Murray: ‘A life well lived has transcendent value’

Benjamin Hoste | Staff Photographer
Charles Murray, W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Coming Apart and The Bell Curve, speaks Monday morning in the Amphitheater.

When talking about “The Pursuit of Happiness,” it becomes impossible to ignore the differences in happiness from one group of Americans to the next.

In Tuesday and Wednesday’s morning lectures, Robert Putnam and Charles Murray both argued that these differences depend on what social class a person is born into. Their solutions, however, are radically different.

Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the 1994 book The Bell Curve, took the Amp stage for Wednesday’s morning lecture. He argued that the demise of the white working-class is due to the failure of four institutions, and that these failures preceded the decline of the country as a whole.

The four institutions, which Murray called “the institutions of meaning,” were family, community, vocation and faith. For Murray, these domains sum up the importance of human life.

But, for a certain demographic, all four of these institutions have fallen through the floor.

That demographic is the working class. In his lecture, Murray specifically focused on white Americans who have a high school education or less and who are working in blue collar or low-level service industry jobs. Murray compared these Americans to the upper-middle class, which he defined as those with college degrees and professional or managerial positions.

White working-class marriage rates dropped from 84 percent in 1960 to 48 percent in 2010, just 50 years later, Murray said. Upper-middle class marriages are holding steady at 84 percent today, and the divorce rates of that same demographic continue to drop.

The working class’s participation in the labor force has also changed.

“In the 1960s, it was assumed that if you were a healthy, prime-aged male, you were supposed to be working,” Murray said.

Today, that fact remains true for upper-middle class males — but for the working class, one out of eight men are neither working nor looking for work, which Murray attributed to a changing culture in which there is less emphasis on the importance of work.

“They’d rather play video games and live with their girlfriend,” he said.

Murray said that the changes in family structure and marriage, a declining labor force and the weakening of religious institutions have all resulted in less social capital, thus impacting the communities of the white working class.

On Tuesday, Putnam defined building social capital as civic activities like voting, coaching Little League Baseball, attending PTA meetings and shoveling snow off of a neighbor’s driveway.

“A great deal of what goes on with social capital is a result of parents with children trying to shape the environment in which their children grow up,” Murray said. “Unmarried dads don’t coach Little League teams. And unmarried moms who are doing double duty don’t have time to go to PTA meetings.”

Murray believes a government intervention would not help the deterioration of social capital in working-class communities. He called the advanced welfare state in European countries the “Europe Syndrome,” in which the government’s role is to help its citizens lead comfortable lives.

“To me, it’s an extraordinarily depressing way to think about a human life,” Murray said. “I don’t know how you live a satisfactory human life without thinking that it has a transcendent moment, that a life well lived has transcendent value.”

And in order to achieve a life of transcendent value and happiness, the four institutions of meaning have to be available, robust and fully functioning. For Murray, this vitality is removed when the government is involved.

For example, if a government agency were given the job of cleaning the snow off of everyone’s driveways in the winter, that might save the average citizen valuable time. It might prevent injuries and accidents. But Murray is skeptical about the social capital costs.

“Even if the bureaucracy is providing a service you think ought to be provided, you have an inherent tension,” Murray said. “Some of the source of the vitality of that community has been drained away.”

Murray said the dilemma rests in the fact that while he wants these working-class communities to successfully pursue happiness, success must be earned rather than given.

“Earning success implies challenges, it implies succeeding against those challenges, it requires saying to yourself, ‘By God, I did it!’ ” Murray said. “To the extent that we’re taking that away, there is a tension in the happiness that we are able to feel.”


Q: Could you talk a little bit about how you view public education as a continuing path of upward mobility to move people from working class positions?

