Commentary Magazine


Topic: Charles Murray

The Animating Concern of Charles Murray

In his interview with Charlie Rose, Charles Murray speaks about his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  Murray’s argument is that the upper middle class and working class in America are separating on some key, core behaviors and values. We’re seeing the “collapse of the central cultural institution in one particular part of America” – meaning the collapse of marriage among the working class. The most stunning statistic in his data-filled book, Murray says, is this one: In 2010, among the white upper middle class, 83 percent of adults 30-49 years old were married. In 2010, only 48 percent of working class whites were married. (Murray, by the way, says he has changed his mind on same-sex marriage, an arrangement he once opposed.)

In addition, we’re seeing a “clustering” among the new upper class and elite, which is leading to an increasing isolation between them and the rest of American society, something Murray believes is creating problems for both the upper class and the working class. Murray praises the new upper class for its commitment to traditional values, something he would not have done in the early 1970s, but criticizes it for not “preaching what it practices.” He says they should act more like the elite in Victorian England at the end of the 19th century, who helped “re-moralize” their society (for more, see the groundbreaking work of the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb).

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In his interview with Charlie Rose, Charles Murray speaks about his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  Murray’s argument is that the upper middle class and working class in America are separating on some key, core behaviors and values. We’re seeing the “collapse of the central cultural institution in one particular part of America” – meaning the collapse of marriage among the working class. The most stunning statistic in his data-filled book, Murray says, is this one: In 2010, among the white upper middle class, 83 percent of adults 30-49 years old were married. In 2010, only 48 percent of working class whites were married. (Murray, by the way, says he has changed his mind on same-sex marriage, an arrangement he once opposed.)

In addition, we’re seeing a “clustering” among the new upper class and elite, which is leading to an increasing isolation between them and the rest of American society, something Murray believes is creating problems for both the upper class and the working class. Murray praises the new upper class for its commitment to traditional values, something he would not have done in the early 1970s, but criticizes it for not “preaching what it practices.” He says they should act more like the elite in Victorian England at the end of the 19th century, who helped “re-moralize” their society (for more, see the groundbreaking work of the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb).

In speaking about what concerns him the most, Murray mentions the increasing denial of access to what he calls “institutions of meaning” – marriage, community, faith, and vocation. Those are the domains within which human beings find deeply satisfying lives. Murray argues that we have “denuded those sources of satisfaction” for the working class in ways we haven’t for the upper class, and that has harmful human consequences.

A personal word on Charles Murray. For some of us of a certain age, Murray was an influential figure in our journey to conservatism. His 1984 book, Losing Ground, argued that the ambitious social programs of the Great Society not only did not accomplish what they set out to do (help the poor and disadvantaged); they often made things worse. I recall hearing Murray speak about welfare and poverty at an event and being struck by his decency, intelligence, and obvious care for the poor. (Murray was a member of the Peace Corps in the late 1960s.) His critique wasn’t based on indifference to their condition; it was based on concern for their well-being. He believed liberalism had failed “the least of these” and conservatism had something to offer in its place. (I would call it an early iteration of compassionate conservatism. Murray would not.)

The world has turned many times since Losing Ground was published. And now, almost 30 years later, Murray has written yet another climate-changing book. He ranks among America’s most important public intellectuals. And among its most humane as well.

 

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Crime and Incarceration

Both Charles Murray and have commented on a friendly disagreement we had on crime and incarceration. But I thought it important to clarify one point: Charles believes that increased imprisonment has been the necessary (but not the sufficient) condition for 100 percent of the drop in violent crime. His argument goes like this: Without the massive increase in incarceration, the most that other measures could have accomplished for violent crime (not property crime) is to have slowed the increase. We wouldn’t have seen a decrease at all. But he does believe some of the factors I cited (like target hardening, an increase in private security, and better policing techniques), in conjunction with incarceration, helped to account for the magnitude of the decrease in violent crime.

While this doesn’t change the thrust of what either of us wrote, it is a point worth underscoring, which I’m delighted to have done.

Both Charles Murray and have commented on a friendly disagreement we had on crime and incarceration. But I thought it important to clarify one point: Charles believes that increased imprisonment has been the necessary (but not the sufficient) condition for 100 percent of the drop in violent crime. His argument goes like this: Without the massive increase in incarceration, the most that other measures could have accomplished for violent crime (not property crime) is to have slowed the increase. We wouldn’t have seen a decrease at all. But he does believe some of the factors I cited (like target hardening, an increase in private security, and better policing techniques), in conjunction with incarceration, helped to account for the magnitude of the decrease in violent crime.

While this doesn’t change the thrust of what either of us wrote, it is a point worth underscoring, which I’m delighted to have done.

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Why Have We Seen a Drop in Crime?

Charles Murray is not only a friend; he is also among the most important intellectual figures in the modern conservative movement. So I’m hesitant to dissent from his views, particularly when it comes to explaining social trends. But at a recent lunch, we had a good-natured disagreement about incarceration and crime, which he elaborated on in a blog post.

The core of our disagreement is the role incarceration has played in the enormous drop in crime we’ve seen during the last 15 years or so. Charles argues that “simple incapacitation … plus a substantial deterrent effect is a plausible explanation for why violent crime dropped at all.” He harbors the belief that  “without the massive increases in incarceration after the mid-1970s, crime rates wouldn’t have turned around at all. Higher imprisonment was the necessary condition for 100 percent of the reduction in violent crime.”

