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Moral Rectitude Hits the Skids

Debunking Charles Murray … Again


I know the areas of Philadelphia that Charles Murray refers to in his new book Coming Apart and I’ve met and worked with the people, broadly speaking, that he purports to analyze from these areas. I lived in suburban Philadelphia from about the start of George W. Bush’s first administration until 2006. I put this forward as a temporal marker because anyone who cares to write about morality and American society during the years that I have been alive has some explaining to do.

To start, Murray’s central thesis is his same old same old—that declining morality and low IQs are the culprits keeping lower class people down. In this effort Mr. Murray’s analysis holds race neutral by comparing “white” communities to avoid the charge made against his earlier work that it is thinly veiled racist pseudo-science.

For those who have read Stephen Jay Gould’s well researched The Mismeasure of Man, little more needs to be written about Murray’s pet metric, IQ. For those who haven’t read it, Mr. Gould lays out the history of Intelligence Quotient (IQ) from phrenology through IQ testing. What Mr. Gould reveals is a history of delusion, hackery and pseudo-science around the development of the idea of IQ.

The basic method used by intelligence scientists is to begin with a conclusion about what intelligence is and then to arrange the evidence to support the conclusion. Spending inordinate amounts of time “proving” that one’s prejudices are true is the bread and butter of the social sciences (and hard sciences as well), but Mr. Murray has the dual misfortunes of working in a field with a long history of racist quackery on the cusp of a broad (and long overdue) public rejection of the notion that riches and power are evidence of virtue.

Mr. Murray’s analysis in his earlier efforts, including The Bell Curve, co-written with Richard Herrnstein, amounted to making the brave assertion that rich, powerful (white) people are smart and that poor, powerless people are stupid. How do we know this to be the case? Because smart people are rich and successful and stupid people aren’t. All that remained was to search long and hard to find evidence to support the thesis and the effort was completed.

Carrying this circular reasoning forward and adding metrics of moral rectitude like births out of wedlock and labor participation rates, Mr. Murray argues that the relative economic success of the richer, more educated Belmont is a function of the higher IQs and levels of moral rectitude than the people of Fishtown possess.

The public criticisms of Mr. Murray’s thesis have tended toward explaining the differences in economic outcomes via the actual economic history of the last several decades. Economist Paul Krugman, of the New York Times and Princeton University, provided a coherent response that illustrated that blue collar Fishtown has taken it on the chin economically with the decimation of America’s industrial base due to outsourcing. This is an entirely reasonable response, but it leaves Murray’s immorality charge untouched.

Mr. Murray argues that rates of out of wedlock births and labor participation (typical 1960s era measures of social stability) are the defining metrics of morality. But what makes them so? Why not define morality in terms of economic predation (greed, avarice); of publicly endorsing overseas military adventures that one is unwilling to go and fight one’s self (cowardice); of failing to know the details and consequences of public policies that one publicly supports (sloth), of being indifferent to the working conditions of the people who produce the goods (including the good folks of Fishtown) that Americans buy?

With morality thus re-defined, could choosing not to work or get married be considered virtues? Does making sub-prime loans to people whose lives will likely be destroyed by them add social value? Does selling insurance that is designed not to pay legitimate claims add social value? Does making armaments to be used in wars of economic conquest add social value? Might not the world be a better place if people didn’t do these things?

My point is not to replace Mr. Murray’s idea of morality with my own, but rather to suggest that his definition is designed to “prove” his point, not to engage in a public discussion of what morality is, what is moral, and the relation of morality to social well being. If I could suggest, one reason for setting up the problem as he has is that it limits the realm of possible answers, rather than engaging in actually searching for answers.

Philadelphia is interesting because its economic history is out in the open. The city was built from the inside out in time and one can follow its history from colonial times through the rise and decline of industry to the “knowledge worker” economy of the suburbs that began in the 1980s, but that came into its own in the 1990s and the 2000s. Mr. Murray’s Belmont’s relative prosperity was produced by the knowledge economy and his Fishtown is a remnant of the decline of industry. Paul Krugman provides the numbers that make this point but they aren’t needed—any monkey who bothers to get out of his car and look around can clearly see this.

Is it fair to suggest that virtue is contextual—that being employed making child pornography is not the moral equivalent of working at a homeless shelter or teaching poor kids to read? I’m quite certain that Mr. Murray would grant the point, but it doesn’t find its way into his analysis. So again, what makes working or getting married virtuous?

The view that work is in and of itself virtuous combines the 1960s welfare calculus of what will minimize public expenditure with the Protestant conceit that wealth and social position are evidence of God’s grace. But frankly, America would almost certainly be a richer and better place if the bankers, real estate developers, insurance executives etc. who populate the upper middle class and rich wrote poetry and wove baskets instead. And given the last few centuries of history, arguing that people are rich because they are virtuous (or intelligent) requires knowing less about the world than anyone else does, not more.

Charles Murray has a ready audience in the turgid depths of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, John Birch Society meetings in the rich suburbs of Boston and the blocks of Manhattan where the rich rarely venture out with we riff-raff because they don’t have to. The left generally prefers to argue in terms other than morality. I avoid the term myself whenever possible. But if Mr. Murray’s audience wants to argue morality, that is one that the left should relish.

Rob Urie is and artist and political economist in New York.