Review of Coming Apart by Charles Murray (Thailand 1965-67)

coming-apart-140Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010
Charles Murray (Thailand 1965–67)
Crown Forum
407 pages
$27.00 (hardback)
2012

Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975–77)

WHILE READING CHARLES MURRAY’S NEW BOOK, I thought about our recent national obsession with civil discourse and events in Oakland, California. Since it never snows in Oakland, Occupy Wall Street has been very visible there. It would have been most illustrative to seat Mr. Murray at a cloth covered table, set on a high platform overlooking the street below. A finely dressed and polite moderator could have introduced him while the author poured himself a glass of water from an imported bottle.

“Charles Murray is an American libertarian, author and PhD invited here to explain that you do not have jobs because you are fat, lazy and dishonest sons and daughters of bitches.”

Murray cloaks these terms in ten dollar words and phrases but they represent his conclusions for the disappearance of the American working class. Forget the war on unions, the use of technology to cull the workforce in the name of efficiency and a tax system that rewarded giant companies for relocating overseas. Forget our Congress, filled with men (and women) who spend more time at tanning spas and hairdressers than they do actually writing laws. Forget our court system that has decreed a corporation a person except with more rights and a President who emptied the national cash register for bankers but never even proposed banking reform. It is all our fault. Shame on us!

This 407 page book is chock-full of cherry-picked statistics and unenlightening footnotes. The author has interesting conclusions. For instance, he ignores all historical comparisons of the American Standard of Living and concludes that “The poor didn’t really get poorer . . . Real family income for families in the middle was flat.” (p 50) When discussing the long hours (without overtime) that Americans now work, he concludes that we “live in a world where work has more of the characteristics of fun than ever before.” (p 43) Best of all, when he compares the working world of today to that of a half century ago, he concludes that “the world is usually the same.” (p 44) This sounds like an English Lord describing Serfdom. I was surprised that he did not propose a debtor’s prison.

Instead of cruising books and websites, the author could have offered much more had he simply bought used clothing at a flea market and tried to find a job with an extremely meager budget (like most of us). Hopefully, he would have found a real job — maybe as a Wal-Mart greeter since he is the right age. He would have discovered that his conclusions are as fictitious as a Disney cartoon which is possibly why his book was published by Crown Forum, the publisher of A Crown Imperiled: Book Two of the Chaoswar Saga and The Church of Liberalism Godless and not published by either of his alma maters: Harvard and M.I.T.

When analyzing the rich and powerful, Murray can be critical. He notes that “Washington is in a new Gilded Age . . . that dwarfs anything that has come before.” (p 294) He’s a libertarian so rules are bad and a spontaneous “awakening” is invoked. Didn’t Ronald Reagan imply something similar? Empathy and compassion are the children of sacrifice. Just as Reagan had Voodoo economics, Murray offers us Voodoo social theory. He bemoans a lack of social responsibility among our wealthy but completely ignores history. Our system is based upon greed, and unbridled, it is nobody’s friend. The Gilded Age gave birth to reform which is exactly our hope for this era.

This is a great example of how anyone with the right connections can get a book of nonsense published commercially. It is also a great example of how the Peace Corps experience does not necessarily spawn kindness, patience and wisdom. The experience can also produce acid-tongued know-it-alls.

Years ago after a night of mischief, my buddies and I often went to the local midnight movie theater showings. While smoking Mary Jane, we giggled at experimental films and old cartoons. So, Lorenzo sez five stars for Coming Apart. Buy it, toke-up, read and laugh until it hurts.  The next day, crawl on your knees in penance to the nearest libertarian and beg forgiveness. Offer to propose a debtor’s prison. It worked for Charles Dickens’ father, right?

Lawrence F. Lihosit is the author of various books including essays, short stories, poetry, history, memoirs and travel narratives. His latest book, Peace Corps Experience: Write and Publish Your Memoir will be published in April.  He is not nor ever has been a libertarian.

