV, know who's who in NASCAR and are likely to wear a jacket with a Budweiser logo on it when they go to a smoky bar with friends). Living, as I do, in a place where Belmont and Fishtown overlap, it was extremely revealing to me to see just how different my "Baby Belmont" lifestyle is from my Fishtown neighbors. He's absolutely right when he suggests that the people in Belmont are capturing all of the good jobs, and maintaining a lifestyle of privilege and stability that is gone from the Fishtown world. I see it every day, like when at work we "can't find the right people" for open jobs, while I know of plenty of underemployed people who wish they could get a job paying 1/4 of what my company pays for almost any position. We'd never be able to hire from Fishtown.

But this is where, from my perspective, the book goes way wide of the mark. He actually refers to the white males of Fishtown who don't have enough or any work as "goofing off" - those are the actual words he uses.

He makes arguments that any work is better than no work - and while at some level, that's true, what he completely ignores is that the "Atlas Shrugged" crowd running American business these days has actually stripped hope of improvement of your situation from low-wage work. The "worked your way up from the mailroom" stories that abound in libertarian mythology are based on a world where the bottom of the workforce in America was competing with itself to rise up within the American Experiment.

[11 April 2012 NOTE: I've edited the part below to clarify my statements about the "Atlas Shrugged crowd" above in response to several of the comments below.]

The author is an avowed libertarian. There's no model in the Libertarian worldview for dealing with the idea that the guy living in Fishtown in a trailer alongside the highway and making $8.25 an hour needs only to "work smarter" to enjoy the benefit of the American Dream when company he's working for is about to hire someone who was living in a dirt floor hut near Xinghuy last year.

In a global economy, companies have little motivation to think nationally, they just look at median wages paid by geography and move labor to where it's cheapest and automate whatever's left behind, resorting only to paying a living wage to human beings where there's no other option. Fishtown is learning what the "Global Citizen" has for a standard of living. To the worker in China or Mexico who didn't have running water in their home, being offered a job with a bed and a shared bathroom in a dormitory next to a factory and earning $220 a month for a 60 hour workweek is a massive improvement in living standards. To the guy in the trailer in Fishtown, it will be a massive downgrade of living standards.

But it's not just the fact that Fishtowns are the result of a huge pull downward for America's working class that results when the median wage is evaluated on a global scale. If you're an Ayn Rand acolyte, you don't really care about national borders or the people downstream of your decisions, you care about your own self-interest. You then build companies aligned with your own economic interests accordingly and that's supposed to either "lift all boats" or "trickle down" or whatever you want to say about it. While I am not anti-capitalist by any means, I think that the author unfairly places the blame for economic failure to thrive among Fishtown residents on the members of the Fishtown community itself who have been "coddled" by the government and social policies that don't force people to take whatever work they can, regardless of what it is.

In the author's view, the residents of Fishtown are "lazy" (to use just one of the pejorative terms he uses throughout the book). In reality, I think that the residents of Fishtown realize that if they work hard, and do the right thing, they are still playing in a game they can't really win. This is because the companies led by people acting in their own self-interest have become incredibly adept at reducing current costs to themselves while ignoring, to the greatest extent possible, the external effects of their decisions.

For Fishtown residents who do work hard, their rewards seems to be a 29 hour work week, carefully managed to avoid payment of any overtime, with no ability to buy health insurance because their pay is too low, and no ability to enter the "ownership economy" because they are priced out of the market. In short, it's a sucker's bet to bother to try. Now in the author's defense, he does suggest that a broad and deep social safety net does not do much to encourage the white males of Fishtown to get off the couch and get out to work at some menial job because that's the honorable thing to do. The emotional side of me disagrees with the author on this point, but the pragmatic side of me (and the memories of taking on menial work when my own career derailed for a while) does give his argument some validity.

