Friday, February 10, 2012

Murray Coming Apart 5: Wrong on the Main Point

This week I will be blogging on Charles Murray's new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 - 2010. If you would like to read the short version of his argument, see "The New American Divide" in the Wall Street Journal.

Charles Murray's main point is that a new upper class has emerged that is increasingly isolated from the rest of America, which is bad because this new upper class rules over the rest of America.  Likewise, he says a new lower class has emerged that is increasingly dysfunctional and in need of rule by others.

I think the main error in Murray's account of the new upper class is that it doesn't really cohere as a class, and it is not really the upper class.  He makes the puzzling and off-handed assertion late in the book that the new upper class is a subset of the upper-middle class.  This is not right.  This is not how upper classes work. I think it would be more correct to say that the upper-middle class and the working rich have been transformed by elite college graduates married to one another.  While the two top classes of managers and professionals have always been the haunt of top college graduates, in the past generation they passed a tipping point.  Now a sizable majority of Belmont consists of college graduates, heavily elite college graduates, who are married to similarly well-educated spouses. The majority is what is new.

However, the upper middle class, and even the working rich, are not the upper class.  The upper class are the owners of capital, many of whom do not work, and quite a few of whom are heirs. They have a disproportionate influence on the economic and political life of the nation whenever they choose to exercise it.  They live beyond the realm of the McMansion or Craftsman bungalows of the high earners.

Which brings us to another point.  The educated manager and professional class is increasingly divided into what I think of as the country club and coffee house wings.  As Bill Bishop demonstrated in The Big Sort, educated, high-earning Republicans tend to live in different communities, and different kinds of communities, than educated, high-earning Democrats do.  Far from forming a unified new upper class, the educated upper middles are increasing polarized.

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