Authors and commentators Charles Murray and Robert Reich generally agree that America is “coming apart”—the title of Murray’s recent book on the widening gap between the country’s sinking working class and its prospering upper-class elite. They agree, too, that if this dire situation is allowed to fester, then America is apt to become more like Europe—divided by class, sclerotic in its economy and society.
But Murray and Reich agree on little else. As public intellectuals who represent the conservative and liberal perspectives, respectively, on issues of economic mobility, they fundamentally disagree on the root causes of the deterioration of the working class. Murray blames a decay in cultural values, stemming in part from permissive social policies, while Reich indicts structural changes in the economy. As they disagree on the diagnosis, they also clash on their prescriptions, a dispute reflected in the nation’s inability so far to address the growing gap between rich and poor and the attendant threat to society’s cohesion.
Murray is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington whose books Losing Ground (1984) and The Bell Curve (1994) wreaked havoc in social-policy circles. Reich, secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, is a professor of public policy at the University of California (Berkeley) and the author of Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future (2010). In separate interviews, each laid out his views and responded to the other’s arguments.
Is working hard these days enough to rise in economic and social status, or does one have to be born with money or talent?
MURRAY: You never really had a great deal of social mobility if you were born without talent. There has never been a time that has been better to be born with talent than now. The university system has gotten really, really good at identifying academic talent, no matter where it comes from, no matter what race or socioeconomic status.
REICH: He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’ve been teaching at one of the best public universities in the country, and during the time I’ve been here—about eight years, all told—I have seen a marked decline in the economic diversity and racial diversity of this university. That’s largely because of budget cuts [in California] affecting accessibility, but also because of budget cuts at the K-12 level, which makes it harder for kids from lower-income families to get an education that qualifies them for college. Unfortunately, it’s becoming the norm across America.
Your core argument, Charles Murray, is that America’s working and upper classes are separating along the lines of marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity. So we are in the realm of cultural values.
MURRAY: Yes, and behaviors that are determined more by culture than by economics. What’s gone on includes a very large component of what can only be described as male fecklessness. You have more adult men who can’t make themselves get up at the same time every morning and go to work. Who can’t deal with subordinate-supervisor relationships. Who feign injuries when they don’t have them. There’s been a very large increase in that kind of male behavior. And unless we’re willing to confront that, a great deal of the way we think about the inequality problem is going to be misconstrued and be misguided.
Robert Reich, what’s your take on Charles Murray’s diagnosis of “male fecklessness” as a core problem for the working class?
REICH: I think he has cause and effect backward. The working class is falling apart because structural shifts in the economy have generated lower and lower wages for male workers, and women without much education are generating even lower wages. Those changes have been well documented. A shorthand way of putting them is: globalization and technological change. Technology itself has supplanted a large number of jobs—the assembly line is gone.
“We’re losing … faith in the kind of Horatio Alger story, even though much of that was mythological.”
So what needs to be done?
REICH: Without unions, without an adequate system of education, without sufficient investments in job training and infrastructure and access to community colleges, without a national industrial or economic strategy designed to give the middle class, lower-middle class, and working class—and, I might add, the poor—genuine opportunity, we’re going to see wider and wider inequality.
MURRAY: I’m trying to think to myself what kind of public policy could conceivably provide a job market, from working class to upper-middle class, that is going to be better than the one we saw in the last half of the ’90s [and until 2008]. I am hard-pressed to see how it is that public policy could do what that economy could not do.
Your solution, Charles Murray, is for folks in the prospering upper class to show others by example how values like marriage, industriousness, and religion can improve lives?
MURRAY: I would like the upper-middle class, and especially the elites, to openly celebrate those kinds of families, that kind of behavior. One of the main virtues of stigmatizing some people is that it enables you to praise others. I really would like to have a restoration of this common bond that used to exist, whereby somebody who was in the upper-middle class said to someone in the working class who shares this commitment to these kinds of values, “He’s my kind of guy, he’s one of us. He’s a real American.”
REICH: It would be preferable for most families to have two income earners. I don’t particularly care about whether they’re married or not. But the cultural aspects I would focus on much more are the decline of social solidarity, the declining sense that we’re all in the same boat and that, as citizens of the same country, we have responsibilities to one another.
Does a class-divided, unequal America end up as Europe?
REICH: We certainly could. One of the great strengths of this country is that we have not had an aristocracy. We were not born out of feudalism. We have had a strong middle class, and we have cherished in economic terms our upward mobility, so that anyone in America can make it with enough guts and gumption. But what we’re losing is that faith in a meritocracy, a faith in upward mobility, a faith in the kind of Horatio Alger story, even though much of that was mythological.
MURRAY: We’ll be Europe. Essentially, we’ll be indistinguishable from France and Germany and the rest. We will have a much more extensive welfare state. The upper class will feel no more kinship with the working class than the French upper class feel with French peasants, which is very little kinship.
Does this mean the end of American exceptionalism—the idea, so powerful in our history, of our innate specialness?
REICH: I’m not a declinist at all. I also have great faith, judging from my study of American history, that, at some point, our political process will respond to the problem of widening inequality and diminishing upward mobility. We are very practical as a nation. We are pragmatic. We are not particularly ideological relative to other places around the world. When we understand the nature of a problem, we roll up our sleeves and get on with what has to be done.
The question in my mind is how much damage has to be done in the interim before we actually get to those pragmatic solutions.
MURRAY: It will be gone.
The writer is a contributing editor to i and the author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age.
This article appears in the September 21, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.