Charles Murray on Populism, The Bell Curve, and American Civic Life

September 12, 2016 (Episode 66)

Taped August 1, 2016

Table of Contents

I: The Current Political Moment 0:00 – 33:22
II: A Universal Basic Income 33:22 – 44:36
III: Constitutionalism and Nationalism 44:36 – 1:00:45
IV: The Bell Curve Revisited 1:00:45 – 1:10:55

I: The Current Political Moment (0:15 – 33:22)

KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very pleased to be joined today again by Charles Murray, scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, author of many important books: Losing Ground – when was that? 1984? – The Bell Curve in the mid-90s, and Coming Apart, about four years ago.

I would say, I’m not sure there’s a social commentator who’s written as many important books over the last few decades as Charles so it is a great pleasure and honor to have you here. And you’re going to explain the current moment, right?

MURRAY: With that kind of introduction I suppose I’m obligated to.

KRISTOL: Exactly right. So what – this is the very beginning of August of 2016. People are – someone wrote something in the New York Times yesterday giving you credit for presciently seeing that Trump or Trumpism, I guess, was going to happen. Did you see it, and what do you make of it?

MURRAY: I knew that we were going to have a problem with the white working class, and actually, I guess I’ll blow my own horn and say in 1993 for The Wall Street Journal, I had a long article called “The Coming White Underclass.” If you go back and read that – but this is not rocket science, it simply was the trend lines for out-of-wedlock births among working-class whites at that point had been spiking upward. They were at about the level they had been when Pat Moynihan sounded the tocsin on black out-of-wedlock births in the early 1960s. It did not take much foresight to see the same kinds of social problems were going to happen to whites. But where we stand now in 2016 is way worse than it was then. How did we get there?

KRISTOL: Explain maybe very briefly, what is way worse? What indicators would you cite, if I said, “I don’t know, the country seems to be in decent shape”?

MURRAY: For most of you who don’t hang out in working class communities, or who grew up in one but haven’t been back to visit recently, you will probably be shocked. The reason you’ll be shocked is that a town that you knew 30 years ago, 40 years ago, as a town of intact families and no more serious drug problem than some beer and marijuana will now find meth use is a huge problem and increasingly heroin use.

You will find on the order of 18 percent of the single white males in that community of working age who are not even looking for work. That’s a lot of people. You will see single-parent families all over. You will see children who are not performing well in school, who are delinquent.

Basically, Bill, you can take all of the things that social scientists were shaking their heads over about the black inner city in the 1970s and 80s, and all of those things are happening in white working-class America now. It’s really, truly, not only unprecedented, but it’s of a different nature than the problem of the black inner cities for a very brutal reason.

Blacks constitute around 12 percent of the American population; non-Latino whites, depending on how you define it exactly, but we’re still looking at high 60 percent, around 70, a little bit lower than that. That’s a group that’s about four times as large as the black population. When you get social problems of the magnitude that they now experience, you’ve got a crisis that dwarfs those of earlier decades.

KRISTOL: And it really is unlike the problems Italian immigrants had 100 years ago, and the Irish, you read about – there were riots and they had drinking problems and so forth?

MURRAY: The reason it’s different is that with those Irish, and those Italians, you still had communities that functioned in terms of marriage, in terms of the norms for men working, in terms of taking care of your kids.

Not that they didn’t have problems. Italian communities, Irish communities, and for that matter, Scotch-Irish communities, to get to my forbearers, often drank too much, and men hit their wives too much. There were problems. But the communities were functional in basic ways.

KRISTOL: How do we get to that situation?

MURRAY: It’s really with the advantage of hindsight, of course. Pretty simple. White working-class community – in the book Coming Apart, I use Fishtown, which was a working-class community in Philadelphia, now gentrified.

KRISTOL: Yes, I was thinking – I saw Philadelphia in the Democratic Convention. Yeah, it is actually different.

MURRAY: Fishtown was a classic, old, been-there since the revolution, white working-class community. If you were in a Fishtown or one of the many counterparts throughout the United States, and you were a guy, you probably had a pretty good manufacturing or other kind of blue-collar job. It didn’t make you rich. The UAW kind of union jobs really were a pretty small portion of the labor force, but you had a good job.

You put a roof over your family and put food on the table; you had a wife, you had a couple of kids. All of this did a couple of things. One is it provided the family as the unit of organization of the community, which is real important for reasons we can come back to. But also, it gave you a real status in that community. You were one of the good guys. A guy your age who wasn’t supporting his wife, wasn’t taking care of his kids was a bum. He didn’t have status you did.

Then, you get the 1960s. You get the Pill in the early 1960s, Sexual Revolution. You get the sudden preoccupation of the Democratic Party with blacks in the middle of the 1960s, which continues. In the late 60s, it adds women. In the 70s, late 70s, it’s already beginning to add gays as the objects of the elite liberal affection and concern. White working-class guys not only are saying, “What about us?” They’re actively the objects of scorn of the liberal elites. They are sexist, they are racists, and later they’re homophobic. They’re violent. They’re guilty of abusing their wives and children, and in all sorts of ways, nobody stops to say, “Most of you guys are still the salt of the earth, you make America go.” There was none of that rhetoric.