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Charles Murray is not only a friend; he is also among the most important intellectual figures in the modern conservative movement. So I’m hesitant to dissent from his views, particularly when it comes to explaining social trends. But at a recent lunch, we had a good-natured disagreement about incarceration and crime, which he elaborated on in a blog post.

The core of our disagreement is the role incarceration has played in the enormous drop in crime we’ve seen during the last 15 years or so. Charles argues that “simple incapacitation … plus a substantial deterrent effect is a plausible explanation for why violent crime dropped at all.” He harbors the belief that  “without the massive increases in incarceration after the mid-1970s, crime rates wouldn’t have turned around at all. Higher imprisonment was the necessary condition for 100 percent of the reduction in violent crime.”

My view is that incarceration has played a crucial role in the drop in crime, for reasons Murray cites. But so have other factors, including target hardening and private security measures, the end of the crack cocaine epidemic, demographic changes, an increase in police per capita, and improvements in policing techniques (including “hot-spot” policing). As William Bratton, the very successful former police chief in Los Angeles and New York, has said, “We’ve gotten better at spotting crime trends more quickly. We can respond much more quickly.” Others argue the decrease in crime is attributable, at least in part, to a cultural re-norming, gun laws, the economy, advancements in medicine and public health, and more. Whatever the precise cause-and-effect, it’s implausible to believe these non-incarceration factors have had no impact whatsoever on crime rates.

Murray offers up this counterfact to consider: “Suppose we had maintained imprisonment for violent crime at the rate that applied in 1974. In that case, we would have had 276,769 state and federal prisoners in 2010 instead of the 1,518,104 we actually had. Suppose tomorrow we freed 1.2 million inmates from state and federal prisons. Do we really think violent crime would continue to drop at a somewhat slower pace?”

Set aside the fact that this calculation embodies some questionable assumptions (over this time period, hundreds of thousands of prisoners entered and exited prisons each year, average sentence lengths for most violent crimes increased substantially, and so did the fraction of all prisoners admitted as a result of parole violations and the fraction of all prisoners whose latest conviction was a non-violent drug crime). What’s important to keep in mind is that while America will not release 1.2 million prisoners between now and the end of this week, we have, in fact, released around 7.5 million state and federal prisoners between 2000-2010 and are currently releasing more than 700,000 prisoners each year, or roughly 1,900 each day (see Table 2 in this Department of Justice report). And yet, crime rates have continued to spiral downward.

For what it’s worth — and to me it’s worth quite a lot — the finest living thinker on crime and society, James Q. Wilson, believes greater incarceration can explain about one-quarter to 30 percent of the decrease in crime. John J. DiIulio, who studied under Wilson and is himself a respected analyst of crime trends, more or less agrees. (A recent DiIulio essay which deals with the causes of drops in crime can be found here.) This puts Messrs. Wilson and Dilulio on the high side among criminologists when it comes to the impact of incarceration on crime. (Even criminologists who accept the highest published estimates of the median number of felony crimes averted each year by incarcerating violent offenders — more than a dozen per year per prisoner — find no basis for attributing even half the decrease in either violent crime rates or in overall crime rates strictly to increased incarceration rates.)

One final observation: I tend to be skeptical of mono-causal explanations when it comes to social phenomena and behavioral trends. These tend to be the result of a complex, and sometimes mysterious, interplay of events. For examples, since the early-to-mid-1990s, out-of-wedlock births have increased from less than 30 percent of all births to more than 40 percent of all births today. Yet during that period almost every other social indicator — including crime, drug use, welfare, education test scores, teen suicides, divorce, and abortion –improved. In some areas, like crime and welfare, the progress has the dimensions of a sea change. This is a remarkable, unexpected and encouraging development. It also reaffirms the conservative belief that modesty and caveats are in order when it comes to our ability to understand, let alone predict, social trends and human behavior.

 

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Human Accomplishment

Charles Murray wrote a book called Human Accomplishment. In the next edition, he might want to add a section on sports figures — and in particular a reference to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

As this story points out, Brady — whose completion percentage is 65.9 — threw 36 touchdown passes but only four interceptions, including none since October 17. That’s a staggering run of 335 passes without an interception. Brady’s interception rate is 0.8 percent, the second lowest since 1936. That is, as Miami Dolphins Coach Tony Sparano said, a little bit mind-blowing.

When Brady wraps up his career, he will not only be in the Hall of Fame; he will, with his contemporary Peyton Manning, be counted among the top five quarterbacks of all time.

Enjoy them while we have them.

Charles Murray wrote a book called Human Accomplishment. In the next edition, he might want to add a section on sports figures — and in particular a reference to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

As this story points out, Brady — whose completion percentage is 65.9 — threw 36 touchdown passes but only four interceptions, including none since October 17. That’s a staggering run of 335 passes without an interception. Brady’s interception rate is 0.8 percent, the second lowest since 1936. That is, as Miami Dolphins Coach Tony Sparano said, a little bit mind-blowing.

When Brady wraps up his career, he will not only be in the Hall of Fame; he will, with his contemporary Peyton Manning, be counted among the top five quarterbacks of all time.

Enjoy them while we have them.

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Marriage and Middle America

A study on “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America” was recently published by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.

The report is both somewhat encouraging and quite alarming. First, let’s look at the encouraging side of things: among the affluent and highly educated (defined as those having at least a bachelor’s degree and who comprise about 30 percent of the adult population), marriage is stable and appears to be getting stronger. They now enjoy marriages that are as stable and happy as those four decades ago. W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the project, cites four reasons for this: First, they have access to better-paying and more stable work than their less-educated peers (stable employment and financial success help strengthen marriage and relieve pressure on families).

