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Saturday
Feb252012

The Fall of "Fishtown"

A while ago, I picked the January 2012 issue of conservative journal The New Criterion (Volume 30, Number 5) from a local newsstand.  The issue caught my eye because it had a symposium on the question “Is America in decline?”, a topic I find fascinating as a futurist and someone interested in Peak Oil and similar phenomena.

One of the essays on the purported decline of America was “Belmont & Fishtown” by Charles Murray, summarizing Murray’s book Coming Apart, which discusses “The State of White America”.  (Presumably “white America” specifically for rhetorical reasons, given the fate of Murray’s most famous work.)  Murray discusses the richest and poorest of whites, using Belmont and “Fishtown” as emblematic labels for these groups.  Murray’s conclusion is that since the 1960s, “Fishtown” has gone into deep decline in terms of American core values (Murray refers to such as “Founding virtues”).  “Belmont” has avoided such decline, but become isolated (geographically (for more on that topic, see Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort) and in terms of tastes and preferences (becoming David Brooks’s bourgeois bohemians).

Murray talks about four values in his study:  Marriage (and single vs. married birth and parenting), industriousness (Murray just looks at hours worked and participation in work force), honesty (Murray just looks at crime rates), and religiosity (which Murray posits causes increased civic engagement, but I’d say that it’s just correlated to civic engagement in general; church attendance is just a civic engagement thing religious people do).

Why did this happen?  Murray goes into little detail (at least in the short essay version of his work, I have not read the book).  One reason cited is the sorting effect of elite universities, coupled with financial aid.  This is an unintended consequence of meritocracy, the best and brightest, no matter how poor, are able to escape from troubled “Fishtown” (and, presumably, ensconce themselves in isolated “Belmont”), leaving “Fishtown” with even less social, cultural, human, and financial capital to deal with its escalating problems.  (Affirmative action would presumably bring the same effect to a broader cross-section of de-facto-segregated communities, but Murray doesn’t discuss this because he’s focusing on whites.)  As the problems get worse, the best and brightest of “Fishtown” have fewer opportunities where they grew up and more incentive to leave.

There’s one big thing missing from Murray’s explanation, though, perhaps best explained by a graphic like this:

(Excerpt from a graphic by the New York Times, from this opinion piece, HT Nick Huber.)

I’d say that’s the real power behind the wedge that’s driving “Fishtown” and “Belmont” apart.  I’d guess that the decline in the top marginal tax rate has something to do with that phenomena, though that came too late to be the primary cause.  Once you have the wedge of economic inequality (that is, declining economic opportunity that disproportionatly affects those already worse off (and pretty much anything will disproportionately affect those already worse off)), all sorts of feedback loops start up related to Murray’s metrics:

  1. Marriage: Less economic opportunity means fewer people can find a match who will make them better off. Job-related stresses also take a toll on relationships.
  2. Honesty: Less economic opportunity means more desperate people on the fringes.
  3. Industriousness: Murray asserts that divergence on this metric began when demand for labor was still high, but work that pays less (relative to national standards of living) is still less motivating.
  4. Civic Engagement: Less economic opportunity means less funds for church dues and other activities.  Increased job stress may mean less time/energy for other activities.
  5. Honesty + Marriage: Harder to get married if you’re a criminal.
  6. Honesty + Industriousness: Ditto for finding employment, even if it’s available.
  7. Honesty + Civic Engagement: Why participate in your community if you don’t like/trust your neighbors?
  8. Civic Engagement + Marriage: A good context to meet people, and in terms of child rearing in or out of wedlock, you’re more likely to care about social censure if you’re a member of a social group in the first place.
  9. Civic Engagement + Honesty: Building the sort of trust and norms that discourage crime.
  10. Any one of those four + itself: Norms change, it’s a vicious cycle.  The sorts of capital that keep these metrics high is also driven out when they decline.  Successful people leave, organizations move or cease to exist, webs of trust break down.

The above isn’t an inclusive list, and that’s not all that’s going on.  Technology has a role to play, too, and given my earlier points about the Robot Revolution (related), I expect the trend in the graph above to get worse.

I think both liberals and conservatives are aware of the decline Murray discusses, though I’ve seen rhetoric from both sides accusing the other of being in denial.  The underlying problem is largely untargeted by either side.  Liberals only have the political power to defend stop-gap measures that help the poorest of the poor.  Conservatives deny that a gap between productivity and wage growth is a problem, or suggest that the poor will pull themselves up by their own bootstraps if only liberals stopped “helping”.  That line misses two things:  First, the “rising tides lift all boats bit” doesn’t really fit with the psychological reality of the situation, which is that people judge how well off they are relative to others in their society, so economic inequality means social breakdown even if standard of living continues to rise.  Second, there seem to be some implicit and very rosy assumptions about the form such bootstrap-pulling would take, especially if the “social safety net” really is removed (or overwhelmed).

(There’s been about Murray going around the blogosphere (especially among alt-righters), some posts to start on include this speculation about Charles Murray and the Future and this review of the book.  I’d be curious to see more left-wing reactions to the book, too, if there are good ones to read.)

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