Charles Murray Transcript

Taped February 7, 2014

Table of Contents

I: Scholarly Beginnings 0:15 – 5:54
II: Losing Ground 5:54 – 17:58
III: Welfare and Education Reform 17:53 – 29:41
IV: In Pursuit of Happiness 29:41 – 41:56
V: Coming Apart 41:56 – 48:11
VI: The Bell Curve 48:11 – 1:07:28
VII: Space and Future Discoveries 1:07:28 – 1:12:35

I: Scholarly Beginnings (0:15 – 5:54)

KRISTOL: Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. I’m Bill Kristol. I’m very pleased to have as our guest today Charles Murray, whom I consider to be America’s leading living social scientist. Welcome, Charles.

MURRAY: Thank you, Bill.

KRISTOL: I don’t know is that praise?

MURRAY: Oh, I’m dazzled coming from you, especially.

KRISTOL: Maybe damning with my praise, given what some of your social science colleagues do. But, no, it is genuine praise, meant as genuine praise. So I think people will be interested to know, how did you become a social scientist?

MURRAY: You know, it’s one of those funny things that you can remember about when you were a kid. I can remember reading the Reader’s Digest when maybe I was 12 or 13 years old and seeing an article about the Rand Corporation. And I swear I read that and I said, “That’s the kind of place I’d like to work.” I’d never heard of a place like that. That sort of indicates to me that there was some deep proclivity towards this kind of work.

The more direct answer to that question is I was over in Thailand with the Peace Corps. This was 1965 to ’67, right after college. And my wife at that time had been a Fulbright scholar; she was Thai, she had to stay in the country to work off her teaching obligation and so I had to stay in the country and find some work.

And I ended up getting work in a study of northeastern villages, and it was part of the hearts-and-minds kind of effort that the U.S. military was having at that time. And I did that work, and I wrote that report and in the course of that, I started to learn about regression analysis, and I said, “This is really cool.” I was hooked. From then on, I never thought of doing anything else.

KRISTOL: And you went on to get a Ph.D. in –?

MURRAY: I went back to MIT for a Ph.D., and my explicit purpose was I wanted to learn every quantitative method known to man so I could augment my tool kit.

KRISTOL: But somehow I think I’ve read most of your books and there’s plenty of data in them, but I wouldn’t say you’re a big user of super-fancy quantitative methods, regression analyses, etc.

MURRAY: Yeah, you need to know what they’re good for and not good for. And, well, here’s my take on them. If you have an important relationship that you have observed in life about the effects of marriage or the effects of unemployment or whatever and you want to see if that insight is correct, quantitative methods are really helpful to check out whether you’re just making it up or whether the evidence is really there.

What you should not do is run regression equations, see a statistically significant coefficient and then from that try to infer that something important is going on. As far as I’m concerned, quantitative analysis primarily validates, or fails to validate, insights that are more obvious than quantitative statistical tidbits.

KRISTOL: And you’ve written, I think, about your experience in Thailand and the insights, the non-, non-quantitative insights you got from that which I think changed your point-of-view on things.

MURRAY: Essentially, most of what you read in my books I learned in Thai villages. I’ll elaborate a little on that because it was, it’s fascinating to me, anyway. I’m up there in these Thai villages, and I’m trying to analyze whether government assistance has improved the life of the villagers and whether they like that stuff or not. And initially when we’re talking to them – this is anthropological quasi-participant research – a lot of times, they can’t even remember that there was a well project or a double cropping project or a fish farm project. And then when you finally remind them of it, they say, yeah, well, the crops failed so we didn’t do that anymore. Or they put the well in a place where we told them that it was going to be bad water if they put it there but they put it there anyway. Instead, when you got them talking around the fire at night, it turned out there are two things they really wanted from the Thai government. First, they wanted the Thai government to catch water buffalo thieves because that’s a big deal to lose a water buffalo.

And secondly, they wanted the Thai government to allow them to make moonshine for personal consumption. They were very reasonable about this. They said, you know, not to sell, just they ought to let us make enough to drink. And I suddenly was struck first by the enormous discrepancy between what Bangkok thought was important to the villagers and what the villagers wanted out of government. And the second thing I got out of it was that when the government change agent showed up, the village went to hell in terms of its internal governance.

And when you saw villages where you did not have the change agents, you had some very sophisticated self-governmental mechanisms that they had developed naturally. All of those things, when I came back to look at social programs in the United States, kept reminding me that, gee, this inner-city Detroit attempt to help delinquents is running into the same problems that they ran into when they tried to introduce double cropping in a Thai village.

KRISTOL: So you were a skeptic about sort of do-gooding big-government’s efforts pretty close to the beginning?

MURRAY: That was part of it, and another part, I was really impressed by the degree to which human beings left alone to organize themselves did a pretty good job of it.

