The restaurant is empty when Charles Murray and I sit down. It is still empty when we leave 90 minutes later. Nobody else dines in between. “I have to say that we are the only patrons here and it is absolutely terrific,” Murray tells the waiter. Our venue is Al Tiramisu, a well-hidden Italian restaurant close to Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. It’s a public holiday, which accounts for its quietness.
It is just down the road from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank of which Murray is a fellow. Tiramisu is where Murray ate his “favourite ever dish”, a black-truffle pasta, many years ago. He is dressed casually, which makes me feel conspicuous in my suit and tie. Not that anyone can see us. From his reputation, I had imagined the 69-year-old social scientist and libertarian Republican would be a little more austere.
“Am I or am I not going to have a martini?” Murray asks rhetorically after we are seated. “You know, I think I will. Sapphire martini straight up with the twist.”
Murray tells me he first dined here in the early 1980s with two social psychologists and the conversation helped spark the idea for Losing Ground (1984), his first major work. The book, which argued that the expansion of the welfare state in the 1960s had created a culture of dependency that was sapping America of its vitality, was a big influence on the welfare reforms of the 1990s. A decade later Murray brought out The Bell Curve, his most famous book (see sidebar below), in which he said that IQ was the biggest dividing factor in society. Most controversially, Murray refused to rule out that race and genetics played a role in the uneven distribution of intelligence.
In his most recent book, Coming Apart, which has sparked heated debate since its publication last month, Murray depicts the atrophying of America’s white working class over the past generation. It also charts the growing separation of a new lower class from a new upper class – the latter a “cognitive elite” that tends to do all the things its blue-collar counterparts have forgotten how to do, such as get (and stay) married, read to their children, quit smoking, eat salad and get educated.
The intellectual seeds of Coming Apart, like that of Losing Ground, were planted, says Murray, at this same establishment 30 years earlier. He also remembers it fondly for an evening many years ago where he took one of his four daughters (from the first of two marriages) for a birthday dinner. He is buoyed when the waiter says the black-truffle pasta is still on the menu, and we both order it as a starter. I have already said he must have a glass of wine. “Now, does the FT extend to a bottle?” Murray asks as he leafs through the wine list. Yes, I reply. “But my guess is a $350 bottle is probably taking it too far?” Again, I assent.
I ask Murray about the reaction to Coming Apart. Though hailed by a New York Times columnist as probably one of the most important books to be published this year, others have accused him of wilful blindness to the economic causes behind the hollowing out of the American middle class. To Murray the culprit is entirely cultural – the loss of the Tocquevillian virtues of industriousness, marriage, honesty and religiosity on which he says the republic was built.
At the same time, the elites in America have become so tolerant – afflicted with such “ecumenical niceness”, as Murray calls it – that they cannot bring themselves to “preach what they practise”. Partly because of their moral squeamishness, they tend to shield their children against even the tiniest risks in life, Murray says, including mixing with Americans from less fortunate backgrounds.
“There’s a big difference between being good and being nice,” Murray says as he works on his gin martini. “Being good involves tough choices – tough love. Ecumenical niceness is just pabulum. It’s as if, in all our interactions, parents are trying to stop our kids eating food off the floor, when that is what would inoculate them against far costlier things later on in life.”
Because of all this risk-aversion, he continues, the elites are more cut-off from mainstream American culture than ever before. In the 1960s, America’s wealthy brought Buicks rather than Cadillacs, which were then the flashiest cars on the market. They may have been rich but their tastes were still middle-class. Today, they have abandoned such “seemliness”. There is no pretence of sharing a culture with fellow Americans.
“If you take a member of the upper class, graduating from Harvard, Princeton, he’s much more comfortable with his colleagues from Germany and England and France than he is flying out to Newton, Iowa [the town where Murray grew up], or Dubuque, Kansas,” says Murray. “And in academia their sense of kinship with their European counterparts as opposed to fellow Americans is incomparable.”
