Coming Apart Reviewed

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I just finished reading the best-selling Coming Apart by Charles Murray. I confess to not having heard of the book until I saw it in the store, but the cover of a champagne glass and a crumbled beer can instantly suggested to me that I was going to enjoy this new examination of the United States and its sociological disintegration of the past half-century.

Murray-coming-apartI grew up in a middle-class household in the mid-1970s, and two general ideas were banged into my head: (1) if you work hard and apply yourself, you can get ahead in this country; (2) people who rely on welfare or unions are lazy bums. Having (hopefully) grown up a bit over the ensuing decades, my views on these matters is somewhat tempered, but upon reflection, it has eventually dawned on me that the nature of American society from those days wasn't that bad.

As a kid, I adopted what in retrospect could be dubbed a strict laissez-faire disposition toward business and the economy. If you took a time machine back and described to my young self the state of affairs that we have today (e.g. a tax system heavily in favor of the rich; massively disproportionate distribution of wealth; the rich getting richer; the poor getting poorer, etc.) I would have cheered it. This goes to show not to put much stock in the economic philosophy of a teenager.

Charles Murray – himself quite obviously a libertarian and supporter of free enterprise – bemoans the changes in the United States as well. His focus is on the likely failure of what he calls the "American project", which he describes as:

"the continuing effort, begun with the founding, to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems….To be an American was to be different from other nationalities, in ways that Americans treasured. That culture is unraveling."

Coming Apart starts off with an examination of "upper class" and "the cognitive elite" of the modern day. The author builds a convincing case of the exponentially-higher value placed on a smaller and smaller group of highly-educated, high-IQ individuals and the disparity in compensation between this group (basically the top 5% of the country) and everyone else. In the 1960s, Murray describes a country in which, yes, there were rich and poor, but the difference wasn't nearly as great, and the physical and cultural separations were much smaller. As he puts it, "...there just wasn't that much difference between the lifestyle of a highly influential atorney or senior executive of a corporation and people who were several rungs down the ladder."

I also enjoyed his examination of helicopter parents (believe me, as a father of young children in the increasingly-competitive Silicon Valley, this is an area where I have deep experience). I again quote: "The downside is that the new upper-class parents tend to overdo it. The children in elite families sometimes have schedules so full of ballet classes, swimming lessons, special tutoring, and visits to that therapists that they have no time to be children." This is a sentiment keenly expressed by the late George Carlin.

Mr. Murray cites four developments that created the new upper class in the first place:

1. The increasing market value of high IQ;

2. The physical and cultural separation of the top 5% and everyone else, best exemplified by the "Superzips"(one of which, Palo Alto's, I wasn't that shocked to see);

3. The "college sorting machine" – that is, it is exponentially more difficult to get into, say, Harvard or Stanford now than it was fifty years ago. If you were even a little smarter than the average college applicant in the 1950s, you wouldn't have had much trouble getting into an elite school. These days, you pretty much have to walk on water; 

4. Homogamy: that is, the interbreeding of individuals with like characteristics, particularly with respect to IQ.

He also has an interesting discourse on what he considers to be the foundation of what American really is (or, should I say, was), which he calls the founding virtues: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion.

Coming Apart is as much a philosophical treatise as a sociological examination. On the topic of happiness, Murray defines it  as "lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole", drawn from four domains: family, vocation, community, and faith.

As he turns his eye toward Europe, it's clear he isn't going to win many friends overseas. He politely describes the continent as "a great place to visit" but….

..the view of life that has taken root in those same countries is problematic. It seems to go something like this: The purpose of life is to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, and the purpose of government is to make it as easy as possible to while away the time as pleasantly as possible – the Europe Syndrome.

I can't say I disagree with his assessment. He goes on:

Europe's short workweeks and frequent vacations are one symptom of the syndrome. The idea of work as a means of self-actualization has faded. The view of work as a necessary evil, interfering with the higher good of leisure, dominates. To have to go out to look for a job or to have to risk being fired from a job are seen as terrible impositions. The precipitous decline of marraige, far greater in Europe than in the United States, is another symptom. What is the point of a lifetime commitment when the state will act as a surrogate spouse when it comes to paying the bills?

And, as for the secularization of Europe:

Europeans have broadly come to believe that humans are a collection of activated chemicals that, after a period of time, deactivate. If that's the case, saying that the purpose of life is to pass the time as pleasantly as possible is a reasonable position. Indeed, taking any other position is ultimately irrational.

Most germane to our interest in the world of finance and the distribution of wealth is the "unseemliness" of the modern upper class, such as Aaron Spelling's 56,500 square foot house with 123 rooms and Henry McKinnell's $99 million golden parachute and $82 million pension he enjoyed after presiding over an era of plunging share prices.

Murray describes the upper class as having "abdicated their responsbility to set and promulgate standards. In short, he seems that highest echelon of the United States happily gorging itself on all its wealth (while simultaneously, ever-so-politically-correctly, taking pains not to offend any class, creed, or other background so as to draw unwanted negative attention to itself) and, ultimately:

The new laws and regulations steadily accrete, and America's governing regime is soon indistinguishable from that of an advanced European welfare state. The American project is dead.

Murray does save a brief section at the end of this volume to describe the prospect of the United States actually saving itself from this fate. The author states that the only hope is for data from the social sciences to convince citizens and its government to reverse the welfare state and the notion that every person is equally gifted, equally skilled, and equally capable. And, finally, that a religion-driven "Great Awakening" will change the tide of events.

Fat chance.

In any case, I enjoyed the book thoroughly. If you're interested in the United States, where it's been, and where it might be going, you might want to take the time to read it. It may be depressing, but no one gave assurances that reality would always put a smile on the face of every citizen.