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Charles Murray on the new upper class

The other day I posted some comments on the voting patterns of rich and poor in the context of Charles Murray’s recent book, “Coming Apart.” My graphs on income and voting are just fine, but I mischaracterized Murray’s statements. So I want to fix that right away. After that I have some thoughts on the book itself.

In brief:

1. I was unfair to call him a Tucker Carlson.

2. Murray talks a lot about upper-class liberals. That’s fine but I think his discussion would be improved by also considering upper-class conservatives, given that I see the big culture war occurring within the upper class.

3. Using the case of Joe Paterno as an example, I discuss why Murray’s “preach what you practice” advice could be difficult to carry out in practice.

Murray on the top 5%

David Frum quoted Murray as writing that the top 5% “tends to be liberal—right? There’s no getting around it. Every way of answering this question produces a yes.” In response, Frum and I both pointed out that, no, Americans in the top 5% of income are less likely to be liberal, compared to the average American, and are more likely to vote Republican.

Those numbers are correct, but it was unfair to present them as a contradiction of Murray, who when talking in his book about the top 5% is not talking about income. Murray defines “the broad elite” as “most successful 5 percent of the people working in the professions and managerial positions,” including top military officers, government officials, business executives, professionals, and the media, a set of occupations that include, in Murray’s words, “23 percent of all employed persons ages 25 or older.” He’s talking about the top 5% (in “success,” as broadly defined, which is related to but not quite the same as income) in these professions.

After his offhand remark about the upper class being liberal (more on that below), Murray takes pains to emphasize that this popular impression is exaggerated, writing, “the essence of the culture of the new upper class is remarkably consistent across the political spectrum.” The concept of upper-class people being liberal is not central to Murray’s argument; if anything, his point is the opposite, to de-emphasize the liberal tilt of “famous academics, journalists, Hollywooders, etc.” and rather make the point that, that whatever the political attitudes are of the new upper class, their attitudes and actions isolate them from mainstream America.

Getting back to Murray’s upper 5%: as he defines them, I’d guess they are more conservative than the average American on economic issues and more liberal than the average American on social issues. But I can’t really be sure.

Rather than defining the American upper class as including some job categories but not others, I’d prefer to include all the high-income groups and say that the American upper class is highly divided—that is, polarized. Murray does address much of this in his comparison of different sorts of SuperZips (high-income zip codes), so maybe it’s just a matter of emphasis: from my analysis of survey data (as in the graphs posted earlier), I see the big culture war occurring within the upper class, whereas Murray focuses on differences in attitudes and lifestyles comparing rich to poor.

As I noted earlier, upper-income liberals, while a minority of upper-income Americans, are still an influential group and worth studying. But alongside them is an even larger group of upper-income conservatives.

I think Murray and I are basically in agreement about the facts here. If you take narrow enough slices and focus on the media, academia, and civilian government, you can find groups of elites with liberal attitudes on economic and social issues. But I’m also interested in all those elites with conservative attitudes. Statistically, they outnumber the liberal elites. The conservative elites tend to live in different places than the liberal elites and they tend to have influence in different ways (consider, for example, decisions about where to build new highways, convention centers, etc., or pick your own examples), and those differences interest me.

In summary, it was unfair of me to lump Murray in with Tucker Carlson as a statistics-mangler. I think that any focus on upper-class liberals would gain more context by contrasting them with the more numerous upper-class conservatives, but Murray’s real point has little to do with political attitudes, and if you remove his comments about the purported liberalism of elites, nothing is really taken away from his main arguments.

“The New American Divide”

Murray describes his book (see also this Wall Street Journal article) as “about an evolution in American society” in the past half-century, “leading to the formation of classes that are different in kind and in their degree of separation from anything that the nation has ever known,” with a new upper class that now lives a life that is qualitatively different from the experiences of most Americans.

I see this argument having the following logical implications, in the context of Murray’s conservative political attitudes (i.e. that he favors low taxes and low public spending):

As I read it, Murray’s argument plus his political opinions imply the following story: Rich liberals lead personally admirable and economically productive lives, but they are tied to a false ideology of socialism and social permissiveness. This left-wing ideology may have its appeal, but in the long term, or even the medium term, it does no favors for most poor and middle-income Americans, as it leads to economic stagnation (the natural result of money spent through the government’s political process rather than through the decisions of individuals and private businesses) and social disaster (all the problems that arise with families when individuals attempt to live their lives without restraint).

Murray writes about culturally and politically influential elites because they have the ability to influence American attitudes, both thorough their economic power and through their representation in the news and entertainment media. Murray writes about politically liberal rich elites because he disagrees with their politics. From Murray’s point of view, there’s no point in writing about rich conservatives (for example, that dude who’s funding Rick Santorum) because they are already doing what he wants, advocating for lower taxes, lower government spending, and more restrictions on the behavior of lower-income Americans.