Second, highly educated Americans are more likely to hold the “bourgeois virtues” — self-control, a high regard for education, and a long-term orientation — that are crucial to maintaining a marriage in today’s cultural climate.

Third, highly educated Americans are now more likely to attend church or to be engaged in a meaningful civic organization than their less educated peers. According to Wilcox, “This type of civic engagement is important because being connected to communities of memory and mutual aid increases men and women’s odds of getting and staying married.”

Finally, highly educated Americans are increasingly prone to adopt a marriage mindset — marked, for instance, by an aversion to divorce and nonmarital pregnancy, and a willingness to stick it out in a marriage — that generally serves them well through the ups and downs of married life. They recognize that they and their children are more likely to thrive — and to succeed in life — if they get and stay married. “So, we are witnessing a striking reversal in American life where highly educated Americans are more likely to be connected to the religious and moral sources of a strong marriage culture than their fellow citizens from middle America,” Wilcox says.

Now for the bad news: among the poor, who because they have so little are most in need of stable institutions, marriage continues to be fragile and weak. For many of them, marriage is virtually nonexistent, a concept almost without meaning. This isn’t a new development; it is simply an accelerated one. Read More

A study on “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America” was recently published by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.

The report is both somewhat encouraging and quite alarming. First, let’s look at the encouraging side of things: among the affluent and highly educated (defined as those having at least a bachelor’s degree and who comprise about 30 percent of the adult population), marriage is stable and appears to be getting stronger. They now enjoy marriages that are as stable and happy as those four decades ago. W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the project, cites four reasons for this: First, they have access to better-paying and more stable work than their less-educated peers (stable employment and financial success help strengthen marriage and relieve pressure on families).

Second, highly educated Americans are more likely to hold the “bourgeois virtues” — self-control, a high regard for education, and a long-term orientation — that are crucial to maintaining a marriage in today’s cultural climate.

Third, highly educated Americans are now more likely to attend church or to be engaged in a meaningful civic organization than their less educated peers. According to Wilcox, “This type of civic engagement is important because being connected to communities of memory and mutual aid increases men and women’s odds of getting and staying married.”

Finally, highly educated Americans are increasingly prone to adopt a marriage mindset — marked, for instance, by an aversion to divorce and nonmarital pregnancy, and a willingness to stick it out in a marriage — that generally serves them well through the ups and downs of married life. They recognize that they and their children are more likely to thrive — and to succeed in life — if they get and stay married. “So, we are witnessing a striking reversal in American life where highly educated Americans are more likely to be connected to the religious and moral sources of a strong marriage culture than their fellow citizens from middle America,” Wilcox says.

Now for the bad news: among the poor, who because they have so little are most in need of stable institutions, marriage continues to be fragile and weak. For many of them, marriage is virtually nonexistent, a concept almost without meaning. This isn’t a new development; it is simply an accelerated one.

And now for the really bad news: “In Middle America,” the reports states, “marriage is in trouble … the newest and perhaps most consequential marriage trend of our time concerns the broad center of our society, where mar­riage, that iconic middle-class institution, is foundering.” (Middle Americans are defined as those with a high school but not a four-year college degree. This “moderately educated” middle of America constitutes a full 58 percent of the adult population.)

Among this cohort, rates of nonmarital childbearing and divorce are rising, and marital happiness is falling. If this retreat from marriage among moderately educated citizens continues, the report argues, “then it is likely that we will witness the emergence of a new society” — one in which “for a substantial share of the United States, economic mobility will be out of reach, their children’s life chances will diminish, and large numbers of young men will live apart from the civilizing power of married life.”

“When Marriage Disappears” cites three cultural developments that have played a particularly noteworthy role in eroding the standing of marriage in Middle America.

First, the attitudes of the moderately educated have traditionally been more socially conservative on a cluster of marriage-related matters, but they now appear to be turning more socially permis­sive, even as highly educated Americans have become more likely to embrace a marriage-minded mindset.

The second cultural development that has helped to erode Middle-American marriage is that these Americans are more likely to be caught up in behaviors—from multiple sexual partners to marital infidelity—that endanger their prospects for marital suc­cess.

The third cultural development that has played a role in eroding the standing of marriage is that moderately educated Americans are markedly less likely than are highly educated Americans to embrace the bourgeois values and virtues—for instance, delayed gratification, a focus on education, and temperance—that are the sine qua nons of personal and marital success in the contemporary United States.

What we are seeing, then, is a growing “marriage gap” among moderately and highly educated Americans, which is leading to the stratification of our society. “The United States is increasingly a separate and unequal nation when it comes to the institution of marriage,” according to the report.

This is worrisome. American democracy has always depended on a relatively strong, stable middle class. If, because of the fracturing of the family, the middle class begins to enervate, it is bound to have negative, far-reaching ramifications. In addition, when marriages fail, children are the ones who absorb the most severe damage. Broken marriages and unwed pregnancies are also largely responsible for what in 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan called a “tangle of pathology.” And because the moderately educated middle in America don’t have the advantages more affluent, highly educated Americans do, the American Dream is slipping beyond their reach.