I do wonder if we're experiencing the results of people who spent years of being told in school that "you can be anything you want" and getting prizes for participation, not victory. Has this has left us with a culture that's simply unable to accept that sometimes you just have to work hard and lower your standards, and not every door is open to everyone? For the Fishtown residents, I don't accept his conclusion that they are just "goofing off" - I think that a complex confluence of globalization and the effects on wages and a society that seems to be breeding out competitiveness in Americans have resulted in the Fishtown culture. The issues he describes are the symptoms of hopelessness and anger that comes when reality doesn't match the stories we were told growing up.

His view of the Belmont residents is more charitable, but he decries their willingness to tax themselves at what he feels is an excessive rate in order to placate and calm the residents of Fishtown with deep and broad social safety nets.

His view is that the second and third generation Belmont residents don't understand the Fishtown world at all (I'll concede that) but they also feel a need to "do something" to help them - so they willingly decide to accept what are (in the authors view) excessive tax burdens, just to keep the folks in Fishtown from becoming a social problem in the Belmont neighborhoods.

In other words, he has a distain for economic empathy, and I think he's concerned that real empathy and a connection between these cultures is lost. I'm not 100% sure, but I think that his argument for dismantling the social safety nets and convincing the Belmont folks to stop paying for it is actually based on some form of empathy for the Fishtown residents - I think that while the author is horrified by what he sees in Fishtown, he thinks that Belmont is making Fishtown possible by funding a system that discourages the kinds of "good behaviors" that the author sees as mandatory for the American Experiment to continue.

Regardless of what you think about your own situation, this is a good read, and slog through it to the end. It's not always well written, but there are many little gems of insight that are really good in it, and if you're making your living as a "knowledge worker" it is a good way to get a look at a world you may be ignoring.

(Edit: Fixed some typos and added a word or two for clarity, updated last section heavily on April 12th)
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 13, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Don't let Mr. Murray controversial Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life or the criticism you might already heard from this book from keep you away from this brilliant work. As opposed to most recent books dealing with America's decline, this book looks at the cultural and sociological reasons behind the decline, rather than the pure economics view. And another key issue is that the analysis is done using only white Americans as a sample, so there the results are free of any racial bias, and the results are extended to the entire population only near the end of the book.

Nevertheless, Mr. Murray, a declared libertarian, closes the book with a chapter totally biased by his political and moral beliefs. Actually, some of his conclusions are so outrageous, I stopped reading the book short of a few pages to the end (but I did finish it after all). You just wondered how come someone can deliver such a brilliant analysis and reach such wishful thinking, biased and subjective conclusions completely ignoring the effects of globalization and technological change (thus the four star rating instead of five).

Several of the conclusions are so disconnected from reality, that instead of Europe, Mr. Murray just need to look at any of the dozens of developing countries with the same problems among the poor who do not enjoy the welfare benefits Americans do. In fact, just look at the Brazilian example and the well-known "favelas" as the perfect real life example in contradiction of one of his key conclusions. And by the way, the recent cash transfer programs developed by the Brazilian government have lifted millions of poor people to the middle class, and their children now have a better education and health care than their parents. Unfortunately Mr. Murray is blinded by his libertarian ideology and his romantic view of the 200-year + old philosophy embedded in the U.S. Constitution and the philosophy of the founder fathers. The upcoming book The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do about It presents plenty of evidence (from the social and economical point of view) that rebuts and shows many of Mr. Murray's myths, misconceptions, and wrong assumptions about the American Dream and its exceptionalism.

Due to its contribution from the social and cultural perspective, I think that Mr. Murray's book, other than the caveat regarding the final chapter, is an excellent complement to the other books dealing with America's decline, in particular The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity,Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future, and That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.
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34 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2012
Format: Hardcover
In his latest book, Mr. Murray, a libertarian, argues (based on his statistical interpretation & analysis) on the decline of the white "American Community". He brings together 4 basic themes.

1. Divergence of the American classes resulting from a conflict in the cultural & social values of those from the "New" upper class ("Belmont") opposed to those of the "new" lower class ("Fishtown").

2. Decline in marriage, religion, industriousness & traditional values of the "American Culture"

3. Income inequalities leading to some form of an advanced European welfare state in the US.

4. Isolation or geographic separation of the "new" classes and the resultant loss of civic and social responsibility between them.