There were lots of things that were dislocating; plus, you got women going into the labor force. All at once, the economic dependence that women had on men has gone away. What happens if I leave? Maybe not so much because not only is the wife making money, maybe she’s making more than you are. Then, along comes Reagan, and they like Reagan’s rhetoric, they like his patriotism. Oh by the way, a lot of these white working-class guys had also been veterans of Vietnam. And when they came home, they couldn’t wear their uniforms because if they wore their uniforms on leave they were spat on, so that goes into it. Reagan appeals to them. They start voting for the Republicans, that coalition holds together for a while.

Things don’t get any better. They aren’t making more money. Their wages are pretty stagnant, and their communities are starting to break down. That’s when you start to have the guys who are still holding down jobs, but you have the other guys who maybe had an accident at work parlay that into disability, now don’t work at all even though they could. You have guys working enough to qualify for unemployment benefits who then takes the next three of four months off. You watch around you; people of color or women who get big settlements from employers because if they’re fired, they charge that they’ve been harassed or racistly fired. So they are, really, if you’ll pardon the technical term, pissed off by 2016, and who can blame them?

You had in this though two very different components, and I’ll wrap up this here. You still have – you still have working-class guys who are playing by the rules. Who are getting married, taking care of their kids, working hard. We live in a part of the country where we know people – we actually hang out with a lot of people of the kind I’m talking about – and there are a whole lot of people who are doing the right things. There are also a whole lot of people who fit the other description I gave. The problem is they’re in the same communities. So it’s not as if the guys who are playing by the rules still live in functional communities, it’s not only the bad guys who don’t. The whole thing is festering.

KRISTOL: Was it inevitable? I think the good-faith efforts – presumably, let’s leave the liberals aside – by Clinton on the Democratic side and Reagan and Bush on the Republican side, all of whom thought they were speaking to these people and probably honestly thought they had policies that would help them. Is it just overwhelmed by globalization and sort of social forces beyond politics? Or could it have been very different?

MURRAY: There are certain things you weren’t going to change no matter what. You weren’t going to change the Sexual Revolution. Let’s not put the blame on feminism and women going out and becoming economically more independent. Guys also discovered because of the Sexual Revolution that they could get regular sexual access to a woman without marrying her. That’s a big deal if you’re 22 years old, or 18 years old. Even a big deal later in life.

But the point is that the rules had changed in ways that no politics were going to change no matter what. But when it comes to globalization, let me not speak to the Left, let me speak to the Right here. A few mea culpas for people like you and me. Maybe it’s not fair for you because I don’t know exactly where you stood on immigration.

I was a big fan of globalization. When I would read liberal accusations about Nike sweatshops in Vietnam – well, I spent time in Southeast Asia, and I know very well what they’re calling sweatshops in most cases are the very best jobs these people have ever had; and not only the best jobs they’ve ever had, offer the best chances for advancement, offer wages that are really quite good for the cost of living in those places.

KRISTOL: Best chance for their kids.

MURRAY: Best chance for their kids. I was very benign about globalization. I didn’t pay much attention to what large-scale immigration meant in the United States. I read The Economist and many of them who say, “when you look at it from the macroeconomic point of view, the immigrants are a plus-plus. They are not displacing Americans from jobs” – you’re familiar with that literature.

I am willing to believe on a macro sense they may be right. It is also true on a micro sense, there have also been many cases of guys who are making a decent wage as roofers and now can’t make a decent wage as roofers because illegal immigrants are being hired by roofing companies at well below the rates, including payroll taxes that have to be paid. That does happen, too. Just because it’s not a big problem when you take it in terms of a nice econometric analysis using the Current Population Survey, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a real problem in communities.

Another thing that’s going on here is the social science topic, perhaps, that we least like to talk about. That is the effect of ethnic heterogeneity on social trust. It was Bob Putnam of Bowling Alone fame who brought this to public attention in a lecture he gave around 2006. What he found – and what others had already found, he was bringing to public attention something that had been percolating in academia – is that even after controlling for socioeconomic status, ethnic heterogeneity destroys social trust.

Social trust is really important. Francis Fukuyama wrote a whole book about the importance of social trust for societies to function. But at the local level, it’s absolutely crucial for the American civic culture to work. It’s not just that ethnic heterogeneity reduced social trust, it also reduces the trust within ethnicities. So white people in that community don’t trust each other as much as they used to. They hunker down, in Bob Putnam’s phrase.

All this immigration, how did it affect you and me? Sorry to keep putting you in this situation. It provided opportunities for cheap gardeners and cheap nannies. We do not live in communities – actually, I do – you don’t live in a community in which you have a large Hispanic influx. People who live in elite communities may have a lot of Asians moving in, but nobody worries about Asians because Asians have higher rates of school completion and intact families and everything than any other group has.

The people who bore the brunt of the social trust lost by increasing immigration was the working class. It was a big price.

