Charles Murray, one of America’s most influential social policy thinkers, has come out with a widely discussed new book called Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which argues that Americans are splitting into two divergent classes, and that this growing divide could end American life as we have known it.
A self-described libertarian, Murray started his career as a liberal Democrat who spent six years in the Peace Corps and voted for Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election. His political transformation came while he was researching his landmark 1984 book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, which marshaled exhaustive evidence that American welfare programs were harming the very people they were supposed to be lifting out of poverty.
Losing Ground was fiercely denounced by the political left, but soon won mainstream acceptance that the War on Poverty was failing. The simple fact is there wouldn’t have been welfare reform in the 1990s without Losing Ground.
The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, Murray’s 1994 collaboration with Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein, was more controversial. The book maintained that differences in genes contribute to differences in IQ, which in turn play a significant role in the life outcomes of individuals. Most controversially, Herrnstein and Murray argued that various ethnic groups have distinct differences in inherited intelligence. (Economist James J. Heckman reviewed The Bell Curve for Reason back in 1995: .)
Murray has written more than 20 books, including What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation, and he’s currently the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute .
Reason’s Ronald Bailey sat down with Murray in March for a wide-ranging discussion of how his earlier work informs Coming Apart, why he remains libertarian in his outlook, and whether younger Americans face an relentlessly negative future.
Approximately 35 minutes.
Written and produced by Jim Epstein.
Nigel Farage Is the Most Dangerous Man in Britain
He’s the most effective demagogue in a generation. Now he sets the agenda.
LONDON — Nigel Farage is the British crisis in human form. His party, the unambiguously named Brexit Party, which is hardly a party and didn’t exist six months ago, won nearly a third of the British vote in the recent European Parliament elections, putting it in first place and driving the shattered Conservative Party into fifth. Long underestimated, Mr. Farage has done more than any politician in a generation to yank British politics to the hard, nationalist right. He is one of the most effective and dangerous demagogues Britain has ever seen.
With his last political vehicle, the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, Mr. Farage took an assortment of Tory retirees and a smattering of ex-fascists and other right-wing cranks, and welded them into a devastating political weapon: a significant national party. That weapon tore such chunks out of the Conservatives’ share of the vote that the party leadership felt compelled to call a referendum on Europe — which it then lost. Mr. Farage declared victory and went into semiretirement as a pundit.
Now, almost three years after the Brexit vote, he’s back. His timing could hardly be better. After a “lost decade” of declining living standards and flat wage growth, trust in Parliament and the news media is at rock bottom. The Conservatives are disintegrating; Prime Minister Theresa May is on her way out of office, having failed to secure a parliamentary majority for her Brexit deal. She failed because, rather than seeking cross-party consensus, she tried to placate her own hard right and prevent voters from abandoning the party — again. Unable to do so, she has simply hardened public opinion.
A poll in April found that given a choice between remaining in the European Union, and leaving with no deal, 44 percent of Britons support “no deal.” The vast majority of these voters previously supported the Conservatives. But since they are the party of business, they can’t seriously contemplate leaving without a deal. Nor can Parliament.
The resulting stalemate, combined with an election in which the main parties barely campaign, presented Mr. Farage with an easy target. And thanks to his success, there is enormous pressure on the Conservatives to deliver Brexit in October, deal or no deal. Boris Johnson, likely to replace Mrs. May as prime minister, is now pledging to do just that.
The Brexit Party’s campaign was a one-man show. While it has a sophisticated digital strategy, the party has no members and no manifesto, and none of its candidates were democratically selected. It offered only one policy: a “No Deal” Brexit. Its rallies focus on star performances by Mr. Farage, introduced with thundering motivational music. He is a gifted communicator, verbally dexterous, with a sense of humor.
Like many English reactionaries — including Mr. Johnson — he speaks in a nostalgic, “old world” register. He doesn’t talk about taxes or privatization. He talks about unfairness and loss, about the sovereignty supposedly ceded to Europe, immigration and elite cosmopolitans. And he names a placebo solution within reach: Brexit. The great escape. It’s a powerful antidepressant.