Here it’s worth recognizing the prescience of the social scientist Charles Murray, who in a 1995 essay in the Public Interest predicted a restoration of traditional society among what he called “the overclass” and wrote “there is reason to be optimistic about marriage and children for the overclass.” But Murray went on to warn about how the whole country must eventually participate in the restoration because “the horrific alternative to bringing the whole country along is a new kind of class society in America, divisive and ultimately destructive of American democracy.”

Whether and how we avoid this fate is not entirely clear. Certainly there are some grounds for optimism based on recent history. Over the past 15 years, on balance, the American family has indeed grown weaker — but almost every other social indicator (crime, drug use, welfare, rates of abortion, education, and others) has improved. This is an impressive achievement — but not one we can rely on ad infinitum. The family remains, in the words of Michael Novak, the original department of health, education, and welfare. For a growing number of middle-class Americans, it is a disappearing institution. And nothing good can come of that. Nothing at all.

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The Role and Purpose of Government

On the website e21, Representative Paul Ryan has responded to a column by David Brooks, who in turn was commenting on an op-ed by Ryan and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Charles Murray added his thoughts as well.

The subject they are addressing is the role and purpose of the state in our lives. I would add only a few thoughts to what these razor-sharp minds have written.

The first is this: more than at any point in our lifetime, the sheer cost and size of government matters. We face an entitlement crisis. The level of our deficit and debt are unsustainable. Demographics are working against us rather than in our favor. And the Obama presidency has made our fiscal problems more, not less, acute. Unless we begin to reverse this trend fairly significantly, America will change in deep and lasting ways. We cannot continue on our present course and remain a strong, vibrant society. There is an urgent need, then, to re-limit government simply as a matter of dollars and cents, quite apart from philosophy and the effects the nanny state has on human character and self-reliance.

That said, conservatives also need to engage in a thoroughgoing examination of the core purposes of programs and policies. And in considering how to reform government programs, we need to think in terms of what we want them to do rather than simply how large and costly they are.

Consider four successes by government in the past 20 years: welfare reform; crime reduction (including the transformation of New York City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani); the campaign against illegal drugs in the late 1980s and early 1990s led by William J. Bennett; and the surge in Iraq. In each of these instances, the key to success wasn’t limiting the size of government; in each case, after all, government spending went up, not down. What transformed failure into success was acting smarter, creating the right incentives and disincentives, attacking the problems in a comprehensive way, and thinking in terms of what works.

What we need, then, are policymakers who believe in accountability; who judge results based not on inputs (expenditures, number of caseload workers, police officers, or troops) but outputs (cutting the number of people on welfare, decreasing drug use, reducing crime rates, lowering the number of ethno-sectarian deaths, car bombings, suicide attacks, and terrorist safe havens); who are passionately empirical; and who understand that we need to craft programs so as to take into account human nature and human behavior.

When it comes to entitlement programs, our task is different from, say, an anti-crime strategy. On entitlements, our first priority needs to be cutting costs in order to avoid a fiscal calamity. That will require us to alter the way we think about the basic aims of these programs. And here, I think, is where we eventually need to go: gradually and thoughtfully transitioning toward a means-tested system of benefits in place of the current Social Security and Medicare systems.

All these matters need to be examined in more depth. My hope is that Messrs. Brooks, Ryan, Brooks, and Murray continue to deepen this discussion and, in the process, pull other thoughtful voices into it. They could hardly perform a more useful intellectual and civic role.

On the website e21, Representative Paul Ryan has responded to a column by David Brooks, who in turn was commenting on an op-ed by Ryan and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Charles Murray added his thoughts as well.

The subject they are addressing is the role and purpose of the state in our lives. I would add only a few thoughts to what these razor-sharp minds have written.

The first is this: more than at any point in our lifetime, the sheer cost and size of government matters. We face an entitlement crisis. The level of our deficit and debt are unsustainable. Demographics are working against us rather than in our favor. And the Obama presidency has made our fiscal problems more, not less, acute. Unless we begin to reverse this trend fairly significantly, America will change in deep and lasting ways. We cannot continue on our present course and remain a strong, vibrant society. There is an urgent need, then, to re-limit government simply as a matter of dollars and cents, quite apart from philosophy and the effects the nanny state has on human character and self-reliance.

That said, conservatives also need to engage in a thoroughgoing examination of the core purposes of programs and policies. And in considering how to reform government programs, we need to think in terms of what we want them to do rather than simply how large and costly they are.

Consider four successes by government in the past 20 years: welfare reform; crime reduction (including the transformation of New York City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani); the campaign against illegal drugs in the late 1980s and early 1990s led by William J. Bennett; and the surge in Iraq. In each of these instances, the key to success wasn’t limiting the size of government; in each case, after all, government spending went up, not down. What transformed failure into success was acting smarter, creating the right incentives and disincentives, attacking the problems in a comprehensive way, and thinking in terms of what works.

What we need, then, are policymakers who believe in accountability; who judge results based not on inputs (expenditures, number of caseload workers, police officers, or troops) but outputs (cutting the number of people on welfare, decreasing drug use, reducing crime rates, lowering the number of ethno-sectarian deaths, car bombings, suicide attacks, and terrorist safe havens); who are passionately empirical; and who understand that we need to craft programs so as to take into account human nature and human behavior.

When it comes to entitlement programs, our task is different from, say, an anti-crime strategy. On entitlements, our first priority needs to be cutting costs in order to avoid a fiscal calamity. That will require us to alter the way we think about the basic aims of these programs. And here, I think, is where we eventually need to go: gradually and thoughtfully transitioning toward a means-tested system of benefits in place of the current Social Security and Medicare systems.

