Saturday, February 11, 2012

Murray's Coming Apart: The Chipotle Epilogue

One of the unexpected fruits of my encounter with Charles Murray's Coming Apart  (see the preceding week of posts) was a lengthy and edifying Facebook discussion of Chipotle Mexican Grill.

I put this query to my varied group of Facebook friends

I am reading Charles Murray's Coming Apart. He has a quiz to see if his readers are in touch with regular Americans. One of the questions was this: How many times in the last year have you eaten at one of the following restaurant chains? Applebee's, Waffle House, Denny's, IHOP, Chili's, Outback Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday, T.G.I. Friday's, Ponderosa Steakhouse.

In his explanation, he said that members of the new upper class are likely to go to McDonald's sometimes, but are likely to skip the casual-dining chains for fancier non-chain restaurants. That is an interesting claim in itself.

My real question to you, FB friends, is his further claim. He did not include Chipotle Mexican Grill, which is also a top-ten casual dining chain, because it "is to the casual-dining genre of restaurants as Whole Foods is to grocery stores."

Is this true? I have never been to Chipotle, but I had not any impression of them as fancier than the others.

This query drew a rich response - 37 and counting, as of this writing - from just the kind of well-educated white managers and professionals who Murray say constitute the "new upper class."

Most who wrote agreed with Murray's basic contention that Chipotle had a different model that the other casual-dining restaurant chains. A sample of these kinds of comments:

Chipotle is for those who want fast-casual but are environmentally and/or health-conscious since Chipotles use sustainable and relatively local meats in each franchise.

I pick up "to go" from Chipotle very often. They market hormone free meat and fresh ingredients. You choose all toppings and they feature less mainstream brands such as Izze sodas and organic milk for kids. If that's fancy, I guess so.

I think Chipotle is part of Bobo [bourgeois bohemian] culture. The ingredients are infinitely better than most chain restaurants and customers can feel better knowing they are eating happier animals. 

It's not fancy, but I do think they are more hipster than a place like Qdoba. They advertise their sustainability and freshness much more. 

Some were more cynical about the actual difference between Chipotle and the other casual-dining chains:

I also wonder if a lot of this isn't about marketing. I noticed the comments above on Chipotle's advertising about sustainability, quality ingredients, etc. Cynically: really? Or do they serve the same stuff but market to the niche of people who fit the same socio-economic profile as Applebee's customers but want to try to eat responsibly. I think Murray's reasoning may be circular. It's not that (independently defined) elites -- for example, those with college degrees or X amount of money in the bank -- like Chipotle but not Applebee's. It's that elites - defined as those who like Chipotle -- like Chipotle. And what makes Chipotle elite? It's own advertising and Murray's perception of elite values.

In the end, though, I don't want to lose sight of Murray's larger point.  He contends that the class of highly educated managers and professionals who mostly run the country eschew the kind of places that the middle-middle of the country regard as good.  My overall feeling is that Murray is right. I have sometimes eaten real fast food for convenience, but if we go out to a sit-down dinner, it is almost always at a non-chain place. And this is due to exactly the kind of mild snobbery that Murray is talking about. I don't object to the food - I am not very picky - but I do object to the pseudo-Gemeinschaft and underlying sterility of the casual-dining chains. 

The only one I have eaten at in the past year is Waffle House, and this is because its proletarian quality is neither fake nor hidden.

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.

Murray Coming Apart 4: Adding Non-Whites Barely Changes the Pattern

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.

In the Bell Curve, Murray wrote 12 chapters about IQ and white Americans, making 90% of the book's argument about the growth of the "cognitive elite."  Then he added a chapter about IQ and race to make an entirely secondary point.  However, 90% of the storm of controversy about the book concerned that one chapter.

This time, Murray put right in the subtitle that this book is about white America.  Nonetheless, he does have one tiny chapter near the end where he looks at what happens to the trends in Belmont and Fishtown when he adds in non-whites.  And the answer is: almost nothing.  Belmont is disproportionately Asian, but the Asian group, still in single digits, closely follows the white pattern.  Fishtown is disproportionately black, Hispanic, and Asian, but each group is still a minority.  Moreover, the black pattern, which is somewhat worse than the white, is balanced out by the Hispanic and Asian patterns, which are slightly better.

The big difference between the racial effects in The Bell Curve and Coming Apart is that the former is about all of America, whereas the latter is only about the top and the bottom.  Most black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans, like most white Americans, are in the middle. That means they are not included in the analysis of the new upper class and new lower class that makes up most of Coming Apart.

Murray's main conclusion is that America is coming apart, but on class lines, not on racial or ethnic lines. And inside the new upper class, and inside the new lower class, the people are becoming more like one another, even as the two classes are becoming more different from one another.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Murray Coming Apart 3: The Essential American Virtues

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.

"If just one American virtue may be said to be defining, _______ is probably it."