KRISTOL: On immigration, I was sort of liberal in the middle of the last decade. I sort of vaguely supported the Bush/McCain attempts to have big immigration reform. But I was against the 2013 Gang of Eight because I had become convinced that the costs, both of illegal and legal immigration, were pretty great – the social costs, whatever the net-net.

On the other hand, would it make much difference? That’s I guess where I come back, the flip side of it. If you pass the dream conservative immigration policy tomorrow – built a wall, no illegals, fewer illegals, or illegals would only come when there really were no Americans to do the job or however you’d want to structure the immigration policy – is it symbolic, or is it real, in terms of its effects?

MURRAY: Let’s specify what we’re talking about. Because I think we’re talking about the same thing. I would be in favor of this. Control the borders, and if that takes a wall, then so be it. Use whatever measures are needed to control it. Then, reduce the number of people who may legally immigrate here with low skills. Follow the Canadian model, follow other models, which say essentially immigration is to be to the benefit of the United States of America.

If this makes us not want to read the base of the Statue of Liberty, so be it. The base of the Statue of Liberty about “huddled masses” was not part of the Constitution, it is not a Founding document.

KRISTOL: It is a policy that worked for America in the late 19th century, which incidentally was changed, was not the policy of America from 1924 to 1965.

MURRAY: Some would say it worked pretty well. The point being that we just simply shift our attitude and say, we are going to look out for Americans first. We’re especially going to look out for working-class Americans.

Having said that, let’s suppose that we manage to achieve all that. Will it then be the case that you have all these guys go out and take these jobs that may pay $15 or $17 an hour but involves doing agricultural labor? It’s hard for me to see that happening. Even right now, the stories are rife of the jobs that Americans won’t take. These are not made up.

If you go to any employer of low-skill labor or even median skill labor, they will tell you horror stories about trying to keep their payrolls filled with the kinds of skilled people they know. They will also tell you horror stories about [how] they hire a guy – and let’s remind people who may have turned in late, we aren’t talking about Latinos or blacks in the inner city, we’re talking about white-bread, American, non-Latino males who take a job and they can’t show up on time. They take half-hour toilet breaks frequently. They don’t do a very good job when they actually do work. Eventually, they’re fired. When they’re fired, they are filled with indignation that the employer would throw them out when they were doing a good job. It’s not just that they don’t work well, there seems to be a kind of inability to take responsibility for the fact that they failed. This is very common.

Would it make it any better if we had that kind of immigration policy? I think so, but I think it would be at the margin. I think that it would take something more dramatic than that to restore anything like the work ethic and the cultural expectations that we had 50 years ago.

KRISTOL: I take it you would say the same thing about trade. Trump has made a big deal of trade policy, and it’s resonated more than I would have expected. It’s not been historically a winning issue in America – the protectionist attempts, rhetoric from way back. Gephardt and Buchanan and a lot of people in both parties have tried it and never quite succeeded. There has always been some sentiment that way.

I think I underestimated, just talking to people out on the campaign trail, reporters, and stuff, the trade lines in the speech get huge applause. I don’t know that it’s empirically true that it makes much difference. Again, it’s very hard to imagine a world in 2016 where we are putting up much in the way of trade barriers, honestly.

MURRAY: This is where I’m going to stand at the barricade. Because I’m willing to say I’m with the idea of restricting low-skill immigration, severely restricting it. I think that if there’s one economic principle that every economist I know who I respect says trade is a win-win. That if we restrict trade the quality of living in the United States is going to go down, not just for people at the top, it’s going to way down for people who shop at Walmarts and really need to get an inexpensive product.

KRISTOL: I would say, I mean, you’ve made this point, I think also, that also the effect of trade in helping hundreds of millions – I guess, billions by now – very poor people around the world is not trivial. India and China, their success depends on, more or less, free trading, or open trading, open capital regime worldwide. That’s not an insignificant moral accomplishment to help those people lift themselves out of poverty, and conversely, would not be an insignificant moral problem, I would say.

MURRAY: I guess that I have shifted enough – I agree, by the way, with everything you said about the moral value of what we have done. I would be more sympathetic to say, yeah, but I’d like to make sure we’re okay in this country with our workers, our low-income people, if I thought trade modifications would do that.

I’m not convinced of that. I think Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations laid out the case for open trade. I don’t know of any effective refutation of that by anybody. I don’t know of any serious economist who doesn’t see that as pretty much as valid now as it was in 1776.

KRISTOL: That’s interesting that you would distinguish immigration and trade because those issues are often lumped together, as Trump himself does. The counter-Trump side people lump them together as kind of examples of irresponsible –

MURRAY: I think it’s an empirical matter. I think it’s way easier to demonstrate that there are no significant harms that free trade does to low-income American workers. Whereas the attempts to demonstrate that large immigration doesn’t hurt low-skill is a lot dicier.

KRISTOL: The cultural effects of large-scale immigration – the cultural effects of shirts being made in China, presumably, are not that great – whereas the cultural effects not speaking the language and tensions between communities and stuff.

