Is America coming apart? Some days, it certainly seems so. Take the tumultuous 2016 election cycle, and add to it fears over globalization and automation, a reaction against Wall Street and the big banks, and a million other news items, and you have a brew that smells of a spoiling American — maybe even Western — economic, social, political, and cultural order. If America and the West are being exposed for their divisions between mainstream and elite, between those disenchanted by the 21st century and those eager to embrace it, some seriously innovative public policy is called for. Will something like the universal basic income do the trick? What are we not thinking of that could?
I recently discussed all this with Charles Murray, AEI’S W. H. Brady Scholar, the mind behind “The Bell Curve,” “Coming Apart,” and“In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State,” which came out in a revised edition last month. Here’s some of our conversation, which you can listen at in full over on Ricochet.
Pethokoukis: Starting off with a big news item, what do you think of the Brexit vote, especially in light of the work you’ve done about the gap between the elites and everybody else?
Murray: I think what went on in Britain has direct parallels with what went on in the United States, or what’s going on in the United States. Just think about it for a minute: a lot of what was going on in Britain was a very visceral pride in Great Britain as an independent, sovereign country, and not wanting to have the rules dictated to them by this anonymous bureaucracy in Brussels. Well, there are a lot of Americans who love the idea of America — as Donald Trump says, “Making America Great Again” — but also one in which they sense that they have an anonymous bureaucracy in Washington trying to run their lives.
And the resentment that they feel about that is entirely understandable to me. In a visceral sense, I probably would have voted Leave if I had been in Britain. I’m persuaded by many of the economic arguments, though people I respect very much, especially economists, say they shouldn’t have done it. I think that the fact that there are legitimate economic arguments saying they should not have done it should not obscure the legitimate reasons that people have for wanting their countries to be once again their nation, in a very fundamental sense of that term.
Would the vote have been the same had Great Britain come out of the Great Recession very quickly? Is it an economic. standard of living argument that’s driving that feeling of being isolated?
You know it’s hard, historically, to figure out whether that’s true or not now. We did not have nary the kind of populism — and I’m shifting to the United States now because I know a lot more about the United States than I do about Britain — we did not have this kind of populism in the 1960s and the 1950s when the economy was growing faster and so forth. It has gotten more severe in the last 15 years when the economy’s been very slow; however, you can’t disentangle reasons for discontent from the sort of motives I was talking about a few minutes ago. The sense that when you make a call on a phone these days, it starts out with a recorded voice saying “For English, punch one” and then “Para español, punch two,” that kind of basic sense of hey, what’s going on here that we’re doing that. The sense that there are, in our communities now, a kind of multiculturalism in a lot of low-income, working-class communities which has basically destroyed the sense of community that those places had before.
There are big, powerful motives among those who have been experiencing radical changes in American life over the last 20 or 30 years to stand athwart history to yell “stop.” It’s understandable. It’s very legitimate.
To what extent then does economic inequality — it’s an economic issue, also a cultural issue — matter?
I think that the unseemliness of the upper class has had a lot to do with arousing this anger. And by the unseemliness I mean the willingness of people with a lot of money in this country, now, to strut their stuff, to flamboyantly spend their money, to flamboyantly proclaim to the rest of the world “I’m richer and by implication I’m better than you are.” That’s fairly new in American history.
Now, I know that we have the cottages in Newport that were palaces back in the late 19th century and other great displays of wealth, but those were fairly isolated to a couple of places in the northeast United States. What we see now is large enclaves of really affluent people forming these large communities in which they live conspicuously different lifestyles than everybody else — that’s new in the United States. The extent to which the upper class rather openly disdains ordinary Americans, that’s also really, really new. A part of being an American 50 years ago that you celebrates your own middle-class or working-class roots and you took great pride in saying “Hey I’m just another guy like anybody else even though I have a net worth of $20 million.” No, this behavior by the upper class has stoked a lot of that.
I don’t think that it’s the difference of wealth per se; I think it’s the separation. If you go to towns where you have a guy who started a chain of transmission repair shops and has several million dollars and has built a really nice house but he also is obviously still one of the guys, he’s still in the community where he grew up and everybody knows him, and yeah he’s made a lot of money —I don’t think that that kind of wealth generates a lot of resentment. I think it’s these people living in New York, Washington, San Francisco, L.A. — these big glitzy centers — acting as if they can lord it over the rest of us, that generates a lot of this anger.
Just a quick step back to Great Britain. There was a great quote that came up from Leave, “We don’t care about experts anymore.”That seems also to be the case in the United States.
