Saturday, June 16, 2012

Is Rich-Poor Gap a Result of the Information Age?

Charles Murray's latest book, Coming Apart,  explores the widening gap between the American upper class and lower class.  This gap is largely a result of cognitive sorting, a phenomenon described in an earlier book by Murray and Herrnstein (The Bell Curve.)  Because brains are worth big money in the information age and brainy people tend to marry and live among others like themselves, they are increasingly isolated from the rest of society.  Murray traces behavioral trends since 1963 that have made the United States a very different place from the country founded in 1776. 

From the beginning, America has taken pride in being a classless society, at least as classes existed in Europe and Asia.  When asked to describe themselves, Americans of most income levels have self-identified as "middle class" even if they were really among the working poor or the higher income brackets.  Until recently, pride kept the poor from admitting their struggles and propriety kept the rich from vulgar displays of wealth.  The celebrity culture, as seen on reality TV, and the entitlement mentality, e.g. the Occupy movement, are fairly recent developments.

The four key behaviors or "founding virtues" studied by Murray are: industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity.  His research into these four virtues shows alarming trends, given that these virtues have been shown to be tightly linked to economic success.  The new lower class is increasingly characterized by low rates of marriage, labor force participation and religious or civic engagement and by high rates of crime.  At the same time, the new upper class continues to marry, works long hours, and at least pays token visits to a house of worship—although they are reluctant to suggest these virtues to the lower class for fear of appearing judgmental.

Murray concludes with two possible scenarios.  The pessimistic view sees America fail as a republic when current trends continue.  The optimistic view hopes that advances in neuroscience and genetics will show unequivocally that the assumptions of the welfare state are faulty and cause real damage to the human mind and soul.  In this view, the welfare state is replaced by a return to the virtues that made America possible in the first place.

I received this book free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.