The above is not a quote; it’s just my attempt to draw out the implications of Murray’s thesis that the upper class should “preach what it practices” and recommend to ordinary Americans the attitude of long-term responsibility.

Just to be clear, let me emphasize that Murray’s book does not distinguish between a “good” elite that’s conservative and a “bad” elite that’s liberal. He considers the new upper class as problematic as a class. My point above is that, given his political views, it makes sense for Murray to be more concerned about the attitudes of the liberal elite, a concern Murray can have without implying any moral criticism on his part.

Again, Murray never writes anything like the bit I have above about economic stagnation; this is just my interpretation of the implications of his concerns in the context of his economic beliefs.

And let me also make clear that Murray does not consider the politics of the new upper class in making his case that it’s problematic. Even if the American upper class were 100% conservative, Murray could still be concerned about their disconnect with the masses. But I think the contrast between liberal and conservative views is relevant given Murray’s own attitudes.

One way to see this is to consider Murray’s political quiz, “How thick is your bubble,” where he challenges his upper-class readers to assess their points in common to the ordinary Americans. One of Murray’s questions is, “Have you ever participated in a parade not involving global warming, a war protest, or gay rights?” The bit about gay rights is cute, but it also serves to separate out the liberals in the audience. After all, lots of non-elites go to gay rights parades. What if Murray had asked, “Have you ever participated in a parade not involving the pro-life or Tea Party movements?” This might not be the best example; my point is that there are lots of ways to separate the elites from the non-elites. Elites are more likely to know a business executive, more likely to buy a new SUV, more likely to fly business class, more likely to attend professional sporting events (those tickets are expensive!), less likely to rent rather than their homes, less likely to ride public transportation, and so on. Murray’s quiz is interesting but he chooses to separate elites from non-elites in a particular way that makes me think he’s sensitive to the attitudes of politically liberal elites in particular.

Difficulties of the recommendation to “preach what you practice”

Murray does not consider the case of Joe Paterno, but in many ways the Penn State football coach fits his story well. Paterno was said to live an exemplary personal and professional life, combining traditional morality with football success—but, by his actions, he showed little concern about the morality of his players and coaches. At a professional level, Paterno rose higher and higher, and in his personal life he was a responsible adult. But he had an increasing disconnect with the real world, to the extent that horrible crimes were occurring nearby (in the physical and social senses) but he was completely insulated from the consequences for many years. Paterno’s story is symbolic of upper-income America: you can live an ordinary life in an ordinary house and still feel like a regular guy but still live in a bubble.

Paterno was a political conservative so he doesn’t quite match with Murray’s story, but he’s otherwise a good fit, a man who lived by a code of personal morality that he did not expect of others.

Joe Paterno is an extreme example, but I think his story is relevant, to explain the difficulty of the “preach what you practice” guideline. My claim is that “preaching,” to make a difference, requires actions as well as words. While Paterno did not espouse a nonjudgmental stance on rape, assault, etc., in his actions he expressed a hands-off policy. I see no reason to think that Paterno believed these crimes committed by his coach and players were OK, he just didn’t seem to think it was his role to do anything about it. I don’t place myself above Paterno in any moral sense—I certainly don’t monitor the after-hours activities of my own students and employees—I just see it as an example of the social distance that Murray writes about, that an authority figure such as Paterno can feel it’s acceptable to be so isolated in this way.

Murray’s argument is a step forward in sophistication compared to some other discussions of the culture war. Old-style conservatives such as Michael Barone have characterized upper-income liberals as being frivolous “trustfunders” who do “not to have to work very hard” and “have done nothing to earn their money,” slackers who “revel in looking down on” the common people.

in contrast, Murray tones down the Snidely Whiplash rhetoric and describes upper-class liberals as people who are living admirable lives but who are giving irresponsible advice because of their deluded social theories. His recommendation is, “When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.”

The Paterno example illustrates the difficulty of this recommendation. What he had to do was not simply preach against rape and violence, but to act to stop it. Paterno was acting like the new upper class and simply looking away, allowing crimes to happen under his umbrella of protection. Unfortunately, this sort of behavior would seem to be characteristic of the old upper class as well, so I’m not sure how new this all is.

My point is that preaching values in a real way is not so easy; it requires hard work and direct involvement, not just talk. I don’t think Murray would disagree with me here. He writes that conscientious people should “voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms,” but it takes more than voicing disapproval. The kind of disapproval that makes a difference takes work and is risky. Joe Paterno could have reported the crimes of his coach and his students to the police, but at a possible cost to his reputation. Or, to choose a more homely example, just try telling an acquaintance that he or she is not conscientiously raising his or her kids. That won’t be a costless conversation to you! Again, it might be a good idea, but it’s hard to think about Murray’s suggestions without considering their challenges.