How would you fill in that blank?

I would have said "liberty" or "the love of liberty."

Charles Murray does not. Instead, he says "industriousness" is the defining American virtue.

Murray offers four virtues as foundational for the American project: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion.

He considers frugality and philanthropy as virtues that eighteenth century Americans might also have argued for.  And he allows that social conservatives might argue for self-reliance. 

This is an interesting list in many respects.

I think it is very curious that a libertarian like Murray would not put liberty first, and that instead he thinks social conservatives would put a cousin of liberty (self-reliance) on the essential virtues lists.  I think he is just wrong about what either group primarily values.  I can see how social conservatives might be content with religion, marriage, and philanthropy as covering the crucial bases, with liberty as a necessary enabling (but secondary) virtue.

I think it is also curious that he does not even offer what social liberals might think of as essential virtues - first and foremost, equality.  I believe this is because Murray believes that too much emphasis on equality is what is undermining the American project.

The four virtues that he keeps are important to America, though perhaps moreso today than in the founding era.  American virtues were developed against European virtues, and compared to Europeans we are now, and have long been, more religious, more committed to marriage (which is proven by our high divorce and remarriage rate), and more industrious.  I have never thought of America as notably more honest than Europe, though perhaps 18th century visitors thought so because we eschewed false court manners. In any case, Murray finds it hard to find good indicators of honesty.

I would offer one further nominee for a distinctive American virtue, though perhaps only sociologists think of it this way: our social mobility.  As everyone knows, we have a very unequal society in class terms.  Nonetheless, most Americans believe our social structure is legitimate because we believe we can move up or down by our own merits.  This is a cousin to "self-reliance," but with more recognition of the trajectory that most Americans expect over their life course, not just their ability to be independent at any one moment.

And treating social mobility as a distinctive virtue requires treating liberty and equality, despite their obvious tension with one another, with equal seriousness.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Murray's Coming Apart 2: The New Generation of the Cognitive Elite

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.

In The Bell Curve, Murray and Richard Herrnstein argued that since the Second World War our educational system has become very efficient at tracking high-IQ students into college, and the highest-IQ students into elite colleges.  In this book, Murray continues that theme with newer data.  He shows that after two generations of tracking brains into college and stocking the high-income occupations with college brains, the "cognitive elite" is now efficiently reproducing itself.

In previous generations, the elite of money married money.  But it is hard to pass on the skills that made the money.  Now, the elite of brains marries brains, and brains are more heritable.

Murray shows the mean white IQ of two generations of adults by the level of education they attained. I will reproduce that simple table here.  What is interesting here is that, even though 50% more people graduate from college than did a generation ago, the central characteristic of those who graduated - their intelligence level - has not. The first column represents the mean IQ of people who were 25 in the mid-'80s; the second, those who were 25 in the mid-'00s:

88, 89  No degree
99, 99  High School diploma/GED
105, 104  Associate's degree
113, 113  Bachelor's degree
117, 117 Master's degree
126, 124 Ph.D., LLD, MD, DDS

The upper-middle class dominates college enrollment, especially at elite colleges. This fact is well known.  Murray argues that this is true even with affirmative action.  Why?

“The reason that upper-middle-class children dominate the population of elite schools is that the parents of the upper-middle class now produce a disproportionate number of the smartest children.”

Monday, February 06, 2012

Murray's Coming Apart 1: SuperZips

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.

Murray's main point is that a new upper class and a new lower class have grown in the past generation. The new upper class is a brainy meritocracy who met in elite colleges and reap high incomes from their mental skills and work ethic. Murray fears that this new elite is now so large and rich that they can live an isolated life from other classes, especially from the new, and increasingly incompetent, lower class.

I will start with the best feature of Murray's analysis: the SuperZips, and the ideal types of "Belmont" and "Fishtown."

Murray shows that managers and professionals who run America are increasingly concentrated in neighborhoods where most people are college graduates, and live in households making over $200,000 per year. He uses zip codes as his unit of analysis, which are fairly large and mixed areas. Nonetheless, in a generation, the zip codes in which managers and professionals concentrate, mostly around large cities, have switched to having college graduate majorities, and have incomes (in constant dollars) which would in 1960 would have been in the top 1%, but are now only in the top 5%. These SuperZips also have a great disproportion of elite college graduates.

The main tool that he develops for comparison is an imagined "Belmont" and "Fishtown," based on the real upper-middle-class suburb of Boston and the real working-class-neighborhood of Philadelphia, respectively. The ideal-typical communities combine the qualities of their comparable upper-middle enclaves and working-class communities. Comparing such things as marriage and crime rates in this composite Belmont with the composite Fishtown is a very helpful way of compressing complex data.

And in general he shows that things have been steadily good in Belmont, whereas they have declined dramatically in Fishtown.

The rest of this series will cover the main points of Murray's findings, and my critiques and appreciations of his findings.