On Wednesday, the author of The Bell Curve and a former George W. Bush speechwriter might have given Occupy Wall Street its strongest argument yet to lift up America’s battered working classes.
Charles Murray is most (in)famous for the 1994 book that speculated about the innate deficiencies of black and Latino people, decided to spare himself some trouble by only writing about whites’ problems in his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. It focuses on the problems of the lower economic classes of European-descended Americans, and, in an unexpected way, is an important contribution to the conversation about inequality begun by the Occupy movement.
Even more unexpectedly, one of the most compelling, even progressive, responses to Murray’s diagnosis – which is essentially that the welfare state and the cultural revolutions of the 1960s have produced a growing class divide between roughly the top 20 percent of whites and the bottom 80 percent, manifested not just economically but in social “dysfunctions” like single parenthood and welfare dependency – has come from former George W. Bush aide David Frum’s review of Coming Apart at The Daily Beast.
It comes at an important time. For all its success in forcing inequality into America’s political conversation, Occupy Wall Street remains a minority movement, with support from only about a third of Americans. In part, that’s because conservatives have co-opted the narrative of inequality, telling a story about a college-educated urban cultural elite that’s more nefarious than a handful of billionaires – a story that, by the looks of it, has caught on in much of the country. When they talk about the suffering working classes, it’s in the language of personal responsibility, which has remained compelling for large numbers of moderates.
Frum’s gift to progressives is that he has managed to seamlessly combine the narratives of class oppression from both the left (plutocratic Wall Street bankers and CEOs) and the right (the latte-sipping snobbish cultural elite). Instead of choosing sides, he shows how they are both part of our economic crisis. Not only that, he points out that it’s a crisis we have faced before, and overcome only by intentionally creating a fairer, more opportunity-rich society with the help of government.
All told, Frum’s review stretches five parts and well over 7,000 words. It’s well worth reading the entire series. But if you only have time for a few hundred, here are the highlights of his argument:
1) He agrees with Murray that “working class America is an increasingly troubled and dysfunctional place” across all races: whites in the lower economic tiers are now even with their peers across other ethnicities on indicators like two-parent households and labor force participation, and have nearly closed the gap on arrests for violent crimes. In 1970, 45 percent of affluent Americans and 35 percent of working-class Americans described themselves as “very happy.” Today, 35 percent of affluent Americans are still “very happy”; but for the working class, that number is only 15%.
2) Where Murray believes that this is a result of broader cultural decay brought on by the welfare state – which, in his story, created disincentives for work and an ethic of irresponsibility – Frum points out that the wage stagnation and job losses suffered by blue-collar workers over the past 40 years is just as likely a culprit. He satirizes Murray’s narrative:
You are a white man aged 30 without a college degree. Your grandfather returned from World War II, got a cheap mortgage courtesy of the GI bill, married his sweetheart and went to work in a factory job that paid him something like $50,000 in today’s money plus health benefits and pension. Your father started at that same factory in 1972. He was laid off in 1981, and has never had anything like as good a job ever since. He’s working now at a big-box store, making $40,000 a year, and waiting for his Medicare to kick in.
Now look at you. Yes, unemployment is high right now. But if you keep pounding the pavements, you’ll eventually find a job that pays $28,000 a year. That’s not poverty! Yet you seem to waste a lot of time playing video games, watching porn, and sleeping in. You aren’t married, and you don’t go to church. I blame Frances Fox Piven.
“Murray is baffled,” Frum concludes, “that a collapse in the pay and conditions of work should have led to a decline in a workforce’s commitment to the labor market.”
3) Frum argues that Murray’s – and by extension, the right’s – obsession with cultural and academic elites blinds him to the more practical problems posed by the business elite. “Almost without exception…,” Frum writes, “the upper class behavior that most offends him is the behavior of people like [an] imagined Columbia professor – and not the behavior of the people in the limos.”
While Murray takes the standard Right-libertarian position that exorbitant CEO pay may be “unseemly,” but ultimately “economically rational” and “produc[es]…a better life for people all the way down the line,” Frum points out that all the evidence suggests that “we are not seeing a better life for people all the way down the line.” The economic rationality argument, meanwhile, has been severely damaged by the 2008 recession, which was sparked by business elites getting extremely rich through activities of questionable social value.
4) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Frum demonstrates the immense chasm between Murray’s enormous concern about the plight of the working class, and the meager solutions he and the rest of the Right are offering. In response to Murray’s boilerplate Republican austerity proposals, he asks: “Scoldings and budget cuts? Is that really all that the flourishing American elite owes to the sinking American mainstream?”
More pointedly, Frum writes that if conservatives want to draw a correlation between government and culture, these are the data points: “America became more culturally stable between 1910 and 1960 as it became less economically and socially libertarian. As it became more economically and socially libertarian after 1970, America became culturally less stable.” Just six years ago, Murray, like many conservatives, supported market-based universal healthcare, much like Obamacare, because he understood that government can play a role in creating robust communities. And now?
The halcyon days of the 1950s – which, at least as far as economic equality goes, both Occupiers and Charles Murray yearn for – “did not spontaneously materialize,” Frum writes in his conclusion. Speaking of the Progressive Era and the New Deal, he says: “People who wanted to live in a world that offered more chances to more people consciously built institutions that extended opportunity…. [W]e can be inspired by their example.”
Many progressives would surely take issue with the idea that what ails the working class – of any color – are cultural defects, rather than simply a barren economic landscape. But Frum’s analysis is a major contribution to a discussion that so far has had few constructive conservative participants. What’s more, his conclusions – that, one, those who are on the winning side of the last 50 years of economic change owe something to those who have lost; and, two, that their debt can and should be paid through the redistributive power of the state – point in an unmistakably progressive direction.
In other words, this is a blueprint for progressives to turn their narrative about inequality into something that resonates with moderates and conservatives. (Which, if Occupy Wall Street is to avoid the fate of the increasingly irrelevant Tea Party, is something it needs to think about.) It’s a blueprint for shifting our dominant narrative from the 1% – which lays blame, but offers little by way of solutions beyond higher taxes on the super-rich – to a narrative that’s mostly about the working class, and what their needs are. This is a blueprint for a progressive argument that says yes, personal responsibility is important; but it can only work in an economy that affords a basic dignity to everyone – a chance for that responsibility to pay off. It’s an argument progressives need to be making.
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