To keep the race card out this time, he writes in the book "This book uses evidence based overwhelmingly on "whites" in the new upper & lower class." In part one, it begins with his discussion about the "new" upper class which he calls the people living in "Belmont", the "qualifying" 20% represented by the 5% narrow elite (avg. Household income of $287K - 2010 census data), who have isolated themselves into their own neighborhoods and "cultural" groups from the rest of us. He describes them as the ones with the top educations, jobs and living conditions. They pass their wealth, "brains" and cultural values onto their children who continue to maintain this lifestyle into the future.

In Part II, he describes the new lower class which he calls the people living in "Fishtown" - the bottom 20% of the "white" (non-Hispanic) population. He describes them as the ones, who have loss the "work ethic", who are raising families out of wedlock and have disengaged from the "American Community" at large. As he states, it is this collapse of the "Founding Virtues" of America: family, vocation, faith and community that is leading to the decline of America.

His solutions are many. Reduce the "welfare state" and bring back responsibility for oneself and family. As Mr. Murray states, "it is easier (for "Belmonters") to let the government deal with problems in your community that you and your neighbors formerly had to take care of". But, he writes this is the wrong approach. He writes the "Belmonters" need to "engage themselves" with the rest and "preach what they practice" to the "Fishtowners".

However, I think it is somewhat unrealistic to believe that the top 5% are going to drive from their "gated communities" in "Belmont" to meet in the "Waffle House" of "Fishtown" and "preach" their values to this group. There are many obvious problems in "Americas Classless" society, but these problems are a lot more complicated to solve than what he argues as his solutions in this book. However, it is a good effort to "wake" people up again to some of the sociological problems facing America today.

Expect in this election year to see more books published on - What is wrong with America and Why.
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38 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Many years ago, I read Murray's earlier controversial book, The Bell Curve. When I read Coming Apart, I was reminded of what I liked and did not like about The Bell Curve. The author is a top notch writer and weaves a great story from the enormous range of statistical studies that he draws upon. The problem that I have is that the inferences that he draws from the statistics in order to support his thesis are far too broad. The data that he pulls together are really important. They support the idea that white America has split into very different camps and he focuses on two extremes. The first of these is the Ivy League yuppie types who live in their little enclaves, totally insulated from reality. I live in one of the places that he describes and he astutely challenges his readers to examine their own positions and lifestyles and notes that probably the readers of his book are overwhelmingly in the new elite. And here we already run up on some of the limits of Murray's thesis. He asserts but in no way proves that the demographic enclaves of the white educated and professional upper middle class are made up of a homogeneous group of private-school-educated upper-middle-class elites who have never seen nor understood the world beyond theirs. The fact that most Ivy Leaguers end up in these enclaves does not mean that everyone there has the same background. There is a critical flaw in the logic. Yes, the author's caricature of well-educated well-off yuppies who are comfortably ensconced in their safe smoke-free world is entertaining and may hit a nerve or two, but the statistics are used to support the story rather than the story emerging from the statistics.

The second extreme that the author focuses on is poor white people with little education or financial resources. It used to be possible to be working class and be in a decent financial situation. Today, this population is an absolute disaster according to Murray's statistics. The white working class (according to Murray) suffers from high unemployment, high poverty, high divorce, high crime, high teen pregnancy, and large numbers of people who are life-long recipients of government handouts. He blames high unemployment among the white working class on a lack of moral virtue and work ethic but gives little real attention to the flow of low-skilled labor to overseas factories. Once again, his statistics are impressive and paint a clear picture of a working class population with serious problems--enormous problems--but the inference as to cause is problematic and lacks the rigor that the author seems to want to attribute. An example. There is a chart which shows that unemployment in this population has been increasing steadily over the past three or four decades and does not seem to go down when the economy is good (or the opposite). Murray ascribes this trend to a moral breakdown in working class America. The relative goodness of the U.S. economy as measured by national employment figures does not tell the whole story. If you are a high-school educated manual laborer, the fact that there are jobs available does not mean that you can do them nor does it mean that you can travel to those jobs even if you have the skills.