I’m curious what you think about this, I’ve been struck by this, people say working-class – and at least in the book, you focus on what we would consider classic working class, assembly-line people working mostly with their bodies, so to speak. I live in Fairfax Country, which is an upscale country, but like most areas in US, it is mixed, and there are areas that have quite a lot of immigrants actually, and aren’t very well off. So if go to some of the – you know there are 23 high schools in Fairfax County, and I’m going to make this up and say that 19 of them are just upper-middle-class, but three or four are more mixed – not everyone goes to college, some of the kids drop out, they have disciplinary, learning problems and stuff.

I’m struck talking to, for example, a woman who’s been a teacher and an administrator in the Fairfax Country schools, how upset she is about the fact that– she joined that school system and it was great. It had some poor kids. Everyone worked hard. Everyone was expected to learn English. There was discipline in the classroom, and it was a fulfilling job to be a teacher and move up in the Fairfax Country school system. Now, you go to some of these schools and the kids aren’t disciplined and there are all kinds of restraints on what you can do as a teacher and there are other bureaucratic problems.

I wonder how much, I’ll use Trump here as a kind of metaphor – I don’t know if she’s voting for Trump, this person I was talking to. There is a sort of Trumpian echo in the middle class. And that would be someone I would consider middle class. Two teachers, that’s not really quite our conventional working-class person, but I think there’s more of that than people think. Which is why one reason Trump is getting more votes than if he were only getting unemployed or underemployed assembly-line workers.

MURRAY: In effect, it sounds like what that teacher that you’re using there is saying, “I chose to work in a school system where I thought I was going to get a bunch of upper-middle-class kids that I could teach –”

KRISTOL: Or working-class and lower middle-class kids who would be disciplined and would have families that would reinforce that teaching and wouldn’t tell the kid to ignore the teacher and whatever.

MURRAY: I’m going to say it’s a she – just reflecting my generation and my assumptions about who the teacher is – she knows very well if she had accepted a job in most inner city schools, it’s not a matter that the kids were black that was the problem, or that they were poor was a problem, that she wouldn’t be able to teach. Because we all know about the problems that the inner city schools have had. Teachers are held powerless to do anything about. What she is seeing in her situation was all at once this school is more and more like what an inner city school has been in the past.

There’s this spread of the new lower class, as I call it in Coming Apart. Which is very similar to what we used to call the underclass in the black inner city. She is seeing the spread, and I would be willing to bet that whereas it may be some of the immigrant kids who are causing the problem, an awful lot of what is causing the problem are white kids who are from working-class areas that are disintegrating.

We’re seeing the future in terms of – by the way all of this, there’s no magic formula that says that this stops at the working class.

KRISTOL: I was going to ask about this. In the book, Coming Apart, which everyone should read, of course, and which we discussed in a previous CONVERSATION which everyone should watch, what’s the break? You say, let’s look at the top, the bottom? You leave the middle out.

MURRAY: My upper middle class is college educated, and it has a person who is the head of household has either a managerial job or a professional job. That’s one end. The other end is a couple who has no more than a high school education, and if anybody is working in the family, it’s no more than a blue-collar job.

KRISTOL: What are the rough numbers on each of those categories?

MURRAY: We’re talking basically a quarter and a quarter. It’s 20 and 30, 20 on top, 30 on the bottom, and the other 50 in the middle.

KRISTOL: It’s kind of an important question what happens to the 50 in the middle? Which you’ve done some work on and thought about, right? It would make a big difference if the 30 on the bottom – if 30 is bad – if 30 percent of the country is having trouble and the 70 percent isn’t, that’s one thing. But if the 30 percent is spreading to 40 and 50, that’s a very different situation.

MURRAY: With all of these graphs that I published in the book, I had two lines, one was defined as the upper middle class, the other was the working class. I also plotted what about the middle 50. I have all those graphs sitting in my computer. They were pretty boring.

They were exactly in the middle. So that if the working class was going down like this and the upper middle class was sort of like this, the middle class was going like that. There was deterioration in the middle class.

Deterioration was the same kind of drop down in marriage and increase in out-of-the-workforce. And you have to think of all of that in terms of what is coming down the pike with the middle class with regard to the availability of jobs. Which is that we are looking, over the next 10, 15 years, to a massive hollowing out of jobs, not just in the working class, but in the middle class.


MURRAY: Artificial intelligence has finally started to live up to its hype. Now, there are all sorts of ways in which IT has already supplanted white-collar jobs. I used a travel agent all the time in the 1990s because I traveled a lot. I’m sure she made quite a good living. I am also quite confident that her IQ was just fine, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she had a college education.

So she made a good living, she was doing a job that required lots of judgments, lots of ability to research various alternatives, and she was earning her money. Around 2003, when Expedia got pretty good and the United Airlines website got pretty good, I gave up using a travel agent. The actual number of travel agents – I looked it up because I’m struck by that – and it indeed has dropped by, I think, more than a third since the turn of the century.

But the real big news is this, are you familiar with the Japanese game of Go?

KRISTOL: Slightly. Very slightly.

