Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Money Can Buy You Love

Paul Krugman has been putting up a number of posts over the last week expressing his annoyance with Charles Murray's new book Coming Apart and its emphasis on the social breakdown which underlies inequality in America. Broadly speaking, Krugman seems to think that Murray is obscuring the "real problem" that that top 1% of Americans make so much money by talking instead about the problems that the bottom 40% are suffering in relation to family breakup, illegitimacy and plummeting marriage rates.

In a post yesterday he says:
Lately inequality has re-entered the national conversation. Occupy Wall Street gave the issue visibility, while the Congressional Budget Office supplied hard data on the widening income gap. And the myth of a classless society has been exposed: Among rich countries, America stands out as the place where economic and social status is most likely to be inherited.

So you knew what was going to happen next. Suddenly, conservatives are telling us that it’s not really about money; it’s about morals. Never mind wage stagnation and all that, the real problem is the collapse of working-class family values, which is somehow the fault of liberals.

But is it really all about morals? No, it’s mainly about money.

To be fair, the new book at the heart of the conservative pushback, Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” does highlight some striking trends. Among white Americans with a high school education or less, marriage rates and male labor force participation are down, while births out of wedlock are up. Clearly, white working-class society has changed in ways that don’t sound good.

But the first question one should ask is: Are things really that bad on the values front?
[T]he truth is that some indicators of social dysfunction have improved dramatically even as traditional families continue to lose ground. As far as I can tell, Mr. Murray never mentions either the plunge in teenage pregnancies among all racial groups since 1990 or the 60 percent decline in violent crime since the mid-90s. Could it be that traditional families aren’t as crucial to social cohesion as advertised?
The thinking here seems particularly tone-deaf: Confronted with the fact that among the least educated and lowest earning Americans, illegitimacy has skyrocketed, marriage has become far less common, attendance of religious services has dropped, etc. Krugman concludes that since crime and teen pregnancy are down, it must be that people aren't much bothered by those social trends. Rather, the big thing that's worrying them is that their wages in inflation adjusted terms have been flat for the last few decades.

If anything, he's sure that the causality must run the other way: since men with only a high school education are finding it increasingly hard to get good jobs, this must account for the collapse in marriage, rise in illegitimacy, etc. If we could just give those people more money, they'd be happy. That marriage stuff -- maybe it's just not so important to them.

Of course, causal systems among people are inherently complex. Doubtless, the economic difficulties of those at the lower end of the education spectrum lead to family breakdown. However, more importantly, family breakdown leads to economic and educational problems. Krugman's blithe "nothing to see here" waves away the far more human topic into order to get back more quickly to discussing the fiscal policy issues he'd rather discuss when it comes to inequality.

No comments: