Sunday, February 14, 2016

What's Wrong with America?

Regardless of whether you think that Donald Trump is the problem or the solution, his political ascent shows that something is wrong with America.

Knowing what it is might not tell us how to fix it, but at least it will be a place to start.

Yesterday, Charles Murray offered his analysis in the Wall Street Journal. The past several decades, he wrote, have been very bad for the white working class. For reasons yet to be specified, working class white males in particular have suffered from what I would call a grand social experiment. The nation seems to have chosen them to live out the terms of a countercultural revolution.

For his part Murray believes that we have lost touch with the American creed, with our beliefs in the ideals of equality, freedom and individualism. In his words:

Its three core values may be summarized as egalitarianism, liberty and individualism. From these flow other familiar aspects of the national creed that observers have long identified: equality before the law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and association, self-reliance, limited government, free-market economics, decentralized and devolved political authority.

But, he also suggests that our cultural revolution came about because people were overly zealous in their commitment to these ideals.

Nations are founded, less on ideals, and more on common rituals and ceremonies. The French Revolution brought forth the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. But worshiping at the altar of ideals, the Revolutionaries demonstrated, does not produce national unity and comity.

Societies cohere when their members share common practices. Multiculturalism disparages these practices as bigoted. More importantly, the American cultural revolution has attacked the social order, has attacked the traditional family and has consistently derided patriotism. We are citizens of the world, members of the human species or, at best, hyphenated Americans. This means that loyalty to country and pride in its achievements have been major casualties of our cultural experiment.

It was done in the name of ideals. We pretend that everyone is equal and we conclude that all outcomes must be equal too. If they are not, it’s a sign of bigotry. We might have lost faith in free markets and individual choice, but we extol the individualism that tells everyone to do his own thing and to let it all hang out. We believe in individual self-expression and even in the right of each individual to define himself and even to decide on his own gender. If you disagree you are a bigot and are unfit for our brave new world.

Today’s culture warriors denounce the 1950s as the bad old days. Way back then, America was on a winning streak and they could not allow that.

And yet, those days saw far more income equality than there is today. Murray presents the statistics:

In the 1960 census, the median income along Philadelphia’s Main Line was just $90,000 in today’s dollars. In Boston’s Brookline, it was $75,000; on New York’s Upper East Side, just $60,000. At a typical dinner party in those neighborhoods, many guests would have had no more than a high-school diploma.

Such is no longer the case. Murray continues:

In 2016, a dinner party in those same elite neighborhoods consists almost wholly of people with college degrees, even advanced degrees. They are much more uniformly affluent. The current median family incomes for the Main Line, Brookline and the Upper East Side are about $150,000, $151,000 and $203,000, respectively.

The divide is not just a matter of geography. People in the upper classes, Murray continues, have a separate culture and separate cultural interests. They are isolated in their gated communities and feel limitless contempt for the less fortunate:

The members of the new upper class are seldom attracted to the films, TV shows and music that are most popular in mainstream America. They have a distinctive culture in the food they eat, the way they take care of their health, their child-rearing practices, the vacations they take, the books they read, the websites they visit and their taste in beer. You name it, the new upper class has its own way of doing it.

For its part, mainstream America is fully aware of this condescension and contempt and is understandably irritated by it.

These observations provoke a few thoughts. Take them for what they are worth.

First, this type of social stratification reminds one of the class structure in South American nations. Many of those countries are run by oligarchies of the rich and the privileged. They are divided between the rich and the rest, with a relatively small middle class.

Second, beginning with the 1960 presidential election a culture that respected the military and hard work was replaced by a culture that extolled celebrity and inherited  (that is, unearned) wealth.

1960 America more closely resembled the military, where generals did not make hundreds of time the pay of sergeants. Society looked up to soldiers and to the efficiencies and effectiveness of military-style organizations.

Today’s America resembles the Kennedy administration. When JFK took over, he inaugurated a cultural revolution in which a ruling elite, a guardian class, “the best and the brightest” made the decisions. Its leaders were rarely from the military and often held the military in contempt. The guardians knew what was best for everyone and they helped produce a culture where their ideals, their view of what was best for everyone, would be imposed on the nation, whether the nation liked it or voted for it. The guardians were intellectuals and they used legislation and especially the courts to reconfigure the world as they wanted it to be.

As I have suggested, a martyred charismatic celebrity president cast an enormous shadow over American culture. The nation began its descent when it chose to emulate its fallen, martyred leader

Military and corporate leaders know that they should take responsibility for failure. If D-Day had failed Gen. Eisenhower was ready to accept full personal responsibility. The people who ran the Kennedy-Johnson administration, the architects of the Vietnam War, were so persuaded of their righteousness that they did not believe they could fail. If the war went wrong, it could not be their fault. They never apologized for their failure and produced a culture of arrogance.

“Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

Thus, they happily shifted the blame to soldiers and to military culture.

They decided that the fault lay with traditional American culture, the one that enslaved and oppressed peoples. They did not want to reform the culture; they wanted to overturn it, to expunge all evidence of the evil past and do penance for America’s sins. In Vietnam America was punished for its sins.

Thus was launched a grand social experiment. The culture would need to be re-engineered to foster racial integration and gender equity. And yet, the elites continued to send their children to private schools. They were happy to use the children of the rest of the nation is lab rats for their experiment, but they used their influence and privilege and wealth to shield their own children.

Similarly, the feminist war on men, launched in the name of equality, has had its greatest effect on working class white males. In part, Murray notes, the decline of white working class males derives from the fact that  manufacturing jobs have left the country. One ought to ask how much of  the responsibility lies with labor unions and the politicians who support them. Now that working class white males cannot compete in the new economy, the elites feel justified in treating them with contempt.

Upper class families have not suffered the effects of the feminist revolution as much as lower class families. In fact, the new sexual politics has decimated lower class families. One might blame it on economics, but one suspects that family structure was not destroyed by the far harsher Great Depression.

Murray describes the problem:

Work and marriage have been central to American civic culture since the founding, and this held true for the white working class into the 1960s. Almost all of the adult men were working or looking for work, and almost all of them were married.

Then things started to change. For white working-class men in their 30s and 40s—what should be the prime decades for working and raising a family—participation in the labor force dropped from 96% in 1968 to 79% in 2015. Over that same period, the portion of these men who were married dropped from 86% to 52%. (The numbers for nonwhite working-class males show declines as well, though not as steep and not as continuous.)

He continues:

In today’s average white working-class neighborhood, about one out of five men in the prime of life isn’t even looking for work; they are living off girlfriends, siblings or parents, on disability, or else subsisting on off-the-books or criminal income. Almost half aren’t married, with all the collateral social problems that go with large numbers of unattached males.

In these communities, about half the children are born to unmarried women, with all the problems that go with growing up without fathers, especially for boys. Drugs also have become a major problem, in small towns as well as in urban areas.

The different currents of the counterculture have converged in political correctness. Through it, in schools, in news reporting, in television shows, people are being told what to think. They are being barraged with politically correct opinions. They are being told that if they do not think the way the elites want them to think they are bigots or worse.

Then, their children go to school and are told what to think. If they do not toe the party line they receive lesser grades. Since everyone wants to belong to the intelligentsia and the moneyed oligarchs, they go along.

When it comes to controversial social issues, voting no longer counts. If your state votes against same-sex marriage, the courts will simply dismiss you as a bunch of bigots. If citizens feel disenfranchised, their voices silenced, they have good reason not to trust the system.

Often enough the courts do not decide cases based on the law. They decide based on the pressure from the media and from the intellectual elites. When they have to choose between the law and ideals, they tend to choose the latter.


sestamibi said...

PC has won in a rout. It is now the majority opinion in America, but that is not good enough. It wants to be the ONLY permissible opinion in America, by any means necessary.

I don't see how this can be resisted without violence. Better get a gun.

priss rules said...

Immigration kills two birds with one stone for the urban Lib Democratic elites.

Rise of color undermines the white voter bloc of the GOP.

Immigrants serve as buffer between affluent urban Libs and black crime.

priss rules said...

"For his part Murray believes that we have lost touch with the American creed, with our beliefs in the ideals of equality, freedom and individualism."

Murray is sold his soul to the 'gay' lobby. He signed onto 'gay marriage' to be invited to cocktail parties by the fancy crowd.

David Foster said...

Americans who work for a living and who do not have skills that are globally scarce (or connections and credentials that allow them to somewhat mimic such skills) have been hit almost simultaneously with 5 trends:

1) Globalization of labor markets...container freight made it possible for factories in Asia to compete with those in the US; the Internet has enabled similar competition in such fields as the reading of X-rays and the study of legal documents.

2) Expanded (legal and illegal) Immigration--creates labor-market competition on a local level

3) H-1B visa program--creates addition competition from people who are not on track to become stakeholders in the society

4) Automation--I'm not one of those who believes robots are going to take all the jobs; however, the long-term trend of technology-based is continuing and possibly accelerating somewhat.

5) The bad regulatory and tax policies that afflict so many industries and create additional pressures for all of the above alternatives for getting work done

It is that fact that ALL of these things are happening simultaneously that makes the economic outlook difficult for so many people. If you are a manufacturing worker, then your prospects are affected by 1,2,4, and especially 5. If you are a "tech" worker doing (let's say) server administration, then an offshoring contract may result in you being replaced by 1. Or cheaper workers may be brought in as in 3. Or your job may become unnecessary as a result of better admin software or a transition to cloud computing. etc.

