Where did the work ethic go for Charles Murray?

Charles Murray “has said all of these things about black people before” — Joan Walsh, review of Coming Apart in Slate.

When you’re well past your prime of peddling racist venom to elites who want to feel better about themselves, you have to reinvent things for the new century. Charles Murray has long argued the intellectual inferiority of African Americans, but arguments such as those in The Bell Curve depend on a readership with sufficient unearned wealth, well-funded leisure that makes the case for “you’re just smarter than the little people” attractive. In an age when many very wealthy people work long hours–and whatever else you think about Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and many others, “layabout” isn’t a descriptor–that argument doesn’t hold water, because many wealthy people think the reason why they’re wealthy is because they busted their butts all those years, in addition to any native talent. So the explicit arguments about intelligence may appeal to the heirs of Sam Walton, but the real audience for such dreck is very thankfully a rapidly-shrinking pool of monied troglodytes.

In the new year, here comes Murray with a brand-new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, and if you want a taste of it, you can read his January 21 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. There’s a growing cultural divide between professional and working-class whites, Murray argues, and he’s worried. I would be, if I were him–oh, not the inequalities in the United States (which he attributes to cultural differences a la David Brooks) but his own work ethic. Okay, so he figured out he has to eliminate the argument that he’s a racist, so he’s now picking on poor white people instead of minorities. But he didn’t go much further. I mean, if I were a racist wanting to make this type of argument, I’d scour the world for social-science arguments about class differences and work ethic, to paper over the recycling of old ideas you’ve used many times before with both old and new ideas people haven’t picked apart when you use them (because you haven’t yet). So Murray refers to David Brooks a few times–good enough, mate. But I did a quick check using the Google Books internal search (that’s the link above to the book: GB, so you can replicate my search), and there is no reference to recent social-science research that a skilled polemicist might turn to one’s advantage. Look, all you haters, the “marshmallow test” meme has spread far and wide, so you might as well misuse Roy Baumeister’s research on willpower. And while you’re at it, scoop up everything Annette Lareau says about concerted cultivation, because you can easily turn that into a “the parents’ fault” argument you can dress up with carefully-selected and partially fabricated anecdotes.

But Charles Murray didn’t do that. He didn’t even look to his bookshelf for the old standby from Weber about the Protestant work ethic. And that’s what worries me: what is the world coming to when Charles Murray won’t use what’s in front of his nose for a new book? The racist for the chattering class has become even lazier in his old age, and one must then worry about the fate of the world.

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One response to “Where did the work ethic go for Charles Murray?”

  1. Glen S. McGhee

    Murray is wrong, America isn’t “Coming Apart.”

    This is the first big problem. As far as I can tell, America is coming apart on paper only (he uses statistics — but what do you expect from someone trained at MIT? ). Murray finds a threat using paper, and finds its roots using, you guessed it, paper.

    Of course America has problems — hasn’t this always been the case? But Murray is so, oh very retro — isn’t he?

    All these problems that he cites were at the forefront of American Labor one-hundred years ago. From 1860 to 1900, labor evolved and developed, when Taylorism and Fordism hit, demanding massive changes of the social organization of the labor force — bringing the focus on efficiency, and return on capital.

    As David Montgomery (1987) showed, during this period, massive inputs of labor, mssive mergers, and a steadily declining ROI had corporate and investment interests scrambling for an edge. Technological advances and specialization (division of labor) gave these interests added attention that Taylor and his associates exploited.

    The consensus of 1860-1900 was lost with the influx of immigration, and THIS resulted in big changes in the corporate suite — Ford opened its “Sociology Department” (the forerunner to the HR dept), where resurrected social reformers visited homes, initiated changes, all geared toward developing the right set of worker values.

    Murray’s suggestions for the elite come perilously close to just such paternalism. Just in time for the upcoming generation of slackers. The difficulty is, he will not be taken seriously due to the lack of job opportunities. One-hundred years ago, there was the reverse problem — too few workers, so attention was paid to reforming them.