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Charles Murray, Bill Maher and Materialism

Charles Murray’s new book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” has been making waves in typical Murray fashion. Murray, W.H. Brady scholar at AEI, argues that America has, over the past 50 years, experienced a new class divide between what he calls an “upper middle class” and “lower middle class.” Yet this divide, Murray believes, has nothing to do with economic inequality we so often hear prattled about. Rather, Murray believes such a divide has to do with the erosion of American civic culture. For more, listen to our very own RJ Moeller’s recent chat with Murray. I have yet to finish the book (more reactions will surely come), but in observing Murray’s exchanges throughout the media, I’ve been struck by the left’s reactions to his thesis, particularly their rejection of his belief that social decay might just kinda sorta have social causes (as opposed to purely economic ones). Case in point: “comedian” Bill Maher’s reactions, as displayed in the following exchange: As Murray quickly points out, Maher is simply wrong on the data: purchasing power has stayed the same when adjusted for this, that and the other. See Murray’s explanation in his recent article in the Wall Street Journal:
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… …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.
Yet even if Maher was persuaded on this particular data, I trust he’d only get more creative with the numbers, for who can deny the unstoppable, exploitative power of bourgeois prosperity? For Maher and other progressives, this is not about data; it’s about an underlying faith in the evil of economic inequality and the transcendent power of material equilibrium. Material. Material. Material. Skyrocketing divorce rates? Follow the money. Absent fathers? Move that money around! Obesity epidemic? Give more funding to public schools. Widespread theft and burglary? Heck, have we tried more government coupons? As AEI’s Arthur Brooks argues in his book, “The Battle,” such ideology is driven by “raw materialism,” rejecting those fundamental things that drive human happiness and flourishing: family, charity, self-control and earned success. These features—those that drive human flourishing, and, I believe, build and/or repair the social bonds and networks necessary for restoring our civic culture—are far trickier to channel than the materialistic progressives assume. Achieving social order and healthy economic prosperity is far more difficult and complicated than simply signing Legislation X and ensuring Millionaire Y doesn’t accumulate too much wealth. It involves contemplating our dreams and vocations. It involves sticking to our commitments and moral obligations. It involves taming our selfish desires and impulses. It involves having a proper moral outlook and ensuring that ethical behavior follows. And, if you believe what I believe, it involves making sure the will of God reigns supreme through it all. But hey, if you want it to be all about the money, culture will respond accordingly. Thus, as Murray argues in his response to Maher, what we are witnessing is not a problem of economics, but a problem of human dignity:
I’m talking about working class communities which were not rich in 1960, and it’s not that they didn’t have problems. It’s that the communities functioned because of a civic culture in this country that cut across social classes—that lay behind a phrase that was in common use then that really isn’t now: the American way of life. And it was understood across classes in ways which didn’t mean that we were all economically equal, but there was kind of an equality of human dignity.
An “equality of human dignity.” Yes. Let’s shoot for that.