All these matters need to be examined in more depth. My hope is that Messrs. Brooks, Ryan, Brooks, and Murray continue to deepen this discussion and, in the process, pull other thoughtful voices into it. They could hardly perform a more useful intellectual and civic role.

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Mitch Daniels Makes the Rounds

Mitch Daniels is clearly raising his profile and leaving the door open to a 2012 presidential run. COMMENTARY contributor Andrew Ferguson’s story is as comprehensive a piece on his views and persona as we have seen. Daniels is in Washington this week doing interviews and meeting with groups like the Business Roundtable. This morning, he met with a group of mostly conservative new-media and print journalists. He proved both impressive and problematic for conservatives seeking a favorite in the 2012 race.

On the positive side, he is plainly not Obama. He is precise, self-effacing, down to earth, and rooted in conservative philosophy. The first question was about education, and, out of the box, he acknowledged that education was “one of the shortcomings of our administration,” and although he has made limited progress, he wants to step up his efforts in the remainder of his term. He then went on to discuss the substantial reforms he has made with the help of a new superintendent (ending social promotion, insulating teachers from lawsuits if they enforce discipline, opening up credentials so people who have had other careers can get into the classrooms, etc.). What he conveyed was both candor and a big-picture view (“Public education has evolved into a situation . . . where it is set up as much for the benefit of the adults as for the kids.”)

He also explained his effort to tame public-employees’ unions, pointing out that teachers in his state are paid 22 percent more than the average worker and that he needed to bring the union to heel if “we were going to overhaul government.” By executive order, he ended mandatory union dues, and 90 percent of the employee chose not to pay. (“They gave themselves a 2 percent pay increase.”) But he is not anti-union by any means. He explained that the playing field should be level, and workers should have the choice to unionize. He said the right to join a union is “fundamental” and has “led to freedom in a lot of countries.”

He was at his best when discussing political theory and domestic policy. Asked what conservatives he looks to for guidance, he listed Hayek, Friedman, and Charles Murray. All of them, he explained, “are realistic and therefore modest in what government is capable of doing.” He continued that they evince “skepticism of bigness — in all its forms.” When I asked him what the principle errors of Obama and Congress had been, he began by pointing out that most of them “have not spent a day in a profit-making enterprise.” He explained that the choice between political parties is the clearest we’ve ever had. Conservatives believe, he said, that public service is a temporary job and that their duty is “to promote free enterprise, family, and other intermediary institutions.” Democrats believe the opposite, he said — that society will work better “if the ‘enlightened'” make the decisions.

He explained: “I’m concerned. I’m alarmed about the direction of the country.” Even apart from the theoretical argument, he observed that looking at entitlements and the debt, “Can we all agree the arithmetic doesn’t work?” But he said he is interested in the bigger philosophical questions: “What kind of people do we want to be?” Are we still capable of preserving liberty and independence?

About entitlements and the debt, he said he has faith that we can have a “grown-up” conversation. He then proceeded to have one. “Americans,” he asserted, “have a renewed sense of the menace of too much debt.” In their personal lives, with credit-card and mortgage debt, he notes that “they had a searing personal experience.” What to do about entitlements? “Paul Ryan is right — we need to bifurcate these programs.” He said that Democrats would have been best suited to do the hard work, given the negative rhetoric hurled at Republicans when they undertake entitlements control, but he said that is a “lost opportunity. Someone’s got to try.” He continued: “Why should we pay for Warren Buffet’s health care? Why should be pay Bill Gates a pension?” Like businesses that have phased out defined-benefit plans, he recommended that we have “a new plan and an old plan.” And he wasn’t shy about criticizing Republicans for grandstanding on Medicare cuts during the health-care debate.

He explained: “None of this will work if we don’t have a sustained period of growth.” Unfortunately, he said, “Everything they are doing as far as I can see leans against economic growth.” And he pointed to his own job-creation record. Indiana has 2 percent of the population and 7 percent of the new jobs. He has made sure “the next job comes to Indiana and not someplace else.”

He also showed a knack for political message. He questioned “what the hell” did “change you can believe in.” He suggested that the conservatives’ motto should be “Change that believes in you,” stressing that Americans are “fully capable” of running their own lives, buying their own health-care insurance, etc.

If Daniels makes a run in 2012 — although he said we should now focus on the “what” and figure out the “who” later — he may have trouble with both social conservatives and those favoring a vigorous foreign policy that projects American power and promotes our values. On social policy, John McCormack followed up on a point Daniels had made in the Weekly Standard story. Daniels had said we should declare a truce on social issues. McCormack asked whether that meant Daniels would stand down on opposing taxpayer-funded abortions and reversing the Mexico City policy on funding international institutions that provide abortion services. It was an easy moment to clarify and assert that you can’t simply concede the playing field to the opposition. Instead, Daniels reiterated his view that we should “set aside” these issues for a while to focus on our fiscal emergency. So do the pro-abortion forces win these issues? Not clear.

I asked him the sole question on foreign policy — in what fundamental ways Obama had erred? He did not address any of the basic concerns conservatives have been discussing (e.g., engagement with despots, indifference on human rights, animus toward Israel). Instead, he gave a platitude, “Peace through strength has totally been vindicated.” And then he immediately asserted that we have to “ask questions about the extent of our commitments.” He said, “If we go broke, no one will follow a pauper.” At least temporarily, he said, we can’t maintain all our commitments. But if our foes don’t take a break, what do we do? Should we pull up stakes in Iraq and Afghanistan and hack away at the defense budget? It’s not clear whether he has thought these issues through, or whether he views foreign policy as anything more than a cost-control issue.