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28 Comments

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  • I like Lorenzo’s conclusions, although I haven’t read Murray’s book so I must be careful in my praise of the review. From what I have read about Murray’s book it appears to have been based on selective evidence, ‘cherry picking’ Lihosit calls it. Murray’s main points, as best I can tell, just don’t ring true for my part of the country. It will be interesting to see how the book does.

  • I do not intend reading Murray’s book. However, I do have some comments about Lisohit’s review.

    The Peace Corps produces, “kindness, patience and wisdom?” We all come to the show with our ideas, ideals, convictions, knowledge and expectations. We leave with them intact, altered, or rejected. The Peace Corps is an experience, not an indoctrination.

    Where the hell do people get the idea that American companies expand abroad to avoid taxes? They display not even a modicum of understanding of our tax system. The USA is the only country in the world that taxes its citizens, which by tax law includes corporations, on all income earned anywhere in the world. The other basic rule of our tax system is that tax is imposed when earnings are “realized” which means converted from investment to income.

    I have opened foreign operations for US firms, for companies in other countries, and assisted many more in doing so. Few people have had more experience in dealing with the tax considerations of gobal expansion.

  • Tax avoidance is one incentive to make an “off-shore” move, no question about it in my mind. There usually are other reasons too, but that’s one of them, for sure.

  • An American corpration, as an individuat American, must pay US tax on its income, no matter where the income is earned. Read the tax law. But then we are in the “Great Tax War of 2012″ which I predicted six months ago and we will hear lots of, to use my favorite Italian-American word,”bullashit,” this year.

  • Thanks for a fine review and fine writing, Mr. Lihosit. I greatly enjoyed the review and agree that the book is very selective and therefore twists the truth, which is typical of all conservative thinking. After all, they only talk to each other and only listen to the pack of lies created by Fox Fake-News. They might sometimes have PhDs but they are still profoundly ignorant and blind.

  • I used to think my Tea Party friends were a bit blind. Glad to see that the other side of the equation is similarly handicapped.

  • Leo- Sorry it took so long to reply. Reading is a chore with my eye condition.

    It’s a warm, sunny day here in Central California and I’m sorry that my little book review rained on your parade. Please keep the corporate float dry!

  • Since I haven’t read the book yet, I can only comment on Lorenzo’s assessment of it. It sounds like the typical Libertarian view of why things have gone wrong in this country. For those of us who got wiped out by the “Housing Debacle” and medical costs, I see things from a different perspective. I never aspired to be a millionaire or live in a “McMansion,” but any hopes of living a nice retirement life have been erased by the greed of others.I used to be a Democrat, now I’m agnostic! I’ll get by on my own, as I always have, no thanks to Corporations or the Government.Hope your new book is a success. I still have plenty of copies of mine, if you know of anyone who is interested in what we did during the “War.” Too bad I didn’t sleep with a president, I could sell more books!

  • I’m wondering why John Coyne chose Mr. Lihosit to review this book since Mr. Lihosit identifies himself as anti-libertarian and apparntley unable to find any value in a libertarian view of the US’s situation.. I haven’t read Murray’s book but I have read some detailed descriptions and Murray doesn’t hide the fact that he has a conservative, libertarian’s concerns about what is happening to the country’s poor and rich. He thinks the nation is dividing dangerously. I don’t think I share Murray’s views, but I think his basic concerns are valid and his arguments worth discussing in some rational manner. That didn’t happen in this review. so I don’t think this is a good review at all. To me, Mr. Lihosit’s review egregiously lacks “”kindness, patience, and wisdom” and seems to show little beyond an “acid-tongued know-it-all” attitude.

    So I’m wondering why John Coyne assigned Mr. Lihosit to review this book and, more importantly why he accepted a review that seems not to be a reasoned critique but, rather,what can easily be considered just a hatchet job.

  • Mr. Jones! You make me feel young again. I haven’t received hate mail since I left that first girlfriend. Thanks for the memory.