Ares Olympus said...

I don't mind Charles Murray's long attempt at a narrative, especially agree rising inequality and social class is more important than race, but I'm surprised he doesn't talk about debt.

Debt has always existed, but never to degree it does now. In the the good old days you could be "dirt poor" and "flat broke", but now with debt, we can delay all hard choices and get our cake and pay for it later, for life-long indebtedness.

Now people don't worry about saving if they have access to credit, and access to credit means they can afford the minimum payments on their credit cards. And this behavior is more horrendous on the lower-middle class because they "abuse" inferior, higher interest, forms of credit, but exists all levels, like where people would refinance their mortgages, and borrow a bit more against the higher equity. So in the olden days people might buy their house at age 25-30, and have a 30 year mortgage, and have it paid off by age 50-60 and they could celebrate.

Elizabeth Warren gave a speech about this in 2007, on the "coming collapse of the middle class" where she looked at raw data and concluded that nearly all modern households are more vulnerable, less resilient. She determined this by seeing that the biggest expenses of a modern household budget were not negotiable, so when hard times come along, the discretionary expenses really don't make a difference. And she also found that all the materialistic items that people used to buy are now proportionally cheaper now, compared to back then, now benefiting by the relatively low cost imports.

And now the people I know who got married in their mid-30s choose to have a SINGLE child because they know how much it costs to raise a child. So strangely those who are most financially well-off are also the most concerned about living within their means.

And now we've also just passed through THREE great financial crises in the last 16 years, seen in the stock market booms and busts, currently on the upside, and yet I have to believe the ONLY reason people keep their money invested is because they don't pay attention, and simply assume all the experts are doing the right things, taking the right risks, and making sure suffient NEW DEBT is created every year to keep the stock values high, and dividends flowing.

And so if you put your money in at the right time, and had the right number of decades of investment, and carefully shift from unstable stocks to less risky bonds as you approach retirement, you can hit 65 with a good million or two million dollars and feel rich, for ONE YEAR. And then, if you live anywhere expensive, you'll find out that your new safe investments are making NO returns at all, and your funds will be drained by the time you're 85, ASSUMING you avoid a nursing home, and you suddenly get even more frugal, and spent the next 20-30 years in anxiety that you'll be broke before you die.

And that's the BEST case, while the vast majority at least don't have to worry about investments because they have next to nothing saved, and many cash out their 401k during a job loss, to make ends meet, and then have to pay large penalties for selling before 65, AND paying taxes, AND moving into a temporary higher tax bracket to sell. And most people now because of refinancing don't have their mortgage paid by retirement, and maybe even have car payments too.

One finance guy I like, Nate Hagens, said "We don't have a shortage of energy or money but longage of expectations" and I believe that's accurate.

The question comes down to how do we "invest for the future", and if we invest to get rich, you invest your money in things you don't care about, but offer better returns, and that determines the sort of world we're giving the future. And that's what we've been doing for 60 years now, and we still have no idea what sort of future we can fairly expect.

David Foster said...

"And now the people I know who got married in their mid-30s choose to have a SINGLE child because they know how much it costs to raise a child"

And why?

1) In many places, public schools are so bad or so spotty that you need to either plan on spending $$ for private schooling, or alternatively spend $$ on moving to a neighborhood with better schools.

2) College is increasingly expensive due in very large part to exploding administrative and "resort" expenses.

3) If the kids are being sent to day care, the costs are usually linear with # of children

What used to be considered the basic costs of, etc....are now surely lower as a % of income than they used to be.

Jim Sweeney said...

JFK was a PT boat commander in the So. Pacific; his older brother was killed in a plane crash over England while serving in the ETO; even Ted was in the Army.

Say again that those guys were anti military?

Sam L. said...

Ted was, Jim. Afterwards. Wikipedia says: "Kennedy enlisted in the United States Army in June 1951, signing up for an optional four-year term, which was shortened to the minimum two years after his father intervened.[10] Following basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey, he requested assignment to Fort Holabird in Maryland for Army Intelligence training, but was dropped after a few weeks without explanation.[10] He went to Camp Gordon in Georgia for training in the Military Police Corps.[10] In June 1952, Kennedy was assigned to the honor guard at SHAPE headquarters in Paris, France.[1][10] His father's political connections ensured that he was not deployed to the ongoing Korean War.[1][14] While stationed in Europe, he traveled extensively on weekends and climbed the Matterhorn in Switzerland.[15] He was discharged after 21 months in March 1953 as a private first class."