An additional example of weakly supported conclusions is in Murray's assertion that personal bankruptcy rates are emblematic of inherent dishonesty among working-class white people. He is trying to make a case that basic honesty and work ethics have declined over recent decades. He then tries to support his case with bankruptcy data, which shows a strong upward trend over the same period. But correlation is not causation. The connection is, at best, plausible.

It is crucial to remember that the main thesis of the book--a contrast between well-educated wealthy whites and poorly-educated poor urban whites--is somewhat contrived. Yes, there is evidence that the American middle class is hollowing out and that there are massive divides between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'. But there are huge populations in America who do not fit neatly into these two categories and it is impossible to draw conclusions about America by looking only at these two extremes.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on March 31, 2012
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"People like to be around other people who understand them and to whom they can talk." (Kindle Locations 894-895). Sales of Charles Murray's book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, would have suffered if he had only written this sentence but the response wouldn't have been nearly as animated. However, Charles Murray and his writings have generated energetic responses for over 20 years. This paper briefly examines the truism of "birds of a feather" and the evidence Murray uses to justify his contention. I will also address my personal response and how it affects my duty toward social justice.

From 2000 until today I have lived approximately 10 years outside of the United States. I never "lived" in the United States during the past 12 years; I visited. When I was home, I was either celebrating holiday or beginning a new transition back overseas. Therefore I didn't invest myself; I didn't make the point to overtly observe nor acutely feel some of the growing divisions. Only in this last year, while transitioning to becoming an American again, have these dividing lines been obvious. This realization provoked me to read several interesting books detailing these apparent ruptures. Coming Apart has been an interesting read, because it challenges some of my more progressive leanings. However, the argument Murray makes is compelling, as it addresses some of the more dangerous topics in 21st century discourse: race, intelligence, and government intervention.

Murray's thesis introduces two hypothetical cities: Fishtown and Belmont. These two hypotheticals are based upon real cities with a few alterations: all the inhabitants are white and the age range is 30-49. Murray, whose previous bestseller The Bell Curve, was roundly criticized for drawing what some considered racist conclusions. When recently interviewed, Murray explained he limited his findings to white America in an attempt to avoid such claims. It is important to remember this caveat when looking at our first city, Fishtown 2010.
Fishtown has seen better days. It has been ravaged by a poor economy, high crime rate, and what some term a systematic moral decay. 40 percent of all children are born outside of marriage. This was once called wedlock, but that word now carries a pejorative connotation. Those who do marry will probably divorce. Fishtown residents are the working class, where 30 percent have at most a high school diploma and work (maybe) in a low paying job. Consequently, their income falls in the 8th percentile nationally. Also, two-thirds of the people who live in Fishtown are overweight and about a third are obese (Kindle Locations 581-582).

Belmont, our other real/fictional city, is the home to what Murray terms the cognitive elite. He defines the cognitive elite as the 20 percent of the American population who have a college degree and who work in occupations requiring a specific type of knowledge. These residents usually work in the fields of finance, IT, government, law, and medicine. These professionals stay married at a far higher rate than the working class in Belmont. They attend a religious service more often than the counterparts in Belmont. They are in the 97th percentile economically. Part of the reason their income is higher is because they work hard and for long hours. Another interesting distinction is Belmont residents are fanatic about monitoring caloric intake, eating whole grains, green vegetable, while avoiding red meat, processed food, and butter (Kindle Locations 605).

The city of ?, in which I grew up, is considered a Superzip. A SuperZip is where residents score between the 95th through the 99th percentile on a combined measure of income and education. Interestingly from Potomac to Ellicott City, Maryland is the largest contagious grouping of SuperZips in the United States. This means you can literally drive from Potomac to Ellicott City without leaving an area where 95 percent of its inhabitants are richer and better educated than all but a mere 5 percent of the overall population (Kindle Locations 1428-1429).

