Monday, February 13, 2012

Ross Douthat's Weak Take on Charles Murray

Does the AEI Throw Really Good Parties? I ask because, except for the guy we know doesn't get invited1 to their shin digs, "moderate conservative" commentators seem to be lining up to a man to say, "Charles Murray wrote a great book with the wrong solutions, and liberals are idiots." Recall David Brooks, grafting his high school sociology onto Murray's notion of a "class divide" between high and low income whites. Now we have Ross Douthat lavishing praise on Murray for producing "a brilliant work", even though he thinks all of Murray's proposed solutions are dead wrong.

In a sense I should be grateful for the Times, and its pundits' tenth grade quality book reports - they read the book so I don't have to. I just wish they were more... capable when it comes to analysis.2 By way of contrast, within a few paragraphs Frum pretty much shatters the notion that there's anything brilliant about Murray's book,
Murray is baffled that a collapse in the pay and conditions of work should have led to a decline in a workforce's commitment to the labor market.

His book wants to lead readers to the conclusion that the white working class has suffered a moral collapse attributable to vaguely hinted at cultural forces. Yet he never specifies what those cultural forces might be, and he presents no evidence at all for a link between those forces and the moral collapse he sees....

This trend toward inequality varies from country to country—more extreme in the United Kingdom, less extreme in Germany. The subsequent destabilization of working-class social life likewise varies from country to country. But if the trend is global, the cause must be global too. Yet that thought does not trouble Murray.
Frum also notes that Murray cherry-picked a starting date in order to support his conclusions, whereas other starting dates destroy his argument. I argued in response to Brooks' piece that Brooks (and by implication Murray) ignored prior history. Frum points out that they also ignore subsequent history.
Let me instance another example of the unwillingness. In the first long quoted passage from Coming Apart, I asterisked one of Murray's statistical claims, a claim stating that wages have stagnated for the bottom 50% of the white work force. That claim is true if you draw your line, as Murray does, beginning in 1960. But put your thumb on the left side of the chart, and start drawing the line beginning in 1970. Then you notice that median wages have stagnated for the whole bottom 75%—and that the median wage only begins to show significant improvement over time when you look at the top 5%.

That number points in a very different direction from the one in which Murray would like to lead his audience. And this kind of polemical use of data is one—but only one—of the things that discredits Coming Apart as an explanation of the social trouble of our times.
Douthat offers a knee-jerk reaction to Murray's proposal to reinvent the existing social safety net in the form of a "universal guaranteed income":
Murray argues that our leaders should embrace his own libertarian convictions, scrap all existing government programs (and the dependency and perverse incentives they create) and replace them with a universal guaranteed income. This is a fascinating idea; it’s also fantastically impractical, and entirely divorced from American political realities. Which means that it’s divorced from any possibility of actually addressing the crisis that Murray so vividly describes.
Particularly when you're talking about pushing massive reform bills through Congress, it's always difficult to change an entrenched status quo. But is that the end of Douthat's analysis? "It would never pass, so it will never work"? It's fair to suggest that Murray should have offered a few realistic proposals along with a Gingrichian, "We'll change everything to be the way I want and then everything will work!" But Douthat seems to be saying, "Change is hard, so unless you show me an easy path to implementing solutions I would just as soon do nothing."

Par for the course, Douthat goes right into a hollow man argument about liberals, fabricating an argument that few to none actually hold, but which he pretends is representative and, of course, is easy to bat down.
Murray’s critics accuse him of essentially blaming the victim: the social breakdown he described may be real enough, they allow, but it’s an inevitable consequence of an economic system that Republicans have rigged to benefit the rich. In the liberal view, there’s nothing wrong with America’s working class that can’t be solved by taxing the wealthy and using the revenue to weave a stronger safety net.3
That invites the usual challenge: Okay, Ross, name one liberal outside of the irrelevant fringe who actually takes that position. You can't? Then why are you pretending it's representative of liberal views.4 A dose of reality from the unapologetic liberal, Paul Krugman, a guy whose column can't be particularly difficult for Douthat to locate,
So we have become a society in which less-educated men have great difficulty finding jobs with decent wages and good benefits. Yet somehow we’re supposed to be surprised that such men have become less likely to participate in the work force or get married, and conclude that there must have been some mysterious moral collapse caused by snooty liberals. And Mr. Murray also tells us that working-class marriages, when they do happen, have become less happy; strange to say, money problems will do that.
His position, of course, bears no resemblance to Douthat's fictional liberal. The problem Krugman identifies isn't that we're not taxing the rich - it's that the pool of jobs available at the blue collar end of the job market is drying up and the jobs that remain offer lower wages and fewer benefits. Economic stress.