Ares Olympus said...

David Foster, no arguments from me on your list, and Warren's speech I linked talks about those items.

I actually do have a good number of younger coworker engineers who have 2 kids, and one my age is done with 4 kids, and as best I can tell they're just assuming "If you work hard, things must work out." so at least in the salary class optimism vs pessimism makes a difference.

But that's the whole debt-game in a nutshell. There's a promise "If you bet your future on debt, it'll pay off, and you can take chances and win." And for certain people that's still true.

I'm glad for a world where there's still optimists, but my own risk-tolerance requires a more conservative game, and so no kids myself, but people need childless "rich uncles" (rich meaning no debt, surplus income) without kids to help fill in some of the gaps for families.

OTOH, on family at least, I actually wish I could pay for some of my niece's community college costs, but my frugal nature objects when I see her trying to go to school part time, work full time, have her own place, and an open credit line she's not paying off, and my anxiety explodes - she isn't willing to compromise anything, so she's going to have to fail on her own.

She's a bad investment to anyone who actually cares for her to succeed in the long run.

Thomas Aquinas said...

This is a very good précis of a problem almost everyone is at least dimly aware of but few can articulate. Murray's (and the Founding Fathers') great omission is Judeo-Christian religion, for without it concepts such as equality, liberty and individualism are apt to be greatly misunderstood and distorted beyond recognition.

Laguna Beach Fogey said...

Bring on Civil War II. Let's get this party started already.

Anonymous said...

Laguna, if we have another Civil War, what do you say this one will be about? What will the sides be fighting for? -$$$

Stuart Schneiderman said...

For Jim Sweeney... Of course, John Kerry served in the military and then became a leader of the anti-war movement. I was getting at the fact that the brains behind the Vietnam war were the best and the brightest, academic intellectuals and the media elites. Later they became the foundation of an anti-war movement that attempted to salvage the reputation of JFK by pinning the blame on the military for being criminals and failures.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

sestamibi @February 14, 2016 at 8:37 AM:

"I don't see how this can be resisted without violence. Better get a gun."

The elites are stupid enough to try to take down the Second Amendment. That said, let them try to enforce it and confiscate firearms. People are not going to stand by idly and allow it. It will be a bloodbath. Remember what the British army was going to Lexington and Concord for... not so many of them made it home.

My bet is that the civil police authorities will not enforce it. I also don't believe the military will enforce it.

Reminds me of Andrew Jackson's quote: "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!"

For all the Left's arrogance, supposed strength with analytical intelligence, SAT scores in critical reading, and their high-minded prose, I've never understood what part of "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" is unclear. If they want to pick and choose their Amendments, I say we start quartering troops in their homes... soldiers with guns.

The truth? They don't like guns. Guns scare them. That's supposedly enough.

Dennis said...

IAC and sestambi,

Given that much of enforcement is the preview of the states I expect that confiscation of arms would be hard to enforce notwithstanding the number of legal gun owners and otherwise. Beside the fact that guns, and other needed items, are easy to make and the materials are readily available. It has always been a fiction on the left that they were going to order the military to attack their own mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, et al. This kind of action may lead to a reaction that the left has not considered since they have never been that interested in supporting individual rights and the Constitution.
Elections have consequences and that is why voting id so important along with understanding the ramifications of having people elected who are an anathema to the culture of this country.
What one should be worried about is the growing number of federal agents. from departments one might wonder why, carrying weapons. The federal government is buying a huge amount of ammunition as well. I expect that some may think of them as an army outside the control of the military that could be used agains't American citizens. remember that the ATF has been behind a number of questionable actions.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Dennis @February 16, 2016 at 8:04 AM:

Why have elections when a majority of sophisticated, educated, elite (read: politically correct) Supreme Court Justices can do your bidding? That way, elections don't have consequences... or at least they don't have to. You can make it up as you go along.

Would you ever have imagined that the Supreme Court would've made homosexual "marriage" a right under the Constitution, if I asked you 10 or 15 years ago? That's the consequence of this silliness of a "living constitution." It means there are no constraints... the text says whatever you think it says. My goodness, the liberal justices are citing international law in judicial opinions about what is to happen with OUR Constitution. They could find that the Second Amendment doesn't "bring people together" enough, and that "mean people" own guns.

And yes, the number of armed Federal agents is alarming. They are buying huge stockpiles of ammunition. NOAA bought 46,000 rounds -- probably to fight climate change. These huge ammo purchases have made it much, much more expensive for citizens to purchase ammunition in normal calibers for target shooting, etc. Homeland Security bought 4.3 billion rounds.

Remember: Gun owners are mean people, and mean people suck. Ask any Lefty. And you know... they're always right. About everything. Just ask 'em.