When it comes to upward mobility, the elites just can’t get their heads around the role of culture

by Ryan Streeter on February 17, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

I love Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart, not only because of its original and valuable analysis of the widening segregation within white America, but because of the debate it has generated.

One takeaway from this debate that doesn’t get too much discussion is this: the most cultured among us really don’t understand culture.

Most columnists, reviewers, bloggers and other commentators (most of whom inhabit the ZIP codes of the upper tier of American society Murray talks about) have probed every corner of Murray’s argument, but few have delved with any honesty and intellectual seriousness into the big, glaring, uncomfortable, two-part conclusion that sits within the data Murray analyzes: first, culture matters a lot in the breakdown of the white working class, and two, we frankly don’t understand culture well enough to have any clue what to do.

This is especially evident in the “traditional values” part of the debate that makes most of the elite commentariat look silly.

Ross Douthat, after writing a critique of the book in his column last weekend, wrote what he thinks Murray got right. His last point is the most important, because in general, the commentariat shies away from discussing it:

Even acknowledging all the challenges (globalization, the decline of manufacturing, mass low-skilled immigration) that have beset blue collar America over the last thirty years, it is still the case that if you marry the mother or father of your children, take work when you can find it and take pride in what you do, attend church and participate as much as possible in the life of your community, and strive to conduct yourself with honesty and integrity, you are very likely to not only escape material poverty, but more importantly to find happiness in life. This case for the persistent advantages of private virtue does not disprove more purely economic analyses of what’s gone wrong in American life, but it should at the very least complicate them, and suggest a different starting place for discussions of the common good than the ground that most liberals prefer to occupy.

Behind what Douthat is writing about lie the data Murray highlights in the book about how forty years ago, white working class America had single-digit unmarried childbearing rates, low divorce rates, high rates of work even if at low-paying jobs, higher rates of religiosity, and so on. Today, that’s all reversed significantly, while upper class white America looks statistically very similar on all these points to forty years ago.

Most writers haven’t shown they grasp the historic significance of what’s going on here: in just a generation, a huge swath of America has broken radically with centuries, even millennia, of habits that have been critical if not for upward mobility, at least for the social stability that creates happiness even amidst hardship.

Salon’s Joan Walsh, to take one example, is a prototypical liberal writer who just can’t look these trends in the eye. After debating Charles Murray on a radio show and then writing afterwards about all that’s wrong with Murray’s arguments going back to Losing Ground, she says:

I joked on Twitter today that my (almost finished) book is a rejoinder to Murray’s pessimism. Maybe I’ll call it “Coming Together: How the White Working Class Woke Up and Realized the Right Now Thinks They’re Dumb and Lazy, Too.” Given the role of race and racism in dividing the Democratic Party, I believe the naked class bias of the GOP might help white working-class voters see that by voting Republican, they’re dismantling the opportunity society that once made success more widely possible.

OK, she’s joking. But what a stupid joke.

Her piece on Murray is 978 words. In it she finds time to praise David Frum’s “magisterial five-part takedown of Murray’s book” (Frum’s analysis is tough, well-written and very Frum-esque – but “magisterial”?), but like the left’s climate change salon that turns a blind eye to all the non-anthropogenic sources of climate change, she manages to ignore the cultural sources of what Murray is writing about – except to caricature them without looking honestly at what everyone knows is going on.

It’s an undeniable fact that over 40% of children are born to unmarried parents and an undeniable fact that single parenting, especially the lower your education level, is the most surefire way to guarantee that a child starts out life ten, fifteen, twenty (or whatever) yards behind the starting line when the gun of professional life goes off. It’s also an undeniable fact that religion plays less of a role and that (as even the non-religious like Harvard’s Bob Putnam attest) religion is a powerful force for happiness and well-being.

In his Sunday column, Douthat expresses his exasperation with Murray’s lack of substantive policy proposals for dealing with the trends among the white working classes. While I agree with all four of the proposals Douthat suggests (tax reform, family policy, immigration, prison reform), a nagging question remains: do we have good evidence that if we did all four of those things immediately, we’d see a reversal in the trends toward family breakdown and waning industriousness?

I hope the answer is yes, but I fear it might be no. No one really knows – because no one has ever been able to connect payroll tax reform, enhanced exemptions for children in the tax code, etc., to the downward spiral of life choices that more and more Americans are making. Will stemming the flow of illegal immigration really put lower-income native workers back to work more easily? I sure hope so, but I doubt it. There’s little evidence that even the best policy will get at the heart of some of the most important analyses that Murray has offered.

This is frustrating for all of us who have spent our lives in policy, who believe in the power of changing incentives through policy. It can’t hurt to get the incentives right, but we can’t lose our heads and forget that the sources of cultural formation are largely beyond our control. That doesn’t mean we can’t do something. It just means that what we have to do might be harder – more along the lines of creating cultural movements that are more challenging to build, and which take time, discipline, private money, and a lot of hard work.