Douthat's proposed solutions to the plight of lower wage workers are, well, insipid. After telling us that we cannot afford to sustain our present entitlements, even if taxes are increased on the rich, Douthat argues,
The current tax-and-transfer system imposes a tax on work — the payroll tax — that falls heavily on low-wage labor, and poor Americans face steep marginal tax rates because of how their benefits phase out as their wages increase. Both burdens can and should be lightened. There are ways to finance Social Security besides a regressive tax on work, and ways to structure benefits and tax credits that don’t reduce the incentives to take a better-paying job.
Okay, Ross, please describe exactly how we are going to fund Social Security if we reduce FICA taxes, and how will your plan do anything but add to the hysterical debate, driven by your political party, that Social Security is running out of money and must be slashed or abolished? And which benefits and tax credits do you imagine are keeping people out of higher wage jobs?

Is Douthat a child of privilege? It seems pretty clear that he has never worked a low-wage job - the type of job where a raise of twenty-five or thirty cents per hour is a big deal. Who does Douthat imagine is turning down pay raises because of the unidentified "benefits and tax credits" he imagines are a deterrent to seeking higher wages? I will grant that there's an uncomfortable period when you're earning well into the six figures, when you lose a great many tax credits and benefits available to lower wage earners, are hit by the alternative minimum tax, and pay an effective tax rate higher than people who earn vastly more than you do. But that's a problem for the top 10%, not the bottom 30%, and people who have worked their way to the top 10% don't appear to be giving up on work.

Douthat also argues that the best way to increase wages for the working poor is... to take more parents out of the workplace. Because nothing raises the living standard of a two-income family like having one parent lose a job.
Second, if we want lower-income Americans to have stable family lives, our political system should take family policy seriously, and look for ways to make it easier for parents to manage work-life balance when their kids are young. There are left-wing approaches to this issue (European-style family-leave requirements) and right-wing approaches (a larger child tax credit). Neither is currently on the national agenda; both should be.
Did you get that? Right after telling us how horrible it is that we "structure benefits and tax credits" in a manner that reduces "the incentives to take a better-paying job", Douthat argues in favor of benefits (extended paid maternity and paternity leave) and tax credits ("a larger child tax credit") that are intended to temporarily or permanently remove one parent from the workforce. Did you also catch that this proposal crashes head-on into Douthat's criticism of Murray - the type of subsidy that would improve or even sustain the living standards of working class families while one or both parents took extended parental leave or one became stay-at-home are "entirely divorced from American political realities".

I know Douthat doesn't like to hear this, but another way that people at the bottom of the labor pool can position themselves to advance is by deferring parenthood while they get established, and having smaller families. Douthat appears to be the sort of man who is deeply disturbed4 by the idea that women might have active sex lives without becoming pregnant.

I'll agree that our nation has implemented a maze of policies, primarily relating to eligibility for public assistance or and taxes, that create a disincentive to marry. It's fair to argue that we should revisit some of those policies, even if it means that some marginal households receive additional benefits due to the continuation of benefits based upon individual earnings instead of reducing or eliminating benefits based on family earnings following marriage, but the balance isn't easy to find and even if you found it you would likely have Douthat arguing that the best solutions are "fantastically impractical, and entirely divorced from American political realities".

Douthat next argues that the nation "shouldn't be welcoming millions of immigrants who compete with" low-wage workers. He pretends that while society as a whole gets some benefits from immigration, "it can lower wages and disrupt communities" and that we're effectively "ask[ing] an already-burdened working class to bear these costs alone." By this point I am not sure that Douthat understands anything about immigration, taxation or payment for public services. Douthat then endorses the strategy of "the leading Republican candidates" to "welcome more high-skilled immigrants" (I guess they don't compete for jobs?) and "mak[e] it as hard as possible for employers to hire low-skilled workers off the books" - something his party talks about from time to time, but generally obstructs.

Note also how Douthat sidesteps the issue of illegal immigration, as if there's a huge pool of legal immigrants fighting for minimum wage jobs as opposed to a huge pool of undocumented workers who are often willing to work for less than minimum wage. If we are talking about illegal immigration, Douthat needs to address the reality that people in his economic class or above (e.g., Mitt Romney or Walmart) utilize illegal immigrant labor on a routine basis, because it's cheap, they don't want to maintain their pools, lawns and tennis courts themselves - and it's not a problem as long as they maintain plausible deniability. When states have been effective in, say, keeping farmers from utilizing undocumented workers to harvest crops, we've had problems with crops rotting in the fields. I'm not sure what population of legal immigrants Douthat imagines are preventing citizens from getting near-minimum wage jobs.