MURRAY: You know the chess board is 8 x 8, and each side has 16 pieces, and the pieces move in a defined way, and it’s all very linear. If then, if then, if then. So in fact they made – it took them a long time – but they made really good programs to play chess, and now you can buy one for $35 that can beat the World Champion. Fine.

Go is on a board that is larger than that and has nodes on it. I’m not sure the exact size, but even small increases produce exponential increases in possibilities. And you just put pebbles on these nodes and different colored pebbles, and the object is to encircle, and it’s all very intuitive. A great deal of intelligence is needed to play Go, but it’s way different from chess. The assumption last year was it would be another 10 years before a program could beat Go.

This spring, a program was developed by a subsidiary of Google – who else? – that beat one of the leading Go players four games out of five. And the reason it’s worth telling this story is they didn’t teach the program how to play Go, they taught the program how to teach itself to do things.

What they did was feed the program a couple of thousand games that had been played of Go by senior players. They fed it the rules of Go, and said, okay, that’s it. Thereupon, the program proceeds to play millions and millions and millions of games of Go and learned from them. If I make this move, then out of the 75 million games I’ve played, it has this effect on my probability of winning and losing. You just keep building that up, and the result is it plays world-class Go.

That algorithm that says, “just let the program teach itself,” imagine applying that to medical diagnosis, imagine applying that to all sorts of things. Imagine analogous kinds of programs in AI and all sorts of jobs that are currently held by people who make a fairly limited amount of judgments, but demanding judgments, are going to be replaceable by a computer program within not that long a period of time.

KRISTOL: I guess the conventional answer to that is –

MURRAY: We’ve been saying that for 200 years.

KRISTOL: They’ll produce other jobs and more leisure and so forth.

MURRAY: I can’t tell you how often I hear that. Because they have the advantage of having been right for 200 years. For 200 years, people have said, “Oh, look, we’re going to automate the mills, and then we lose all these jobs,” and of course, other things rise up.

With most of those events – though hindsight helps – it is also true that the automobile is coming in, and you do see that a lot of horse drivers are going to be out of a job, carriage drivers. Well, someone needs to drive the automobiles, somebody needs to fix the automobiles. You can sort of see that.

But tell me, when probably within the next 10 years, four-odd million people are going to be out of work driving cars and trucks because they’re going to driverless. It’s a whole lot harder to see how that spins off jobs. If you look at the developments at Google, Apple, and Microsoft and the rest, we’ve had wonderful new capabilities that really have not generated very many jobs. I think basically you’re going to make out like a bandit if you have an IQ of 135 and above and otherwise things are looking pretty grim, or if you are very conscientious, I will just throw that in since we’re talking about jobs.

I’m borrowing from Tyler Cowen here – Tyler Cowen points out that we’re still going to need nannies for our children, we’re really going to need people to take care of our elderly parents. What do we want for those jobs? First, we want a human being. I don’t care how good the robot is, we want a human being, we want a nurturing human being, and above all, we want a conscientious human being who even though nobody is looking over his or her shoulder will do a prescribed thing as asked no matter what, such as administer the pills that are due at 4:30.

Now, which gender tends to be more nurturing and more conscientious? Statistically, we have many conscientious men, many nurturing men; statistically, women have a big, big edge. So our white-collar working-class male has yet another way in which he’s going to end at the bottom of the totem pole.

KRISTOL: That’s the white-collar middle-class male, too, though right? You think there you get a kind of perfect storm with the technology plus the social mores.

MURRAY: Yeah. Yeah.

KRISTOL: That’s cheerful.

MURRAY: You know cheerful is what I do. You know that, Bill.

II: A Universal Basic Income (33:22 – 44:36)

KRISTOL: Are there any – obviously, there is no magic bullet. Where would that incline in you in terms of – if one had that analysis, in terms of policies, even macro or micro.

MURRAY: It’s pushed me towards a universal basic income, which I wrote a book on in 2006 called In Our Hands, and which I’ve just redone with new arithmetic for today’s economy. I think it is important enough that I’ll take a few minutes and tell what’s going on with that.

KRISTOL: Someone told me that your new introduction to it is very interesting, but I haven’t seen it yet. Is it coming out soon?

MURRAY: It’s out. You can go to Amazon, and you can download it.

KRISTOL: Speaking of businesses destroying – being a bookseller working at a book store, that was a kind of middle-class, college-educated job.

MURRAY: The examples are legion. The idea of a universal basic income appeals to me in part as a way of solving an economic problem because, as is highly publicized, we are looking at a growth in entitlement spending that is really scary and unsustainable deficits unless we do a major fix.

There will have to be a major fix of some kind, and so I want to draw people’s attention now to a quite affordable fix, which will have the advantage of being affordable, but that’s not really my main reason for proposing it.

The basics of it is this: At the age of 21 every American who holds a passport – which is issued at birth and used in the same function as an ordinary passport, but also establishes your eligibility as an American citizen for the universal basic income, UBI – starts to receive a monthly deposit electronically to a known bank account of $13,000 divided by 12. $13,000 is the total, basic income of which $3,000 must be devoted to healthcare, which I’m going to push aside because it’s a complicated additional topic.

