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The White Plight

Of course, not all young people wish to attend their parents’ school, even if they could get in. In our Princeton case, the book produced for the class’s reunion reported where many of them went. In fact, only two ended at Princeton-tier schools: one each at Harvard and Cornell. Some of the rest landed at Lehigh, Wake Forest, Denison, Penn State, Carleton, UCLA, Tulsa, Northwestern, NYU, Virginia Tech, and the University of Scranton. We leave to others whether we’re seeing downward mobility or simply regression to the mean. In any case, excellent educations can be had at these and similar colleges. The larger point is that most seats at elite institutions now go to applicants—many born abroad—whose parents attended less highly ranked schools or none at all. Murray will have to do more research if he is to prove that America’s elite is becoming more hereditary.


Honesty is one of Murray’s four “founding virtues”—along with industriousness, marriage, and religion—which he sees imperiled. As a measure of that quality among Americans—or its lack—he cites incarceration rates for white adults, which have been steadily rising. While most prison inmates are black and Hispanic, a not negligible 850,000 white men and women are also behind bars. He provides detailed data on arrests and sentencing, as well as probation and parole. “Whites in state and federal prisons,” Murray adds, “are overwhelmingly drawn from working-class and lower-class neighborhoods.” It’s probably true that most people who are convicted did something illegal. But looking only at who ends up in prison serves to make dishonesty largely a lower-class failing.

On honesty among his upper class, Murray concedes the “damning evidence of systematic wrongdoing” in the financial world. Even so, he says he is “not clear” on how far “a decline in personal integrity” has spread among the better-off. For so broad an assessment, prison statistics aren’t much help. If Martha Stewart, Bernard Madoff, and Raj Rajaratnam come to mind, not many more can be readily named. In white lower-class circles, almost everyone can point to a friend or relative or neighbor who’s been convicted. This is seldom the case among the middle class. Indeed, its members prefer not even to suspect there could be felonious conduct by people they know.

As it happens, information is available. In 2006, the most recent year for figures, the IRS estimated that it failed to receive at least $450 billion, because of failures to file, underrreporting, underpayments, and bogus deductions, most of these conscious attempts to evade taxes. There is reason to suspect that tax evaders come largely from Murray’s top 20 percent. Certainly, this fifth contains corporate executives and their counselors, some of whom are periodically caught violating laws. Almost every week, the invaluable Corporate Crime Reporter tells of yet another bank or brokerage house conceding that its employees committed security fraud; the same source tells of pharmaceutical firms admitting that people on their payrolls fixed prices or marketed products illegally. Usually, however, only the corporate entities are charged, not the executives who planned or tolerated the felonies. The firms are almost always allowed to pay fines and settle silently, without admitting wrongdoing. Prosecutors argue that this is the best they can do, since it’s hard to prove malicious motives to a unanimous jury. (Insider trading cases are easier, since they’re often built on whistleblowing or tapped information.)

Is there a tacit agreement to spare executives from hard time? The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, based at Syracuse University, has the only count I’ve seen of financial prosecutions that ended with sentences. In the twelve months ending in November 2011, the ninety-four US Attorney Offices nationwide recorded a total of 719 cases where the defendants were sent to prison.5 Murray seems to see low numbers like these as evidence of upper-class honesty. Hence he cites a 2005 IRS figure that of 31 million tax filings by corporations, proprietors, and partnerships, only 217 penalties were assessed for civil tax fraud. He does not seem aware of the Corporate Crime Reporter findings. Moreover, he does not ask how many of those filed returns were carefully reviewed for fraud; nor does he ask how often prosecutors, presented with evidence that suggests fraud, choose to press charges. (The statistics on the proportions of returns actually reviewed and the numbers of these that showed inadequate payment could be revealing but aren’t provided here.)


For his own part, Murray himself shows every sign of being what white connotes. He was raised in Newton, Iowa (1960 Census: 99.6 percent white, 98.4 percent native-born). He laments that citizens of his stock have lost their moral compass. Apart from blaming Lyndon Johnson, he seeks no deeper explanation behind his race’s fall from grace. Is it wholly implausible to suggest that white America’s time of power and preferment is coming to a close, both at home and abroad, and that such vigor as remains is being devoted to personal acquisitions and enjoyments? Hence a desperate air among Republican aspirants—after all, we know the race of the party’s base—hoping for a last hurrah as their era ends. Even if demography isn’t always destiny, it should never be discounted. To start, white Americans aren’t having enough children to maintain themselves. The nonwhite population is certain to keep growing, from immigration and reproduction. Jonathan Chait forecasts that in only thirty years they will be the majority of the electorate.6

Evidence of white eclipse is actually close at hand. Murray says little about Asian-Americans, other than that he sees their basic traits as “similar to those of whites.” Here he’s very wrong. In vital respects, they differ markedly, as the entries in Table B show. That Americans of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian descent work harder and more effectively is widely recognized, not least their excelling in competitions whites created. Nor from the many accounts I have seen does this drive center on the self. Bringing honor to one’s family is the major goal; a traditional impetus fosters mastering the modern world.


