The Bull Curve: Charles Murray’s Coming Apart Doesn’t Hold Together

Mr. Murray’s insights here are no more compelling than they were in The Bell Curve. He constructs composite demographic and occupational portraits of an ascendant knowledge-elite neighborhood (adopting the name of Belmont) and a downwardly mobile working-class community (Fishtown). And in his bid to render Fishtown as a closed-off dysfunctional culture of poverty, distortions abound. For example, in assailing the deficient work ethic of Fishtowners, Mr. Murray explicitly discounts the impact of the vast exodus of higher-wage union jobs from working-class communities since the 1970s. After all, he reasons, “insofar as men need to work to survive, falling hourly income does not discourage work.” Sure, an out-of-work Fishtown man in the prime working-age demographic of 30 to 49 “may be depressed” at the paucity of well-paying jobs, but come on: “Why would you not want work if a job opening landed in your lap,” even at near-poverty minimum wage rates? “Why would you not work a full forty hours if the hours were available? Why not work more than forty hours?”

The net effect here is to preach a sort of deranged stoicism to the less fortunate—a curious turn of argument for a writer who accuses liberals of cultural elitism. In a culture governed by, say, workplace solidarity as opposed to the talk-radio kind, you don’t automatically countenance cuts in your wages with a servile offer to work more overtime; rather, you organize, and occasionally strike.

Mr. Murray’s fretting about working-class moral decline contrasts with his prim deference before overclass prerogatives. Affecting to consider whether the financiers who orchestrated the 2008 meltdown demonstrated a moral decline of their own, Mr. Murray announces that “it is a question for which I have been unable to find good answers.” Likewise, trends in sky-high executive compensation provoke this cautious disclaimer: “People within the corporate world with whom I have discussed the issue vary in their assessment of how much the cozy-little-club phenomenon applies” in ratcheting pay packages upward, but “finding hard data on the how-much question is … difficult.” If only some AIG executive had been spotted in a nonsmoking, TV-free bar, why, then we’d know how deeply the financial sector had broken faith with the civil society!

The healthiest response to Mr. Murray may be to subject him to a dose of his own medicine. The author seems to be suffering from what one might call Think Tank Apparatchik Syndrome (TTAS)—the condition whereby thinkers such as Mr. Murray, a longtime fellow of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, anoint themselves all-purpose culture prophets, hysterically dedicated to denying the actual force of unequal economic arrangements in American life. TTAS clearly saps the work ethic of the intellectual class, since it prods them into trotting out the same shopworn diagnoses of our social ills over and over again, creating a virtual cottage industry in extended quotations from Tocqueville and Robert “Bowling Alone” Putnam.

Worse, TTAS blinds hireling intellectuals to their own true status, as these fearless apostles of the free market pile up honoraria from corporate donors and nonprofit foundations, while dogmatically denying morale-sapping government handouts to less enviably positioned souls.

Fortunately, there’s a ready cure for TTAS: Just go out and engage an actual truck driver in conversation on a subject he genuinely cares about.


The Bull Curve: Charles Murray’s Coming Apart Doesn’t Hold Together