A: I’m hesitating because I’m saying to myself, Charles, if you aren’t careful you’re going to spend the entire 20 minutes in this room on one answer. I think that the educational system in this country has failed pathetically in this regard and is getting worse. And let me start with post-secondary education as where we have really gone wrong. We have defined the bachelor’s degree as being the badge of first-class citizenship in this country. You know, 50 years ago, 60 years ago, people who had college educations were a very small minority of the population. The normal thing was to have a high school education. There were few who had college educations. And those who didn’t have college educations might wish that they did, but they didn’t feel like second-class citizens. And now, as the proportion with college educations has grown, and with all of these jobs that you have to have a B.A. to even apply for the job have increased — you only have a high school education, you have a real problem. So here’s what happens: All those people see this value in a college education in terms of being able to get a job and also being able to get this credential that gives them first-class citizenship, so they are lured into going to college and they accumulate large students debts and a very large percentage of them don’t graduate. Why don’t they graduate? Well, there’s one thing that you need to be realistic about. And that is that an authentic college education requires certain kinds of intellectual abilities associated with academic work that a small proportion of the population has. That’s a very easy case to make if I’m talking about science or math. How many people in this audience who have college degrees like I do in the social sciences or humanities are really thinking in your heart of hearts you could’ve gotten a bachelor’s degree in physics? I am not smart enough in the things you need to be smart in to get a physics degree. OK, that’s also true for the humanities and social sciences. Go home. Pick up your old college textbooks. Open it to page 400. Read the first paragraph you come to. Look at the syntax, look at the vocabulary, look at the sentence structure. And then say, OK, what percentage of kids in a normal high school can read that textbook and know what’s going on? The answer is, it’s a small proportion. And yet we say everybody should get a college degree. And they should stay there for four years in a residential facility and we won’t have any course requirements to speak of so that an employer really doesn’t know … what somebody knows. All they know is that they have this piece of paper called a B.A. To make that kind of system is cruel and unusual punishment. And what do I think we need to do? To wrap up the answer to this, is we need to do one thing: First, quit stigmatizing working with your hands as being inferior to working with your mind. I didn’t expect to preach to the choir here in this regard, I guess. And another thing we need to do is give kids a way to go to an employer with proof of what they know, not where they learned it and how long they took it. So let them take certification exams. Think in terms of the certified public accountant — the CPA exam. You take that exam, which is a long exam, it doesn’t make any difference whether you got your accounting degree over the Internet or you got it at the University of Virginia. If you have a high score on that CPA exam, you’re going to get a job. Well, let people take certifications in marketing, certifications in criminal justice practice or whatever. Or for that matter, let them take certifications in European civilization. Have a case whereby people have documentation of what they know. And all of that would make a huge difference, I think, in reorienting ourselves toward a much healthier attitude toward making a living.

Q: Are there examples of programs or regions where the failures of social capital have been resisted or reversed? What can we learn from them?

A: The first thing that came to my mind was a bad example. I’m thinking of all the revitalization of urban neighborhoods that has occurred. Whereby Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., used to be a slum and now it’s a vibrant neighborhood, but the thing is, it’s not a vibrant neighborhood because the people who lived there revitalized it. It’s because all the people who used to live there moved out and it’s been replaced by people like us. So if you ask the harder question, what about an urban neighborhood that went downhill and they revitalized themselves — I simply do not have examples. I can point to a whole lot of attempts to do that. They were more popular in the 1960’s and ‘70s … and the reason they were more popular then is because we didn’t know what miserable failures they were gonna be. The fact is, we are very bad, “we” meaning people in public policy, at trying to intervene from outside with institutions like the family or community. It’s really, really difficult, and I would say in some ways, systematically impossible to do that effectively.

Q: What is the government’s role to a child born to parents who greatly restrict the child’s capacity for learning and opportunity?

A: It’s the dilemma I talked about writ large. We are not ever going to have a system where no child is born into a family where the parenting is terrible and the child’s opportunities are restricted. That’s not going to happen under any policy. The question is, under what system do you have the greatest chance that the child will be born to a man and woman committed to the care of that child, and intellectually and emotionally and financially ready to raise children? And so then you have a choice. You see before you a child who is in a very bad family situation, whose opportunities have been restricted. And you have to make a choice. You can say, well, we will pursue this one set of policies, which will address as best we can the needs of that child by importing services from outside. But you have to say, to what extent will doing that increase the number of children down the road who are in that situation? That is a very difficult calculus to work out. If we were in a situation in which we had ways of intervening in the lives of children who are living terrible lives that are really effective, the calculus would be even tougher. Here’s where I think I part company with Bob Putnam — I think I part company with a lot of people, but I think empirically, I am on extremely firm ground. The ability of early childhood intervention to make a difference has been way overhyped. The successes in that are based on extremely small samples evaluated by the people who ran the programs. And every time we have a program which has been run by people who are separate from the evaluators and you have large samples — because we have had those replicated programs — the results have been zilch. And they have gotten no publicity. We are kidding ourselves if we think we know how to compensate for two parents who are emotionally, financially and intellectually unprepared to raise children. And I think we’ve got to come to grips with that.

Q: Let me put these two questions together. What happened to working class men, and do you have an idea of how lower class men would re-enter the workforce?