Daniels is an impressive figure. If he wants to run for another office, however, he will have to stretch beyond his comfort zone and address the full gamut of issues that concern Republican primary voters. If he doesn’t want to or can’t do that, he’d make a heck of a Treasury Secretary.

Mitch Daniels is clearly raising his profile and leaving the door open to a 2012 presidential run. COMMENTARY contributor Andrew Ferguson’s story is as comprehensive a piece on his views and persona as we have seen. Daniels is in Washington this week doing interviews and meeting with groups like the Business Roundtable. This morning, he met with a group of mostly conservative new-media and print journalists. He proved both impressive and problematic for conservatives seeking a favorite in the 2012 race.

On the positive side, he is plainly not Obama. He is precise, self-effacing, down to earth, and rooted in conservative philosophy. The first question was about education, and, out of the box, he acknowledged that education was “one of the shortcomings of our administration,” and although he has made limited progress, he wants to step up his efforts in the remainder of his term. He then went on to discuss the substantial reforms he has made with the help of a new superintendent (ending social promotion, insulating teachers from lawsuits if they enforce discipline, opening up credentials so people who have had other careers can get into the classrooms, etc.). What he conveyed was both candor and a big-picture view (“Public education has evolved into a situation . . . where it is set up as much for the benefit of the adults as for the kids.”)

He also explained his effort to tame public-employees’ unions, pointing out that teachers in his state are paid 22 percent more than the average worker and that he needed to bring the union to heel if “we were going to overhaul government.” By executive order, he ended mandatory union dues, and 90 percent of the employee chose not to pay. (“They gave themselves a 2 percent pay increase.”) But he is not anti-union by any means. He explained that the playing field should be level, and workers should have the choice to unionize. He said the right to join a union is “fundamental” and has “led to freedom in a lot of countries.”

He was at his best when discussing political theory and domestic policy. Asked what conservatives he looks to for guidance, he listed Hayek, Friedman, and Charles Murray. All of them, he explained, “are realistic and therefore modest in what government is capable of doing.” He continued that they evince “skepticism of bigness — in all its forms.” When I asked him what the principle errors of Obama and Congress had been, he began by pointing out that most of them “have not spent a day in a profit-making enterprise.” He explained that the choice between political parties is the clearest we’ve ever had. Conservatives believe, he said, that public service is a temporary job and that their duty is “to promote free enterprise, family, and other intermediary institutions.” Democrats believe the opposite, he said — that society will work better “if the ‘enlightened'” make the decisions.

He explained: “I’m concerned. I’m alarmed about the direction of the country.” Even apart from the theoretical argument, he observed that looking at entitlements and the debt, “Can we all agree the arithmetic doesn’t work?” But he said he is interested in the bigger philosophical questions: “What kind of people do we want to be?” Are we still capable of preserving liberty and independence?

About entitlements and the debt, he said he has faith that we can have a “grown-up” conversation. He then proceeded to have one. “Americans,” he asserted, “have a renewed sense of the menace of too much debt.” In their personal lives, with credit-card and mortgage debt, he notes that “they had a searing personal experience.” What to do about entitlements? “Paul Ryan is right — we need to bifurcate these programs.” He said that Democrats would have been best suited to do the hard work, given the negative rhetoric hurled at Republicans when they undertake entitlements control, but he said that is a “lost opportunity. Someone’s got to try.” He continued: “Why should we pay for Warren Buffet’s health care? Why should be pay Bill Gates a pension?” Like businesses that have phased out defined-benefit plans, he recommended that we have “a new plan and an old plan.” And he wasn’t shy about criticizing Republicans for grandstanding on Medicare cuts during the health-care debate.

He explained: “None of this will work if we don’t have a sustained period of growth.” Unfortunately, he said, “Everything they are doing as far as I can see leans against economic growth.” And he pointed to his own job-creation record. Indiana has 2 percent of the population and 7 percent of the new jobs. He has made sure “the next job comes to Indiana and not someplace else.”

He also showed a knack for political message. He questioned “what the hell” did “change you can believe in.” He suggested that the conservatives’ motto should be “Change that believes in you,” stressing that Americans are “fully capable” of running their own lives, buying their own health-care insurance, etc.

If Daniels makes a run in 2012 — although he said we should now focus on the “what” and figure out the “who” later — he may have trouble with both social conservatives and those favoring a vigorous foreign policy that projects American power and promotes our values. On social policy, John McCormack followed up on a point Daniels had made in the Weekly Standard story. Daniels had said we should declare a truce on social issues. McCormack asked whether that meant Daniels would stand down on opposing taxpayer-funded abortions and reversing the Mexico City policy on funding international institutions that provide abortion services. It was an easy moment to clarify and assert that you can’t simply concede the playing field to the opposition. Instead, Daniels reiterated his view that we should “set aside” these issues for a while to focus on our fiscal emergency. So do the pro-abortion forces win these issues? Not clear.

