Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Charles Murray On Class Inequality

In the Wall Street Journal, Charles Murray has written a provoacative analysis about inequality in America.

America is coming apart. 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. "The more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, the great chronicler of American democracy, in the 1830s. "On the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: They listen to them, they speak to them every day."

Americans love to see themselves this way. But there's a problem: It's not true anymore, and it has been progressively less true since the 1960s.
He enunciates his core thesis as follows:

. . . .What we now face is a problem of cultural inequality.
When Americans used to brag about "the American way of life"—a phrase still in common use in 1960—they were talking about a civic culture that swept an extremely large proportion of Americans of all classes into its embrace. It was a culture encompassing shared experiences of daily life and shared assumptions about central American values involving marriage, honesty, hard work and religiosity.
Over the past 50 years, that common civic culture has unraveled. We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America's core cultural institutions.
It can be said without hyperbole that these divergences put Belmont and Fishtown into different cultures. But it's not just the working class that's moved; the upper middle class has pulled away in its own fashion, too.
If you were an executive living in Belmont in 1960, income inequality would have separated you from the construction worker in Fishtown, but remarkably little cultural inequality. You lived a more expensive life, but not a much different life. Your kitchen was bigger, but you didn't use it to prepare yogurt and muesli for breakfast. Your television screen was bigger, but you and the construction worker watched a lot of the same shows (you didn't have much choice). Your house might have had a den that the construction worker's lacked, but it had no StairMaster or lap pool, nor any gadget to monitor your percentage of body fat. You both drank Bud, Miller, Schlitz or Pabst, and the phrase "boutique beer" never crossed your lips. You probably both smoked. If you didn't, you did not glare contemptuously at people who did.
I don't want to just cut and paste the whole piece, and I don't have time this week to comment the way I should, so I'll make one short comment and urge everyone to read the piece. 

The dividing of America seems to me to be more important and pernicious.  The rich and poor have always been with us, but now they live apart.  Politically, we see conservatives and liberals refuse to watch the same news programs.  Murray now shows that Americans seem to be abandoning unifying institutions.  I find it a bit ironic and disconcerting that Murray a libertarian is making a similar point that communitarian Robert Putnam made about a decade ago.  Lincoln and the gospels tell us that a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Big boy bloggers Daniel Larison and Rod Dreher have commented here and here.

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