A: Well, there are a couple of things that obviously happened. And one of the things… so many of the things that have happened are because of the bad side effects of good events. So let’s think about the entry of women into the labor force. That’s a good thing. It’s good that women were freed up to pursue the careers they wanted to pursue. A collateral effect of that was to make men less important economically. So forget about the welfare system or the rest of it — insofar as women are making their own livings, the working class guy who is contributing not that much money from his income becomes less crucial. And the whole process whereby a woman looking at a man who is going to perhaps father her children has to ask herself “I’ve got to have a guy I can rely on.” The pressure on her to do that goes down. That’s just really a statement of fact. And so … the feminist revolution, in certain ways, inevitably marginalized the role of men. The problem is that once you have not been in the labor force when you are in your early 20s or even before in your teens, it doesn’t take very many years before you’re never going to be effective there. You don’t have a career path when you’re a 19-year-old kid with a high school education. What happens is, you get a job, you’re around other people who have jobs, somebody says to you, “Hey, Joe — they are hiring over somewhere, and it’s a better salary or a better job.” And you go and work at that job. And lo and behold, by the time you’re 27, 28 years old, you’ve acquired some skills, you’ve acquired a long work history, you’re very employable and you’re moving up in life. You probably aren’t going to be rich, but you’re going to be making [$40,000], $50,000 a year. And if you’re married to a woman who’s also making [$40,000] or $50,000 a year, you’ve got a middle class income. If you don’t do that in your teens and early 20s, it’s not going to happen. And so the ways in which we get the guys who are currently out of the work force back into the work force, I don’t think there are any ways. I think you have to go to the next generation.

Q: Are poverty and welfare more corrosive to character than inherited wealth and privilege? 

A: No. My wife and I have wealthy friends who are raising children. And I’m thinking of one in particular who puts a list of chores on the refrigerator door that the kids have to do. … I would not have the job of wealthy parents trying to raise kids for any amount of money. It’s a real problem. It’s the same kind of problem — I sometimes use a thought experiment, trying to make this point. And I say, So, look — say you know you and your wife or spouse were going to be run over by a bus tomorrow, and you had to decide where to place your child and you were only given two choices. And one of those choices is affluent people who will not be cruel to your child, but they’ve never worked a day in their lives, they don’t particularly value work and don’t understand that kind of thing. But you have the option of putting your child with them, your small child, to be raised. Or your other choice is a working class family that really doesn’t make much money, they aren’t starving, but they live in a little, tiny house and your children will grow up without any financial advantages whatsoever — but this couple worked hard all their lives, have great integrity and so forth. Which family would you put your own child with? And I think the answer is obvious. You don’t choose the rich people. You choose the poor people. So the answer is yes. And that ought to affect — or let me put it this way: For those of you who think that wealth and privilege are just as corrosive, remember the flip side of that. Welfare is also corrosive.

Q: The question here states that the army, the military experience may be where classes do mix. Therefore would you believe in mandatory military service or some sort of mandatory public service?

A: It’s certainly attractive in theory — until you start to think about the practicalities of it. In the first place, the military, you can’t make it that large because that would just be prohibitively expensive to have a military that large. So then you’re looking at national service of another kind, and the models you look at are Peace Corps and teacher’s corps and things like that. I was in the Peace Corps, by the way, a long time ago. And I have also been familiar with other kinds of public service programs like that. Let me tell you the big difference between the Peace Corps and these other kinds of national service and the military. The military has the unified code of military justice behind it. So that if you are drafted into the military and you don’t want to be there, that doesn’t really help you a lot when you’re trying to decide whether to do what the drill sergeant says. Because if you don’t do what the drill sergeant says, you’re going to be in the brig and all that. No civilian national service program is run anything like that whatsoever. So here’s what’s going to happen if you have mandatory national service: You’re going to have a very large percentage, a majority of the people in it, who don’t want to be in it. You are not going to have the kind of discipline that the military has. It will become a great big game. How can I punch my ticket to fulfill this obligation that the government has stated I have to do, by doing as little work as possible? And if anything, I think it will increase the antagonisms between classes rather than diminish them. I think if you’re going to look for ways in which people mix, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.

Q: Was the middle class a historical aberration created by the Industrial Revolution?

A: Well, they didn’t have a middle class until the Industrial Revolution. You had a very thin cream of people on top, the aristocracy. And then the vast majority of people were living at subsistence level. And it was only the Industrial Revolution and the capitalism that went along with it that produced the incredible wealth generation that we’ve seen since the later part of the 18th century. And so in that sense it is a creation, but it’s not an aberration. The middle class and on up is getting bigger. A lot of the so-called reduction of the middle class has been middle class moving into higher income echelons. So we’ve now got a quite large chunk of the population that, by historic standards, is doing better than ever. The aberration was the appearance of a culture in which it was considered bad form to see yourself as superior socially to your fellow citizens. And the United States, up until a few decades ago, was that aberration. No other country in the world has ever had anything like it. And so, as I indicated in the conclusion of my speech, is that we’re just going to be another country where we have an upper class and a middle class who are doing just fine, thank you. And we have enough wealth to, you know, throw blankets and food over the wall to the rest. I’m getting a little bit too dramatic in my wording there, but you get what I’m trying to say.