Murray takes us back to the idyllic year of 1963. A charming and good-looking president was gearing up for what everyone thought would be a contentious 1964 election. Three television stations ruled the airwaves. Walter Cronkite was not yet Uncle Walter. The Perry Como Show or Perry Mason were must see television. The white and blue collar often lived, worked, and played together. Certainly there was economic disparity but how pronounced was it? The most expensive homes in Chevy Chase cost $500,000 (adjusted to 2010 dollars). The "rich" drove a $50,000 Cadillac (adjusted), or a Buick if they didn't want to be perceived as ostentatious. "In Washington newspaper advertisements for November 1963, gas was cheaper, at the equivalent of $2.16 per gallon, but a dozen eggs were $3.92, a gallon of milk $3.49, chicken $2.06 a pound, and a sirloin steak $6.80 a pound"(Kindle Locations 449-451). These prices demonstrate that cost of living in 1963 was roughly equivalent to 2010. Another important fact to remember was that people working in high paying white collar professions made about $62,000. A little bit further up the salary food chain reveals fewer than 8 percent of American families made more than $100,000, and about 1 percent made $200,000 (Kindle Locations 424-426). The most obvious difference between the rich of 1963 and everyone else was that they just had more money (Kindle Location 489). This minor difference was soon to be replaced by countless others.

The OWS movement was intensifying soon after my return stateside. I spent several months discussing with friends. Slowly, it became clear how contentious economic theory is for many people. I often remarked, "It is called economic theory for a reason," only to be corrected on this naïve response. I would retort how the machinations of human behavior with the global exchanging of goods and services could be anything other than a theory. It seemed everyone was a politician, giving the party-line answer to their constituency. All I knew was that I wasn't running for office and was genuinely interested in the OWS demands.

"Homogamy refers to the interbreeding of individuals with like characteristics. Educational homogamy occurs when individuals with similar educations have children. Cognitive homogamy occurs when individuals with similar cognitive ability have children" (Kindle Locations 1034-1036). A college education in 1960 was rare. Those who had earned a college degree numbered less than 10 percent and almost certainly didn't have parents who also were college graduates. It hadn't been that long when the men of Harvard and the women of Wellesley were not cognitively different than graduates of a state university. Murray writes that the assassination of the temperamentally non-confrontational Kennedy and the subsequent replacement with Lyndon Johnson "the master legislator," a perfect storm for the "Coming Apart" was approaching (Kindle Location 204).

After Dallas, November 1963, something unique began to occur. Large numbers of smart people began to send their children to the same schools. Murray writes, "The average Harvard freshman in 1952 would have placed in the bottom 10 percent of the (Harvard) incoming class by 1960" (Kindle Location 931). Beginning in the 1960's the Ivy League became the meeting place for the cognitive elite. "Increased educational homogamy inevitably means increased cognitive homogamy" (Kindle Location 1052). It is from this sentence Murray's thesis springs. Children of high IQ parents, often successful and with money, began meeting on campuses reserved for biology's finest. Below are two quotes, the first detailing Yale in 1961 and the second detailing the 105 best universities in the United States in 1997.

The stratification became still more extreme during the 1960s. In 1961, 25 percent of Yale's entering class still had SAT verbal scores under 600. Just five years later, that figure had dwindled to 9 percent, while the proportion of incoming students with SAT verbal scores from 700 to 800 had increased from 29 to 52 percent (Kindle Locations 941-944).

Together, just 10 schools took 20 percent of all the students in the United States who scored in the top five centiles on the SAT or ACT. Forty-one schools accounted for half of them. All 105 schools, which accounted for just 19 percent of all freshmen in 1997, accounted for 74 percent of students with SAT or ACT scores in the top five centiles (Kindle Locations 953-956).

