BOOK REVIEW: ‘Coming Apart’

Phil Brand, Washington Times, February 3, 2012


By Charles Murray

Crown Forum, $27, 416 pages

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, and in this case, the picture is a graph. Many graphs, in fact, but all of them depict the same pattern: Two lines start close together in the 1950s, diverge sharply over the decades and end with a gaping chasm between them today. They tell the story of a polarized upper and lower class in America, not just in income, but also in core values and habits. It’s a polarization that, if it persists, will unmake America as we know it.

The graphs are lifted from the pages of Charles Murray’s latest, and probably last, book, “Coming Apart.” For readers familiar with the author’s career-long devotion to the subject of social stratification in American life, “Coming Apart” is vintage Murray and a magnum opus of sorts. {snip}

Concerning the trends Mr. Murray describes, Walter Russell Meade writes, “A free floating anger stemming from the breakdown of a broadly accepted social model helps power political currents on both ends of the spectrum.” If the Tea Party folks and the Occupy folks share an intellectual grandfather, it’s Charles Murray.

What social model and what happened to it? The tale goes like this: Back in the day (pre-1960, roughly) nearly all Americans lived lives that were familiar to their fellow countrymen. The broad sweep of Americans shared what Mr. Murray calls the “founding virtues”—industriousness, honesty, marriage and religion.

Americans married, had children, went to church sometimes and participated in the civic life of their community. Able-bodied men worked. To be sure, there were differences between the classes, but they weren’t dramatic, and they didn’t concern core behavior. “Affluence in 1963,” Mr. Murray writes, “meant enough money to afford a somewhat higher standard of living than other people, not a markedly different lifestyle.” {snip}

That began to change in the 1960s. Technological advances revolutionized the way we work and do business. As a result, the economy ever more handsomely rewarded brainpower and education at the same time that it eroded the earning power of working-class Americans. It’s no surprise, Mr. Murray writes, that “just about all of the benefits of economic growth from 1970 to 2010 went to people in the upper half of the income distribution,” and most of that accrued to the top 5 percent.


The massive deterioration in male industriousness in the lower classes was accompanied by a transformation in habits regarding marriage and family formation. The working-class American family, long portrayed as a bastion of traditional values, turned out to be anything but. Marriage rates tanked in working-class America, while divorce and out-of-wedlock births skyrocketed. (To make clear that this is an issue of class and not race, Mr. Murray looks only at white Americans.)

“Over the last half century,” Mr. Murray writes, “marriage has become the fault line dividing American classes.” {snip}

Did economic changes corrode marriage and family in working-class America? Mr. Murray skirts the issue, perhaps because he believes that the underlying trends ripping up the old social model are too strong to be overcome and should not be overcome. After all, the trends point toward a more efficient and productive future.

One thing we can change, Mr. Murray says, is government policy, for it too is to blame for the breakdown of family and community. “When the government intervenes to help,” Mr. Murray writes, “it enfeebles the institutions through which people live satisfying lives”—marriage and the myriad associations Americans voluntarily formed to tackle communal problems.



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  • Whiteman

    According the NY Times review of the book, Murry places much of the blame on ‘liberalism’ and the 60’s generation. One thing that occurred to me during this review, when the writer went on about the marriage and divorce rates among the rich and the poor the saying came to mind (often made by anti-feminists), “women never marry down”. 

    Writer Thomas Sowell has claimed, before the 1960’s the black employment rate was higher than that of whites. The beloved (by the left) 60’s generation didn’t do a lot as far as that statistic is concerned. Nor have they don’t a lot for by any measurement. I guess diversity is the only measure that counts these days. 

    • Oil Can Harry

      The black employment rate was NEVER higher than the white rate. Either in the US or any other country.

      Blacks have never exactly been known for their ambition. 

    • Anonymous

      Murry places much of the blame on ‘liberalism’ and the 60’s generation. 
      the baby boom generation was the most selfish, destructive immature generation in american history. 

  • B

    I think socialist liberal welfare policy has also had an effect on whites but to a much lesser extent than it has on blacks. Whites generally feel more shame from taking handouts so a greater percentage of whites have an aversion to public assistance.