  • Holding aside John Coyne’s choice of reviewers, I’d say Lihosit has at least read Murray’s book. Economics Nobel Prize-winner Paul Krugman also read the book and writes in today’s NYTimes (Feb. 10):

    “Lately inequality has re-entered the national conversation. Occupy Wall Street gave the issue visibility, while the Congressional Budget Office supplied hard data on the widening income gap. And the myth of a classless society has been exposed: Among rich countries, America stands out as the place where economic and social status is most likely to be inherited.

    “So you knew what was going to happen next. Suddenly, conservatives are telling us that it’s not really about money; it’s about morals. Never mind wage stagnation and all that, the real problem is the collapse of working-class family values, which is somehow the fault of liberals.

    “But is it really all about morals? No, it’s mainly about money.

    “To be fair, the new book at the heart of the conservative pushback, Charles Murray’s ‘Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,’ does highlight some striking trends. Among white Americans with a high school education or less, marriage rates and male labor force participation are down, while births out of wedlock are up. Clearly, white working-class society has changed in ways that don’t sound good.

    “But the first question one should ask is: Are things really that bad on the values front? . . .”

    Take in his next seven paragraphs, and you’ll appreciate why Krugman concludes:

    “So we should reject the attempt to divert the national conversation away from soaring inequality toward the alleged moral failings of those Americans being left behind. Traditional values aren’t as crucial as social conservatives would have you believe — and, in any case, the social changes taking place in America’s working class are overwhelmingly the consequence of sharply rising inequality, not its cause.”

  • Mr. Jones! I didn’t like Murray’s book much so I guess we’re even. It’s another warm, sunny day in California’s Central Valley.

  • Two more comments. Phil, may I use your terrific phrase, “acid-tongued know-it-all?” Krugman says, “US is most likely place among “rich” countries to inherit economic and social status.” Several wealthy countries with relatively high tax rates, best example Sweden, have no inheritance tax. Better chance to inherit economic and social status there.

  • I too have not read the book, but have read a couple of reviews. The best backhand review comes from Paul Klugman in the NYTimes earlier today. In essence, it is about money, not morals,which has led to the declinein the middle-class family. As professor Klugman points out, the sociologist, William Julius Wilson showed back in 1996, “When Work Disappears: The New World of the Urban Poor,” that the alledged collapsing values of African-American families was attributal to the lack of blue-collar jobs in urban areas. This is precisely what is happening to the white middle-class, high school only diploma, today. The trend is to just blame morals, which fits the conservatives desire to pull out the unemployment compensation, job-training and the general safety net from Americans.

  • Hoping not to fan more back-and-forth flames re libertarian Charles Murray, I’d still like to note Michael Harrington’s “The Other America” published 50 years ago this month. In it, Harrington’s explained his culture-of-poverty idea and how it manifested itself in the U.S. But, as Harrington’s biographer writes in today’s NYTimes, “. . . in the hands of others, the idea came to signify an ingrained system of norms passed from generation to generation.”

    Biographer Maurice Isserman added, “Conservatives took the attitudes and behaviors Harrington saw as symptoms of poverty and [instead] portrayed them as its direct causes.” E.g., Murray’s 1984 book, “Losing Ground,” according to the March 3rd op-ed, “argued that welfare programs abet rather than ameliorate poverty.”

    I’d say that others, maybe Murray also, went on to blame the victims of poverty for causing their own poverty. Hopefully RPCVs, who live and work among the residents of South American barridas or African shantytowns, return to America having experienced how such residents are eager and able to overcome the circumstances of poverty if offered ways and opportunities to do so.

  • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I read The Other America in college but really can’t remember what it said. In fact, I threw my copy away decades ago. You see, I studied in an Arizona university, not known to support of working men and women.

  • Lorenzo, besides Michael Harrington’s “The Other America,” the drafting of the “Port Huron Statement” also marks its 50th anniversary this month. RPCVs in their 70s may remember SDS’ call for “participatory democracy,” just before Sarge Shriver launched the Peace Corps and afterwards, the Office of Economic Opportunity. Young Tom Hayden (a Catholic like Harrington) began drafting the “Statement” in March 1962, which was completed in June at a Students for Democratic Action conference. A March 4th New York Times op-ed quotes Hayden as recently saying that the “Statement” remains essentially true, and “the theme of participatory democracy is relevant today from Cairo to Occupy Wall Street . . . .”