Upper-class liberals and upper-class conservatives

Setting aside the difficulties of implementing his recommendations, I see two limitations of Murray’s thesis. The first is a matter of selection. Let’s divide Americans into upper and lower income categories. (Murray just talks about whites, but I think the arguments apply to the general population; my guess is that after the reception of his Bell Curve book, Murray just thought it would be safest to leave race out of his discussions entirely.) Murray is comparing rich liberals to poor everybodys, but he just as well could be looking at rich conservatives. By focusing on the cultural contradictions of liberalism, Murray piques the attention of the liberal elite while lulling the conservative elite into a false sense of security. But I think he’s telling only part of the story, as I emphasized in graphs such as this:

My second problem with Murray’s argument is that it has a bit of a self-contradictory nature. As David Frum has noted, Murray criticizes upper-income Americans for (a) shunning lower-income cigarette smokers, but also for (b) not shaming lower-income people for poor life choices. But smoking is a poor life choice, no?

Elsewhere Murray states that upper-income Americans are more likely to go to church, and it seems that he would like these upper-class people to encourage churchgoing among the mass of Americans. But at another place he says that the elites themselves should try going to church, just like the common people do. So which is it: is churchgoing an admirable habit, along the lines of marriage and hard work, that the elites should encourage others to do, or is churchgoing a bit of homespun Americana, like watching football on TV and eating at Applebee’s, that the top 5% should reconnect with?

The point of these examples is not that Murray is wrong, either in his prescriptions or in his recommendations—much here depends on one’s economic views about taxation and government spending—but rather that his argument keeps going in two opposite directions at once. From one side he argues that the upper class has good habits that they should transmit to ordinary Americans; on the other side he says that the upper class should become more like the rest of the country. But I can’t see how you can have it both ways. This connects to my earlier point that much could be gained by considering the diversity of attitudes among the upper class.

Summary

This whole discussion got started because Murray was writing something about social class and David Frum and I fired back with statistics about income. But Murray is not writing about income; in fact, he explicitly states,

The new-upper-class culture is not the product of great wealth. It is enabled by affluence—people with common tastes and preferences need enough money to be able to congregate—but it is not driven by affluence. It is driven by the distinctive tastes and preferences that emerge when large numbers of cognitively talented people are enabled to live together in their own communities. You can whack the top income centile back to where it was in the 1980s, and it will have no effect whatsoever on the new-upper-class culture that had already emerged by that time.

I don’t know how true that is, but to be fair to Murray, he’s talking about cultural attitudes, not income. Based on my own interests, I’d take this the next step and consider the divisions between liberals and conservatives within America’s elites. My suggestions along those lines don’t contradict what Murray’s saying but rather represent additional things to think about.

49 Comments

  1. gappy says:

    Great. This the Gelman post I wanted to read in the first place, if not for anything else, because it subsumes some of of my objections to your earlier post.

    I felt that Murray’s book has many gaps, debatable statements and disagreeable (in both meanings of this term) conclusions. I agree with your objections. But, on the positive side, it’s stimulating and thought-provoking. Especially in its analysis of the new upper class, it just *feels* uncannily right. I have dozens of examples of new-upper-class friends and acquaintances: hard-working (as academics, lawyers, executives, doctors), high-earners, superzip-dwellers, education-obsessed, assortatively-mated, socially liberal and economically neo-liberal (for lack of a better term). These people may come occasionally from humble backgrounds, but once they are coopted, they are much more likely to generate upper-class offsprings educated in private schools or very good public schools and attending top colleges, who go on to replicate their parents’ careers, thus living in an even thicker bubble. I find this very worrying.

    P.S.: I think I just broke my personal record of hyphenated words.

    • Andrew says:

      Gappy:

      Yes, I agree. As noted, I’d also like to see a corresponding discussion of upper-class conservatives, which I think can also be dissected in an interesting way. But even half the story is still interesting.

  2. Brent Buckner says:

    Respective of Murray’s views on government spending, he may be more amenable than a casual reading of your blog post might suggest:
    c.f. http://www.amazon.com/Our-Hands-Replace-Welfare-State/dp/0844742236/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1329322660&sr=1-1

  3. zbicyclist says:

    I’m not sure “elites” are any more isolated than the non-elites, although perhaps given their “elite” position this MAY be of more consequence.

    We might consider the cultural isolation of an unemployed African-American man in a homogeneous area such as Chicago’s west side. (This is theoretical for me, as I suspect it may be for most of this blog’s readers.)

