Monday, February 13

Anyway, Aren't Subtitles French?

Ross Douthat, "Can the Working Class Be Saved?" February 12

MR. Douthat, Mr. Brooks? For the record, the title of Charles Murray's new opus is Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 [emphasis mine, and Murray's, too]. I guess the advance copies they delivered to the Times left that last part out.

Now then, before we go any further: Charles Murray is not a thinker, or a scientist. If we'd like to be kind we can call him a paid political blatherer, like the two of you; it's nicer than "shitstain". We might also mention a Ph.D from M.I.T. in what is grandiosely known as Political Science, because, frankly, we're no longer concerned about the reputations of elite Eastern academies getting any worse.

Here's the deal: if you want to tout Murray's ideas, come back in 50-100 years and try to resurrect him in a world where he's justifiably forgotten, and where you might be able to apologize for his racist idiocies without anyone understanding what th' fuck you're talking about. Until then, no.
CHARLES MURRAY’S “Coming Apart,” the book that’s launched a thousand arguments this winter, is a brilliant work with an exasperating conclusion. What’s brilliant is Murray’s portrait, rich in data and anecdote, of the steady breakdown of what he calls America’s “founding virtues” — thrift and industriousness, fidelity and parental responsibility, piety and civic engagement — within America’s working class, and the personal and communal wreckage that’s ensued.

What’s exasperating is what the author suggests policy makers can do about the social crisis: in essence, nothing.

Murray has now perpetrated any number of books which could be refuted on their back covers. The late great Stephen Jay Gould on The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life in the year of its publication:
The general claim is neither uninteresting nor illogical, but it does require the validity of four shaky premises, all asserted (but hardly discussed or defended) by Herrnstein and Murray. Intelligence, in their formulation, must be depictable as a single number, capable of ranking people in linear order, genetically based, and effectively immutable. If any of these premises are false, their entire argument collapses. For example, if all are true except immutability, then programs for early intervention in education might work to boost IQ permanently, just as a pair of eyeglasses may correct a genetic defect in vision. The central argument of The Bell Curve fails because most of the premises are false.

Similarly, Murray's premise here--if, indeed, Murray's real premise is not "write an apologia for my employers at the American Enterprise Institute"--that the conveniently white underclass is suffering, not from thirty years of Republican (and Centrist Democrat) economic malignity, but from a kind of systemic cultural Dirty Hippiehood, is as easily tossed on its absurd clown face. Hell, let's just start with that "1960-2010" schtick Ross had to leave out of the title for spatial concerns. Let's make it "1950" instead. We still see a decline in marriage, and the explosive rise in divorce rates. The decline in church attendance begins here.

Yet the employment picture is almost continually rosy, a big mystery unless you happen to be in on the fact that the US was the world's only post-war global economy.
If Murray’s prescription for the social crisis is an exercise in libertarian wishful thinking, this liberal alternative is a mix of partisan demonization and budgetary fantasy. It was globalization, not Republicans, that killed the private-sector union and reduced the returns to blue-collar work. It’s arithmetic, not plutocracy, that’s standing between the left and its dream of a much more activist government. Even if liberals get the higher tax rates on the rich they so ardently desire, the money won’t be adequate to finance our existing entitlements, let alone a New Deal 2.0.

The Crux of the Issue and How to Miss It! The fact that complex considerations surround every object of human ratiocination does not moot everything, nor exclude the possibility of the adequacy of simple explanations adequately considered. If it did, Ross, your Church would be out of business, just to name one notable example.

The question (for "liberals") isn't who can cough up what explanation for the decline of everyone outside the upper upper class in the past three decades; it's "when are we going to acknowledge the disconnect between the claims that Reagan tax-cutting would Save the Day, or at least the Morning, and what actually fucking happened?" Higher tax rates, and the closing of the more egregious tax loopholes the rich and their enablers have written into the tax code, is a question of fair domestic policy, not magical solutions to the decades-deep hole we've dug while Republican/libertarian fiscal policies held sway.

By the way, where was this trenchant analysis while this was actually going on? Where were you? Where was Murray? Busy blaming the underclass for not being more like yourselves: married (Murray's such a believer he's done it twice), religious and libertarian, hard-working on a deadline, white, Hahvahd educated, and willing to understand the distinction between work and theft, and excuse the latter when it's on a large enough scale.

Where's that analysis, by the way? Whatever happened to that America that jailed financial swindlers and war profiteers, which was outraged by the big and powerful screwing the poor and defenseless? That strove to increase equality, care for the needy, reward loyalty, and shun rapacious self-love? Do you imagine you're the only ones who can play this game? The late 70s and early 80s were the busted sluice gate of greed, self-absorption, libertarian self-regard, and the re-writing of inconvenient recent histories of our international adventurism and domestic abuses; it's also the time when an entrenched ruling class (of both parties) chose unlimited campaign spigots and property rights over basic fairness and reasonable, responsible growth. But that sort of thing gets a pass, since the very wealthy aren't constrained by those universal laws you just made up. Thank goodness they still have some advantages left.


R. Porrofatto said...

Indeed. Speaking of missing analyses, perhaps Brooks or Douthat will one day explain why globalization doesn't seem to have harmed the blue collar demographic of the Cayman Islands, a country with roughly the population of Tinley Park, Illinois (which works out to about 1 hedge fund for every 5 Islanders and banking assets of about $35 million per capita), aside from it being a great vacation spot where people like Mitt Romney go to visit their cash.

prairie curmudgeon said...

From the "Upside of Down" by Thomas Homer Dixon, p. 218:
"Buffeted and often terrified by our modern world's relentless flux, many of us desperately want to believe that at least the tenets of capitalism -- the right to private property, the benefits of competition, and the imperative of growth -- are eternally true. A cadre of experts -- central bankers and economists in governments, universities, and think tanks -- is only too willing to oblige by substantiating the belief structure. When a bit of anomalous data pops up, like a financial crisis or an energy shortage, these "professionals with a vested interest in the monopoly of learning," as Koestler calls them, rush to add an extra epicycle to the economic theory that underpins capitalist ideology. This keeps the central core of the worldview undisturbed and gives the whole system "scientific" legitimacy. (In reality, though, the experts often know little more about what's going on than the rest of us; and they're certainly little better than an educated layperson at seeing the future.) Just like the people who held fast to Ptolemy's theory of the cosmos, we'd rather accept this extra epicycle -- we'd rather have someone tell us a fanciful story -- than shift wholesale to some new, untried, and unknown way of organizing our lives. Better the devil we know than one we don't. Indeed, if Koestler is right that insecurity causes people to hold tenaciously to their core assumptions and values, and if capitalism itself is a prime generator of personal insecurity, then capitalism perversely reinforces its own appeal.
We shouldn't expect any challenges to capitalism's tenets to come from the top of our social hierarchy, either. Members of our economic elite rarely have qualms about the prevailing economic worldview because it sustains their status, and because they generally believe that they've achieved that status through their superior intelligence, guts, and drive. The conviction that one's advantages are entirely fair seems virtually a condition of membership in the rarefied upper status of our societies."

Please excuse the long excerpt. I just finished reading this book. It fit so closely to this post by casa de perro senor Riley that I had to share it. Needless to say, this won't be printed by NYT.

DocAmazing said...

I read the title as "Aren't Subtleties French?" which amounts to the same thing, I suppose.

freq flag said...

...the distinction between work and theft, and excuse the latter when it's on a large enough scale.

Derived, of course, from:

"Steal a little and they throw you in jail; steal a lot and they make you a king."

Same as it ever was.