A Tale of Two…oh, never mind

by Misha Lepetic

Look – you're my best friend, so don't take this the wrong way.
In twenty years, if you're still livin' here, comin' over to my house
to watch the Patriots games, still workin' construction, I'll fuckin' kill you.
That's not a threat; now, that's a fact.”
~Good Will Hunting


Culture warriors from the 1990s may remember Charles Murray, who rather stirred the pot with The Bell Curve, a highly contentious book co-written with Richard Herrnstein. The authors hypothesized, among other things, that not only intelligence but also its alleged heritability could be measured and used to explain differences in the success of social (or, perhaps, economic and ethnic) groups.* At any rate, Murray, who seems to be a refreshingly damn-the-torpedoes type of fellow, is back with another doozy, this time concerning inequality in America. But where is this America of which he speaks?

The inequality narrative is nothing new, of course. The Economist has been harping on the threat that income inequality poses for years now (I believe that this is due, in no small part, to that publication’s consistent undercurrent of Burkean anxiety). In 2009, Emmanuel Saez won the John Bates Clarke medal for illuminating how income inequality is not just increasing but is increasing at faster velocities for the more rarefied strata. And the Russell Sage Foundation recently released a pretty authoritative report on the matter, although I’m sure they won’t be the last to do so. And regardless of your opinion of it, the Occupy movement has brought the inequality narrative into the forefront of the “national conversation”, if such a thing actually exists.

But Murray is here to tell us that income inequality is just the tip of the iceberg: what we are really faced with is, as he puts it, “cultural inequality.” As he writes in a Wall Street Journal essay in support of his book, Coming Apart:

And the isolation is only going to get worse. Increasingly, the people who run the country were born into that world. Unlike the typical member of the elite in 1960, they have never known anything but the new upper-class culture. We are now seeing more and more third-generation members of the elite. Not even their grandparents have been able to give them a window into life in the rest of America.**

This isn’t really all that earth-shattering, but Murray introduces a few new angles. The first is his exclusive focus on the white demographic. I will return to the consequences of this choice in a moment, but let’s accept that, as seconded by his soft-ball fellow-WSJ reviewer, this was done “to avoid conflating race with class”.

The other, more interesting decision is that of a spatial narrative. Coming Apart sets up two opposing geographies: Fishtown is a traditional working class Philadelphia neighborhood, and Belmont an upper-class enclave outside of Boston. From a writerly point of view, it’s a great hook on which to hang a story. You would think, then, that Murray would go on to tell the story of how these two communities, while always differentiated by income, initially were not that different in terms of their social, cultural and religious values. Families mingled easily; social disparities were present but not exclusionary. Imagine the mise-en-scène of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, then spend the next 50 years pulling that neighborhood apart, until you’re left with Good Will Hunting on one side of the tracks and Desperate Housewives on the other.

Except that’s not what Murray does. While the narrative itself, as constructed by his selection of socio-economic indicators (eg, marriage, education, employment, churchgoing, etc), is fairly unobjectionable, the geography is a fiction. Murray writes:

To be assigned to Belmont, the people in the statistical nationwide databases on which I am drawing must have at least a bachelor’s degree and work as a manager, physician, attorney, engineer, architect, scientist, college professor or content producer in the media. To be assigned to Fishtown, they must have no academic degree higher than a high-school diploma. If they work, it must be in a blue-collar job, a low-skill service job such as cashier, or a low-skill white-collar job such as mail clerk or receptionist.

People who qualify for my Belmont constitute about 20% of the white population of the U.S., ages 30 to 49. People who qualify for my Fishtown constitute about 30% of the white population of the U.S., ages 30 to 49.

So, while Fishtown and Belmont are, in fact, real neighborhoods, they have been stuffed with about half of the white population of the United States (ages 30-49). I really don’t know what to think of this kind of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t approach. On the one hand, social science, when conducted on such a grand scale, is always challenged to be somewhat abstracted and scalable. Eliminating all kinds of variables to get to the heart of the matter – like controlling for class by disregarding race – is what puts the “science” into “social science”. Or so the story goes.

On the other hand, it is intellectually suspect to provoke readers’ empathetic responses by intimating a place when you really aren’t. The fact is that we are hard-wired to think in terms of place – it is a bit duller to have to prefix every statement with “In the aggregate, white people between the ages of 30 to 49…” On the other hand, it is much more compelling to visualize a single mother, pushing a pram down a Fishtown street.

This is, however, a trivial objection. More seriously, an analysis that is geographically non-specific offers great latitude when positing causes or consequences. You can’t – or don’t have to – point to the closure of a factory, or the construction of a new office park, as reasons why things do or don’t turn out, socially or economically.

BelmontTo illustrate, let’s take up Murray’s narrative on his own terms. What, exactly, created this “cultural inequality”? Because he has exonerated himself of geography, Murray can invoke such macro-scale events such as “the rise of the welfare state”. In fact, following a serious and credible exposition, Murray trots out exactly these old chestnuts. This lamentation is then followed by a prescription to revive the Senecan virtues, which frankly fizzles into a conservative version of “Be excellent to each other”. Really? After all his hard work, that’s all we get? At least David Brooks, in his opinion piece on Coming Apart, understands that people sometimes need to be forced to get along:

I doubt Murray would agree, but we need a National Service Program. We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years. We need a program in which people from both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement.

Thus we have the stirrings of policy, but policy that is born without context – spatial or otherwise. Such a deracinated recommendation cannot result in anything but a myriad of unintended consequences – a sort of No Class Left Behind. Nor does it seem to fully grasp the forces that are continuing to perpetuate inequality, however you choose to define it. (As an example, please consider Ajay Kapur’s concept of “plutonomics”, but that is a post for another time).

