Noah Smith and Charles Murray are wrong

I’m currently working on a piece on inequality and mobility for Salon, and it’s going to be great. I’ve been thinking about the issues a lot, and I was surprised to see Noah Smith, a great economics blogger, write something I find pretty off the mark. He writes in support of Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart:

But there is a lot in this book that is neither mistake nor distortion, and identifies a major social problem in America today. Murray is not the first to report on the problem – I talked about it here before I had even heard of Coming Apart. But Murray brings a lot of numbers and details that really drive home the scale of the problem.

Basically, America is separating into aristocrats and peasants.

Murray never uses those terms. But that’s what it is. On one hand you have an upper-middle class and upper class who go to good colleges and have skilled jobs. These people tend to have healthy family values – they get married and stay married, they pay a lot of attention to their kids. They are civically engaged and physically healthy. On the other hand you have uneducated masses, who tend not to stay married, to leave child-raising to single mothers, and to neglect the kids. They are overweight, bedraggled, and disengaged from the community. The former he calls “Belmont”, the latter “Fishtown”, after two semi-imaginary neighborhoods where they cluster.


Murray correctly identifies education as the key thing separating the aristocrats from the peasants. But he also places too much emphasis on money. I know poor schoolteachers who live the “Belmont” lifestyle, and rich small businessmen who are as “Fishtown” as they come. Our threadbare aristocrats are a little like the Confucian scholar-gentry of old China. Our peasants are pretty recognizable too – they’re the lower classes from the Canterbury Tales.

If you live in America, you must have an inkling of these changes too. If you’re one of the educated class – and if you’re reading this, you probably are – then you must have had at least a glimpse of how the other side lives. You must have seen the awful “food” that they eat, the wrecked, destroyed state of their bodies. You must have at least seen hints of their broken, family lives. Just the other day I got my hair cut in a poor white neighborhood, and the barber spent the whole time telling me about “that bitch” who was the mother of his children. No matter how thick the Belmont Bubble, you must have seen hints like this. And if it doesn’t hurt you to see Americans living that sort of unhealthy lifestyle, then I don’t know what to say to you.

I honestly think this sort of thesis is wildly odious and I honestly hope to receive a tweet from Noah saying it was an elaborate hoax to parody absurd Conservative beliefs about poverty and inequality. Really, the whole post amounts to a grand example of post hoc ergo propter hoc, or as David Frum put it in his six part (!) review of Murray’s silly book,

To understand what Murray does in Coming Apart, imagine this analogy:

A social scientist visits a Gulf Coast town. He notices that the houses near the water have all been smashed and shattered. The former occupants now live in tents and FEMA trailers. The social scientist writes a report:

The evidence strongly shows that living in houses is better for children and families than living in tents and trailers. The people on the waterfront are irresponsibly subjecting their children to unacceptable conditions.

When he publishes his report, somebody points out: “You know, there was a hurricane here last week.” The social scientist shrugs off the criticism with the reply, “I’m writing about housing, not weather.”

Coming Apart details the social problems that have overtaken the poorer half of the white American population over the past generation. This population is less committed to the workforce than its parents and grandparents were. It has more trouble with the law. It has more children outside marriage.

None of this information comes as news to anybody. Social observers have been making these points for years. The novelty of Coming Apart is Charles Murray’s remarkable—and telltale—uncuriosity as to why any of this might be happening.

That is, maybe all of these bad things that are happening to American families are happening because of inequality, rather than what is causing the inequality. Now, the reason that elites and economists like the story Murray presents is because it makes them feel better about their success. “Hey man! I earned this!” they say. And people who aren’t doing so well, it’s because they are dumb stupidheads and promiscuous and lazy. Murray presents four virtues he thinks the richies have that poor people don’t:  industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. Let’s take them one by one.


The first value Murray discusses is honesty, and he points to two trends: higher incarceration and higher rates of bankruptcy among the poorer men. Murray does not question why the incarceration rate increased, rather, readers are left to assume it was a decline in honesty. In fact, numerous public policy factors explain the increase. William J. Stuntz of Harvard Law School argues in The Collapse of American Criminal Justice that the cause is three-fold: a collapse of rule of law, increased discrimination, and harsh sentencing . All of these disproportionately hurt the poor, who face stiff punishments while white collar criminals seem to avoid punishment altogether. Barbara Ehrenreich notes the irony, “Steal $400, you get four years in prison. Steal $600 million, you get a platinum parachute.” Because white collar crime is not “in your face” the sentencing isn’t as harsh. In contrast, petty crimes are often met with unreasonable response. As a result of the “three strikes law” in California, 360 people are serving life sentences for shoplifting. Twenty-four states now have some such “habitual offender” law. Two criminologists found that only 12 percent of the increase in the prison population between 1980 and 1996 and was due to increases in criminal offence (mainly drug crimes) while 88 percent was due to longer sentences and criminals being sentenced to prison rather than a non-custodial sentence . Becky Pettit and Bruce Western found that the risk of prison is highly correlated to education. The evidence indicates that policy, and not a lack of values has increased incarceration among the poor. Murray’s bankruptcy argument is similarly weak, since much of the recent debt accumulation has been caused by the “race to the good neighborhood” and most bankruptcies are brought on by medical costs (62.1 percent).