    I’d argue that life is just one big version of junior high, in which we have our little groups we interact with. Aren’t the jocks, nerds, rich kids, or popular girls all isolated?

    • fd says:

      Zbicyclist– I agree. If I understand Murray’s argument correctly (I read his WSJ article but have not read his book) I believe he is saying that it is incumbent on the elites (jocks and popular girls) to bridge this gap and spread enlightenment to the masses. On the face of it this is a noble but also naive and paternalistic viewpoint (though it maybe more nuanced than that in the book). I’m also not convinced that this a new problem or one confined to the US. In the WSJ article Murray makes several comparisons with the 60′s stating that back then the elite’s and non-elities’ would have watched the same TV shows, drank the same beer, et cetera. Perhaps, but about the 20′s or 1890′s? Surely the elites of that era were far more isolated than those today. I think those arguments reflect more the emergence and dynamic nature of mass media rather than an emerging, irrevocable and unprecedented cultural divide.

      • Dave says:

        I think you read it very wrong. As you might guess from his personal views Mr. Murray was arguing that the liberal upper class should stop pushing for programs to subsidize failure. For example without welfare, there would be far more penatlies and examples of why to wait to have a kid, get married, and have a job. That alone would solve many of the problems he complains about. It’s a solution he has proposed before.

  4. MAYO says:

    Why assume preaching what you practice would or should work? Consider the number of books and speeches on things like the benefit of education, two parent households, etc. I haven’t read this new book yet, but if I recall, wasn’t the message of “The Bell Curve” essentially that nothing could be done about those who were coming up short according to his measures of intelligence, productivity, and values. The lesson would seem to be that the “elites” of whatever stripe should stop trying to foist their values/lifestyles on others, in conflict with “preach what you practice”. Maybe people listened to him!

  5. MikeM says:

    I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again, despite not having read the book. When I read his “Losing Ground,” I felt that he did a good job of uncovering truths in the statistics relating to poverty, unemployment, education, etc., but messed up when he delved into crime statistics, my specialty. Then I heard that folks in the poverty field felt that he had done a good job in crime and other areas, but didn’t completely understand the poverty data. And so forth.

    In other words, if you don’t know the origins of the data and their intricacies, you can end up making improper inferences. Sometimes it may be due to Simpson’s paradox writ large, other times it may be due to a priori assumptions.

    His new book is on my reading list, so I may be back with corroboration of my a priori assumption or with an apology.

  6. Chuck Rudd says:

    Moral of the story: read the book, and then write the review.

    • Andrew says:

      Chuck:

      My earlier post was not a review of the book, it was a comment on a quote that was found by David Frum. I think it’s completely reasonable for me to comment on news articles without reading every book being discussed.

      • Chuck Rudd says:

        Point taken. Sorry, no offense meant towards you, though I guess Frum has less of an excuse. It’s nice to see intellectual honesty on the Net, though. Thanks for that.

        • Andrew says:

          In Frum’s defense, I think his review made a lot of good points—and it’s pretty clear that he read the book—even if he did get tripped up on this one point about the income distribution.

  7. albatross says:

    I haven’t yet read Murray’s book, but in some of the op eds and essays he’s written related to it, he has explicitly said that it’s a much bigger problem for elites to be ignorant of non-elites than the other way around. I think the reasoning here is that if you don’t have much power over me, your ignorance of my day to day life and needs and values is relatively unimportant. Like, if you heard that the captain of a ship had little idea what the crew did all day, you’d take that as a very bad sign, but if you heard that the crew mostly didn’t know what the captain did all day, that wouldn’t seem like nearly such a big deal. More to the point, if the guys in the super-ZIPs are making policy and passing laws that have a big impact on people everywhere else, it would be nice if they had a little more intuition about how the people in those other zip codes actually lived.

    My intuition is that this is more important, the more centralized power is in your society. If most of the big decisions about how things will be done (what will be taught in school, what laws will be enforced, what will be sold in stores, what will be on TV) are made by people at the top, and those people are pretty ignorant of and disconnected from most of the people on the receiving end of those decisions, it’s easy to see how that could go pretty badly all around. For example, if we start discussing whether payday loans should be more regulated or not, it seems to me like most of the people involved in the discussion will be people who aren’t too likely to ever have used one, and it sure does seem like that could lead to bad decisions. To use another example, if we start talking about whether algebra 2 should be passed by every high school kid, it matters a lot whether the people having the discussion know many people who didn’t go to college because they found high school too hard.

  8. albatross says:

    I always thought it was hugely ironic that _The Bell Curve_ was seen as a conservative book, because it makes an extraordinarily strong case for redistribution of wealth. If a big chunk of my success is driven by something (intelligence) that I had no real control over, the moral case for the investment banker living way better than the janitor really falls apart. “He chose his grandparents well” isn’t an especially convincing answer to “why does he live in luxury while I live in squalor?”