By the same token, anyone is now just as free to posit his or her own theory of the causes of inequality. As Roger Lowenstein charitably puts it in his review for BusinessWeek, “Hereby a modest proposition is offered: Vastly diverging wages had something to do with it.” Thus, from the progressive liberal (and, come to think of it, Austrian) point of view, capitalism did exactly what it is supposed to do. It manufactured more choices for people who could afford to choose, and these choices compounded over the years. Sure, why not? In this frame, Louis CK’s take on banks is just as good an explanation as any, and generally more entertaining.

Moreover – and here is the real clincher – this lack of geographic specificity comes back to haunt Murray. It prevents him from discussing how these disparities of wealth have altered the built environment, and this is essential to the hope of understanding a problem that pretty much everyone agrees is serious and sticky. What is the physical difference created by living in an exurban gated community – which, along with shopping malls and widespread car ownership, effectively didn’t exist in 1960? It’s not like people are unaware of the importance of this. For example, since at least 1989, Evan MacKenzie has been describing the history and consequences of increasingly isolated, self-sufficient and indeed self-governing enclaves.

One simply cannot discuss segregation of either income or culture without asking, What are the consequences of this trend, and what are the perceived costs of reversing it? To be more specific, what needs to be offered to those living in gated communities, such that they will return to more mixed neighborhoods? Put even more bluntly – what’s in it for me? Elsewhere, I wrote briefly about Kristiaan Borrett and the successful examples of urban design in Antwerp:

Linking spatial policy with social policy is a powerful combination, but how does Borrett define success? Simple: “Success is when people who have the means to live in the suburbs move back into the city.”

Appealing to Senecan virtues – really some kind of daft noblesse oblige – holds little credibility here. The idea of a National Service Program pales in comparison to the power of people acting out of their own self-interest, which, come to think of it, seems to be what conservatives and libertarians like Murray ought to prefer in the first place.

Finally, I want to revisit the demographic question: Why white people? Or rather, What is it that we can learn from just focusing on this demographic? Christopher Chabris, writing some time ago in Commentary about the aftershocks of The Bell Curve, contended that Murray’s previous book

set out to prove that American society was becoming increasingly meritocratic, in the sense that wealth and other positive social outcomes were being distributed more and more according to people’s intelligence and less and less according to their social backgrounds. Furthermore, to the extent that intelligence was not subject to easy environmental control, but was instead difficult to modify and even in part inherited, genetic differences among individuals, Herrnstein and Murray posited, would contribute significantly to their futures.

InequalityI don’t know if Murray is indeed turning his back on the meritocratic argument he thought he was making 18 years ago. It doesn’t help that he is focusing on a portion of our population that is declining, either. Unless this is his idea of an elegy, the intention behind the choice is far from clear. So I found it compelling that NPR recently covered a study done by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, itself no shrinking violet when it comes to free-market cheerleading. As NPR reports, Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor

looked at Census figures and found the segregation of African-Americans has reached its lowest point in a century. Fair housing laws allowed African-Americans into white neighborhoods. Black people have moved into suburbs. White people have moved into formerly all-black center city neighborhoods which have gentrified.

To be clear, it’s not that racial differences have vanished in American neighborhoods. But the study concludes that entirely white urban neighborhoods, those with exactly zero black residents, have become all but extinct.

Heavens, that sounds like a real spatial analysis. It’s messy, not entirely conclusive but thoroughly grounded in some kind of place. But it’s not just the Manhattan Institute that is conducting this kind of research. Robert Sampson’s new book, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, demonstrates that place continues to matter. Sampson works through and updates the Chicago School of urban sociology, and demonstrates that the art of understanding space on the neighborhood level is alive and well:

Logic demands that if neighborhoods do not matter and placelessness reigns, then the city is more or less a random swirl. Anyone (or anything) could be here just as easily as there. Identities and inequalities by place should be rapidly interchangeable, the durable inequality of a community rare, and neighborhood effects on both individuals and higher-level social processes should be weak or nonexistent.…

By contrast, the guiding thesis of this book is that differentiation by neighborhood is not only everywhere to be seen, but that it has durable properties—with cultural and social mechanisms of reproduction—and with effects that span a wide variety of social phenomena. Whether it be crime, poverty, child health, protest, leadership networks, civic engagement, home foreclosures, teen births, altruism, mobility flows, collective efficacy, or immigration…the city is ordered by a spatial logic (“placed”) and yields differences as much today as a century ago. The effect of distance is not just geographical but simultaneously social…

The similarity between Sampson’s and Murray’s indicators is striking, but the difference even more so: these indicators now belong somewhere. Once you abandon place, you cannot reconstitute it. An analysis bereft of place yields facile observations such as the one made by Brooks, in the same Times op-ed piece:

They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.

I would very much like Charles Murray to point out exactly what neighborhoods Brooks is talking about. But I doubt that he could; in Murray’s world, that bit was left behind long ago.

* Murray and Herrnstein’s work, to appropriate Douglas Adams, “made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.” Unfortunately, Stephen Jay Gould’s classic takedown, printed in a November 1994 issue of New Yorker, doesn’t seem to be available online, but it’s not difficult to poke around and quickly find as many boosters or detractors as you like.

** For a general evisceration of Coming Apart, see David Frum’s long and excellent review. While Frum – nor, to my knowledge, anyone else – engages the spatial critique I make above, his passionate response addresses many, if not most, other aspects of Murray’s frame. And what better choice than a true conservative apostate to wield the axe?