Q: How might the coming demographic changes where whites are going to become a minority in the country affect the situation that you’ve described?

A: It’ll be really interesting. And in fact, the book I’m working on right now — I’m going into some of that. You’re going to see changes that are very hard to predict. Let me give you just one example: Asians constitute only 5 percent of the population. In the population of the “super-zips” that I talked about, the top 5, they’re already at 12 percent of the super-zips. And that’s going to continue to go up. So that you are going to see that by 2020, 2025, you’re probably going to be looking somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 25 percent of the most wealthy and educated zip codes in the country are going to be Asian. That’s going to be a considerable change. You already have Latinos who are a larger minority population than blacks — that disparity may increase as well, and so the short answer to the question that was asked is, I don’t know yet, and I don’t think anybody else does. I don’t think it’s intrinsically dangerous, I don’t think it’s intrinsically problematic. I also don’t think it’s intrinsically going to make life any easier for us. There’s only one thing I’d put onto this — here’s another aberration: The aberration is not an America that has many different cultures. The aberration was a period from the 1930s through the 1960s and 70s which we were much closer to a unicultural nation. Never quite got there; the South was still quite distinctive. But apart from the South, the culture of the rest of the country was more and more homogenous. But in the 19th century and the 18th century, we had very different cultures coexisting. So I wouldn’t focus so much on the changing ethnic diversity of the country — just talk about the changing cultural diversity of the country. And I think in the future years, we will be returning to a situation which is much more like America in the 19th and 18th century then America in the 20th century.

Q: I know you’ve stated that you don’t do solutions, but could you give an example of a policy that you believe does help create more opportunity and better environments for people to pursue their happiness?

A: Well, you’re going to out me now because I published a book with a solution, but it was one that nobody would buy so … It’s a little book called In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State, and I published it in 2004. And the idea of the basic income, guaranteed income, has been floated for a long time. Milton Friedman, among other people, liked that idea as being preferable to the welfare state. And my solution involves replacing all the transfer payments. That means Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. All the welfare programs. All the corporate welfare programs. All the agricultural subsidies — you name it. All of that. You cash all those out. Get rid of all the bureaucracies. And you replace that with a monthly check deposited electronically in a bank account of everybody over the age of 21. And the idea is this — and the reason the book is called In Our Hands is this: In a country as rich as the United States, or any of the Western democracies, we are never going to get rid of large payments to low income people. Just not going to happen. So it becomes a question of, do you want big government in terms of money and its ability to manage people’s lives? Or how about just having big government in terms of money, but small government in terms of its ability to manage people’s lives. So if you go to a guaranteed income — I’m skipping over all sorts of issues about work disincentives, which I do deal with in the book, I’m just going to skip to the other part of it. Let’s envision the case of a guy who drinks up his monthly payment four days after he gets it. And so now he’s got to survive until the next monthly payment comes in. He doesn’t have any social service people or bureaucracy to go to. He’s going to have to go to neighbors, his family, his girlfriend. Maybe if those don’t work he’s going to have to go to a church, or he’s going to have to go to some secular agency and say, “Gee, I drank up all the money. And I’ve got to survive until next month.” Think of all the things that are set in motion by that act. Under the current system, you have a bureaucracy which keeps him alive for the next month. Under this system, you have friends or neighbors or family or the church, who are gonna say “OK, we’re not going to le you starve, but it’s time for you to get your act together. Because don’t try to tell me that you don’t have the resources to be able to deal with your problems. We know you’ve got resources. You’ve got them like everybody else does.” It puts community life, social life, family life — all the loops of interactions which are the only effective ways to meet human needs — it re-energizes all of those again. It re-establishes a whole bunch of dynamics, whereby I think earned success becomes a whole lot easier than it is now. In 2004 when I did that, I had done the calculations … and I said well, the plan that I’m proposing would cost more than our current system, but I said the lines will cross in 2011, whereby the system I propose is cheaper than the system we have in place. I’m here to tell you folks that they have crossed. The system I proposed is cheaper than the system we have now, but more importantly, I think it would be the best compromise between freedom of people to live their own lives as they see fit and a safety net which provides resources. To me, it makes so much sense that it’s clear that it doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being enacted.

—Transcribed by Maggie Livingstone 

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