So you have $10,000 of disposable income that you’re getting in monthly allotments. I think that there are all sorts of ways to do that which would cause catastrophe. I think if we simply add that on to the current benefit system, it’s not affordable, but it’s also a catastrophe. But what if it replaces everything else? There’s no more Medicare, no more Social Security, there is no more welfare, there is no more corporate welfare, there are no more agricultural subsidies. I can go through the whole list of transfers. There’s none of that stuff, and there’s also none of the bureaucracies that administer it.

You have $10,000, and you say, “You can’t live on $10,000.” Well, if you really want to live all by yourself, no. You’ll live a pretty grubby existence on $10,000. You get a minimum-wage job – just a minimum-wage job and you work 2,000 hours a year at, let’s say, $7.50 – that’s $15,000 plus 10, that’s $25,000. Yeah, that’s well above, way above the poverty line.

Suppose for some reason you can’t work, or suppose you don’t want to work. You can still have a decent existence if you’re cooperative. If you’re cooperative enough to convince a friend, girlfriend, or boyfriend, relative or something else to pool your resources, if you just do it with two people, you got $20. With no working whatsoever, you’ve got $30 if you got three people. You add a little bit of income, and you’re in the middle class. That $10,000 given to everyone has a huge effect on their ability to live a decent existence by doing reasonable things.

But it also has, I think, a couple of other huge advantages. Again, because of some features of my specific plan which I’m quite proud of. One is right now we clawback benefits at a very low rate. So that if you’re on food stamps and Medicare and you take a job, you very soon face a very punitive loss of benefits. I say look, you keep your entire $10,000, we don’t clawback a cent of it until you have $30,000 in earned income.

Once you have $31,000 in earned income, you’ll pay $50 or some very minor clawback and that will increase as your income rises. I’m really saying to somebody who’s gotten up to $30,000 of earned income, okay, you’ve now got a net of $40,000. You really want to quit working and go back to $10,000? I’m luring them into work until they can’t quit.

The other thing that I really like about it is that it reverses some really terrible incentives. For example, the people who do not work because they’re afraid of losing their benefit, that all disappears. They go to work – that is pure profit to go to work, whereas now that can be very punitive.

The second thing is consider the classic case of the young woman who has a baby and no husband, well, it is a statement of fact that under the current system that generates an income stream she would have not have otherwise had. I’m not saying she has the baby to get the income stream – I’m saying it does generate an income stream. Under the plan I’m proposing, she has an income stream. The baby is going to be a major drain on that income stream. Now, that could also be good. All of us who have children have a major drain on our income streams as a result that we’re delighted to have, but it does get the incentives right. “I really want a baby, I know I’m going to be paying for diapers and baby food and all that, and I still want the baby.” Okay. But, if you’ve got the income stream and you say, “Jeez, do I really want to spend it on those kinds of things, or do I want to spend it on some more education or better clothes or something?” That gets those incentives right.

I’ll add one other incentive it gets really right, which has to do with men who walk away from their children. I’m not a big fan of demonizing single women. I understand all the reasons we want to hesitate at that even if we think the women have made a wrong decision. I don’t see a thing wrong in demonizing single men who walk away from children. I’m very easy with that. Well, we have child support laws in place. We have DNA such that all you need to get is a swab and you can have absolute certainty of paternity, and we’ve got an electronic bank account known. All the judge has to do is garnish a certain amount of money from the man to support his children. You think that will get around? You think other men will know that that’s happening? You think that maybe, that just might make them think twice before they father a child they don’t plan to take care of? I’m quite enthusiastic about those incentives.

KRISTOL: Could it happen? I think part of it could. I mean, the Medicare stuff strikes me as hard because –

MURRAY: The medical thing is hard.

KRISTOL: Because people think that is a separate – catastrophic costs and so forth.

MURRAY: Where I’m willing to compromise is the medical side. The reality is we run an idiotic medical system. Part of the things I go through in the book is to point out to people, do you realize that the cost of ordinary medical care, the kind that is 90 percent of the reason we go to doctors, should have been going steadily down over the last half century? The same way that the cost of everything else has been going down? But because it is so generous in so many ways – I’ll say, okay let’s put aside medical care and talk about the rest of this.

I guess I want to add on to these kinds of specific benefits I’ve talked about, something that just might make a difference to white-collar guys who can’t get jobs and to a changing job market, it has a good chance – I will express it that way; I can’t be sure – it has a really good chance of revitalizing America’s civic culture. The idea is this: you have people who are not going to use their money wisely – we all know that – and they’re going to smoke it up, or drink it up, or whatever.

So it’s going to be the 18th of the month, and they’re down and out. Well, how are they going to survive until the end of the month? They have to go to somebody, but there is no government agency to go to anymore – those are all gone – so they’ve got to go to the boyfriend or the girlfriend, the sister, the brother, the relative, the friend, or whatever. Or the church.

