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The rise of the new super elite

Ed West says that Charles Murray’s careful study of America’s growing social divide is disturbing

By on Thursday, 8 March 2012

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010
by Charles murray
Crown, £17.99

Charles Murray has produced a sociological study of America that should startle readers on both sides of the Atlantic. The political scientist has trawled through the statistics to paint a picture of how American society has changed from 1963 to 2008, and his conclusions are clear: that since the 1960s America’s society has cracked into three parts, with a broad middle class separating a super-rich elite and a growing underclass.

Back in 1960, Murray argues, America was essentially a classless society. There were rich and poor people, but people generally ate the same food, took the same kinds of holidays, watched the same sort of television and, crucially,
had the same values.

There was an elite, he writes, but it “was not a group that had broadly shared backgrounds, tastes, preferences or culture. They were powerful people, not a class.” It was also fairly fluid, with a great deal of upward social mobility.

Compare that with the new upper middle class of today, the group that David Brooks characterised as Bobos (“bourgeois and bohemian”) or, in Murray’s words, “the cognitive elite”, one first popularised in the 1980s television series Thirtysomething.

He writes: “The culture depicted in Thirtysomething had no precedent, with its characters who were educated at elite schools, who discussed intellectually esoteric subjects… the characters all possessed a sensibility that shuddered equally at Fords and Cadillacs, ranch homes in the suburbs and ponderous mansions, Budweiser and Chivas Regal.”

The new elite are ultra-hard-working and competitive, and their “are the object of intense planning from the moment the woman learns she is pregnant”.

Murray argues that the cognitive elite have been responsible for a huge stride in technology, but it comes with a downside: the new rich being more isolated from the rest of American society, congregating in ever more exclusive neighbourhoods that he calls “SuperZIPS”.

At the other end of the spectrum, and far more distressing, is the lower class, who are morally cut off from the rest of American society in a way that very few people were 50 years ago. One of the strange paradoxes of the last half a century is that cultural changes have largely been driven by the young wealthy, and yet the wealthy are still very conservative in their behaviour.

Perhaps the biggest social change of recent years has been the decline in marriage, yet births outside marriage have barely increased among the middle class, up from three to about six per cent. In contrast, among the poor they’ve gone from three to almost 50 per cent. Only 0.2 per cent of wealthy men of working age declared themselves unfit to work in 2010, compared to 10 per cent of the poor (a five-fold increase). The marriage gap between rich and poor has increased from 10 per cent to 35 per cent.

Murray has asserted the negative impact of illegitimacy for three decades, both for children and men, and takes the view of sociologist George Gilder that “unmarried males arriving at adulthood are barbarians who are then civilised by women through marriage”.

Most surprising of all, considering the stereotype, the wealthy are actually more religious, with white working-class neighbourhoods suffering a shocking decline in religious belief and participation, with just 12 per cent of people in those areas now involved.

Murray writes: “Such a small figure leaves the religious core not as a substantial minority that is still large enough to be a major force in the community, but as a one-out-of-eight group of people who are increasingly seen as oddballs.”

And though atheists can be good people, Murray says. “The empirical relationships that exist among marriage, industriousness, honesty, religiosity, and a self-governing society mean that the damage is done, even though no one intends it.”

The author is writing about America, but Britain’s gulf may be even worse, which makes this book important reading. Inequality is a major topic at the moment, and rightly so, and although there are economic causes, at the heart of the gulf is the worst inequality of all – one of culture. Until we start to tackle the perverse state systems that help to create this problem, both Britain and America will continue to come apart.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=697126564 Paul Halsall

    So the Reagan and Thatcher tax revolutions which shifted wealth and income away from the bottom and middle towards the already rich had just nothing to do with any problems?

    How convenient.

  • Brian A. Cook

    I wish to warn you that Charles Murray is a notorious right-wing eugenicist who has been exposed as such. 

  • aearon43

    He did publish some controversial views on race and intelligence, but he never advocated eugenics, which is a left-wing philosophy. For example Margaret Sanger, an avowed eugenicist, socialist, “sex-educator,” and proponent of contraception, founded the Planned Parenthood abortion agency in the US as part of a “progressive” initiative to cut down on “undesirable” (i.e. black) births.

  • Brian A. Cook

     How are these “controversial views” not eugenic?  They posit that some races are more intelligent than others.  What is the implication of those?

  • Jjseph Dalton

    The shift of wealth, as you call it, is a direct consequence of the extension of the welfare state.

  • paulsays

    Cause and effect – its impossible to truely prove many of the articles assertions.

  • paulsays

     How is it? Average wages in the US have stagnated, whilst the saleries of the top 1% have increased exponentially. How on earth does welfare explain that!

    Unless you use some sourced facts to substantiate your argument then you are about as reliable to listen to as the drunk opinionated guy at the back of the bar.

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