I remember Michael Steadman, a Penn graduate, and his wife Hope Murdoch, his Princeton educated wife. The television show thirtysomething was filled with smart, highly educated people talking about literature, child-rearing philosophies, while having Native American blankets in their homes as decoration. I remember watching many of these episodes as a college student. I still remember Michael and Hope having a heated argument whether to raise their daughter in the Jewish or Christian faith. I am not ashamed to say I remember the night Gary--Michael's best friend--died. Michael and Hope's conversation about her miscarriage is easily recalled. Michael consoled her by saying, "It is okay, we will have another baby," to which Hope replied, "But it won't be this baby." Though 18 at the time, I remember thinking how their responses felt familiar and authentic. If Michael and Hope were real, we can safely assume they are rich ($500,000 plus combined income), still married, and that their daughter eventually went to one of the 105 schools mentioned above. "The reason that upper-middle-class children dominate the population of elite schools is that the parents of the upper-middle class now produce a disproportionate number of the smartest children" (Kindle Locations 1021-1023). I will let the implications of that quote linger.

Michael and Hope were industrious, honest, faithful, and spiritual people. Murray would contend they embody the foundational traits upon which this country was built. They are emblematic of our "fictional" city Belmont. Sadly, I guess, the Steadman's long moved out of Fishtown, never to return. The once relatively heterogeneous neighborhoods of the 60's became increasingly homogeneous, both ways. "It is not the existence of classes that is new, but the emergence of classes that diverge on core behaviors and values--classes that barely recognize their underlying American kinship" (Kindle Locations 239-240). Is there a way out of this spiral toward irrevocable division? Have we as a society already laid the foundation of our demise? Has the rewarding of the rich been more destructive or the enabling of the poor? Answers to these questions reflect our most deeply held convictions. As an educator, and more importantly a father, I must consider my legacy? Am I optimistic about this grand experiment called The United States of America? Is there anything I can accomplish or should my focus be concentrated on the people and circumstances I have direct contact?

My idea of social justice is that it needs to evolve according to context and to not become overly dogmatic. The debate this book has sparked is healthy. However, the tone of the debate disturbs me. I am often unable to decipher civility when people discuss important matters. Hidden agendas, obvious neurosis, poor inter-personal skills, and shallow understanding inflict the blogospheres and the airwaves. It is in these weak moments I most empathize with the residents of Belmont. Who does not crave tranquility and safety? If these are options, why wouldn't I choose them? However, Murray suggests we do the opposite. He believes Belmont, with its hard-working and faithful residents, needs to re-engage the wider society.

I am not sure if I am optimistic toward this proposal. Though this might be the solution, it is its implementation that proves problematic. Like Murray I tend to be a libertarian when it comes to how we address social ills. Murray believes it was government activism that precipitated many of the current problems. Johnson's The Great Society expanded the role of government in numerous ways. Many "conservatives" contend these policies had the opposite effect of what they originally intended. As Ronald Reagan once remarked, "We fought a war on poverty and poverty won."

This paper is not my treatise on the role of government, but rather my role as a citizen. A few principles to which I adhere are that social constraints are effective deterrents to many types of dangerous behaviors. I believe community involvement builds neighborhood cohesion. I also contend active parents increase educational opportunities (not just for their own children). Lastly, implementation of cooperative educational models makes a difference in assessment scores. The task is daunting and the process long, but changes in society do occur. I take away from this book a renewed sense of just how important an educator's role is in our very real cities.
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
Just as Murray's book came out, a new population statistic was published. And it has direct bearing on his thesis. Here it is: the majority of American children born to women under the age of 30 are now illegitimate. Yes, the majority.

Murray investigates the new class division in the US and it is a truly distressing picture.

The Baby Boomers who were "white college-educated men and women became enthusiastic recruits to the sexual revolution" (p 153). But they got married and stayed married and raised children together.
What happened after the sexual revolution to the population of Fishtown, the once flourishing lower class area, symbolic of all the poor in America, has been nothing short of a disaster.

Children raised by single parents "no matter what the outcome being examined--the quality of the mother-infant relationship, externalizing behavior in childhood (aggression, delinquency, and hyperactivity), delinquency in adolescence, criminality as adults, illness and injury in childhood, early morality, sexual decision making in adolescence, school problems and dropping out, emotional health, or any other measure of how well or poorly children do in life--the family structure that produces the best outcomes for children, on average, are two biological parents who remain married...Never-married women produce the worst outcomes" (p 158).

