27 April 2012

Reviewing Charles Murray's Coming Apart

Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart, highlights a dramatic and important divergence between America’s elites and working class during the last 50 years. Regardless of your political orientation, the issues he raises deserve serious attention.

Murray dares to discuss and question culture. Corporations are quite intentional about culture and aware that different cultures lend themselves to different outcomes; the culture that favors tradition is not good with innovation, for instance, and one key to progress in a time of disruption is a change in culture. 

Ethnic groups and nationalities, by contrast, are more likely to defend their culture than question it. That Murray deserves praise for questioning how the working class culture has changed; the reader should be skeptical that his solution for the problems this raises is the classical conservative solution: return to the past. 

Murray explores the problems of the working class through a variety of statistics but concludes with an argument about happiness. Murray claims that happiness has its origins in some combination of these four:
  • -          Family
  • -          Industriousness
  • -          Religiosity
  • -          Community

For him, the American experiment rests on a trust in the importance of these four elements of life.
By the measures he uses, the support of the working class for these four has dropped precipitously since 1960,  and the result is a corresponding drop in happiness and prosperity.

Murray provides an abundance of statistics to make his point, demonstrating the link to happiness.
If you are married you are twice as likely to describe yourself as “very happy” as someone divorced and 4X as likely as someone who never married (to illustrate the importance of family). In turn, he reports statistics on industriousness, religiosity, and community. If you like your job, you are 2X as likely to be very happy with life as someone only moderately happy with their work (and 4X as likely as someone dissatisfied with their job). If you attend a religious service more than weekly you are 2X as likely report yourself very happy as someone who never attends. And, finally, high levels of engagement in the community (volunteering and voting, for instance) makes you 50% more likely to say you’re very happy.

Once he's argued that these four matter for happiness, he uses statistics to demonstrate how working class support for these elements of culture has eroded. For instance, the working class are less likely to marry. (One of the most dramatic illustrations of the deterioration of the traditional family is the drop in likelihood that a working class child will be living with both biological parents from about 95% in 1960 to about a third in 2010.) The stats are similar for measures of industriousness, social engagement or trust in others, and religiosity. It is because working class culture has so dramatically changed, Murray concludes, that they've become more beset with problems of poverty and unhappiness; today only 15% of the working class claim to be "very happy," a drop by more than half in the last half century.

His book deserves to be read and these issues should be addressed by anyone interested in policy. For me, his argument leaves some very important points unaddressed. 

1.       I question the implied direction of causality, finding it hard to believe that better church attendance and marriage rates would have saved the working poor from economic woes in this age of globalization. Culture may not have saved them. 

2.      Murray argues that the European model, a culture that does not emphasize these four elements, would fail to work for us Americans. Curiously, he doesn't address the fact that the happiest nations in the world are actually in Europe (specifically, north Europe). 

3.       Also, the policy implications of his arguments are not clear. End divorce? End welfare and unemployment? Seems like returning to an earlier culture would be like unscrambling an egg.

       Murray doesn’t suggest new models for new times. History suggests that family structure is malleable. The large, extended family is harder to maintain when the number of children have dropped and those children are likely to be specialists whose work takes them across the country. Support – whether in child rearing, retirement, or times of hardship - that depends on extended family living closely seems simply untenable now. Small families are more vulnerable, endowed with less of a safety net. The obvious solution to this new problem comes from the state and while it is true that this brings with it a host of problems, it is not obvious that there is any practical alternative to this path. 

       Finally,  Murray’s analysis of happiness also seems to ignores studies that show happiness to be the  product of flow and meaning. Getting lost in an activity makes us happy; knowing that the activity has meaning, has consequence, gives depth and substance to our happiness. We’re living in a time of great change and it is no wonder that the old routes to happiness have become difficult. The question is not whether in a time of transition people will become less happy and have more difficulty finding flow or meaning. That’s been true throughout history. The bigger question is how we teach flow or happiness in ways that are not dependent on what might be transitory social constructs or social situations. If 40% of people are now living alone, perhaps it isn’t practical to suggest that happiness will be elusive until they band together in extended families again.  It’s hard to believe that people weren’t happy before the American experiment began or won’t be happy once it evolves into whatever comes next.  That question – how to be happy in new circumstances and new realities – seems to me the more interesting and practical question than Murray’s question of how we get our old culture back. 

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