Douthat's final argument is,
Finally, if we want low-income men to be marriageable, employable and law-abiding, we should work to reduce incarceration rates. Prison is a school for crime and an anchor on advancement....
Except the principal barriers to employment for an ex-offender are a lack of job skills and a criminal record. Reducing the number of people we incarcerate could offer other social benefits, but it's not going to transform a population of marginal workers into highly desirable, employable workers. In case Douthat didn't notice, crime rates tend to go up in communities that have higher unemployment rates and fewer government services. It's great to talk about "larger police forces", but given the budget crises that are particularly acute in high crime communities and how Douthat's own party demagogues on the subject of government employment, that doesn't seem particularly realistic. And recall, at least when other people's ideas are on the table, Douthat is quick to declare that if it's not politically easy "it's divorced from any possibility of actually addressing the crisis".

The idea of prison being a "school for crime" is interesting, given that over the years I've represented a number of people who have been in prison. It wasn't my observation that they were becoming better criminals due to their periods of incarceration. It was more that the smarter criminals don't get caught (at least not as often), insulate themselves from the most visible aspects of their criminal enterprises (e.g., supplying cocaine to the street dealers as opposed to doing the actual dealing), or find "legal" ways to steal money. (Conrad Black, for example, continues to fume over his incarceration for what he and his lawyers contend was a perfectly legal looting of his corporation.)

If Douthat wants to get on board with the tiny but growing population of prominent conservatives who are finally taking note of the extreme cost and limited benefit of our 'prison nation', and join with the left to fashion, implement and fund community-based policing and penalties that should, over time, help maintain and even reduce our presently low crime rates and allow states to realize cost savings through the closing of prisons, great. But I won't hold my breath waiting for him to get started.

Fundamentally, Douthat makes the same mistake as Murray and Brooks, believing that the solution to wage stagnation and a loss of job opportunities is "to make it easier for working-class Americans6 to cultivate the virtues that foster resilience and self-sufficiency." Working class white Americans, that is. Krugman notes,
Back in 1996, the same year Ms. Himmelfarb was lamenting our moral collapse, [sociologist William Julius] Wilson published 'When Work Disappears: The New World of the Urban Poor,' in which he argued that much of the social disruption among African-Americans popularly attributed to collapsing values was actually caused by a lack of blue-collar jobs in urban areas. If he was right, you would expect something similar to happen if another social group — say, working-class whites — experienced a comparable loss of economic opportunity. And so it has.
I guess it's easier for people like Murray, Brooks and Douthat to ignore history and to imagine that society's troubles come from a sudden transformation of human nature from what we saw in the decades and centuries preceding 1963, but no. Human nature hasn't changed. The opportunities and incentives available to low-wage earners have changed.

And speaking of incentives, I suspect that it's more than just AEI parties. If as a conservative pundit you don't pimp the right books, candidates and ideas - even when they're bad - you don't get the book contracts, speaking fees, invitations, and celebrity treatment that gilds your life. If you don't believe me, ask David Frum.
1. Via mythago.

2. Or is it a question of honesty?

3. Douthat also argues, "It was globalization, not Republicans, that killed the private-sector union and reduced the returns to blue-collar work." It's fair to say that globalization was not exclusively a Republican idea or priority, but Douthat appears to believe that it happened in a vacuum, and appears to be ignorant of how nations like Germany took a different approach to globalization with a much different effect on its manufacturing base and wages.

4. Stupid or lying? Fool or fraud?

5. Per that article,
[Douthat] first gained attention for Privilege, a bittersweet 2005 memoir of his years at Harvard, where the drinking, partying, and hooking up left him feeling alienated. Of one alcohol-fueled fling, he wrote: "Whatever residual enthusiasm I felt for the venture dissipated, with shocking speed, as she nibbled at my ear and whispered—'You know, I'm on the pill.'...On that night, in that dank basement bedroom, she spoke for all of us, the whole young American elite. Not I love you, not This is incredible, not Let's go all the way, but I'm on the pill."
It's more than reasonable to infer that Douthat didn't want to make a baby - but it completely ruined the mood when he found out that the girl expressing interest in him had taken precautions.

6. Douthat appears to be following Murray's thesis here, such that he actually means "white Americans." If he doesn't see this as a racial issue, he should distance himself from that aspect of Murray's thesis.


  1. I can't believe even the NYT gives Douthat a platform.

    And I thought liberals were supposed to be mindlessly pushing unions as a solution to the working class's problems?

  2. I recall hearing Douthat described as a thoughtful conservative back when he was "a blogger", checking him out, and not seeing much of anything of note. He has had plenty of time since he got the job with the Times to disabuse me of that first impression, but he has done nothing but reinforce it. Worse, although always a partisan, he seems to becoming more of a hack.