Can you write about class without mentioning money? Charles Murray tries in Sunday’s Washington Post, and the results make for very, very strange reading.
Get into a conversation about television with members of the New Elite, and they can probably talk about a few trendy shows — “Mad Men” now, “The Sopranos” a few years ago. But they haven’t any idea who replaced Bob Barker on “The Price Is Right.” They know who Oprah is, but they’ve never watched one of her shows from beginning to end.
Talk to them about sports, and you may get an animated discussion of yoga, pilates, skiing or mountain biking, but they are unlikely to know who Jimmie Johnson is (the really famous Jimmie Johnson, not the former Dallas Cowboys coach), and the acronym MMA means nothing to them.
They can talk about books endlessly, but they’ve never read a “Left Behind” novel (65 million copies sold) or a Harlequin romance (part of a genre with a core readership of 29 million Americans).
They take interesting vacations and can tell you all about a great backpacking spot in the Sierra Nevada or an exquisite B&B overlooking Boothbay Harbor, but they wouldn’t be caught dead in an RV or on a cruise ship (unless it was a small one going to the Galapagos). They have never heard of Branson, Mo.
There are so many quintessentially American things that few members of the New Elite have experienced. They probably haven’t ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club, or lived for at least a year in a small town (college doesn’t count) or in an urban neighborhood in which most of their neighbors did not have college degrees (gentrifying neighborhoods don’t count). They are unlikely to have spent at least a year with a family income less than twice the poverty line (graduate school doesn’t count) or to have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian. They are unlikely to have even visited a factory floor, let alone worked on one.
Murray here is offering a less splenetic version of the argument urged by Angelo Codevilla in his Limbaugh-promoted new book, The Ruling Class.
America’s elite, insist Murray and Codevilla before him, is defined not by money and power, but by educational credentials and consumption choices. Watch Mad Men? Backpack? You’re in – regardless of whether you are a doctor earning $200,000 a year or an investment banker earning $200,000 a week.
Do I exaggerate? Listen to Murray himself as he does research in the New York Times wedding announcements:
Three examples lifted from last Sunday’s Times: a director of marketing at a biotech company (Stanford undergrad, Harvard MBA) married a consultant to the aerospace industry (Stanford undergrad, Harvard MPP); a vice president at Goldman Sachs (Yale) married a director of retail development for a financial software firm (Hofstra); and a third-year resident in cardiology (Yale undergrad) married a third-year resident in pathology (Columbia undergrad, summa cum laude).
Murray reads that passage and to him the key words are Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia.
But there’s Yale and then there’s Yale. I’d wager the fee Murray received for his article that the Yale-educated cardiologist mentioned above has never talked to his or her U.S. Senator. The Yale-educated Goldman VP? His senator calls him.
Murray appears to wish to define the American elite in such a way that it excludes Philip Anschutz, Larry Ellison, and Sarah Palin (all of whom have lots of money and power but unlavish educational credentials), but includes everybody who shops at Zabar’s. It seems an unscientific way of proceeding.
The kind of analysis Murray offers reminds me of a great story in Michael Korda’s memoir of his family, Charmed Lives.
Michael Korda’s uncle Alexander had the habit of dismissing everything he didn’t like as “chi-chi” and praising everything he did like as “simple.” Cufflinks were chi-chi, for example, while loafers were simple. Beluga caviar thinly spread on melba toast was “chi chi.” Beluga caviar thickly spread on rye bread was simple. Dom Perignon drunk from proper champagne glasses was “chi-chi.” Dom Perignon drunk from cleaned-out jam jars was simple.
There’s a lovely arbitrariness to it, and the same is true for Murray’s scheme. I wonder if it ever occurs to him that Tim LaHaye – the minister turned author who has sold those 65 million copies of the Left Behind series – might belong to some kind of elite? He has money and power, doesn’t he? (LaHaye played an important role in securing evangelical support for George W. Bush in 2000.) But no: LaHaye is an evangelical Christian and so is by definition excluded.
Murray reports that Branson, Missouri, is off limits to the American elite. Accordingly, Glenn Patch – the area’s largest landowner, and if not a billionaire, then next door to it – must lack elite status.
Factory floors off limits to the American elite? I have to believe that more than a few members of the Forbes 400 have visited the factories they own. So that disqualifies all of them.
As I said: a strange way to think. You can call this kind of analysis many things – but social science sure is not one of them.
Reading Charles Murray’s slapdash article in yesterday’s Washington Post, the thought occurs: how does an intelligent man and serious thinker produce such silly work?
How do you end up with a definition of “elitism” based on favorite TV shows and vacation preferences – and with no regard to money and power?
Let me hazard a guess – or a “thought experiment” as Charles Murray might say.
Murray is of course right that there exists an American elite. Murray may be right that this elite has pulled further away from ordinary people than the American elite of say 1960. Murray does not prove the case, he does not even try. But intuitively, Murray’s case makes sense for a reason that Murray omits to mention: the American upper class of 2010 is so very much, much richer than the American upper class of 1960.
But here’s another difference between the elites of 2010 and the elites of 1960: The current range of elites have done a much, much worse job of governing the country than did their predecessors.
For a decade, almost all the news from the nation’s political and economic leaders has been news of failure and mistake. From 9/11 through the stimulus, we have careened from one mistake to another. The one success of the entire period from my point of view was the TARP – and even that success was only necessary because financial and political elites had steered us toward the worst financial collapse since 1931. Kudos to those who averted the worst catastrophe, but their work should never have been necessary in the first place. And even TARP leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth, because the price of rescuing the US (and world) financial system was another round of outsize financial rewards to those who had created the mess in the first place.
Now here’s Charles Murray’s intellectual problem, to which the Washington Post piece represents an attempt at solution:
The elites who created this havoc were both financial and political. They include the sort of people who staff the higher levels of the U.S. government – and the people who give to the American Enterprise Institute. Any real analysis of what went wrong in the United States between 2000 and 2010 would likely arrive at a great many conclusions uncomfortable to a scholar at AEI, as I can attest! So better not to arrive – better not even to start. So instead we get Murray’s latest: a Style section lifestyle piece offered as social science.