Well, you’ve got two kinds of problems with experts, and one of them has to do with all of the mistakes that they have made. And that is, we have had experts on how to do deal with poverty, how to deal with welfare, how to deal with crime, how to deal with other things over the past 50 years, who have recommended polices that have been disastrous. The experts have been simply wrong. They were wrong about school bussing; they were wrong about prison only makes people worse back in the 1970s when the prison population dropped even though crime was soaring; again and again you’ve had people who were experts who were advocating and passing policies that ordinary people looked at and said, “This is absolutely nuts.” Affirmative action, by the way, sort of falls into that category as well. So one problem is that they’ve been wrong.
Another problem with the experts — and I think that this gets to a lot of the visceral anger that people have — is that the experts have been recommending policies for other people for which they do not have to bear the consequences. The case of immigration is a classic case where I can sit down with economists on both the left and the right, and we with great self-satisfaction talk about all of our wonderful analyses that show that this idea that immigrants are driving down wages of native-born Americans is way over-exaggerated; that immigration is essentially a net plus, so forth and so on… Those analyses may be right, but that does not change the fact that we aren’t the people who are like the carpenter who used to make $16 an hour, and he is losing work because contractors are hiring immigrant carpenters for $12.
All of our lovely analyses of the macroeconomic effects do not get around that problem. On the contrary, as far as our lives are concerned, we experts get cheap nannies and we get cheap people to mow our lawns, and in a lot of ways this low-scale immigration has been a boon to us. The degree to which we experts advocate policies that affect other peoples’ lives badly but not our own. really angers people, and I understand that.
“All of our lovely analyses of the macroeconomic effects do not get around that problem.”
Charles, I’ve had more than one person call this election the “Coming Apart election,” referring to your book. Do you think this is our “Coming Apart” election? Do you think it will be our last one in which we have these sorts of fissures?
As far as the “Coming Apart” phenomenon is concerned, it is going absolutely nowhere, no matter what happens with the election results. I think that the truth that has been exposed over the last eight months is that the Republican Party has a lot fewer people who believe in traditional conservative principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility and so forth than we thought we did.
I think it’s quite obvious now that we got a whole lot of Reagan Democrats back in the 1980s, at a time when the Democrats had very openly embraced women and minorities, especially blacks as the people they cared about, and white guys, in particular, and whites, in general, were less important to them. So they came over to the Republicans who seemed to be a bit more sympathetic. And at this point they have an agenda that bears no relationship to the traditional understanding of a conservative agenda. And they are a big chunk of the electorate that has been voting Republican. So, that’s a reality, and yes I suppose you could say that the Republican party will shift to become more of a populist party, but I’ll tell you something: that’s going to leave a lot of people like me who are not going to vote for a Republican Party like that because we continue to believe in a more traditional agenda of conservative policies. This election may be the last election in which you have just two parties. Now I don’t think that’s greater than a 50% probability that we will go to a three-party system, but it’s a greater than 0% chance that we will.
If you were going to have a radical political realignment, this would seem to be the economic atmosphere that it might happen in. Do our parties split into four parties? Do you have the Trump-Sanders wing become a new fusion party, and what’s left over becomes the second party?
I think that a Trump-Sanders collision is a very likely possibility. Now, a lot depends of course on what happens this November. Suppose that Trump loses by 12% as some of the polls indicate. Suppose he loses all 50 states. In that case I think that the Republican Party next December starts to rebuild with greater attention to the issues that Trump raised but still maintaining its basic identity. But if you have a narrow Trump loss, than you have like post-WWI stab in the back conspiracy theories of how the neocons and the traditional conservatives handed the election to Hillary Clinton because we wouldn’t get behind Trump, and there I think that your new party becomes a much more likely possibility.
But there are certainly going to be politicians, even if Trump should lose badly, who present a cleaned up version of the Trump agenda and say “I can sell that.” So you’re going to have a populist, Trump-like candidate, and then some candidates pushing a more conservative, free-market agenda.
ell, Jim, maybe I’m a good example of the positives that can come out of the Trump phenomenon, because it’s forced me to rethink. You know, I’ve never really wrote about immigration, never published much on it. But my own attitudes have always been that government has to be able to secure its own borders, and if controlling our borders meant building a fence, that’s OK with me. And I just don’t love immigration but I especially love high-skill immigration, and I’ve been sympathetic to the notion of low-skill immigration creating problems for working-class Americans but I haven’t been energized enough about that to actually write anything about it. Well, I think that was a mistake on my part.
I am now prepared to support extreme restrictions on low-skill immigration, whereas I wasn’t before and I’m not doing it because I’m scared of the Trump phenomenon, I’m doing it because I’m saying to myself I wasn’t paying sufficient attention to a really legitimate grievance. Now, what I’d like to see is a lot of people on the right embracing that kind of appropriate response to Trump and then redoubling our efforts to explain why free trade is such a good thing — because there you can explain this is a win-win situation, protectionism is a lose-lose situation, and I think that we have to stick by our guns in something like that.