I asked him the sole question on foreign policy — in what fundamental ways Obama had erred? He did not address any of the basic concerns conservatives have been discussing (e.g., engagement with despots, indifference on human rights, animus toward Israel). Instead, he gave a platitude, “Peace through strength has totally been vindicated.” And then he immediately asserted that we have to “ask questions about the extent of our commitments.” He said, “If we go broke, no one will follow a pauper.” At least temporarily, he said, we can’t maintain all our commitments. But if our foes don’t take a break, what do we do? Should we pull up stakes in Iraq and Afghanistan and hack away at the defense budget? It’s not clear whether he has thought these issues through, or whether he views foreign policy as anything more than a cost-control issue.

Daniels is an impressive figure. If he wants to run for another office, however, he will have to stretch beyond his comfort zone and address the full gamut of issues that concern Republican primary voters. If he doesn’t want to or can’t do that, he’d make a heck of a Treasury Secretary.

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Chabon Swings at Israel — and Hits Peter Beinart!

Novelist Michael Chabon is generally coy about his position on the Jewish state. Unlike his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman, Chabon tends to refrain from open anti-Zionism, although as the author of a bestselling novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, whose premise was the destruction of the state of Israel soon after its birth and the fanaticism of those who wished to bring it back into existence, it’s not as if his views are much of a mystery.

Therefore, one read his 1,700-word essay in the Sunday New York Times Week in Review section with interest to see how he would react to the Gaza flotilla. But Chabon is too nuanced a writer to pen a standard condemnation of Israel’s blockade of Hamas-run Gaza. Instead, his target was the whole notion that Jews are special or smart. Chabon approvingly quoted Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg as saying Israel’s actions demonstrated a lack of seichel, the Yiddish word for wisdom. Chabon goes on at considerable length to make a very small argument that few serious people would really disagree with: that Jews are as capable of making blunders as any other people.

Though some writers, like the estimable Charles Murray, have written in COMMENTARY about the special genius of the Jewish people, the majority of us who have spent our lives covering Jewish institutions and communities and following Israeli politics would probably have to side with Chabon rather than Murray on this one. At times, Israeli politics and, indeed, the politics of most Jewish communities do resemble the legendary village of Chelm — the place where Jewish folklore tells us an errant angel dropped a boatload of foolish souls — more than they do Plato’s Republic. The sectarian madness of Israel’s proportional system of representation in the Knesset and the lockstep liberalism of American Jews certainly is more than ample testimony of the Jewish capacity for foolishness.

But Chabon has bigger fish to fry than just saying that Jews can be dumb. His genuine target is not a poorly planned military expedition but rather “the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity; the idea of chosenness” — a concept that some of the most vicious critics of Judaism and Jews through the ages, such as Voltaire, have always found particularly distasteful.

Chabon sneers at what he considers the hypocrisy of a Jewish people that accepts the idea of being chosen (a religious concept that involves obligation to observe the Torah, not privilege) but then complains when “the world — cynically or sincerely — holds Israel to a different, higher standard as beneficiaries of that dispensation.” He goes on to cite Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which declares that the Jewish people have a right “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” For him, this foundational document of Zionism also means that Jews “are every bit as capable of barbarism or stupidity.”

Leave aside the fact that blockading an area controlled by an Islamist terrorist group bent on Israel’s destruction is, by any reasonable standard, neither barbaric nor stupid, but actually a normal and quite restrained manner of self-defense against a lethal threat. Rather, let us focus on Chabon’s point that it is the Zionists who demand special treatment from the world or say that Israel’s legitimacy is based on any special Jewish attributes or genius.

If anything, what Chabon has done in this long, confused essay is to unwittingly skewer the Peter Beinarts of the world, the “liberal Zionists” for whom Israel is only worthy of existence if it conforms to their vision of what a Jewish state should be. For Beinart, an “illiberal” Israel — which is to say a democracy that chooses leaders and policies of self-defense that he disapproves of and that freely rejects those he likes — must expect American Jewish disdain. Contrary to the so-called “liberal Zionists” who are swarming to attack after the flotilla incident, Israel and its people have many virtues, but the state’s right to exist is predicated on the simple right of the Jews to rule over their own historic homeland. It is not the supporters of Israel who ask for that nation to be judged on the intelligence or the special righteousness of its people. They just ask that Israel not be judged more harshly or by different and more stringent standards of morality or justice than other nations (as it almost always is).

The “exceptionalism” of Jewish civilization rests in a religious and moral tradition that transcends politics or even the novels of a Michael Chabon. But Israel’s right to defend itself against terror is rooted in the simple demands of justice that apply to all peoples and for which Jews — be they smart or stupid — need not apologize. For all of their reputation for brilliance, that’s a lesson liberal Jews like Beinart and Chabon have yet to learn.

Novelist Michael Chabon is generally coy about his position on the Jewish state. Unlike his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman, Chabon tends to refrain from open anti-Zionism, although as the author of a bestselling novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, whose premise was the destruction of the state of Israel soon after its birth and the fanaticism of those who wished to bring it back into existence, it’s not as if his views are much of a mystery.

Therefore, one read his 1,700-word essay in the Sunday New York Times Week in Review section with interest to see how he would react to the Gaza flotilla. But Chabon is too nuanced a writer to pen a standard condemnation of Israel’s blockade of Hamas-run Gaza. Instead, his target was the whole notion that Jews are special or smart. Chabon approvingly quoted Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg as saying Israel’s actions demonstrated a lack of seichel, the Yiddish word for wisdom. Chabon goes on at considerable length to make a very small argument that few serious people would really disagree with: that Jews are as capable of making blunders as any other people.