    Once a student in Arizona, you now admit not recalling what’s in “The Other America.” But surely you remember this: after OEO Director Shriver launched LBJ’s War on Poverty, forms of participatory democracy were required in various community action programs funded across the Nation. Indeed, the Model Cities program, started later by HUD, also required neighborhood representation. Grassroots participatory democracy was so much in the air that in New York City two groups of neighborhood reps might warily eye each other in areas where OEO-funded programs operated next door to Model Cities programs. At least in NYC we successfully encouraged the competing groups to collaborate wherever OEO projects operated beside Model Cities projects.

    Head Start is the best known of the few programs that survived the almost total collapse of the War on Poverty. Still it’s comforting to believe that participatory democracy may have been rekindled in the Occupy movement and maybe even in the student-led Arab Spring, as Hayden claims. Or at least this old-timer, who looks back fondly on the dreams of the Great Society, would like to think so.

  • Charles Murray’s an interesting guy. After two years of Peace Corps, he’d “grown to love Thailand and not only completed [his] two-year Peace Corps hitch but stayed in Thailand for another four years working on the research side of rural development” (from his Public Affairs magazine critique of Cobbs-Hoffman’s 1998 Peace Corps book All You Need is Love). According to military historian Thomas Marks (in the January 2007 issue of Military Review), there were, in fact, some 200 personnel [in Thailand] assigned to an Advanced Research Projects agency as part of Ambassador Graham Martin’s counterinsurgency team, so Murray might well have worked for Ambassador Martin after Peace Corps. And Martin was a trip. He wound up as Anbassador in Vietnam, and his spooks were probably everywhere in Thailand, but I, at least, was very naive. In fact, some people say that whenever a government overseas job is described as being research, it’s really you know what, and that might really have been the case and may be so today. Anyway, after that Murray did a doctoral thesis at MIT in which he argued against bureaucratc intervention in the lives of Thai villagers (Wikipedia), and then began a long career at think tanks, finally making an appearance on the Charlie Rose Show in 2008. I even heard him talking on the radio about education one day last year…………just out of the blue……and he made a lot of sense. Still, based on what he wrote about Vietnam era Peace Corps Thailand draft dodgers (like myself) in his critique of Hoffman’s Peace Corps book in Public Affairs, he probably doesn’t like my way of thinking any more than Cobbs-Hoffman did. Still, I’d read his book……………it he agreed to read mine. Fat chance of that.

  • Tino Calabla:

    “Participatory democracy” has many facets. When it is mandated by the federal government and fueled by federal money, it can get resources to the people who need them, but it can not give them power. Power in our system comes from legal decisions and the electoral process. OEO staff were prohibited from participating in partisan politics, which is the source of political power. It created frustration on the part of both elected officials and OEO participants.
    That is why the decision was made in 1966, at the demand of mayors, that all OEO programs go through the elected officials.

    The other problem with “participatory democracy” or the community action/development programs I saw in Latin America is that “communities” are not autonomous, they are part of a larger governmental system. The community action junta, when they functioned well, could be in competition with local governments.
    They in effect could become a parallel system of government (particularly when they could access AID/CARE/UNICEF funding independent of the local government) and the tension between the two systems could cost destabilization and retaliation against those participating in “participatory democracy.” This is a recipe for revolution.

    These are my thoughts.

  • Federal employees, e.g OEO staff, may join parties, contribute to party funds, contribute to candidates for office, and such. What they may not do is act in a way that implies government backing or support for a party or its candidates. Nor may they run for certain offices.

  • Tino- Your experience probably trumps mine in that I lived, worked and studied in Mesoamerica a long time ago. I did write a master’s thesis about “Particpatory Democracy” in Mexico based upon a few years working with a political action group in Mexico City but it was written in Spanish. An English synapsis of the experience is included in my book Years On and Other Travel Essays. It was quite the education and something that haunts me to this day.

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