Monday, March 19, 2012

Calling a Bum a Bum

On the criticisms of Charles Murray’s book “Coming Apart” is that he doesn’t pay enough heed to economic factors as a cause of the growing divide in American society. In Sayurday’s WSJ, Murray responded to these critics with a piece called Why Economics Can't Explain Our Cultural Divide (sub req):

Start with the prevalent belief that the labor market affected marriage because of the disappearance of the "family wage" that enabled a working-class man to support a family in my base line year of 1960.

It is true that unionized jobs at the major manufacturers provided generous wages in 1960. But they didn't drive the overall wage level in the working class. In the 1960 census, the mean annual earnings of white males ages 30 to 49 who were in working-class occupations (expressed in 2010 dollars) was $33,302. In 2010, the parallel figure from the Current Population Survey was $36,966—more than $3,000 higher than the 1960 mean, using the identical definition of working-class occupations.

This occurred despite the decline of private-sector unions, globalization, and all the other changes in the labor market. What's more, this figure doesn't include additional income from the Earned Income Tax Credit, a benefit now enjoyed by those making the low end of working-class wages.

If the pay level in 1960 represented a family wage, there was still a family wage in 2010. And yet, just 48% of working-class whites ages 30 to 49 were married in 2010, down from 84% in 1960.

Murray presents further evidence to refute economic theories to explain the cultural decline and then offers additional suggestions for what could help reverse it.

The prerequisite for any eventual policy solution consists of a simple cultural change: It must once again be taken for granted that a male in the prime of life who isn't even looking for work is behaving badly. There can be exceptions for those who are genuinely unable to work or are house husbands. But reasonably healthy working-age males who aren't working or even looking for work, who live off their girlfriends, families or the state, must once again be openly regarded by their fellow citizens as lazy, irresponsible and unmanly. Whatever their social class, they are, for want of a better word, bums.

To bring about this cultural change, we must change the language that we use whenever the topic of feckless men comes up. Don't call them "demoralized." Call them whatever derogatory word you prefer. Equally important: Start treating the men who aren't feckless with respect. Recognize that the guy who works on your lawn every week is morally superior in this regard to your neighbor's college-educated son who won't take a "demeaning" job. Be willing to say so.

This shouldn't be such a hard thing to do. Most of us already believe that one of life's central moral obligations is to be a productive adult. The cultural shift that I advocate doesn't demand that we change our minds about anything; we just need to drop our nonjudgmentalism.

Unfortunately, experience shows that such cultural changes are often the hardest to bring about. Throwing more money at problems or creating new government programs to address them are all too easy. Asking our increasingly relativistic society to hold standards and apply judgment when those standards aren’t met is going to be a tall order.