Yet these findings remain the great unspoken event of the last few decades. Social scientists have overwhelming found permanent damage done to children by single parent families--and it's never discussed. Rarely mentioned in magazines or newspapers.

And yet the horrifying damage is being done to our children even as not a single network has even bothered to run a special on it.

Goodbye, America.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Although I consider myself a liberal, this book could almost convince me to become a raging small-government conservative.


The problem is that while Murray may be correct in pointing out what the denizens of Fishtown have lost--industriousness, marriage, religiosity, respect for the law--he doesn't say WHY. And in order to know how to retrieve those values (if indeed such a thing is possible), one has to know why they were lost. What Murray fails to recognize are the unstoppable forces of globalism, capital flight, and the rise of the internet. And his libertarian hatred of government blinds him to the potential evils of corporations.

The group that has pushed for globalism the hardest is the elite. Only recently, Apple executives dismissed that company's responsibility to return jobs to American workers. Does anyone remember the 60 Minutes interview with Nike's Phil Knight? His justification for outsourcing shoe production is that Americans don't want to make shoes anyway. At least he doesn't. The unrelenting math of globalization has hollowed out middle-class American jobs across the country, from furniture factories in the Carolinas to textile workers in the Northeast to steelworkers in the Midwest. Indeed, these are the very same problems facing Europeans: the West simply cannot compete with Asians in too many industries. Even Japanese production has moved to China. What would happen if Nike or Apple built a plant in Fishtown, one that relied on blue-collar workers? Would the supposedly lazy men of Fishtown still prefer government handouts? I doubt it. The fact is, working-class America has lost its work. One puzzling omission in Murray's discussion about the Maytag Corporation in Newton, Iowa is that fact that the factory was shut down and moved offshore. Forget the civic disengagement of its CEO--what about the jobs? But of course, Murray would prefer to blame the laid-off workers of Newton for their idle and dissipated ways. Murray only need look at East Cleveland as an prime example of what losing blue-collar jobs has meant: gone are the steel companies, gone are the locomotive shops, gone are the machine shops. What's left are the twin mega-hospitals of the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospital, devouring all around them in their incessant growth, and with jobs only for the highly-trained and educated.

Unlike the elites of the 19th century, the modern elite feel no need to keep their money in the US, and instead prefer to chase the higher returns of the emerging economies. It makes sense, of course--capital moves to where returns are the highest, and growth has been highest in all of those countries to where American and European jobs have gone.

Murry fails to acknowledge how technology and the internet have limited the kinds of jobs that Westerners once had. Only a relatively small cadre of brainiacs are needed in the US, with the rest of the work going offshore. Gone are the small machine shops and supply line of manufacturers that could have supported entire cities and neighborhoods, with their multiple branches and interdependencies. Now it's a campus in Silicon Valley and a mega-factory in China.

Contrary to what Murray believes, the elite cannot reverse the moral decay he sees by preaching about it. They have to bring back jobs, and if they're as smart as Murry thinks they are, they should be able to find a way to do it. But don't expect them to want to. The flight of middle-class jobs is one of the true crises of the West.

It would not be out of place to question Murry's assertions about religion and European socialism. For one thing, the rise of both the Japanese and Scandinavian societies were accomplished without any Great Awakenings (although Lutheranism was responsible for educating Scandinavian peasants). And for another, many of the social ills he describes, especially early marriage, divorce, and broken homes, tend to occur more in America's bible belt. Is European socialism doomed? It's hard to say. The Scandinavian welfare states, instead of producing lazy mooches, have long topped lists for good governance, efficiency, wealth, health, and happiness.

Finally, is Murray correct in wanting small government? Be careful what you wish for. For the (hopefully well-armed) citizens of Josephine County in Oregon who just rejected a tax increase, it means the almost complete elimination of Sheriff and emergency services. But more ominously, the government is the only counter weight to the corporation. In my town of Ashland, Oregon, is a testament to what large corporations will do when they can: the middle of the city is a toxic wasteland left behind by Union Pacific. They are in no hurry to clean it up.
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