On immigration, my concern is that I see that a lot who say “We need to build a wall” or “We need to deport illegal immigrants”, and they move from that to “We need to stop even legal immigrants if they’re low skill”, and then they move to, “we can’t let in the high-skill immigrants either” and “We can’t let foreign students study here.”
I think you’re being too pessimistic there, Jim. I think that there is no constituency out there for stopping high-skill immigration.
Well, maybe not a large one, but there is a constituency.
I don’t think it’s a constituency that’s going to have the same passion that the constituency for stopping low-skill immigration will have. Is there a lot of racism in the Trump campaign? You bet your life there is. Any of those of us who are on Twitter, as you are and as I am, who have said such critical things about Trump, know what kind of response we get, and it’s really, really ugly.
Something you tweeted goes right to your point: “Selection bias, selection bias. Twitter feeds do not reflect America. Repeat, repeat, repeat.”
And I have to say that to myself, because it is so ugly, the response we get. And I really don’t think America as a whole is like that. I think immigration is something that is deep in our understanding of what America is all about. But it goes back to something that I was saying earlier about the extent to which the elites have just simply ignored all this stuff. And so, along with the right reforming its agenda, the upper class has to do some soul searching about the role it’s playing in society. It has got to get back to a much more traditional understanding of what it means to be an American. And part of what it means to be an American is not to get too big for your big britches, and the new upper class has been getting way too big for its britches.
You wrote a New York Times op-ed, I think right after “Coming Apart” was published, with a couple of policy suggestions: the end of unpaid internships, the end of the SAT, replacing ethnic affirmative action with socioeconomic affirmative action, and what you call pricking the B.A., meaning college degree, bubble. Why would those be important moves to take?
Actually, all of them have in common that they are trying to get back to policies that give a hand up to those who are lower on the socioeconomic ladder and who’ve been ignored. And they are not race-based, they are not gender-based, they’re for everybody.
So, for example, this business about the B.A. To have a B.A. is considered necessary to be a first-class citizen. It doesn’t have much prestige anymore since so many people have B.A.s, but to be just a high school graduate makes you feel like you’re a second-class citizen. That’s terrible. That’s awful.
The dignity and the respect that needs to be accorded to traditional working-class jobs just has to be raised, and the elites can do a lot about that in terms of specific policies that demystify the B.A. — that you stop using the B.A. as a requirement to even get a job interview for a lot of jobs that simply don’t require a B.A. There are policies that can lead to this, but once again it has to be an internal understanding on the part of the elites that the way we have structured the world, with regard to the thing with the B.A., is, pardon the expression, screwing the bottom third of the population, or maybe the bottom half of the population. And I would say similar things about the reasons for getting rid of the SAT and the other policies you mentioned.
Over the somewhat longer run, does any of it matter? Let me quote something else that you wrote, “Massive government redistribution is an inevitable feature of advanced post-industrial societies.”
I think, Jim, that this business about what’s going to happen to jobs is the most important problem facing us. And this time is different, I know how tricky it is to make the argument that this time is different, but the number and the sweep of the jobs that are going to disappear is way beyond anything we’ve seen before. There will still be lots of things to be done, and especially in response to ordinary human leads, and you can lead a satisfying life responding to those needs, but a lot of the ways in which that will be done first, won’t be done through traditional payed jobs, and second, it has to be done by people in localities.
These are things that drive me to a policy that several of my colleagues at AEI, and I think probably including you Jim, think is wacko, and that is a universal basic income. But the reason I want that, as I explained fully in “In Our Hands”. One of the best ways to revitalize American civil society is through a universal basic income, and that this may be our best hope in providing ways that people may live their lives in satisfying ways, not just playing virtual reality games all day longs.
So under such a plan, everybody gets a check from the government. Your plan would eliminate all of the other transfer programs.
And let me say quickly, Jim, if you don’t do it that way it’s not going to work. The idea that you can have a universal basic income as an add on is crazy. If you do that you have all of the bad effects that critics claim you would have from a universal basic income. It has to replace everything else. So, if you’re hungry at the end of the month because your new check hasn’t come in yet, you have to go to neighbors and relatives and friends and the Salvation Army to get help, you can’t go to a bureaucracy. And in turn, they can say to you, “It’s time for you to get your act together.” That’s the kind of interaction multiplied by hundreds of millions of times that I think could revitalize civil society.
So, the point isn’t to give someone a check and they disappear into their own isolation, but it’s to draw them out into the community and civil society? I’m looking here at a survey of economists, who all think the basic income idea is a bad idea. I think that one of the reasons they think that it’s bad is that the numbers tossed around don’t seem enough. But that’s a feature for you, right?