From Princeton to Berkeley, each year sees more places going to Asians on merit, with fewer white faces evident on competitive campuses. I wonder whether Murray would want to argue that if his whites were to truly apply themselves, they could match Asians on the SAT. (Currently, Asian women outscore white men.) Since he makes so much of genetics, does he think we are seeing signs of deterioration in the white strain?

Murray’s coda returns to his title: “our nation is coming apart at the seams.” The cause, as he sees it, is a preoccupation with self at every social level. Suburbanization segregrates the highly verbal from those who do most of the nation’s work. In Murray’s vision, we were to be not only a union of states, but a unified society. Thus the conservative mantra that any discussion of inequalities of income or privilege will set citizens against one another, indeed foment class warfare. While Murray doesn’t begrudge his cognitive elite its often lavish pay, he expresses concern over the “unseemliness” of much corporate conduct. A responsible ruling class doesn’t flaunt megamansions.

Murray wants a modern noblesse oblige: not just checks sent to charity but actual mingling, perhaps at Applebee’s. And, like Edmund Burke, he would have his lower class accept “their appointed place,” embracing honest labor and respect for authority. Nor is this entirely a pipe dream. When the Republicans muster majorities, they do it by rousing white voters below the median, lauding them as the nation’s bulwark. But such a strategy calls for casting other citizens as disloyal, undeserving, or immoral, not exactly a recipe for binding the nation together.


Murray’s reconfigured classes have emerged as if out of the air; they are not the product of organized interests or deliberate policies. Here Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence is a welcome antidote. He does not simply show the glaring increase in inequality since the 1960s. Almost every year has seen more of the nation’s income ascending to its higher layers, whether the top quintile, one percent, or the four hundred wealthiest families. He also shows how top tiers in management and finance devised ways to arrogate more money for themselves, at the same time using their political power to decimate unions. Noah observes that jobs aren’t sent offshore just for lower wages. Using foreign labor also offers relief from assertive American workers. I particularly recommend Noah’s list of solutions. He’s all for enlarging public payrolls, with WPA-style projects, rather than enriching private contractors. He would hire more IRS auditors to bring back revenue from Swiss banks. I especially second his call to “impose price controls on colleges and universities.” The increasing dependence of students on loans is creating a new indentured class.

Since his book is both much needed and a delight to read, the one caveat I have is offered in good spirit. On immigrants, I fear Noah relies too heavily on models purporting to show how wages have dropped because “undocumented” workers were more and more employed. Across the workforce, it may well be 2.3 percent or 3.7 percent, depending on your source. But those who feel the harshest impact are forty-year-olds who can’t see themselves in those $13.37 per hour jobs, which Murray turns into a commentary on their character. Such wages are accepted by—indeed, geared to—immigrants, who in their early years here are willing to sleep five to a room. Their prominence in meatpacking plants, kitchens, and twelve-hour taxi shifts not only attests to the function they perform in the workforce, but undercuts any consensus on a coherent immigration policy. Their presence is deplored by politicians while their services are sought by business managers. At all events, fewer businesses, including subcontractors for the largest ones, are willing to pay what were once viewed as “white wages.”

Noah knows, however, that as things stand, he cannot expect much when he calls for reregulating Wall Street, giving unions greater support, and making the rich contribute more in taxes. But he believes that his demonstration of growing inequality and his proposal to remedy it are worth a book. In contrast, it isn’t clear what’s the point of Coming Apart. Without much conviction, Murray calls for a quasi-religious “awakening.” Apart from this, he doesn’t feel that much can be done about the self-indulgence and indolence of his archetypal lower and upper classes. In fact, his world-weariness isn’t just about two classes and one race, but an entire nation facing a daunting century.

  1. 5

    “Fraud-Financial Institution Prison Sentences,” TRAC Reports, March 5, 2012. 

  2. 6

    Jonathan Chait, “2012 or Never,” New York magazine, February 26, 2012. 

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