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Moral Decay the Cause of Income Inequality Says Controversial Book

Just in time to add ammunition to the class wars, along comes a book that says income inequality isn’t caused by Wall Street bonuses, outsized corporate CEO paychecks or even a tax code skewed to the wealthy.

The book is “Coming Apart, The State of White America”, by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, who claims it is not the 1% vs. the 99%; rather it is the 20% at the top vs. the 30% at the bottom. The 20% is made up of educated achievers who raise their children to strive for excellence, press them to vie for entrance to the top schools, and see them graduate into the best jobs, marry other smart people, and raise the next batch of bright children to propel the 20% still higher. Meanwhile, the 30% drift ever downward and further apart.

Those in favor of the status quo, eager to deflect Occupiers’ claims that the system is rigged in favor of the wealthy, have embraced Murray’s evaluation of the 30%. Murray says it’s a values thing.

The lower social strata are ordinarily held up as the exemplar of family values, but that’s mythology. Murray says it is the upper stratum that has retained what he calls the key "founding virtues" — industriousness, honesty, marriage and religion — that the lower stratum has forsaken. The latter marry less, have higher divorce rates when they do, and bear far more children out of wedlock. They drop out of high school, are uninvolved with their communities — they even go to church less than the 20%. They lack ambition, they watch television all day, they subsist on one or another welfare program, and fall further behind. They don’t have jobs because they don’t want to work, says Murray.

The cause? He says it was the ‘60s culture and alludes vaguely to “a whole set of reforms” that “élites put in place… which I think fundamentally changed the signals and the incentives facing low-income people and encouraged a variety of trends that soon became self-reinforcing”.

Aha. So it’s not the worsening educational system, outsourced jobs to other countries, the decline in manufacturing, the collapse of unions, the sheer lack of jobs because corporations are not hiring — these are not the reasons for the economic decline of the bottom 30%. No surprise, then, that conservatives, who oppose taking action with fiscal stimulus and social programs, have clambered on board in praise of Murray’s worldview.

Niall Ferguson of Harvard, who writes a column for Newsweek proclaims Murray has come yp with “by far the best available analysis of modern American inequality … a blessed relief”. He even works in the canard that President Obama wants to “make America more like Scandinavia”.

David Brooks, the conservative columnist at The New York Times, gushes in this piece that “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s ‘Coming Apart’”. He goes so far as to say, “the liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1% narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness”, an accusation that we are struggling to make sense of. As a card-carrying member himself of the out of touch élite, he says:

“It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the élites.”

What's wrong is his determination. The problem of the masses is that they would like to see opportunity restored in this country and instead see a plethora of advantages conferred on the wealthy while their world stagnates. In a final head-scratcher Brooks says what we need is a national service program.

At least David Frum, a conservative once a speechwriter for George W. Bush now writing at The Daily Beast/Newsweek, disagrees. Murray, he says, in a multi-part piece, ignores that the decline in wages and living standards is pervasive in the western countries as jobs have moved to low-paying countries in the East. What sense is it therefore to conclude that, whereas economics is the cause there, moral collapse uniquely is the cause here?

Murray is renowned for deploying reams of data but seems guilty of the sin of twisting them to fit his preconceived beliefs. Much more persuasive is how he marshalls data to present the sweeping social changes that support his “Coming Apart” title.

Whereas once those of different economic levels were commingled in smaller towns, living on the same streets or close by, chatting on the church steps after the Sunday service, the long-term trend has been for people to seek out those of their own economic level and political outlooks and cluster into communities of only their own kind. Murray is not the first to make this observation. Most recently there was “The Big Sort”, the 2008 book by Bill Bishop subtitled, “Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart”.

Murray says we need to merge again if we hope to stem this fragmentation, and has taken that step himself, moving his family to a small, rural Maryland town. Bill Clinton, after reading “The Big Sort”, sounded the same theme, saying, "Some of us are going to have to cross the street, folks". That way the 20% would be in place to transfuse their values to the 30% because “the new upper class just need to start preaching what they practice”, says Murray.

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