Yeah, that’s the whole point. That it’s not enough for an individual. But all you have to do is cooperate with one or two other people and you’re not looking at $10,000, you’re looking to pool $30,000. And then if you have a low-income jobs that pays $15,000 a year, that adds more too, and so you’re heading towards a middle-class income. The whole point of money is not to allow individuals to live as social isolates; it is to create the possibility for them to have a good life if they cooperate with other people.
Got you. I asked the Twitterverse what I should ask you. One question is, of course, do you still stand by “The Bell Curve”?
Duh. Of course I do. Look, Jim, the dirty little secret about “The Bell Curve” is that it did not push the scientific envelope at all. We were in the scientific mainstream. Every single significant statement we made — scientific statement we made — has not only not been refuted; they have been confirmed by subsequent research. Now, if you’re saying do I stand by the things that people said, “The Bell Curve” said, no, because we never claimed those things in “The Bell Curve.” The rap on “The Bell Curve” was that Herrnstein and Murray wanted to prove the genetic inferiority of blacks to whites in IQ, which is not even an issue in “The Bell Curve,” let alone not a major issue. But unfortunately that’s the way the book has been characterized. Do I stand by “The Bell Curve” as it was actually written? Sure, totally.
What should policymakers know or understand about IQ?
That it is an all-purpose resource that has, because of our economy and the improvements in our educational system, allowed people of high-ability who disproportionately earn a lot of money, to create a new class in the United States, a class that did not exist 60 years ago. A cognitive elite. And unless you take into account all of the effects of that class at the top and a class at the bottom that has gotten the short end of the stick in this very valuable general resource called intelligence, unless you understand the dynamics of that, you are going to pursue solutions in social policy that don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of working.
If you don’t buy that theory and you think people’s intelligence quotients are very malleable, then what are policy solutions that you’ll pursue?
You’ll go around saying things like, “Everybody should go to college.” The reality is the percentage of 18-year-olds who can thrive in college — I’m not saying get through college, I’m saying thrive in college — is actually about 10-12% of the population. Now insofar as we have about 35% of the population with B.A.s, obviously a lot more people can get through it, but the actual cognitive demands are such that it is actually and educational experience that a relatively small proportion of the population can really profit from.
A much larger proportion of the population can profit from all sorts of education after high school, but if you just say everybody ought to go to college, you know what you do? You end up encouraging hundreds of thousands if not millions of kids to do something they are not intellectually equipped to do, they pile up huge student debt, they get nothing out of it, when they could have gotten out of it preparation for a world of work in which they are doing something important, and fulfilling, and it pays good wages. That’s the way you can make mistakes in policy, if you refuse to acknowledge the reality of IQ.
Since you’ve written “Coming Apart” do you know of anybody one might call a “one percenter” who has decided to end their isolation? Have you gotten any feedback like that?
I was speaking to some students at Harvard, and this was at a dinner that was being sponsored by a couple who were in the room, who were one percenters. So I went over to introduce myself and to chat with them, at which point they said to me, well “‘Coming Apart’ really changed our lives. We decided to move out of Greenwich, we moved to this small town, and got a pickup truck.” And my face sort of went white, and I wanted to say to them, “It was only a book,” and it turned out that they really loved it out there.
And, by the way Jim, I guess that I should spell out that I am speaking to you at this moment from Burkittsville, Maryland, population 151, and believe me, this is not filled with one percenters. We’ve been here since 1989 and we love it. So the answer is, has anybody taken that advice? Yes, and it seemed to work for them, and also my wife and I took that advice a long time ago and it’s worked for us.
Listen, one last question here as we wrap up. It’s a classic question but a good one: what books are you reading these days?
Oh, that’s so embarrassing, because I don’t read much for pleasure. What have I been reading recently? I’ve been reading technical articles about male-female differences in terms of the expression of the X chromosome, and technical articles about evolutionary psychology and things like that in preparation for a book that I may be writing.
Now the subject of that book, is that known, is the title known, what do we know about that book?
Hardly anyone knows about it. First of all, I haven’t definitely decided to do it, but it is going to come to grips with the new knowledge that has emerged since the genome was decoded about group differences. And because there’s a huge amount that’s known out there that wasn’t known 10, 20 years ago. And so I thought I would bring this to a larger audience—that’s what I’m working on.
But what I do for reading for fun, is I listen, I don’t read. I’m on Audible and so if I cherry pick the books I listen to on Audible, one of them is the “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and I’m into about my 60th hour of listening to that. But it’s also true that I listen to murder mysteries and thrillers and so forth, it’s a mix.
Artice was Cross-posted from AEI.org.