  • Anonymous

    Our economy is evolving in ways that are less economically rewarding to those of average or below average intelligence. When the United States shifted from an agricultural to an industrial economy there were plenty of factory jobs for those who lost jobs on farms. As we shift from an industrial to a service economy service sector jobs usually pay less than production work, while requiring more academic and social skills. Factory work required little beyond tolerance for boredom. Waiters, waitresses, and retail sales clerks need to know the basics of arithmetic and literacy. They also need to be able to appeal to customers.
    As the rewards for those with double digit IQs decline many resort to socially dysfunctional behavior. Charles Murray’s book demonstrates that this is nearly as true for whites as for blacks.
    Conservatives claim that if lower income people worked harder they would join the middle class. Liberals claim that intelligence differences are meaningless. Both are wrong. This is a serious problem without an obvious solution.     

    • What?  You mean we agree on an economic issue?  Must be that whole end-of-the-world 2012 thing at work.

      You’re right.  There is no obvious solution, but there is a plaster-over temporary fix:  Trade and tariff policy.  For instance, Foxconn’s plant that makes iWhatevers in China has 400,000 employees.  As a price for accessing the American consumer market, either the tariffs should be higher, or Foxconn should move 1% of their workforce to the United States, more specifically, to a rust belt swing state like Ohio, and create high wage work for low-to-moderate IQ middle aged native born white Americans.  Even if the work were as banal as moving empty boxes from one side of the building to the other all day long.

      Affirmative action for a 50-year old 90 IQ working class white man?  Yes, guilty.  It’s also the way a real country behaves.

    • Anonymous

       Waiters, waitresses, and retail sales clerks need to know the basics of arithmetic and literacy.

      Not most of the ones I’ve seen recently. They’re helpless when the computer goes down.

    • Marcy Fleming

      Our government miseducation system is a total disaster.
      Why do you have to extort your fees by force and your pupils by compulsion ?, Isabel Paterson asked in her chapter on Our Japanized Educational System in The God Of The Machine, one of the greatest books on political economy ever written.
      Gary North has had many great pieces in exposing Hire Education too at the university level. It’s way past time to get government out en toto of education.
      Too important to be left to the bureaucrat and NEA dregs.
      Furthermore as Albert Jay Nock noted many years ago 95% are trainable and 5% educable.
      We need to abolish child labor laws along with compulsory schooling.
      95% of all jobs do not require advanced education and for the ones that do it can be done
      privately for far cheaper.
      There is inherent inequality in all public school education due to inherent inequality in society at large as reflected in the property tax rates. Piedmont has much better schools than Oakland and Beverly Hills much better than Compton.
      The nature v. nurture dualism will never be resolved but one thing is for sure and that is people should not have to pay for the education or miseducation of other people’s kids.

  • Anonymous

    So now, 80% of women chase 20% of the men – the upper 20% that is.

    Failing that, they’ll drop their standards completely and chase the lowest 20%.

  • Oil Can Harry

    There ARE some hardworking, ambitious blacks out there and also some lazy, shiftless whites.

    However, I’m talking about group differences.

  • Anonymous

    I have long stated that class has long been America’s dirty little secret. Upper income Whites are much more willing to have The Huxtables of the Cosby Show or Sidney Poitier’s children as classmates and neighbors as opposed to lower income Whites.

  • Marcy Fleming

    God, I never thought I could so much agree with you ! Bravo for your great thoughts here and many thanks !

  • Marcy Fleming

    Sounds like San Francisco-Oakland !

  • Marcy Fleming

    Your fourth sentence says it all !

  • You’ve heard the axiom “behind every great fortune is a great crime,” I’m sure.  I don’t think that’s literally true, but I do think that behind most great fortunes are almost always one of three things:

    1.  A great crime

    2.  A political protection racket, aka crony capitalism

    3.  A whole lot of luck

    I think arriving at your goal isn’t that hard.  Instead of ripping up the whole system, it will merely take some populist and nationalist hacks around the existing free market system.  Paul Krugman is nothing but a universalist-collectivist, and surely, an anti-racist aka anti-white.  Don’t throw your lot in too far into his game, other than a broken clock being right twice a day.

  • Anonymous

    Charles Murray’s new book is getting a lot of attention. I have been reading a number of book reviews. The reviewers find aspects to criticize, but write without the vitriol that greeted “The Bell Curve.” Charles Murray is gaining deserved respect as the teller of terrible truths it would be dangerous to ignore.
    In “The Inequality Taboo,” Charles Murray wrote, “specific policies based on premises that conflict with scientific truths about human beings tend not to work. Often they do harm.”