Though some writers, like the estimable Charles Murray, have written in COMMENTARY about the special genius of the Jewish people, the majority of us who have spent our lives covering Jewish institutions and communities and following Israeli politics would probably have to side with Chabon rather than Murray on this one. At times, Israeli politics and, indeed, the politics of most Jewish communities do resemble the legendary village of Chelm — the place where Jewish folklore tells us an errant angel dropped a boatload of foolish souls — more than they do Plato’s Republic. The sectarian madness of Israel’s proportional system of representation in the Knesset and the lockstep liberalism of American Jews certainly is more than ample testimony of the Jewish capacity for foolishness.

But Chabon has bigger fish to fry than just saying that Jews can be dumb. His genuine target is not a poorly planned military expedition but rather “the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity; the idea of chosenness” — a concept that some of the most vicious critics of Judaism and Jews through the ages, such as Voltaire, have always found particularly distasteful.

Chabon sneers at what he considers the hypocrisy of a Jewish people that accepts the idea of being chosen (a religious concept that involves obligation to observe the Torah, not privilege) but then complains when “the world — cynically or sincerely — holds Israel to a different, higher standard as beneficiaries of that dispensation.” He goes on to cite Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which declares that the Jewish people have a right “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” For him, this foundational document of Zionism also means that Jews “are every bit as capable of barbarism or stupidity.”

Leave aside the fact that blockading an area controlled by an Islamist terrorist group bent on Israel’s destruction is, by any reasonable standard, neither barbaric nor stupid, but actually a normal and quite restrained manner of self-defense against a lethal threat. Rather, let us focus on Chabon’s point that it is the Zionists who demand special treatment from the world or say that Israel’s legitimacy is based on any special Jewish attributes or genius.

If anything, what Chabon has done in this long, confused essay is to unwittingly skewer the Peter Beinarts of the world, the “liberal Zionists” for whom Israel is only worthy of existence if it conforms to their vision of what a Jewish state should be. For Beinart, an “illiberal” Israel — which is to say a democracy that chooses leaders and policies of self-defense that he disapproves of and that freely rejects those he likes — must expect American Jewish disdain. Contrary to the so-called “liberal Zionists” who are swarming to attack after the flotilla incident, Israel and its people have many virtues, but the state’s right to exist is predicated on the simple right of the Jews to rule over their own historic homeland. It is not the supporters of Israel who ask for that nation to be judged on the intelligence or the special righteousness of its people. They just ask that Israel not be judged more harshly or by different and more stringent standards of morality or justice than other nations (as it almost always is).

The “exceptionalism” of Jewish civilization rests in a religious and moral tradition that transcends politics or even the novels of a Michael Chabon. But Israel’s right to defend itself against terror is rooted in the simple demands of justice that apply to all peoples and for which Jews — be they smart or stupid — need not apologize. For all of their reputation for brilliance, that’s a lesson liberal Jews like Beinart and Chabon have yet to learn.

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Did I Say That?

James D. Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel prize for uncovering the double-helix structure of DNA, is being pilloried from post to post for comments he made to the Times (of London) last Sunday explaining why he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa.” His pessimism rested, he said, on the fact that “[a]ll our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.”

Watson’s remarks caused a hailstorm of criticism to descend on him. “Genius and malign idiocy often inhabit the psychology of a great man,” read one typical comment in today’s Independent. In short order, Watson “unreservedly” apologized, saying: “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. There is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

Watson’s initial remarks were off-hand, and also clumsy. But there is a large scientific literature about intelligence, as measured by IQ, and how it varies by race. The very meaning of intelligence, and the significance of the variation, are subjects that continue to be fiercely debated in the scientific world. Wherever one stands in those debates—and I myself am just a curious observer—the findings of one’s opponents cannot be refuted with the mere wave of a hand.

Read More

James D. Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel prize for uncovering the double-helix structure of DNA, is being pilloried from post to post for comments he made to the Times (of London) last Sunday explaining why he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa.” His pessimism rested, he said, on the fact that “[a]ll our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.”

Watson’s remarks caused a hailstorm of criticism to descend on him. “Genius and malign idiocy often inhabit the psychology of a great man,” read one typical comment in today’s Independent. In short order, Watson “unreservedly” apologized, saying: “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. There is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

Watson’s initial remarks were off-hand, and also clumsy. But there is a large scientific literature about intelligence, as measured by IQ, and how it varies by race. The very meaning of intelligence, and the significance of the variation, are subjects that continue to be fiercely debated in the scientific world. Wherever one stands in those debates—and I myself am just a curious observer—the findings of one’s opponents cannot be refuted with the mere wave of a hand.

But when it comes to public discussion, hand-waving, unfortunately, remains the typical pattern. The reception granted to Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve in 1994 shows how the topic remains shrouded in taboo.

A decade ago, Chris Chabris, today a professor at Union College in Schenectady and an expert on human cognition, wrote some prescient words in COMMENTARY about flaps like the one Watson has now stumbled into:

Since The Bell Curve, intelligence is stronger than ever as a scientific concept, but as unwelcome as ever as an issue in polite society. It would be reassuring to think that the next twenty years, which promise to be the heyday of behavioral genetics, will change this state of affairs. But if the past is any guide, many more phony controversies lie ahead.

Unsurprisingly, Chabris’s “IQ Since ‘the Bell Curve’” provoked numerous letters to the editor in which many of the tendencies he had criticized in the way discussion of this issue is conducted instantly reappeared. In the Watson controversy, they have reappeared again.

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