I really shouldn’t talk much more about Charles Murray’s book, since I still haven’t read it. (Maybe I’ll read it on break this week.) But I did want to respond to Ross Douthat’s “one cheer for Murray, one cheer for Frum” response to the book on his blog, as well as his most recent column.
Douthat says Murray gets three important things right that make his book worth reading:
First, he says, Murray “one of the strongest and most lucid explorations of the existing data on the long-simmering social crisis in working-class life, and the extent to which American society’s recovery from the dislocations of the 1960s and 1970s has been a recovery primarily for the upper middle class.” That’s a careful choice of word, “explorations” – indeed, it’s a word that doesn’t usually go with the two applied adjectives. (What’s a “strong” exploration? What’s a “lucid” exploration?)
The word that usually goes with those adjectives isn’t “explorations” but “explanations.” And one of Frum’s strongest criticisms of Murray isn’t that he offers no solutions, but that he doesn’t even offer a diagnosis – that his analysis of how we got here is thin to nonexistent. If true, that’s a huge, indeed fatal omission.
Second, he says, Murray “offers a convincing account of how meritocracy has exacerbated the problems that Murray describes . . . creating a self-reinforcing pattern in to those with much social capital, much more is given, while to those without, even what they have is taken away.” Again, I’ll need to read the book to see whether he gives such an account. I’m extremely sympathetic to criticisms of meritocracy as an ideology, as well as to criticisms about how meritocratic our system actually is (a rising class wins power and privilege by open contest, often overcoming handicaps to do so, but inevitably tries to pass that power and privilege on to its heirs, deserving or no).
But I still want to hear the mechanism by which meritocracy causes trouble for the struggling working class. I’m assuming the mechanism is that the self-perpetuating “winners” of society come not to care about members of the working class, and conspire to promote their own interests to the detriment of those of the working class. But such an argument requires a view as to what that conspiracy consists of – how working class interests are frustrated in the real world. Are they prevented from organizing politically? Or forming unions to promote their economic interests vis-a-vis their employers? Are their wages being forced down by high levels of immigration, or by free-trade? Are taxes diverted to projects and services that benefit the meritocratic elite, and diverted away from areas that are predominantly working-class?
If I understand correctly, the argument Murray makes is that the negative impact is cultural. The “cultural elite” looks down on working-class culture, and at the same time the cultural elite declines to promulgate their own, more stable lifestyles as an aspirational goal for working-class families. To caricature the argument, if wealthy people drank more Bud and went hunting more often, working-class men would work harder to emulate the wealthy by staying employed and marrying their girlfriends.
Implying that he takes this idea seriously, Douthat identifies as the third thing Murray gets right that he makes a strong case “for the power of so-called ‘traditional values’ to foster human flourishing even in economic landscapes that aren’t as favorable to less-educated workers as was, say, the aftermath of the Treaty of Detroit.” It remains true that thrift, industry, marriage, community involvement – these are surer routes by which to pursue happiness and prosperity than any other. But the job of a social scientist is to identify something resembling a causal mechanism. What encourages (and what discourages) thrift, matrimony, etc? In the absence of such a mechanism, a “case” isn’t really being made at all, much less a strong one – unless we really still need to hear a case made that these virtues are actually valuable.
And I really don’t think we do. Murray, after all, agrees that the right half of the economic bell curve does relatively well on the thrift/industry/fidelity axis. They may or may not “preach” that gospel (I hear it preached rather a lot, actually), but they don’t just practice it; they believe it.
Filling in what he sees as Murray’s gaps, Douthat’s most recent column identifies four ways that the government could actually make a difference to working class people:
“First, if we want the poor to be industrious, we should do everything possible to make their industry pay off.” Douthat suggests moving away from the payroll tax toward some other financing mechanism for entitlements. I am inclined to agree – the payroll tax is doubly regressive, both because of the cap and because returns to capital, ignored by the payroll tax, may really be returns to labor. I’m more skeptical of wage subsidies, which I suspect mostly depress pre-subsidy wages. Personally, I think it’s past time to revisit the question of the minimum wage, and whether it shouldn’t really be substantially higher than it is today. At a minimum, the conversation we should be having should be about how to get wages up at the low end. If that’s the acknowledged goal, we can have a good debate about the means to that goal.
“Second, if we want lower-income Americans to have stable family lives, our political system should take family policy seriously, and look for ways to make it easier for parents to manage work-life balance when their kids are young.” Agreed again – and I’m glad to see that Douthat is willing to say that left-wing approaches should be on the table here.
“Third, if we expect less-educated Americans to compete with low-wage workers in Asia and Latin America, we shouldn’t be welcoming millions of immigrants who compete with them domestically as well.” One can debate whether we’re actually “welcoming” millions of immigrants or whether we’re merely “permitting” them, but I agree here as well. It’s past time that we retool our immigration policies so that they serve the general interests of the American citizenry rather than the narrow interests of employers. That doesn’t mean closing the doors; it means revamping the system to select for immigrants that will add the most value. I agree with Ron Unz that a higher minimum wage would be very helpful in changing the political dynamic around imported labor at the low end of the wage scale. I think shifting from our current patchwork visa system and the “diversity lottery” to a system of auctioned residency permits would also be beneficial, improving the average skill level of immigrants, making enforcement much more straightforward (businesses who hired illegal immigrants would have defrauded the government by not purchasing a visa at auction, and could be fined some multiple of the fraud as damages) – and would bring in revenue to boot. But ultimately, the goal isn’t to avoid competition with foreign workers – we can’t avoid that entirely, and in many cases if we don’t import the workers we’ll wind up exporting the jobs. It’s to change the dynamic by which we talk as if having low wages is a competitive advantage for an advanced economy. It’s not. And if it isn’t, then if we’re importing large numbers of foreign workers specifically because they will work for lower wages, then we’re doing something wrong.