In each of these cases, the situation has been fundamentally changed. Right now, that person can present himself as being a helpless victim. Just so many strikes have gone against me in life, and much of which may be true, but when there’s another $800 bucks hitting the bank account in two weeks, the dialogue changes. We’re not going to let you starve, but don’t tell us you’re helpless, you aren’t helpless, we know what your situation is, its time for you to get your act together.

Now, take these kinds of interactions and multiply them by tens of millions. Think of all the ways in which if there are not government agencies to do things that philanthropic efforts, which have been diverted away from those, as we know from scholarly work, they have been diverted away. What happens if they are diverted again?

Then, we get to the whole issue of my own very deep belief that human needs are solved best at the lowest possible level. That the government is a blunt, extremely inefficient method for dealing with human needs. That American history is replete with real brilliance in our ability to use civic culture to meet human needs. That’s my baby when it comes to trying to solve some of the problems that I’ve been talking about.

III: Constitutionalism and Nationalism (44:36 – 1:00:45)

KRISTOL: For me, what’s most striking and, I guess, depressing about the current moment with Trump and Trumpism is I had sort of high hopes for the Tea Party and for the revival for a kind of appreciation of constitutionalism and limited government, Hayekian understanding that central planning didn’t work.

People didn’t read Hayek exactly, but there’s a sort of instinctive, I think, sense of that: that the modern state, the welfare state, the administrative state had all kinds of perverse, bad effects, both in terms of actual policy outcomes and citizenship, as you were just talking about. That seems to be getting more and more currency, I would say, over the last several years in both scholarship and popular discussion, really. Trump does not seem to embody any of that, though. So the populist movement went in a very different direction.

MURRAY: I was smiling because I was exactly the same place you were. I loved the original Tea Party movement. I loved the saying, “Let’s put socialist views aside; let’s just agree on limited government.” I loved the energy and the enthusiasm. I really thought that we might be in a situation where we had a change in political culture that really cements a lot of Founders’ ideas about how government works.

What went wrong? I guess an awful lot of people who have voted Republican never were part of that. They weren’t part of the Tea Party. They were voting Republicans because essentially the Democrats dissed them. Not only didn’t do anything for them, but in addition to that dissed them and condescended to them, and the Republicans didn’t.

Then, all of their grievances, the Republicans don’t seem to be paying attention to. In part, unrealistically, because the government, they don’t have the presidency, and you can put bills on the President’s desk, but it’s not a very useful exercise if you know they aren’t going to pass. In part, realistically, in so far as the issues we’ve talked about earlier. People like you and me just didn’t think that hard about how important limiting low-skill immigration was.

So they got a spokesman. In this sense, what you’re saying is here was a section of the party that was always out there, we underestimated its size, they get a spokesman, they rally to that spokesman, and then if we were really prescient, we would have said, “Gee, if you get 17 candidates and only one person’s really trying to appeal to that, that one person is going to get more votes than anybody else.”

KRISTOL: And he’s a celebrity and he’s very skillful.

MURRAY: All of these things, I say now, and I hadn’t a clue all throughout Trump’s success. I’m as wrong as everybody else has been. What is scary is that it is so opposite to the whole notion of “just leave us alone to live our lives as we see fit.” The populism that is out there now is very much focused on using big government to give us what we need and if that includes an enforcement army to kick eight million people out of the country, so be it.

That’s a nascent kind of nationalist party that America has never had, and to be honest about it, they have conducted a hostile takeover of the Republican Party.

KRISTOL: Do you think, I guess one question is: if Trump loses – hard to know, of course; some people think he loses – it was a flukey thing, 17 candidates, he a celebrity, he’s very skillful. But you kind of go back to where you were with Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, not like the Republican Party has gone away. Paul Ryan. They’re all still in office. Or, and this is closer to where I think I am, it doesn’t just go away. There will be other Trumps.

MURRAY: It’s 1852. Again, this is my view that all at once the Whigs – and I’m not an expert, by the way, on Whig history, but my sense is they lost their purpose, they lost their cohesiveness in ways which have lots of parallels. My own view is that you probably need to have a new party for people like you and me to be in. I don’t think the Republican Party is going to be a congenial place for us anymore.

KRISTOL: Because it will a nationalist, populist, non-limited government, non-rule-of-law party?

MURRAY: Point number one is, Bill, that as you know, I am the world’s least qualified political analyst. Having said that, the nationalist energy is not going to go away with Trump. We now know that about 35 percent, certainly of the Republican electorate, but maybe not that much smaller, a percent of the entire national electorate is sympathetic to those nationalists.

My sense is that when there is that kind of a market out there, there’s going to be somebody ready to satisfy that market. You and I and a lot of our friends cannot be part of a party like that.

KRISTOL: More broadly what strikes me, and I think it compounds the point or intensifies the point is that 45 percent of the votes cast in this 2016 primary season were cast for Trump or Sanders. Almost the exact same number on each side.

Obviously, in Trump’s case, the 45 percent was a winning number, and in Sanders’ case, it was a losing number to Clinton. That’s pretty striking. If you believe in some broad American constitutional – liberal, conservative, whatever – system, the one thing America has done a pretty good job of excluding, I would almost say, socialism on the one hand and populist authoritarianism on the other.