  9. PF says:

    Prof. Gelman, thanks very much for this detailed reflection on Murray’s book. I have to take issue however with how you sugarcoat a fundamental aspect of his work. The *only* mention you make of his odd focus on solely whites is this:

    “The first is a matter of selection. Let’s divide Americans into upper and lower income categories. (Murray just talks about whites, but I think the arguments apply to the general population; my guess is that after the reception of his Bell Curve book, Murray just thought it would be safest to leave race out of his discussions entirely.)”

    Otherwise, you actually misrepresent Murray’s argument by assuming that he is talking about all races of upper income Americans throughout his book’s central comparisons. Murray’s “top 5%” is solely about “White America,” as his subtitle states. You’re giving him way too much benefit of the doubt in wording his arguments so charitably as to constitute a serious analysis of American society in general. It simply isn’t, and he explicitly frames his book so that it isn’t, all while coyly implying that it is, I guess because he thinks he’s dealing with the only groups of Americans who really count when it comes to assessing the nation’s virtues.

    (As a successful white man married to a very successful Thai-American woman, I’m not even sure how Murray’s focus on whites and income works even on its own terms: would his statistics take account of only me, my entire mixed racial household, or none of us, seeing as I betrayed his vision of pristine White America by comporting with a non-White? How can only really say anything truly incisive about contemporary America and its future if one’s only trying to speak about whites? I’m glad my children will live to see Charles Murray pass away.)

    Whatever they’re egregious flaws, at least Murray’s prior books, which wanted to be studies with general policy implications for all of America, had the coherence and courage to actually study all of America’s (incredibly diverse) demographics. Now he wants to still have the right to present a study intending to say something in general about America with policy implications, but he thinks he only needs to focus on whites. It’s offensive and logically incoherent, and I couldn’t care less if he felt like he had to do that in order to be perversely prudent.

    I deeply appreciate your work, Prof. Gelman, but Murray is a fool and, in context, his preoccupation with “white America” is very much worth pointing out, not glossing over. Indeed, the contrast only makes your work look more relevant and important, and his look more noxious.

    • DPG says:

      PF: You need to calm down. Murray looked only at whites because he wanted to control for the variable of race. Ironically, his first wife was Thai, just like yours! Your accusation of ethnocentrism is way off base.

      • PF says:

        Perhaps I’m off base, but Gelman, for example, seems to do fine discussing the evolution of social classes (“the working class,” “elites”) without needing to limit it to “whites,” an arbitrary distinction which effectively means Murray’s no longer actually discussing the groups of people in America who actually constitute “the working class” and “the elites” and less and less so as America becomes more ethnically diverse and mixed. That’s a descriptive fact.

        I didn’t know that about Murray’s marital past. That is ironic, however, perhaps less relevant, because my wife is Thai-American, not a foreigner, and so she’s a member of American society.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      “As a successful white man married to a very successful Thai-American woman”

      Are you referring to yourself or to Murray and his first wife?

  10. bjk says:

    The Paterno example would make sense if there were a large number of people trying to normalize child rape. “Hey child rape we all do it don’t be a hypocrite there’s a fine line between horsing around” etc etc. There has been a large number of people trying to normalize single motherhood and having children outside of marriage, for instance. I saw Bloomberg say triumphantly “The Ozzie and Harriet family is dead. This is the new family.” That’s not helping. Neither is NAMBLA.

  11. Eric Rasmusen says:

    The Paterno example is a good one, and can improve Murray’s analysis. Nowadays, the conservative upper class has, like the liberal, become more libertarian. “Conservative” often means “wanting small government”. With this, the idea that the upper class has a duty to bring up the morals of the lower class has disappeared among conservatives. (Among liberals, it survives with regard to moral rules such as “Thou shalt recycle”. ) There are a lot of conservatives who live virtuously, are willing in the abstract to say it is virtuous so to live but don’t criticize those who don’t. “Nonjudgemental” is a modern moral quality that supports Murray’s thesis.

  12. tom says:

    I’ve read you for a few years through Steve Sailer’s site. This quasi-apology/explanation post is almost as bad as your original one.

    So you never checked–at all–to see that Murray was talking about incomes. But you thought you knew enough to insult Murray (in your mind) by comparing him to Tucker Carlson. (In a comment above, you say that you think it’s fine to comment on news articles without reading them, but that’s a different thing than adding personal insults.) And you clearly meant it to be a slam on both men. Then you make it clear that Tucker Carlson has been punished by fate for his totally idiocy in making one statement because Tucker Carlson is no longer on TV. Then you go on to write a pretty long post explaining Murray’s wrongness.

    But it turns out you were wrong about the basis for your post. So you sort-of blame Frum, but without noting how much of Frum’s critique of Murray depends on a misreading of Murray, and without acknowledging that you’d gone ahead and insulted a well-known scholar without checking into whether he had said what you’d sort-of read that he said. Then in your apology you take the opportunity to entirely re-insult Tucker Carlson for being “a Tucker Carlson”.

    Then your single example of the rich elite (and rich conservatives) is football coach Joe Paterno in Happy Valley PA, who is tangential–at best–to Murray’s arguments, and extremely unlikely to fit within his focus on a NY-DC-SF-LA elite, but whom I think you chose because you want to tar conservatives with the ugliest thing you could think of. (I’m guessing you haven’t delved too deeply into what actually happened in the Penn State case, because you don’t cite any details that make it sound like you know any pro-Paterno facts or that a lot is still unknown. I don’t know too much about it either.)

    That’s a pretty low-class and (to use a word you have used several times in attacking others) hack apology for your insulting first post. Don’t you owe another scholar something more than that?

    • Andrew says:

      Tom:

      1. When I read Frum’s article, I did not have a copy of Murray’s book, and I had nothing to check. I took Frum’s word for it I’m not perfect, neither is Frum. Luckily I was able to update on my website, and I did so.

      2. Nowhere did I say that Tucker Carlson was punished by fate, nor do I think I personally insulted anyone. Carlson said what he said, and I linked to it. Yes, I’m amused by Carlson’s mistake, but expressing amusement != personal insult.

      3. As I explained, Paterno is indeed an extreme case but he illustrates the difficulty of implementing the advice to “preach what you practice.” Talk is cheap, actions are difficult. As I wrote, I don’t place myself above Paterno in any moral sense. I’m not trying to tar anybody here; rather, I’m taking Murray’s arguments seriously and trying to understand them.

  13. MQ says:

    Andrew, I really think you’re wrong to back off and give Murray slack here the way you do. The ‘elite liberals’ meme is an old standby of right wing propaganda, going back decades. Murray is playing into it for a reason. As you point out, it is simply not true that economic elites are economically liberal. This is a very important and central point that is in no way made less important because certain groups with a lot of cultural capital tend to be liberal. In fact, I think the core groups of liberal ‘cultural elites’ are a little provincial and don’t really understand the scope and importance of elite conservatism. Liberal ‘cultural elites’ such as academics and so forth also tend to overestimate their own ‘elite’ status and actual power, which is not as extensive as they may think it is. The economic conservatism of the genuinely wealthy and those at the top of corporate and Wall Street power structures exercises a huge influence, particularly in politics and also in culture. If you’re going to write something that purports to be a broad and inclusive analysis of the culture you don’t get to just stipulate that that group does not exist or is not important for the purpose of your discussion.

  14. DPG says:

    Andrew: I think you have given Murray a fair look. However, judging by the following quote, I don’t think you’ve entirely understood his concerns.

    “My second problem with Murray’s argument is that it has a bit of a self-contradictory nature. As David Frum has noted, Murray criticizes upper-income Americans for (a) shunning lower-income cigarette smokers, but also for (b) not shaming lower-income people for poor life choices. But smoking is a poor life choice, no?”

    Murray’s point is that elites can lead by example. When the upper class and lower class mingle, the upper class will set a good example and improve the behavior of everyone in society. He talks about the “founding virtues,” de Tocqueville, etc. to make his case that America has functioned well because it’s been a relatively egalitarian society. He worries that, as the elites sequester themselves in Superzips, the lower class will fall out of touch. Murray wants the upper class to mingle with cigarette smokers, and he wants them to shame cigarette smokers. There is no contradiction.

  15. asdf says:

    Your problems are:

    1) You don’t know what a liberal is (you think it relates to voting democratic or something).

    Being a liberal is about accepting some very basic starting axioms in understanding the world. These are present in nearly all urban elites I know. These are likely so entrenched in you that you take them as given and don’t even question them.

    2) Your bit about smoking is telling. When liberals “preach” they preach out of hate. When a liberal preaches its, “losers smoke and I’m not a loser and I’m better then you and look down on you and hate you and I’m NOT NOT NOT the wrong kind of white person.” When liberals do preach its selfish shallow status whoring. When a conservative preaches its much more the noblese oblige, “your action is dissapointing and I don’t condone it. you are not a victim, you are just making bad choices. I hope that you can better yourself in the future.” Its based out of old fashioned christian community.

    Community, nation, culture, liberals don’t buy into these basic ideas. Liberals don’t believe in the very concept of a unique American culture or people. They are global and metropolitian. They are approaching it from entirely different axioms. That is why they can’t understand.