II: Losing Ground (5.54 – 17:58)

KRISTOL: Well, those are two good themes to follow up on. I mean, your first, I guess, famous book, maybe your first book, I don’t know, was Losing Ground.

MURRAY: That was the first famous one.

KRISTOL: The first famous one. In 1984, and that I’d say people, at least, took to be more on the first side, the first of your two hypotheses the sort of damage government can do. How did you – and this was on welfare primarily, though, not only. I don’t know, I’m just curious how did you –

MURRAY: It was actually much broader than just welfare. And that’s one of the things – people talk about Losing Ground as being a book about welfare.

KRISTOL: Well, that’s partly because you helped inspire the welfare reform efforts later, and so people think, you know –

MURRAY: Actually, it deals also with crime and with education and with job training and a variety of other things. But the common underlying theme was that during the 1960s, we changed the rules of the game and we changed them, specifically, for poor people and, even more specifically, for young poor people and, most specifically of all, for black poor young people. And what a lot of these things did, which were well meant, was they made it profitable for people to behave in destructive ways in the short term. Excuse me. Profitable for them to do things that were destructive in the long term, but look at it in the short-term.

KRISTOL: And what led you to that? I mean, you obviously have a ton of data in the book on a ton of different issues. But was there one thinker who influenced you the most, one experience, one study? I’m just curious. Or just an accumulation of work you had been doing during the 70s? I mean –

MURRAY: I had been evaluating social programs on contract to the U.S. government throughout the 70s for an organization called the American Institutes for Research. So we got a contract. We go out and we evaluate such-and-such a program, write up the evaluation report.

One of those involved chronic delinquents in the south side of Chicago, which are really chronic delinquents. And it was a program to provide non-custodial alternatives. Don’t lock them up, give them residential facilities that are less restrictive, and so forth. And in the course of that, I remember specifically one 16-17 year old who was really irritated that he had been finally thrown into reform school and he was irritated because he said, “They picked me up for lots worse things than that before, and they never sent me here. Why did they send me here now?”

And as I listened to him, he was looking at a system, which from his perspective was completely irrational. They had let him get away with all sorts of things for arrest after arrest, and he was finally being punished, and the whole thing made no sense. And that example stuck in my mind, and the same thing happened with all kinds of other programs where from the point of view of the recipient, it made a lot of sense to do things that were going to kill your future.

KRISTOL: So, people were behaving rationally –

MURRAY: In the short term.

KRISTOL: In the short term. I’m just curious. I remember reading Ed Banfield’s book. You knew Ed? The Unheavenly City, which was what, 1970, I think?

MURRAY: ’75, ’74.

KRISTOL: Which goes on, which it stresses the difference between short term and long term. But I don’t know –

MURRAY: Ed Banfield’s book was a brilliant exposition of a lot of the same kinds of things I was saying in Losing Ground. He was prematurely right. In 1974, people weren’t wanting to pay that much attention to it. Then in 1975, James Wilson, James Q. Wilson, comes along with thinking about crime and that does sort of break the logjam.

KRISTOL: You think that – that’s interesting. I had never really thought about what, what was the moment when it became respectable to say the incentives and all these, many of these Great Society programs were skewed and self-defeating, really? I mean –

MURRAY: I think Jim Wilson’s book was a major event there. And actually it wasn’t just the book’s publication, he had an excerpt from it in The New York Times Magazine. And the title of the article was “Lock ’Em Up.” And that was such a stunning thing to read in 1975, and it occurred at a time when so many people living in urban areas understood just how bad the current problem was. That got a response. And, all at once, I think a lot of the things that were going on in the liberal reform efforts came under a new kind of scrutiny.

KRISTOL: And I guess written by a Harvard professor, so they –

MURRAY: Yeah, but written by one of the greatest crafters of social science prose who has ever lived. He wrote beautifully.

KRISTOL: How important, since you mentioned it – I’ll come back to ask you about Losing Ground and the reception to that, which was not uncontroversial. Even though you’re pretending that the ground had been laid for nine years before you did that book. But what about prose? You’re a very good writer and a compelling writer, I believe. I don’t know, how important is it?

MURRAY: It’s huge, it’s hugely important. Well, another of the finest social science writers who ever lived was named Irving Kristol. And it’s so important because, look, the kinds of issues you’re talking about with public policy are ones in which you have to use persuasion combined with evidence that people will actually read.

So a James Q. Wilson in thinking about crime, conducted absolutely no original analyses of his own, he took the entire literature, this technical literature that was very abstruse, and he made it accessible through his brilliant prose to a large audience, and it had an impact whereas all those separate articles had not. And I think that if you go to all the books that have had, as they say, changed the conversation, they have had that in common.

