In Coming Apart, Charles Murray tackles the widening inequality and distrust between the classes in our society. Murray argues that the growth in inequality is driven by higher wages assigned to high intelligence and the focus of his book is on the growing cultural chasm between what he calls the “cognitive elite” and the new lower class.
Murray refers to two fictional communities to describe the widening divide, “Fishtown” (where the new lower class live) and “Belmont” (where the upper middle class live). The book also focuses exclusively on white Americans. Murray focuses on this to focus the analysis exclusively on class and not on race.
The World of 1960
The book begins with a trip back in time to 1960. In 1960, there were rich people, but the their lives weren’t very different from other classes. Their houses were bigger, but a slightly higher square footage didn’t make them mansions. Their cars were nicer, but were largely similar to the sedans that everyone else drove and everyone owned American cars. Aside from occasionally going out to a fancy dinner, the meals that they ate were largely the same as everyone else. Americans all watched the same tv shows, read the same newspapers and lived roughly the same lifestyle.
There was a cohesive American culture. There wasn’t much disconnect between the views of elites and everyone else. This kept the elites largely in touch with the nation as a whole.
Today the residents of Belmont live a life that would be foreign to the lower classes in the country. They watch different tv shows, their news comes from different sources, they eat healthier, they exercise more, they don’t smoke, they go to expensive schools, they spend radically more money on childcare, they marry more, they divorce less, etc.
Murray attributes this divide to the country becoming a cognitive meritocracy. The popularization of standardized testing (like the SAT) in the 1950s and 1960s was designed to identify and propel smart kids to dramatic heights. To reward intelligence and ability instead of class. This effort succeeded succeeded and kids that would have probably stayed in their home towns their entire lives were now able to go to elite universities and earn six figure incomes. It also occurred at a moment when the economy changed in a way where cognitive abilities were rewarded more richly than ever before. They then married other smart people. Intelligence is hereditary, so their kids were usually smart as well. They then had the income to prepare these kids for standardized tests and elite universities. The cycle then repeats.
Meanwhile, the cultural and material dispersion that occured since the 1960s creates more choices than ever before for those with high incomes. This allows those high earners to create an entirely different life than those afforded to other classes. While a high earner in the 1960s lived in a large house, they lived in a house that would be familiar to most Americans and they shared most of the same cultural tastes. This is no longer the case.
Murray claims that the elites and the upper middle class are living in a “bubble”. In fact, he created a test to determine if you indeed live in a bubble. You can take the test here.
Murray believes that the differences in culture are accelerating the gap between the classes. The upper middle class is still defined by “traditional” marriage that rarely ends in divorce. They marry, they stay married, children are typically born during marriage and the parents stay together. They highly value education and push their children to focus on this area. This helps keep their wealth intact and sets their children up for similar success.
In 1960, social institutions were strong in Fishtown. There were community institutions that held neighborhoods together (churches, men’s organizations, etc.). Marriages remained intact. When marriages were unable to discipline and help children, neighbors and members of the community frequently stepped in. As these institutions collapsed since the 1960s, there has been a corresponding increase in various problems.
Marriage and two-parent child rearing are on the decline in Fishtown. Marriage is down, divorce is up.
Noteworthy is the decline of men in Fishtown. They are no longer the primary breadwinners. Without marriage and without work, many of these men men are rudderless and losing their sense of purpose. Women in Fishtown are thus more likely to be employed and taking the primary head-of-household role.
Men in Fishtown show steadily increasing rates of unemployment and lower incomes. Many would attribute this to globalization and a decline in working class jobs, but Murray points out that the decline was occurring when the economy was booming in the 1990s. With this decline in work, there has been a sharp rise in disability benefits in recent decades, despite less manual labor intensive jobs and advancing medical technology. The decline appears to be largely cultural.
Herein we get into a chicken or the egg argument. Are men in decline because of a lack of economic opportunity, or has the character of the men in Fishtown fundamentally changed? Murray addresses this issue by talking about the economic climate of the 1990s, in which jobs were plentiful, but were frequently difficult to fill. He also takes word of mouth anecdotes from business owners who talk about the difficulty they have in finding diligent workers.