    • Andrew says:

      Asdf:

      Our graphs are based on survey responses on vote intentions and political attitudes, including self-reported positioning on a liberal/conservative scale. I’m a political scientist, that’s what I do. If you want a more subjective take on things, you might try reading something like a Thomas Frank book or a Tom Wolfe novel, both of which are full of insights that aren’t in my numbers. But I’d like to think that my numbers give some insights that you won’t find from any number of impressionistic, nonquantitative writings.

      • asdf says:

        See comment below. Being a liberal isn’t about what you tell a pollster. Its about core assumptions of how you view society, how it works, what its goals are. Those core assumptions drive everything, and nearly all urban elites buy into the same basic liberal assumptions.

        • Andrew says:

          Asdf:

          That’s what you think, and that’s fine. But as a student of American politics I can’t just go with what you think, I’m trying to understand patterns in the attitudes of hundreds of millions of Americans, some of whom think in terms of “selfish shallow status whoring” (as you put it), and some of whom think in other ways.

          I have a lot of respect for the personal perspectives of insightful observers such as Tom Wolfe and Thomas Frank; that’s just not what I do. I’m a statistician and a political scientist. I think each of us can contribute in our own way.

          • Mike from Ottawa says:

            This all just shows how your pitiful statistics pale in comparison to the more rigorous method asdf uses of reading other people’s minds instead of relying on what they tell you.

          • LFCl says:

            Asdf: “Liberals don’t believe in the very concept of a unique American culture or people.” This is complete and utter nonsense. What I bet asdf really means is: “Liberals don’t believe in a uniquely virtuous, uniquely graced-by-God American culture or people.” Which may or may not be the case, but is quite a different proposition. Obviously, all national cultures are unique in various respects, and liberals (as asdf is using this word) would not deny that. Moreover, if one looks at the rhetoric of politicians whom Asdf would no doubt consider liberal, one will find, I’ll bet, just as much celebratory effusion about the USA as in the rhetoric of conservative politicians.

          • LFC says:

            That should be LFC, not LFCI.

  16. BenjaminL says:

    The Paterno example is interesting but I wonder how much we can get out of this very extreme case.

    The contradictions and blind spots in Murray’s position are important, without invalidating a lot of his points.

    My position, which I think is internally consistent, is that the upper 20 percent should preach to the proles in both left- and right-wing ways. The upper class should encourage the lower to eat less junk food, smoke less, etc., and also get married, stay married, join a church (it can be Unitarian if you don’t like the “religious” part) and doing that will make them better off.

    At the same time, it has to be done from a position of understanding and respect. Murray’s right that if your whole life is lived in a SuperZIP, there’s a lot you don’t know about what makes the proles tick. It’s really first-generation meritocrats who are on the spot here, who have a unique opportunity to speak to both the Ivy League and their communities of origin.

    The upper class also has to ask whether its aesthetic revulsion for the People of Wal-Mart, which I share, has moral content. The fact is, if you are on a tight budget, Wal-Mart is a good place to shop. If you want your children to have bedrooms to sleep in, and a high school where the kids aren’t avid graffiti taggers, the soulless exurbs are a pretty good place to live.

    Um, PF, are you aware that Murray’s first wife was Thai? They have kids. Just saying. I think you are responding to a caricature not his actual arguments.

  17. asdf says:

    From another blog comment I made:

    Gelmen’s main problem is he thinks being liberal or conservative is about who you vote for or what you tell a pollster.

    Being a liberal is about accepting basic assumptions and principals. Nearly all elites accept these principals, irregardless of thier “politics”.

    For instance, most elites either don’t believe in or acknowledge HBD. That’s an example of a liberal starting assumption, and it taints all the conclusions drawn from it.

    • Mike from Ottawa says:

      You might be more persuasive, asdf, if you were to actually say what these basic assumptions and principles you claim “nearly all these elites” accept what evidence you have that “all these elites” accept them. Otherwise your claim doesn’t even rise to the level of hand-waving.

      • asdf says:

        1) Elites believe education makes people smarter, when in fact IQ is fairly set by genetics and most higher education is just a signaling mechanism. This results in things like “everyone should go to college” or “no child left behind.” Elites don’t care about blue collar jobs disappearing because they think everyone can go to college and get professional jobs. In reality, the left half of the bell curve can’t handle college material and you need specific social institutions to guide and support them.

        2) Elites believe minority underperformance is due to racism. HBD shows its mostly genetic. The flawed social programs that arrise from this should be obvious.

        3) Elites believe America is a “proposition nation.” Non-liberal, non-elites believe America is a culture and people that are distinct and have special value. Elites are globalist and metropolitian, non-liberal non-elites are nationalistic and tribal.

        Those are just a few.

