Have we become a caste society?

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Niccolo and Donkey
Have we become a caste society?

The Globe and Mail

Margaret Wente

January 28, 2012

Barack Obama has thrown down the gauntlet. The next U.S. election will be about equality and fairness. It will give Americans a clear choice between a country where “a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by,” and a country “where everyone gets a fair shot.” It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom, he said in his State of the Union address. “No bailouts, no handouts and no copouts.”

We can all clap for that I guess. Inequality has soared, and that should worry everyone. The trouble is, solutions are hard to come by. Raising taxes on the rich might be a good thing, but it won’t narrow the gap. So what will? Some people want massive investment in early childhood education for disadvantaged kids. Some want massive job-creation programs, or a massive increase in training for the unskilled. Such solutions would need vast amounts of public money, but maybe they’d be worth it.

Now comes Charles Murray to lob a grenade into this progressive wishful thinking. His new book, Coming Apart , to be released next week, argues that the most important gap between the upper class and what we used to call the working class is no longer economic or social. It’s cultural.

As recently as the 1960s, he writes, people were united by a common understanding of “American values.” Just about everyone believed in marriage, two-parent families and hard work. But now, class values have dramatically diverged. “We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America,” he writes in The Wall Street Journal. “At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions.”

The differences go far deeper than a taste for Chablis versus two-fours. They extend to such basic matters as how you raise your kids and what it means to be a man.

To prove his case, Mr. Murray compares data from two fictitious neighbourhoods called Belmont and Fishtown. Belmont is an upper-middle-class suburb of managers and professionals with university degrees. The people who live in Fishtown have high-school diplomas and work blue-collar and low-skilled service jobs. (To simplify matters, he limits his analysis to the white population.) In 1960, nearly every midlife adult in both towns was married – 94 per cent in Belmont, 84 per cent in Fishtown. “Then came the great divergence.” Today the marriage rate in Belmont is 83 per cent, while the marriage rate in Fishtown has slid to 48 per cent. The same thing happened to nonmarital births. In 1960, just 2 per cent of all white births in the U.S. were to unmarried women. By 2008, the nonmarital birth rate among the well-educated women of Belmont had grown to just under 6 per cent. In Fishtown, it was 44 per cent.

No matter how loath we are to stigmatize single lower-class mothers, the outcomes for their children are generally grim. So are the outcomes for men who are detached from the work force. In 1968, only 3 per cent of men in either Belmont or Fishtown were out of the labour force. By 2008 (before the onset of the recession), it had grown to 12 per cent in Fishtown, while in Belmont it hadn’t changed at all. Mr. Murray argues that the main cause of high male unemployment in Fishtown is not the scarcity of low-skilled work, but the erosion of the work ethic.

These trends are not as pronounced in Canada, but the patterns are the same. If you read The Globe and Mail, you (or your parents) probably live in Belmont. You may even belong to the notorious and much-reviled One Per Cent. It doesn’t take all that much money. A family income of $196,000 will do it, according to the current issue of Toronto Life, which offers brief sketches of a few of these plutocrats. They are classic examples of bourgeois industriousness – well-educated, hard-working, conscientious professionals and parents who, after childcare expenses and mortgage payments, don’t feel all that rich.

Today, the top 20 per cent and the bottom 20 per cent seldom cross paths (except at Tim Hortons). They raise their kids in different ways, send them to different schools, eat different kinds of food, choose different forms of exercise and recreation, take different kinds of vacations. The top 20 per cent include virtually all of the people who run our governments, manage our businesses and set our social policies. But fewer and fewer of them know anybody in the bottom 20 per cent, or have much idea of how they think and live.

This class divide has become self-perpetuating, argues Mr. Murray. (He doesn’t discuss Canada’s vibrant immigrant classes, where social mobility is as strong as ever.) One reason is that most people choose mates from the same educational level. “The formation of the new upper class has been driven by forces that are nobody’s fault and resist manipulation,” he writes. “The economic value of brains in the marketplace will continue to increase no matter what, and the most successful of each generation will tend to marry each other no matter what. As a result, the most successful Americans will continue to trend toward consolidation and isolation as a class.”

A lot of people aren’t going to like this message. I don’t like it much myself. But Mr. Murray doesn’t conclude that the answer is to do nothing. His conclusion is that the challenge of inequality is much more complicated than we think.
Niccolo and Donkey
Niccolo and Donkey

Murray's new book is reviewed here:

White Blight