KRISTOL: And it seems to me that Jim Wilson and you actually both didn’t beat people’s heads in with your conclusions. I mean you sort of – I think you’re good at this – you lead people. You often say upfront, “I have a certain set of views that you may not agree with,” but I’m going to lead, you know, but you sort of lead people to think them through themselves. I think that’s very –

MURRAY: This has been something that I started with Losing Ground, and I think I pretty much repeated it with every book where I structure the book saying, “Look, I’m going to give you a lot of data, and at the end, I’m also going to give you my interpretation of what those data mean, but I have a particular set of predilections and philosophical leanings that you ought to know about.”

I think that that ought to be standard operating procedure for all social scientists so that when Christopher Jencks writes a book, he starts out by saying, “I’m a social Democrat. I’m going to give you a really fair reading of the data on inequality or whatever I’m writing about, and then I’m going to give you my policy analysis of that, but you should understand where I’m coming from.”

I will say, even though it sounds self-serving, that whereas I do that, I know of virtually no social scientist on the Left who starts out by saying, “By the way, I’m a social Democrat.”

KRISTOL: Yeah, everyone they know is so they don’t feel they have to say it, you know, I guess. But it was despite your good prose and a certain, and a genuine, I think, willingness to let people draw what conclusions they wished, the book was met in ’84 with a certain amount, it generated a certain amount of controversy, I remember?

MURRAY: Well, it felt to me like red-hot controversy until I found out what red-hot controversy was really like with The Bell Curve. But, yeah, in 1984, it got a lot of people – it was a two-stage process, Bill.

KRISTOL: Yeah, tell me.

MURRAY: First, the book came out. You got a couple of people like Robert Samuelson wrote a column on it, a few other visible people.

KRISTOL: Where were you? You were at the Manhattan Institute so it was viewed as center-right, I guess?

MURRAY: Libertarian-right, actually, yeah.

KRISTOL: In New York, right? And you weren’t that well known?

MURRAY: I was completely obscure.

KRISTOL: I mean, you weren’t James Q. Wilson or Christopher Jencks.

MURRAY: I was a nobody.

KRISTOL: How does a book – people will be curious – in looking back, how did it take, was there some moment that caused it to take off, or was it just general and you published it and –?

MURRAY: I think it was the review by Nick Lemann in The New Republic because Nick Lemman – I think I’m quoting it fairly directly – said there is a horrible authenticity about my description of the problem. And for The New Republic audience, this was a very important thing to say to get the interest of people, and then as soon as it became understood that the book was being taken seriously by people like Nick Lemann, it was as if “we’ve got to discredit this guy.”

And that was my first experience with the lengths to which the opposition will go to say, “The man is a racist or he is a sexist or he makes up data, fudges the data, he’s writing at the behest of sinister contributors.” It’s not enough to – by the way, what I’m saying is as true, I think, of the attacks on people writing on the Left as it is of people writing on the Right – but it is not enough to take on the arguments that are in the book, you’ve got to demonize the writer. And I think that’s one of the most pernicious aspects of current, the current political debate.

KRISTOL: I wonder – I guess it’s always happened, I was going to say when that really began. But it does seem like the mid-80s was a particular time of that. I mean, that was ’84, your book. I came to Washington in ’85, and Bob Bork was in ’87, and there was just a moment there where somehow I don’t know if it’s the Left and the mainstream culture was sort of losing control, and they sensed it and they just had to discredit anyone who challenged certain premises or –

MURRAY: I’ll tell you what really struck a nerve with Losing Ground. This, I think, became clear very soon. If you read Losing Ground, I care about poor people. And my argument was not that we were spending too much money, it wasn’t that we had welfare queens that were fraudulently getting the money. I say it, I think, explicitly in the introduction to the book – the worst thing about the policy is that it’s hurt the people we tried to help.

And that’s the province of the Left. I mean, we had our assigned roles. People on the Right are supposed to worry about welfare queens and we’re spending too much money, and people on the Left, “Yes, the programs may not work as well as they should but at least they care.” And here is this guy on the Right pretending that he actually cares about these people and that struck a nerve.

KRISTOL: And it also, I think, maybe – correct me if I’m wrong – you respect, respected the poor people enough to think they behaved rationally in response to incentives. I mean, you weren’t patronizing them and saying, “These people are just brought up in a certain way, and you can’t expect better.” You were making an argument that actually the system was, in a sense, was driving them – not driving them, but leading them towards these decisions.

MURRAY: Yeah it’s ironic –

KRISTOL: A system they hadn’t set up –

MURRAY: The Left started out by saying, “The system is to blame, so it’s not their fault that they’re poor and that they’re out of work.” And, in a funny kind of way, I was saying, “Well, yeah, the system is to blame; the system is to blame for systematically luring them down the primrose path.”

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