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Customer Review

263 of 313 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Valuable Analysis of a Widening Social Chasm, February 2, 2012
This review is from: Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (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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Showing 1-10 of 24 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 2, 2012 8:29:01 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 2, 2012 8:31:10 PM PST
<<I find it VERY hard to believe that $12/hr delivery jobs are going begging.>>

Murray's statement also struck me as being so utterly absurd that you wonder if he's living on the same planet as everybody else. The statement is typical of the "ivory tower" syndrome that blinds academics to real-world realities

For people who are unemployed, finding any $12/hour job can be difficult. The $12 / hour jobs that are available may not be steady work. Companies tend to hire part-time contractors now, not full-time employees. There are former engineering professionals in my family who are working part-time odd jobs for $7.50 an hour. Professionals who have been out of work more than two years generally won't even be considered for employment. They feel as though they are living under an economic death sentence.

It is difficult to generalize because there are also people who have been unaffected by the recession. People who work in the tenured ranks of government or academia (as Murray does) or who have learned to represent themselves as self-employed entrepreneurs may be doing OK. I've noticed that people with secure jobs can't imagine why anyone would be unemployed. They think that jobs are there for the asking. But for people who are out of work and desperately need employment to support themselves and their families, the opportunities may be few and far between.

One thing that is pretty clear, though, is that for most people those "go to work out of college and retire with a golden watch" days of secure career employment are gone, long gone. That is why the middle class is shrinking.

Posted on Feb 5, 2012 4:12:29 AM PST
Automation and globalization has always removed the types of jobs available. 97% of US jobs were in the agriculture sector two centuries ago. Today that number is 3%.

Likewise a whole industry surrounding horses and buggies were retired? But then new types of jobs appeared which were not there a century ago: jobs like computer programming.

My point is that disappearance of certain types of jobs cannot be the cause of changes in the value system, especially if it is confined to one class. We need to look elsewhere to explain that.

Posted on Feb 6, 2012 2:14:55 AM PST
Cincinnatus says:
I found your review helpful, but I have some points:

(1) Your belief may not conform to reality in his sample; that does not mean either of you are wrong. I would not hold a difference of experience or data sample as a complaint, unless he's inferring something into your data at some point. After that, we're getting into speculation.

(2) Nobody has a crystal ball, but you make excellent points about Belmont being next. This would exceed the scope of his work, however. He was not examining the point you raised, which would require another book. Perhaps you could write that or collaborate with the author?

Posted on Feb 7, 2012 12:00:35 PM PST
S. Maxwell says:
This reviewer makes a good point. In his just published novel about automation run amok, the bestselling author Robert Harris makes a similar point. In the past, people thought that robots would take the place of menial workers - that we'd have robot housemaids wearing aprons and doing our household chores so that people could focus on more intellectual tasks. And automation has certainly replaced many menial workers in manufacturing and agriculture. But what is now happening is the creation of software that can do tasks requiring a degree of intelligence - like the ability to understand and follow voice commands and the ability to scan documents for certain words. Even more complex tasks, like stock trading, have been and continue to be automated to a certain extent. In other cases, technology has not been able to replace highly skilled professionals, like lawyers and radiologists, but has made it possible for some of their tasks to be done by professionals in low-wage countries who charge less than professionals in this country. This has and will continue to put pressure on the economic position of the "cognitive elite" Murray praises. When their jobs start disappearing, will their cultural strengths save them, or will they react the same way the people of "Fishtown" have done? We'll soon see.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2012 1:28:52 PM PST
S. Maxwell says:
One thing you're omitting - when one industry is replaced by another the jobs offered by the new industry are not necessarily suitable for - or offered to - those who used to work in the old industry. Did every blacksmith get a job in an auto factory? Did every auto worker who has been replaced by a robot get a job building or programming robots? Obviously not. People who talk admiringly of capitalism's "creative destruction" tend to deemphasize the "destruction" part. The rise of new industries does not automatically compensate those who are harmed by it, and if government has no effective means of doing so then that harm reverberates through the community in the form of broken marriages, parentless children and able-bodied workers who have nothing productive to do.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 15, 2012 8:40:23 AM PST
Ron Shipe says:
I think there is a number of middle class unemployed that are not lazy,but have given up because of all the cheating,stealing and coruption that goes on in big business and government with hardly any one being punished. This stuff takes the fire out of some hearts.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 18, 2012 4:35:41 PM PST
Erroll says:
Ron S.

Excellent point.

Posted on Feb 20, 2012 2:37:56 PM PST
Gyre says:
I caught Murray's talk before the American Interprise Institute on C-SPAN's Book TV this past weekend (Feb. 18-20, 2012). Did I really hear him say that he was in favor of a universal minimum income? I believe George McGovern advocated for this idea. Murray rushed by this concept very quickly, declaring that it stood no chance given this present political environment -- but still. I do not know yet whether this idea is broached in the book at all.

Posted on Feb 20, 2012 6:43:07 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 20, 2012 6:44:23 PM PST
A black swan may indeed come and completely reinvent our occupations again (tech revolution style), but I think the author is prudent in suggesting that we need an awakening now to deal with the situation that confronts us at present.

Politicians and social reform advocates are in a near impossible situation. In too many cases, the social policies necessary to remedy the problems in our society are counter-intuitive, and thus, require an informed and engaged electorate. Many Americans are simply not up to the task because it requires more than slogans and bumper sticker.

Subsidies are a good example. People who study subsidies know that subsidies distort the market place and result in higher cost. People love them anyway. They sound good, but they do real damage. Now consider what has happened to college tuition because of the widespread availability of government guaranteed student loans. Tuition rates have soared as students have been able to secure loans for amounts a free market with a real risk of default would not allow. No politician in his or her right mind wants to be labeled as 'anti-education' for cutting subsidies for student loans, even if it results in crushing student loan debt. We are now reaping the harvest of that misguided but well intentioned policy.

The critical element in all of this is the electorate understanding the issues. For too long our educational system has neglected real economic education and critical thinking skills in favor of indoctrination and memorization. Now that neglect, at this critical time in our history, may indeed be our undoing.

'''

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 22, 2012 2:37:09 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 22, 2012 2:38:19 PM PST
Gyre says:
TobascoJoe states that "For too long our educational system has neglected real economic education...." I do not believe that this has come about through neglect, but quite the opposite. I believe the documentary "THE TRAP" is available on YouTube. Iserbyt's THE DELIBERATE DUMBING DOWN OF AMERICA is offered free at her website. College education was free ("subsidized") in California before Reagan became governor. Educated students began protesting things like war profiteering, racism, Vietnam, etc. Obviously no generation could be allowed to become that educated again!
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