        • Andrew says:

          Asdf:

          That’s what you believe about elites. One reason we conduct sample surveys and do statistical analysis is to learn about what other people believe. Surveys are expensive and take a lot of work. We put in that effort because we see value in learning beyond our personal impressions.

  18. candid_observer says:

    Let me say first that I’m not in any way convinced that the relation between the deteriorating values of the working class and its deteriorating economic conditions proceeds with the causal arrow going forward, rather than backward.

    But, having said that, I frankly don’t see in any case the strength of your argument that elites need to do more than “preach” a more exacting set of values to the working classes, but must rather “act” in some other way beyond preaching.

    What Murray is arguing, and I don’t see you contradicting, is that, currently, the elites DON’T preach those values, but, if anything, preach the very sorts of, well, slacker values that supposedly are doing in the working class.

    Don’t you think that, before you can declare the uselessness of the preaching, you might first wish to see it take place, and then assess its actual consequences? Failing that, how can you presume it a failure?

  19. [...] book, Coming Apart. (Here’s the best of the many things I’ve read addressing the book: “Charles Murray on the new upper class” by Andrew Gelman. “From one side he argues that the upper class has good habits that they should transmit to [...]

  20. ScottA says:

    Several comments – on the race thing a commenter mentions: in light of what happened to Murray after The Bell Curve I doubt he’ll write anything involving race again.

    The real controversy here is over prescriptions, rather than the main argument. Which Murray separates very clearly. He makes it a point to say, after his statistical case, that these are his opinions. I don’t agree with them all either, but let’s keep the criticism to things that can be refuted using data. It’s by no means obvious that returning to older values will sort out the lower classes’ economic issues, but it’s implied by the data. Other solutions would be as well.

    For example – he is highly skeptical that education actually has any effect on life-outcomes. I think he goes too far with this – early, effective education on several simple fundamentals (personal finance, sensible life-practices, etc.) might have an outsized impact. It’s not about making less intelligent people into Nobel-laureates as he seems to imply; it’s about giving everyone the knowledge to maximize their prospects and not sabotage themselves.

  21. idealart says:

    “My point is that preaching values in a real way is not so easy; it requires hard work and direct involvement, not just talk.”

    But liberals don’t just preach values. They believe government is the final moral authority and want to enact laws that force people to be virtuous. As in state-sponsoring of contraception and abortion. This violates conservative bedrock values of individual conscience, responsibility and free will. This is fundementally at odds, it appears, with liberal pre-occupation with “social justice.”

    Liberals miss the subtleties of shame and honor and how they still resonate today in many peoples throughout the world. Shame and honor, based on thousands of years of human experience and wisdom, are extra-legal but absolutely critical for a healthy, sane society.

  22. Steve Sailer says:

    I don’t get the Joe Paterno example. Assistant football coaches raping little boys is a classic Man Bites Dog story that got a huge amount of coverage because it’s so rare. It’s not as if conservative football coaches don’t regularly do sleazy things to further their career. In contrast, prized football recruits raping coeds and getting away with it with the coach’s help is the kind of thing that everybody’s bored with because it happens so often.

    • Andrew says:

      Steve:

      The point about the Paterno example is not whether it’s particularly unusual (in my discussion I was referring both to the rapes committed by the Penn State coach and the assaults committed by his players) but rather that Paterno’s preaching (and practicing) of moral values wasn’t enough. The preaching wasn’t backed up by action, which is more difficult. (Paterno’s political conservatism wasn’t a key part of my story—I only brought that up to connect to my other point that I think Murray would do well to consider conservative as well as liberal elites.)

  23. [...] what I might expect from a sports columnist for ESPN. Murray presents a somewhat different case, as outlined by Andrew Gelman, in that his “upper class” is modulated in a particular manner so as to fall within the [...]

  24. white collar crime kills says:

    the “quiz” i found online may not be Murray’s. but it is BS. Some questions were too much like:
    “do you enjoy rodeo, and wear a cowboy hat?”
    I found comments where women (as they claimed) said they had to answer as if their husband, because *he* fished or hunted, but she did not.

  25. [...] Charles Murray on the new upper class « Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science [...]

  26. [...] but are all too tolerant of antisocial and unproductive behavior among the lower classes), I wrote: Murray does not consider the case of Joe Paterno, but in many ways the Penn State football coach [...]

  27. Nigel Goodwin says:

    Why is an eminent statistician using a single case (Paterno), mis representing it, and drawing general conclusions?

    • Andrew says:

      Nigel:

      I don’t think I’m misrepresenting the case. I’m no expert, I’m just presenting the consensus view. Just as some people believe O.J. was innocent and others believe that Tawana told the truth, I’m sure there are some people who believe that Paterno did everything he could to protect the children of State College, PA.