So, I downloaded Coming Apart. I am not disappointed. It is well argued. In 1963,

there just wasn’t that much difference between the lifestyle of a highly influential attorney or senior executive of a corporation and people who were several rungs down the ladder.

When you try to make that sort of assessment, your thinking is skewed because you may have forgotten what constituted a luxury back then. By today’s standards of a luxurious lifestyle, it is easy to see the rich in 1963 as not spectacularly well off. In 1963, as Murray points out, there were no Thai restaurants in the U.S. Today, they are available to people who are “several rungs down the ladder.” In 1963, nobody had a mobile phone. Today, everybody does. It could be that by 1963 standards, the rich were definitely different, and from that perspective the differences between the goods enjoyed by the rich and not-so-rich have actually shrunk. I am not claiming that the differences have shrunk, but one needs to be careful. See also Tyler Cowen.

I have more excerpts and my comments below the fold.Later, he wants to sort consumer preferences by social class, but laments

Much of the specialized quantitative information I need about the new elite’s tastes and preferences exists, but I cannot get hold of it. Everybody who sells advertising has data on the demographics of consumer preferences…but such data are proprietary

Oh, it’s not that hard. There is a book called The Clustering of America by a firm that links census data with consumer preferences. The company that did that, and one of its competitors,CACI, are both willing to share enough information to be helpful. About 15 years ago, my company got a disc from CACI from which I could deduce, for example, that one of the ways to distinguish high-income zip codes was that they had the highest percentage of people who had purchased a hardback book within the past year.

Outside elite circles, there may be mild angst about whether children get into their first choice in the state university system, but no more than that. Most mainstream Americans lose no sleep whatsoever because their child’s college is not in the top ten

I can think of one interesting indicator for being in the “bubble.” In the nearest public high school, take the ratio of the number of seniors who will attend an Ivy League school to the number of seniors who will enter the military. Where I live, it is about 0.2. In the better parts of Montgomery County, it has to be at least 5. I would say that if it is more than 1, you are in the bubble.

In the early 1990’s, Bill Gates was asked about what competitor worried him the most…”Software is an IQ business…Our competitors for IQ are investment banks.”

Murray argues that between 1950 and 1960, elite colleges shifted from admitting according to social class to admitting by IQ. The irony of this is that it greatly increased social stratification. It allowed smart people to separate themselves. Murray says that smart people can learn to get along with people who are not as intellligent, but

it amounts to one of things that people are glad they have done, but did only because they had to

Overall, we are in a world where IQ matters more, where wealth is higher and hence the possibility for disparity is higher, where colleges sort more strongly on IQ than before, and where people are more likely to marry others with similar IQ levels. This makes for unprecedented stratification.

Beyond college, high-IQ people sort themselves into what Murray calls Superzips, which are zip codes that contain a concentration of people with high educational attainment and high income.

It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale professors. It is a problem if Yale professors [and others in the elite] cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers.

I keep thinking that the people designing mortgage modification programs to fix the housing market probably have never met anyone who took out, underwrote, or serviced a subprime mortgage.

Murray argues that America as we know it depends on four founding virtues: marriage, religiosity, a work ethic, and honesty. He uses slightly different terminology, and along the way I think he sneaks in community engagement. That is, he praises social trust and social capital, but sometimes he treats those as independent virtues and at other times he treats them as if they were the product of religiosity and honesty.

As you may know by now, Murray tries to enliven his statistics by describing two quasi-fictional neighborhoods, Belmont and Fishtown. I think I would have preferred just a dry presentation of real data, because what I want to be able to quote hard facts, not stylized facts.

The Coming Apart story is that since 1963 a segment at the top has left the middle class behind and a segment at the bottom has become a permanent underclass. Murray does not use a consistent definition of the top segment from one part of the book to another. Are they the top 5 percent of the income/education distribution? Are they people who live in SuperZips? Are they the people of Belmont? It is hard to keep straight.

The bottom is defined somewhat more clearly. Murray includes: men who do not earn a decent living, defined as roughly $14,000 a year (the poverty line for a household of two); women who have children without ever marrying; and people of either gender who are “isolates,” meaning that they belong to no churches, clubs, or other social organizations. Although the definition may be easier, the tabulation is difficult, but Murray makes a case that this lower tier is 30 percent of the population, or more.

He documents the decline in ethics at the bottom of his scale. For example, he points out that disability claims have soared even though the proportion of jobs that would give rise to disability has fallen and even though health care has improved. This indicates a decline in the work ethic (and, yes, he does address other potential explanations).

Concerning the decline in the work ethic, I found myself wondering about the impact of (a) marginal tax rates and (b) immigration. Because of the way many social benefits are tied to (low) income, the marginal tax rate for working must be pretty high. Maybe immigrants are doing jobs that “Americans won’t do” because of this high marginal tax rate. (Of course, once the immigrants get more solidly situated as citizens and figure out the marginal tax rate, they too may stop doing these jobs.)

Murray’s evidence for a decline in honesty is rather weak. He looks at crime rates (which reflect a thin sliver of the population) and bankruptcy rates. However, in a later chapter, he shows a dramatic decline in favorable answers to the question “other people can be trusted” in his artificial lower-tier community. That probably is the strongest indicator of a decline in honesty.

By this point in the book, I am starting to ask myself if Murray is not simply taking values that matter to him and decorating them with sociological jargon and statistics. This is something that social scientists on the left do all the time as they “diagnose” conservatives.

One of the questions that is always in the background in reading Murray is whether today’s elite is truly more isolated than the elite of the country club in 1950 or the elite of the “better church” in 1850. Murray’s best defense is a quote from Theda Skocpol’s Diminished Democracy to the effect that in the 1950s elites participated in local clubs and organizations (think Rotary or Kiwanis) to which ordinary people also belonged.

Murray recycles a number of statistics from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone that show major drops in civic participation (declining PTA membership, etc.). However, Murray sees civic participation alive and well in the top tier. Where it has fallen off a cliff is in the bottom tier.

Without using the term “externality,” Murray makes a case that poverty per se is not a negative externality. However, he argues that the decline in the work ethic, honesty, marriage, and religiosity are negative externalities.

Murray’s solution is what he calls a “Civic Great Awakening” led by the elite. He wants the elite to “preach what they practice.” The way I would put it, using terms from Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, the Vickies should speak up for their values. (But what if the thetes resent this and push back?)

He thinks that the U.S. will step back from becoming a social welfare state that trades what Deirdre McCloskey would call its “bourgeois virtues” for a European system when we see what is happening in Europe. Hmm. Perhaps the left is going to say, “Oh, gee. Europe’s troubles prove that we were wrong. We surrender.” But I am not holding my breath.

My favorite sentence in the book:

How in a country where most people don’t need a penny of income transfers to begin with, can we spend $1.5 trillion on income transfers and still have material want?

That line stands on its own, regardless of how much of the rest of Coming Apart you buy into.