It is ironic that Mr. Farage appeals to people who are besieged by precisely the kind of volatile financial capitalism that he champions. He is, like President Trump, that paradoxical figure: the capitalist populist. He made his money as a City trader during the boom years of the 1980s, reveling in its adrenaline-fueled, heavy-drinking culture. He is the Gordon Gekko of British politics. It’s striking, to those who care to look, just how much his agenda is about class interest: He opposes extended maternity leave, raising the minimum wage and reducing the retirement age — anything that inconveniences his nouveau riche confederates. If he had his way, many of his supporters would be working harder, longer, for less money, with less protection. That, indeed, is his Brexit dream: Singapore on the Thames.
Even his racism is class-bound. Mr. Farage’s problem is not just with immigrants, it seems, but with poor immigrants especially: those from Eastern Europe, or Muslim countries, or those with H.I.V. He has said he would be uncomfortable with Romanians as neighbors, but he married a woman from Germany. He hates the European Union because its moderate social legislation and free movement defy what he thinks is a Darwinian cultural ecology through which some rise and others fall.
It is a mistake to overstate his “white working-class” base — UKIP included plenty of professionals and managers — but he has wooed many older, white workers, remote from the center of financial power where he built his career. Some were ex-Labour voters in manual jobs. His offer to them is that, in a society of dog-eat-dog competition, they will not have to compete with foreign workers. This is why the liberal press’s muckraking about his racism and far-right connections, by itself, generally doesn’t work. Far from impeding Mr. Farage, racism is his ticket to success. It puts him on the same side as his poorest voters.
With Parliament deadlocked and the Conservatives nearing their death throes, Mr. Farage has spotted an opportunity: a new political model, inspired by the Five Star Movement in Italy. A “digital platform” that harnesses the free labor of its “users,” allowing them “participation” through content-sharing and online polls, rather than rights. Parliamentary democracy is slow at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. Such platforms, however, introduce volatility to the system. Dropping UKIP, a traditional membership party, he launched something like a venture capitalist start-up, with crowdfunders rather than members, and a chief executive rather than a leader.
Hence, the Brexit Party. Unlike older party models, it doesn’t invest in lasting infrastructure. It is nimble-footed, expert at gaming social media — the stock market of attention. It won the battle for clicks, and made a killing in this election. Such online frenzies are akin to destabilizing flows of hot money, forcing legacy parties to adapt or die. But when Parliament is so weak, its legitimacy so tenuous, they can look like democratic upsurge.
That may be Mr. Farage’s ultimate triumph. The quintessential City trader and apostle of cutthroat competition, he is exploiting our democratic crisis to remake politics in his own image.
Bernie Sanders and the Myth of the 1 Percent
The very rich are richer than people imagine.
A peculiar chapter in the 2020 presidential race ended Monday, when Bernie Sanders, after months of foot-dragging, finally released his tax returns. The odd thing was that the returns appear to be perfectly innocuous. So what was all that about?
The answer seems to be that Sanders got a lot of book royalties after the 2016 campaign, and was afraid that revealing this fact would produce headlines mocking him for now being part of the 1 Percent. Indeed, some journalists did try to make his income an issue.
This line of attack is, however, deeply stupid. Politicians who support policies that would raise their own taxes and strengthen a social safety net they’re unlikely to need aren’t being hypocrites; if anything, they’re demonstrating their civic virtue.
But failure to understand what hypocrisy means isn’t the only way our discourse about politics and inequality goes off the rails. The catchphrase “the 1 Percent” has also become a problem, obscuring the nature of class in 21st-century America.
Focusing on the top percentile of the income distribution was originally intended as a corrective to the comforting but false notion that growing inequality was mainly about a rising payoff to education. The reality is that over the past few decades the typical college graduate has seen only modest gains, with the big money going to a small group at the top. Talking about “the 1 Percent” was shorthand for acknowledging this reality, and tying that reality to readily available data.
[For an even deeper look at what’s on Paul Krugman’s mind, sign up for his weekly newsletter.]
But putting Bernie Sanders and the Koch brothers in the same class is obviously getting things wrong in a different way.