Our black truffle has arrived. Murray’s martini glass is empty. The waiter pours him a taster from the bottle of Gavi di Gavi, an Italian white wine. “Mmmm, it’s like a good Montrachet,” Murray says. “I think it’s an excellent choice.” Every minute or so for the next few, Murray declares how excellent the pasta is. “Oh, this is lovely,” he observes mid-mastication. “Yes, really delicious.” I ask him what kind of wine a Gavi di Gavi is. Murray discloses that it is a “varietal”. I nod as though I know what that means. It certainly tastes nice. “Varietal means expensive,” he adds. I take a full glass.
Murray’s description of the bifurcation in America’s living standards, values and IQs among the white working class is certainly compelling – even critics concede the force of his observations (if not his explanations). Yet his remedies puzzle me, I say. Having diagnosed such a big and growing problem, his solution is to urge the upper classes to be less nice and more intolerant. What makes him think the preaching of the elites would make any difference?
“Whatever the Victorians did right in England, we need to resuscitate over here,” says Murray, between concluding mouthfuls of his pasta. “In the late 19th century, the entire English population were propagandised into buying into a certain code of morals. I would be happy if we could emulate that in some way in America.” Then he pauses: “But that gets into the whole question of whether the elite has the self-confidence in its own rightness.”
I try a different tack. How could Murray account for the widening gulf he is describing without talking about changes in the economy? Our pasta plates having been cleared, Murray is now on to his barramundi, an Asian sea bass, while I have grilled sardines, both “drizzled with lemon”. Murray appears to relish the question as much as the truffle pasta. It gets to the heart of what makes him a conservative.
“OK, let’s try this,” he said. “If you get a rising economy, for example, if Barack Obama could say we are going to bring on seven years of incredibly low unemployment, then he would argue that this would do a lot of good to the working class, wouldn’t he?” I agree. “But we already had that in the 1990s, and yet the dropout from the labour force continued to go up, people on social disability went up. Divorce went up. We have no evidence that a robust economy has much to do with these problems at all.”
I point out that many employers complain of a shortage of skills – a large chunk of America’s workforce is not as well equipped as it used to be relative to the rest of the world. If you don’t have the skills to make a living, how can you feel pride in your situation? “Well, that’s a different problem,” says Murray, looking suddenly uninterested. “If you are arguing that 22-year-old men are saying to their girlfriends, ‘I just need a job and then I’ll behave responsibly …’ Well, that’s just bullshit. If you ask women in working class communities, they will say, ‘Why should I marry these losers? It’s like taking another child into the household.’ ”
The Gavi is going down fast. By now, Murray is positively convivial. “I don’t think this is the gin talking … but I want to be briefly more optimistic,” Murray declares. He discloses that he sometimes plays poker at a casino in Charles Town, West Virginia, and that he will, in fact, head over there after our lunch has finished. “The ways in which it reinvigorates your confidence in America is really interesting,” Murray says.
“I remember sitting at a table a couple of months ago. And at a poker table there’s lots of camaraderie. And so here I am at a typical table at Charles Town. Big guys with lots of tattoos, sleeveless T-shirts, one of them an accountant, the other looks like he comes from a gang. There was an Iranian-American and Afghan-American. Incredible polyglot mix of people – all speak perfect idiomatic English – and the conversation turned to the fact that my daughter was going to marry an Italian. ‘Well, do you trust him?’ they said. ‘You know, you can’t trust those Italians.’”
Murray guffaws at the recollection. “The thing is, it was such an American conversation,” he says. What would they say if he told them he had just eaten truffles in an Italian restaurant with the Financial Times? “Oh, I think they would be very amused,” he replies. “The thing is, I would like to take these parents who insist their children go to the best preschools and then Yale, etc, etc, and grab them by the scruff of their necks and take them to the Charles Town poker room and say, ‘These people are really fun and smart, and [your children] are missing all of that.’”
OK, I reply, but it now sounds as though he is saying the upper classes need to learn from everyone else, rather than the other way round. There is a tension between his hope that the rest of America will ape the elites, and his less than complimentary views about them. “Look, this may be the alcohol talking but I want the elites to fall in love again with what is so wonderful about America,” Murray replies.
