The values gap

Posted on March 25, 2012. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , |

Some truths are so plain that they become camouflage. They blend so seamlessly into our thinking that their profundity becomes obscured.

For example, in virtually every social study that categorizes behaviors, beliefs or states of being by race, the comparison inevitably involves minorities and whites—even over many decades—as if white Americans are a statistical constant.

Average wages for a minority employee are measured against what white workers earn. Minority births out of wedlock are compared to the rate for whites. Most recently (even though the methodology was specious) the incidence for school disciplinary action for minority students was gauged against white student experiences.

And on and on.

But what if the social behaviors or beliefs of white Americans aren’t constant? Then that way of comparison becomes problematic, at least if it’s intended to accurately measure changes over time in minority experiences or performance.

Nobody seemed to bother much about that possible variable in assessing social engineering, until now. Author Charles Murray scholarly addresses the question in a new landmark book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

His reasoning is solid, and his findings in many ways shocking. In totality, however, the book is in all ways a fascinating analysis about happiness and social policy in terms of the unique American project among the world’s nations.

Murray begins with a compelling categorization of a “new upper class” in the U.S., which tends to segregate itself from the working class in elitist degrees that didn’t previously exist. Growing up in Newton, Iowa, Murray recalls that his hometown was also headquarters for Maytag.

In 1960, Fred Maytag lived in one of Newton’s nice neighborhoods, in a house that was larger than most but not conspicuously so. But within three blocks of his residence lived the sheriff, the city waterworks manager, insurance agents, a drugstore owner, the high school band teacher and several mid-managers at local factories.

Fifty years later, that kind of local civic interaction between the executive class of a Fortune 500 company and working people has all but disappeared.

To explore its implications, Murray formulates two hypothetical neighborhoods as the framework for his series of statistical analyses of the founding virtues defined as Industriousness, Honesty, Marriage and Religiosity.

The first is called Belmont (both fictional neighborhoods bear the names of real towns), in which everybody is educated, with good jobs in upscale vocations, or married to somebody with such characteristics.

In hypothetical Fishtown, it’s the opposite case. Nobody has an academic degree above a high school diploma, and everybody works in either a blue-collar or low-level white-collar job.

All numbers and graphs only include white Americans, and are also limited to the 30-49 age group. Murray’s moniker of that age range as “prime of life” isn’t qualitative—he just contends that people in their 20s and 50s are in stages of transition. By 30 most education is complete, and after 50 disability and retirement occurs more frequently.

What follows next is a detailed presentation of astonishing change of values in the white lower class, as depicted in Fishtown, and an equally surprising stability in Belmont’s upper class.

The Fishtown neighborhood in 2010 looks markedly different than in 1960. More people are unemployed, crime is way up, divorce is rampant, the number of babies born out of wedlock is at an all-time high and the religiously disengaged constitute a distinct majority.

The founding virtues in Belmont, on the other hand, remain remarkably intact. Not only are most people still married, but most claim a happy marriage. Crime is essentially the same as it was back in 1960—arrest rates are even slightly lower. Church attendance is down, but a majority still worship regularly.

The social statistics are too voluminous to list here, but are telling in support of Murray’s contention that the value gap between the classes has grown to where those in positions of power and influence can hardly understand the way the middle and lower classes think and act.

Murray’s closing section is called “Why It Matters,” and he reminds readers of an oft-forgotten point: America has always been unique among nations. The “loss” he seeks to prevent with his book isn’t a looming apocalypse that leaves us all in tatters and chaos.

America will be “lost” if she simply ceases to be what she was founded as: a unique exercise in self-government based on our inherent rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

European countries, he points out, are very pleasant to visit—but they are still very different from America, and it is that distinction that is worth preserving and protecting.

Patrick Henry famously observed that “bad men cannot make good citizens,” and what the divergence in values between Murray’s Belmont and Fishtown portray is an amnesia among many today that self-government necessarily means that individuals are responsible first for governing their own behavior.

We have grown accustomed to looking to government for help. Unfortunately, to turn the tide in this instance, we will have to look to ourselves, and each other. Murray hopes we can.

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