True, there’s a huge difference between being affluent enough that you don’t have to worry much about money and living with the financial insecurity that afflicts many Americans who consider themselves middle class. According to the Federal Reserve, 40 percent of U.S. adults don’t have enough cash to meet a $400 emergency expense; a much larger number of Americans would be severely strained by the kinds of costs that routinely arise when, say, illness strikes, even for those who have health insurance.
So if you have an income high enough that you can
- easily afford health care and good housing,
- have plenty of liquid assets and
- find it hard to imagine ever needing food stamps,
you’re part of a privileged minority.
But there’s also a big difference between being affluent, even very affluent, and having the kind of wealth that puts you in a completely separate social universe. It’s a difference summed up three decades ago in the movie “Wall Street,” when Gordon Gekko mocks the limited ambitions of someone who just wants to be “a $400,000-a-year working Wall Street stiff flying first class and being comfortable.”
Even now, most Americans don’t seem to realize just how rich today’s rich are. At a recent event, my CUNY colleague Janet Gornick was greeted with disbelief when she mentioned in passing that the top 25 hedge fund managers make an average of $850 million a year. But her number was correct.
One survey found that Americans, on average, think that corporate C.E.O.s are paid about 30 times as much as ordinary workers, which hasn’t been true since the 1970s. These days the ratio is more like 300 to 1.
Why should we care about the very rich? It’s not about envy, it’s about oligarchy.
With great wealth comes both great power and a separation from the concerns of ordinary citizens. What the very rich want, they often get; but what they want is often harmful to the rest of the nation. There are some public-spirited billionaires, some very wealthy liberals. But they aren’t typical of their class.
The very rich
- don’t need Medicare or
- Social Security; they don’t use
- public education or
- public transit; they
- may not even be that reliant on public roads (there are helicopters, after all).
Meanwhile, they don’t want to pay taxes.
Sure enough, and contrary to popular belief, billionaires mostly (although often stealthily) wield their political power on behalf of tax cuts at the top, a weaker safety net and deregulation. And financial support from the very rich is the most important force sustaining the extremist right-wing politics that now dominates the Republican Party.
That’s why it’s important to understand who we mean when we talk about the very rich. It’s not doctors, lawyers or, yes, authors, some of whom make it into “the 1 Percent.” It’s a much more rarefied social stratum.
Socialism and the Self-Made Woman
What Ivanka Trump doesn’t know about social mobility.
.. Back to the “potential for upward mobility”: Where do people from poor or modest backgrounds have the best chance of getting ahead? The answer is that Scandinavia leads the rankings, although Canada also does well. And here’s the thing: The Nordic countries don’t just have low inequality, they also have much bigger governments, much more extensive social safety nets, than we do. In other words, they have what Republicans denounce as “socialism” (it really isn’t, but never mind).
And the association between “socialism” and social mobility isn’t an accident. On the contrary, it’s exactly what you would expect.
To see why, put it in a U.S. context, and ask what would happen to social mobility if either the right wing of the G.O.P. or progressive Democrats got to implement their policy agendas in full.
If Tea Party types got their way, we’d see drastic cuts in Medicaid, food stamps and other programs that aid Americans with low income — which would in many cases leave low-income children with inadequate medical care and nutrition. We’d also see cuts in funding for public education. And on the other end of the scale, we’d see tax cuts that raise the incomes of the wealthy, and the elimination of the estate tax, allowing them to pass all of that money on to their heirs.
By contrast, progressive Democrats are calling for universal health care, increased aid to the poor, and programs offering free or at least subsidized college tuition. They’re calling for aid that helps middle- and lower-income parents afford quality child care. And they propose paying for these benefits with increased taxes on high incomes and large fortunes.
So, which of these agendas would tend to lock our class system in place, making it easy for children of the rich to stay rich and hard for children of the poor to escape poverty? Which would bring us closer to the American dream, creating a society in which ambitious young people who are willing to work hard have a good chance of transcending their background?
Look, Ms. Trump is surely right in asserting that most of us want a country in which there is the potential for upward mobility. But the things we need to do to ensure that we are that kind of country — the policies that are associated with high levels of upward mobility around the world — are exactly the things Republicans denounce as socialism.