Next, Murray examines marriage, currently declining among the poor and working class. Marriage is a good, so if it is languishing, an underlying reason may become apparent. There is certainly an economic component to divorce. In the 2009 report, State of Our Unions, compiled by the Institute for American Values Jeffrey Dew writes, “newlywed couples who take on substantial consumer debt become less happy in their marriages over time.” In contrast, owning assets increases the likelihood of a marriage lasting. Finance is, in fact, the leading cause of marital strife,

More generally, conflict over money matters is one of the most important problems in contemporary married life. Compared with disagreements over other topics, financial disagreements last longer, are more salient to couples, and generate more negative conflict tactics.

Another change in marriage is structural. New technology reduces the economic incentive to marry, while birth control reduces the social incentive. Women can now pursue careers and are unwilling to be burdened down by marriage. The current generation is waiting longer to get married, decreasing the number of married couples. At the same time, divorces from the tumultuous 1970s are still inflating the number of divorcees. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers explain the result:

the proportion of the population who are divorced continued to rise through the 1980s and 1990s, and has only begun to level out in recent years. Thus, despite lower divorce rates and greater marital stability today, a larger proportion of our social networks are divorcees than at any point over the past century.

Although marriage rates may be more stable today, there has been an explosion of single motherhood, which may lend credence to Murray’s thesis. Two researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research (Melissa Schettini Kearney and Phillip B. Levine), however, find that single motherhood is largely driven by other factors:

the combination of being poor and living in a more unequal (and less mobile) location, like the United States, leads young women to choose early, non-marital childbearing at elevated rates, potentially because of their lower expectations of future economic success.

A report by the British Rowntree Foundation had a similar finding: “young people born into families in the higher socio-economic classes spend a long time in education and career training, putting off marriage and childbearing until they are established as successful adults.” Women in the slow track, in contrast, face “a disjointed pattern of unemployment, low-paid work and training schemes, rather than an ordered, upward career trajectory.” This is largely due to “truncated education.”

United Nations, 2011

The chart above shows that countries, like the United States and Britain, which both have low levels of mobility have significantly higher rates of teenage pregnancy, lending credence to the thesis that Pickett and Wilson propose. Obviously, the absence of fathers is important, but as Pickett writes, “young men living in areas of high unemployment and low wages often can’t offer much in the way of stability or support.” Pickett and Wilson find a high correlation between inequality and single-motherhood and absent fatherhood. Although correlation is not causation, since fatherhood, childbearing, and marriage are all goods, it is unlikely the large swaths of the population would abandon them unless driven by external factors. If institutions, and not culture, are driving single motherhood and teenage pregnancy, then institutions can help ameliorate the problem. This seems to be the case: four researchers at the National Institute of Health found, “The overall pregnancy risk index declined 38%, with 86% of the decline attributable to improved contraceptive use. Among adolescents aged 15 to 17 years, 77% of the decline in pregnancy risk was attributable to improved contraceptive use.”


Murray’s next value is industriousness. He argues that even during times when the economy has been improving, the middle class and poor have been dropping like flies out of the labor force, an assertion that is demonstrably false. A 2005 study by the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank found that,

[labor force] participation rates are pro-cyclical—positively correlated with economic output—and that the strongest correlation for males and females is between GDP today and participation two and three quarters from today. This supports the contention above that labor force participation decisions respond to changes in economic output with a slight lag.

Worse, Murray isn’t only wrong, he’s diametrically wrong. The report finds that the decline in labor force participation decreased more with more educational attainment:

In fact, labor force participation rates have risen among individuals ages 25 to 64 who lack a high school diploma—from 58.3 percent in 1994 to 63.2 percent in 2004. All other education groups have experienced declines, and the higher the education level, the greater the decline.

Thus, we see that those with the highest education (and thus most likely to be wealthy) are actually the most likely to leave the labor force.


Murray’s final argument is religiosity, which he argues has been on the decline among the working class. Ronald Sider writes in Just Generosity that this may be a significant perpetuator of poverty, “the best predictor of whether young black inner-city males would escape the syndrome of drugs, crime, and prison was church attendance.” The author of the study he cites, Richard Freeman, acknowledges the possibility of alternate causation, that those who are more likely to escape from poverty are those who also attend church, and that church attendance follows from other behaviors. He even writes,

youths’ allocation of time and other activities are significantly influenced by market opportunities (or the youths’ perceptions thereof), with those who believe it would be easy to find a job if they had to find one more likely to engage in socially productive activities than others, and youths who see many opportunities to make illegal money less likely to engage in socially productive activities than other youths.

Either way, Murray argues that the working-class has become less religious, although his statistics suggest, as Freeman’s do, that the real problem is simply less churchgoing, since the church provides a safety net and social network, offering job opportunities and negative pressures on destructive pressures. The data suffers from questions of reporting accuracy; one study found that actual attendance was 50 percent lower than the reported number. Further, is it religion, or the social aspect of religion that accounts for its benefits? If the benefits come from the social network, it is possible that the decline in religious involvement may be compensated elsewhere with other forms of community involvement. Past studies have shown that church attendance can be driven by demographics, since younger people are less likely to regularly attend church. Given that income increases over an individual’s lifetime, this could explain the low attendance among the relatively poor (they are also relatively young).

My argument is that the cultural decline that we are all supposed to take Very Seriously is really do to the very inequality that elites want it to legitimate. I like Noah’s blog, and he has a great post on the labor/capital question that supplements well my Salon article on the topic.

5 thoughts on “Noah Smith and Charles Murray are wrong

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