Tuesday, February 17, 2015
How Charles Murray changed my mind
I always get a lot of pushback from liberals when I say that Charles Murray is one of America's most important thinkers, or that he's changed my mind in big, deep, fundamental ways. So let me explain.
First of all, The Bell Curve, of which I've only read part (the part about race), strikes me as relatively unimportant and counterproductive. James Heckman's takedown of the methodology hits the mark. Heckman does also praise the book for bringing the issue of IQ into the public consciousness, but my impression is that most Americans already think that IQ rules everything, so the book was probably just telling people what they already believed. And I think that on the margin, focusing on IQ is very very bad and counterproductive for Americans, and that Carol Dweck - who I think is the most important thinker in America today - shows exactly why. On the margin, America needs less focus on IQ and more focus on mindset. And of course I also think that the section on race stirred up racist attitudes among the American populace in a counterproductive way.
But The Bell Curve is not the Murray book that changed my thinking. That book was Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.
Before I read Coming Apart, I was relatively unconcerned with the situation of the American lower middle class. I knew that their incomes had slightly declined, and that their economic risk had increased. But compared to people in poor countries, they seemed very well-off. Also, they weren't particularly nice people in high school. So I pretty much disregarded their problems.
Coming Apart totally changed my mind.
First of all, the "white" part in the title didn't bother me a bit - in fact, I saw it as an attempt to atone for the excessive focus on race in The Bell Curve. Murray seemed to be saying "I'm not bashing black people here; now, I'm talking about class." Naturally, his detractors will tend to be less charitable, but that's how I interpret the title.
Anyway, Coming Apart is all about the social problems of the American lower middle class. They have broken families and poor health, and are disengaged from their communities. If you read the book, you will be convinced by the numbers that these things are really happening. The same problems are not happening to the upper middle class.
In other words, a big quality-of-life difference has opened up between the lower- and upper-middle-class. Economics typically disregards quality-of-life issues (except for things like hedonic regressions, which I think tend to have all kinds of problematic assumptions, and aren't always applicable anyway). But more and more, I've come to believe that human utility (and happiness) is dominated by things for which no market exists. I think this is much more true for people in rich countries than for people in poor countries.
If you focus on utility of wealth, and you assume diminishing marginal utility of wealth, then you tend to conclude that true inequality - inequality of utility - has decreased hugely in American society, even if wealth inequality has increased. If almost everyone is free from material deprivation, why should it bother us if rich people get mansions and private jets? That stuff makes you a little happier, but not much happier.
What Murray showed me is that I had been thinking too much like a neoclassical economist. Once you bring in non-market goods like family stability, imperfectly treatable health problems, and community engagement, you see that inequality of utility (or happiness) between the classes may actually have increased - or certainly hasn't decreased as much as you'd think from only looking at utility of wealth.
To reiterate: Murray, a sociologist, convinced me to stop thinking so much like a neoclassical economist, to have more concern for the lower middle class, and to worry more about inequality.
Quite a trick, eh?
Anyway, I still think that Murray's policy prescriptions for remedying this social inequality are not the right ones. But they are also not the main focus of the book - they are an afterthought, tossed in in the final chapter. The vast bulk of the book is about documenting the social ills of the lower middle class, as I describe above.
Diagnosing a problem, and making people care about it, is much easier than finding a workable solution. But diagnosis, and making people care, are necessary first steps on the road to finding and implementing a solution. In Coming Apart, Charles Murray does the former with amazing force and persuasiveness. That he does not manage to do the latter should not diminish the importance of his accomplishment.