Meanwhile, all of these trends are widening the cultural and economic divide between Fishtown and Belmont.
The book was written in 2012, but I think that it foreshadows the 2016 election. The Bernie Sanders insurgency on the Left and the rise of Donald Trump on the right took those living in the “bubble” completely by surprise. There was a deep dissatisfaction with the “elites” that drove the election. After reading this book, I think much of it is fueled by this wide class divide that Murray describes. Murray’s description of the bubble also explains why it took everyone living in the bubble completely by surprise.
Murray offers prescriptions for the shrinking the divide and all of them are difficult because they involve a fundamental change in culture. The government can certainly pursue programs to alleviate the economic causes of inequality, but I don’t really understand how we can collectively change the course of a culture.
I actually think the re-integration of the culture may happen on its own and hopefully with a more 21st century style. I certainly wouldn’t want to return to the social mores of 1950s America. The 1950s wasn’t all malt shakes, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and hula-hoops. There was severe racial segregation, marriage was a prison for many women and equal rights were certainly not enjoyed by all.
When it comes to divorce, it is a tricky issue. Murray contends that divorce hurts children and this is true when you look at the numbers. What’s difficult to measure statistically is how harmful parents staying in bad and unhappy marriages is to children. A major reason divorce skyrocketed in the 1960s and 1970s is because women finally had the freedom to get out of bad marriages, when in previous eras they remained trapped with emotionally abusive (or even physically abusive) men. Would we be better off returning to the era of the 1950s, when people married when they were 18-21 and barely knew each other and stayed in marriages that made them unhappy? I don’t think so. Bottom line, whatever new institutions we develop to address these issues, I certainly hope we don’t return to the marriage culture of the 1950s.
One of the worst ways to predict our cultural future is to take present trends and extrapolate them into the future. The U.S. has been through cultural divides in the past and overcome them. The Civil War was certainly more serious than today’s Budweiser/Dom-Perignon class divide. The post-World War II and pre-JFK assassination era of American history was an unparalleled era of social cohesiveness. Despite the divisions of the Civil War, Gilded Age and roaring 1920s, the pendulum eventually swung to social cohesiveness and I think the same will happen again naturally. The irony is that when it happens, I suspect we will find it soul-deadening just like the youth of the 1950s and 1960s did!
This is an investing blog, so I have to tie this back into that critical question that touches our souls: how do we make money off of this? 🙂
When reading about the bubble, I constantly thought that most people on Wall Street are living in a bubble and the bubble affects their judgment. If upper middle class people in suburbia are in a bubble, then wealthy financial professionals in Manhattan certainly are. Living in the bubble likely affects the values that they assign to stocks.
Two companies come to mind when I think of the bubble. One is Tesla. People with money are flocking to Tesla. However, at $83k per car, Tesla is so far out of reach for most Americans that they might as well be sold on Venus. Among the rich, Tesla is the epitome of cool. Elon Musk is cool. Electric cars, space tourism and hyperloops are cool. The problem is that cool is kryptonite to investors. A notable exception is Google’s 2004 IPO. Google was cool and it worked out. That doesn’t usually happen. You can ask anyone who bought a dot com stock in 1999, or even a legitimate tech company like Cisco back then. Tesla is barely making a profit and their market cap now exceeds General Motors! Interestingly, at the height of the tech mania, Cisco’s market cap exceeded General Electric’s. GM has 22 times the annual revenues of Tesla. The valuation makes no sense. It looks to me like the Murray’s cultural bubble is creating financial bubbles.
Another example is Shake Shack. Shake Shack is all the rage in Manhattan. They introduced one by me (I live in suburbia) and I tried it out. The meal was basically a double cheeseburger from Wendy’s and a frosty, but double the cost in a cool looking building. Except I thought Wendy’s was better. This is the cultural divide at work. In Manhattan, a Wendy’s burger and a frosty is a foreign concept. For the rest of the country, we drive by it every day. Shake Shack currently trades at 67 times earnings and 2.84 times revenue.
If you’re removed from the bubble, it’s probably easier to spot absurdities in the market than it is for your typical Wall Streeter. In that sense, stepping outside of the bubble can likely help you recognize opportunities in today’s markets.
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