We have finished our main courses and agree that dessert would be too much. Murray goes for a cappuccino and I order a double espresso. The waiter carefully divides what remains of the wine into each of our glasses. Somewhat incongruously, the background music has switched from what sounded like some kind of Italian folk music into a violin solo. It all seems a long way from Charles Town.
“I love Europe,” says Murray, “but I don’t want America to become like Europe. The odds are that we won’t get out of the mess we are in. If I were a betting man [sic], I would say 20 years from now the US will be indistinguishable from Europe.” I ponder this last comment – and its undertone of pessimism. I also feel confused about what Murray really wants. Are America’s elites now too European to be saved? And if so, what exactly should they be preaching in the casinos of Charles Town? I resist the temptation to press the matter.
Instead, I ask about the state of the Republican party, to which Murray is something of a patron saint (indeed, Rick Santorum, the Christian conservative in the race, recently lauded Coming Apart in a presidential debate). Murray’s expression drops as though I have just squirted tomato ketchup on his truffles. “I am really unhappy with Obama. I really think he’s terrible,” he replies, “but [Mitt] Romney and Santorum as the alternatives? Don’t even think about Newt [Gingrich] … I’m in despair. I mean, I’m a libertarian. I will take Romney over Santorum. And both of them over Newt. That’s not a ringing endorsement, I know, but what can you say about such a field?”
I feel mildly guilty at having spoiled Murray’s jovial mood but he quickly bounces back. The bill arrives. I disguise my shock at its size. As we get up to leave, Murray says: “Here is an interesting commentary: I was willing to talk to the Financial Times under the influence of alcohol but I’m not willing to play poker under the influence. What does that say?” Don’t worry, I reply, you won’t lose your shirt. Murray laughs. As we are shaking hands, he adds, “I really enjoyed that. We must do it again some time.” Then he strides off in what looks to me like a straight line.
‘Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010’ by Charles Murray is published by Crown, $27/£17.99
Edward Luce is the FT’s chief US commentator
2014 P Street, NW, Washington, DC
Black truffle pasta x2 $90.00
Gin martini $14.00
La Scolca Gavi di Gavi $105.00
Double espresso $7.00
Total (including tax) $289.50
For whom ‘The Bell Curve’ tolls: The book that sparked controversy and condemnation
No US academic work in the past 20 years has generated as much heat as The Bell Curve, the 1994 book written by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, his co-author, who died shortly before publication. Because of the condemnation it attracted from all but the most conservative scholars, Murray says he no longer reads reviews. “My wife reads them and if there’s something to which I must absolutely respond, then she tells me,” says Murray.
There is still a great deal in The Bell Curve to provoke a strong response. Its basic thesis is that IQ, rather than education or socioeconomic status, is the key driver of divisions in society. That in itself is highly contentious – many scholars would argue that intelligence is largely a product of background and schooling. But the most incendiary part, and the one for which the book is remembered, is the authors’ treatment of race.
According to Murray and Herrnstein, African-Americans have a lower average IQ than members of other ethnic groups, and much of this is hereditary. They estimate that 60 per cent of intelligence can be explained by genes. Most scholars have disputed these findings and pointed to discrepancies and elisions in their methodology. “I was accused of being a racist and a pseudo-scientist,” says Murray. Others attributed Murray’s allegedly skewed findings to his libertarian leanings: if intelligence is biological rather than environmental, then government action is pointless.
Either way, Murray now avoids talk of race. In Coming Apart, his latest book, Murray focuses entirely on divisions within white America and reaches much the same conclusions as he had for America as a whole. “I wanted people on the left to read the book and not throw it against the wall,” he says.
It will take a few months for scholars to assess Murray’s data for accuracy. But his conclusions, which attribute the rise of a “cognitive elite” to IQ, are drawn from the same intellectual well.
And they have provoked a lot of criticism. Lawrence Summers, the Harvard economist and former US treasury secretary, once pointed out that “if you are dumb and rich” you have a higher chance of reaching an Ivy League university than if you are “smart and poor”.
Coming Apart largely ignores that perspective. But it has won some grudging praise from a few liberal-leaning critics for having focused on US inequality, which almost everyone (including Murray) agrees is getting wider.