“Finally, if we want low-income men to be marriageable, employable and law-abiding, we should work to reduce incarceration rates.” The case for better policing and swift justice as both a more humane and a more effective anti-crime policy than mass incarceration is extremely strong.
What strikes me about the list, his original and my additions, is how traditionally liberal it is. The underlying assumption is that people, generally, want to work, want to marry, want to raise their kids right. Not everyone, of course, but the vast majority. We just need to make sure the system isn’t rigged against working people, but rather rigged, ever so slightly, in their favor, and not designed to create perverse incentives that undermine these virtues.
Most strikingly, there’s no “culture war” paternalism here. Douthat isn’t saying that the solution to working-class woes is a new evangelization. He isn’t saying that the way to get working class men to marry their girlfriends is to make contraception less available. I’m not saying he doesn’t believe those things would be good, nor even that he doesn’t think they would be helpful. I’m saying that recognizes either (a) that government can’t do much about them, or, more likely, (b) they are not central.
I call the list “traditionally liberal” because that’s what it is: FDR would recognize it, but so would Lyndon Johnson and so would Bill Clinton. “Raise wages at the low end” is a central traditional liberal goal. I see no reason why liberals would object to a higher child tax credit in principle – and Douthat acknowledges that the other “family policy” ideas on offer are liberal ideas. Immigration is an issue that, to some extent, scrambles categories, but I don’t think either what Ron Unz is advocating nor what Matt Yglesias is advocating are policies liberals should object to, and outright restrictionism hasn’t actually been the policy of conservative Republican Presidents in, well, in a very long time indeed (and if you go sufficiently far back in time, you’ll discover prominent restrictionists on the left as well as the right). And while crime policy today is also something that scrambles categories, sentencing reform is more a project for conservative intellectuals than a mainstream idea in conservative circles, and I think the alternatives to tough sentencing that Douthat alludes to would find a warm welcome in many liberal circles.
But I say “traditionally” liberal because there is a critique of meritocracy that is on-point here, but it’s one that, if Murray makes it, I don’t know how he squares it with his libertarianism. Meritocracy encourages people to believe that their power, wealth and status are earned. Which, to a certain extent, is true, but only to a certain extent. We don’t all start off equally-endowed with all talents, and not all talents are equally valuable in the marketplace.
There is a strain in liberalism – call it “client-service liberalism” – that is the liberal counterpart to conservative paternalism. This view holds that the solution to any social problem is to provide professional services to alleviate it. If, for example, there’s an upswing in teen pregnancy, we need more counselors to talk to teens about making good choices. If too many kids don’t have the skills to compete in the “new economy” then we need to “fix the schools” so that everybody can get a good job. And so forth.
Now, I’m a school-reform proponent in good standing, but “everybody” can’t get a “good” job if a “good” job is a job that requires higher education. Not everybody has the native talent to make it – and somebody still has to do those “bad” jobs.
Helping the working class starts out with a recognition that there will always be a working class – even if it earns its way into a middle-class lifestyle, and calls itself middle class. If we look at the jobs vast numbers of people do, and say, well, they should be low-paying because they don’t (or I don’t think they should) require that much skill, then we really are resigning ourselves to the progressive immiseration of a big chunk of society. If, on the other hand, we start from the proposition that a wealthy society shouldn’t tolerate such immiseration, then you can have a productive argument about what ways of preventing it will be most efficient and effective.
But, prior to having that technocratic argument, helping the working class requires that the working class have political organs through which to help themselves – or, rather, to protect their own interests. And when I look at today’s political parties, and non-party political actors, that’s what I see as most lacking.
I keep beating this drum, because I believe it. Overwhelmingly, Americans today are politically organized around culture. On the right, the strongest single political force is the conservative Christian political movement. This is not a working-class movement; the heart of Christian America is middle, maybe even somewhat upper-middle class. But it’s the biggest “populist” force on the right. And it’s not only not working-class, it’s not organized around class interests at all. And beyond the explicitly Christian right, the rest of the right is organized overwhelmingly around cultural appeals – that’s what the extreme belligerency of GOP foreign policy talking points is mostly about, for example. On the left, meanwhile, it’s still true that the big organizational muscle represents sociological/ideological interest groups and the social-service-providing sector. The big-gun unions are the NEA and AFSCME. Race- and gender-based advocacy groups are strong. There is not, on either side, an organizational structure devoted to advancing the interests of the working class as a class.
I don’t think the culture war is a conspiracy. Nor do I think that the issues that animate culture warriors on both sides are irrelevant – culture matters. And people care about these issues – certainly I do; I don’t lack opinions on these topics. But they are not the organizing basis of my political worldview. The culture war is an arms race that can’t be won because the median voter is at the median spot culturally; move him or her, and you move the political center – but if you’ve done that, you’ve already moved the culture, so why do you need to win an election on culture-war issues? Winning an election requires changing the culture, in other words, but changing the culture was the reason you were trying to win an election on these issues. (Obviously, at the margins there’s some cultural impact to each election, but I doubt the return on political investment is remotely adequate.) Meanwhile, the culture war is mostly just a reliable way to sort voters into political camps, so that politicians on both sides can win their votes without attending to their true interests. As such, the success of culture-war politics is one more barrier standing in the way of the development of a politics that could actually help working class America.