Friday, March 9, 2012

Narrowing the Class Divide

Charles Murray's new book "Coming Apart" discusses class divides in America, but doesn't propose how to lessen them. To rectify that, Murray offers ideas on how to lessen class divides here in a New York Times Opinion column.

Of Murray's suggestions, the one that seems most obviously needed is to change affirmative action from being ethnic-based to socioeconomic class-based. As Murray puts it "It is absurd, in 2012, to give the son of a black lawyer an advantage in college admissions but not do the same for the son of a white plumber." (I'm not sure about the plumber part -- those seem to do pretty well around here, but his point remains.)

I'm less convinced by Murray's other ideas:
1. Get rid of unpaid internships. OK, but as Murray notes, children of the rich can still better afford to work for minimum wage than the children of the poor and middle classes.
2. Replace aptitude (SAT and ACT) tests with achievement (advanced placement) tests. Again, as Murray notes, it won't work, as the same kids whose life experiences and special classes prepare them for the one can just as well prepare them for the other.
3. Drop the B.A. degree as a requirement for jobs. I have several friends who are ABD (all but degree) who would love this change, as it would let them more easily be considered for jobs for which they consider themselves very well qualified. However, speaking as a former hiring team lead, finishing a college degree rather than almost doing so does still show one important characteristic in a job seeker: ability to complete a difficult assigned task, on time and without supervision.

Murray also mentions, but rejects the idea of Universal Service, a year or two of military or peacetime service for everyone at a certain age. Murray feels it would just teach people to game the system, and build resentment rather than rapport. I'm not so sure. Seems to me it could be really good for our country, as it has been in other countries, so long as no one could get out of serving. Robert Heinlein's SciFi classic "Starship Troopers" suggested only those who serve be allowed to vote, which makes sense. To vote well, voters need some skin in the game. I'm reminded of our emergency dispatcher in Pawnee, IL decades ago, who was quadriplegic, but still very effective.

My own favorite idea for reducing class differences would be to make estate taxes completely unavoidable for net worths beyond the value of a small farm or business. That would help start each new generation on a more level playing field.

Overall, I agree with Murray that class is now the social barrier we need to reduce for the future good of our country. Economic mobility, both up and down, is essential to what differentiates America from both first and third world economies. Having a permanent nobility or aristocracy here would destroy most of what I love about America, but seems well underway when people suggest (for example) that only people named Bush, Clinton or Kennedy are qualified to run for high office.

Hat tip to Instapundit for the link.


  1. I share the goal of facilitating mobility, which has slowed considerably in recent decades. The USA has less economic mobility between generations than other rich democracies, including Canada and Britain.

    I also agree with your proposal on the estate tax, which Republicans want to abolish.

    There's report for 2010 that richest 1 percent captured 93 percent of the nation’s income gains.

  2. This is pure 99% brainstorming, is it not? I'm all for it. For my own suggestions, I try to reach for the simplest solutions with the least over-reaching interference with personal liberty. (Go figure!)

    1. Provide incentive to narrow the pay range in corporations. Limit corporation salary and compensation expense to something like 20x the lowest paid worker, or a comparable calculation on the median salary. Sure, they can pay more--but at a higher tax burden. You could probably go a step further, and label this pay as high-value earnings and tax it at a higher personal rate for the executive.

    2. How about the tea party and 99%ers get together on a campaign to promote a new "trickle-up" economic theory that essentially argues that as we saw in the late 90s, as the working class becomes more employed, more insured, and more educated, profits flow up to the higher earners with less social cost and waiting for results than in the opposite trickle-down theory that we seem to keep trying to go back to despite its very poor track record.

    3. I think Obama had a smart and manageable idea in the SOTU 2012: Reward colleges that keep tuition affordable, and remove incentives from colleges with less affordable tuition. I'm sure the devil is in the details in how you implement it, but the idea is to encourage colleges to eliminate economic barriers as they provide their value.

    As for Murray's ideas, they sound awful based on your mention here. He seems to miss the point of Affirmative Action (IMHO to combat deep-seated biases that systematically injure a class of people), and he seems to miss the point of education and aptitude as training and predictors of success.


Welcome! Feel free to disagree, but please try not to be disagreeable about it. Like my dad, I'm often wrong, but never in doubt.