There’ve been many times when that has risen up, especially the populist authoritarianism, whether it was at the state level, it failed— Huey Long or George Wallace or whatever. It is a little startling. We’re not in the middle of the Great Depression; we’re not in the middle of taking tens of thousands of casualties in a war. It’s a little startling that 45 percent of the public basically have voted for candidates – and I don’t mean to say this pejoratively, just analytically – who kind of reject the mainstream of American politics for the last 60 or 70 years. Arguably, for longer than that when you think about it.

MURRAY: I would summarize in many ways by saying that what we used to substitute for nationalism was the American way of life. Which now I’m sure is used only sarcastically or in a lot of cases historically as what people used to say. It was 60 years ago, the American way of life had meaning.

Whereas there are lots of different meanings that could be assigned to it, a great deal of it had to do with the dignity and importance of the common man, and the dignity and importance of the family. If you did a few basic things in the United States, you were as good as the richest man in the country. That was really believed.

The idea that you weren’t supposed to be upper class. America doesn’t have an upper class. We have regular Americans and people who pretend to be an upper class like the New York 400. They’re the anomalies. The real American rich people are out there in Cleveland and Des Moines and Topeka and so forth. Yeah, they have companies, but they’re members of their lodges and they engage in community activities.

The American way of life, which is distinct from the American dream, which is upward and onward. The American way of life was our nationalism, and it no longer is.

KRISTOL: That’s interesting. How much of it is actual facts on the ground don’t support, if I can put it that way, the American way of life? Because of challenges and wages, because of family decomposition? More of the country is unable to say, this is the America we live in.

How much of it is people’s attitudes somehow being unrealistic? Sanders promising free everything and Trump promising in a way a version of free everything – build the wall. Sort of very simplistic policy solutions, to say the least. What does it say about our public culture? Does it say more about the reality of America, or does it say more about the psychology of Americans?

MURRAY: I think it says more about where America is on its trajectory. Here, I have been seeing recently a whole bunch of parallels – I’m not alone in seeing these – a whole bunch of parallels between the United States and a mature civilization that’s on the downhill slide. Just to name a few of them – it is really true, historically true that what made America exceptional and made it possible for us to call ourselves “the land of the free” really was the original Constitution with its enumerated powers and the rest of it, which really was really operative for all practical purposes up until 1937.

From 1937 to 1942, a series of Supreme Court decisions did not incrementally change the Constitution; they explicitly said, we will henceforth interpret these age-old precepts differently. There are no more enumerated powers. There’s no more requirement that Congress spell out what it wants in legislation if you give authority to regulatory agencies and so forth and so on. That’s one thing that changed. And so America from 1943 on, let’s say, was prospectively pretty much like every other Western democracy. It took a long time for a lot of these things, a lot of these constitutional changes to be realized and practiced, but that was going to happen.

Then, you had the creation of a real honest-to-God new upper class, which is also characteristic of mature civilizations that have evolved into a layer cake. In our case, the layer cake was driven by a few good things, such as giving people of all abilities a shot at a good education. That’s a good thing, but it also tends to create a new upper class, which a number of us have commented upon, and now exists as a class that sees itself as better than the rest of the country, better able to make decisions for the rest of the country, and also enjoys a culture of their own.

Another sign to me of a country in decline is an upper class that no longer sets the standard for the rest of society. Whether it’s Roman civilization or Victorian England, the new upper class, they were the ones who said this is the way decent people are supposed to live. It should embody virtue, and the new upper class saw it as their responsibility to live that way themselves and to say that’s the way that you ought to behave. We have none of that. We have what I like to call ecumenical niceness as the code of behavior of the new upper class.

Then, you have – just in case you weren’t clinically depressed yet – you have Mancur Olson. Mancur Olson who taught us, elaborating on The Federalist Papers and faction, that advanced democracies develop institutional sclerosis. That there is an asymmetry between the ability of a small group of people who want to use the levers of democracy to carve out a special interest and the ability to organize a large number of people who don’t really want that, but don’t care that much. What we have had in the United States of America is the accumulation of hundreds of thousands of things that are locked in, and the reason Mancur Olson called it institutional sclerosis is it clogs up the arteries. There are lots of reasons to believe that government right now is really deeply clogged up.

I’m reminded of a saying of Irving Kristol’s that I cherish and repeat to myself like a mantra on occasion. I was talking to Irving about this, and I’m sure he said it to people besides me. He said, “Yes, the country is going to hell, but it will take a long time, and we can enjoy ourselves in the meantime.” That’s pretty much where I feel right now.

KRISTOL: That’s encouraging. I guess what’s so striking though in our adult lifetimes, there seemed to be moments when people internalized the Mancur Olson thesis. People understood it. Serious thought was given by political scientists, Jim Wilson and others. What kind of reforms could break it up? How would one restore constitutionalism? It’s very impressive in a way what Bork and Scalia did in terms of constitutional law. A lot of students of theirs and offshoots and then quarrels between different kinds of originalists – that’s, in a way, healthy. The degree to which free-market economics, constitutionalism, and law gained from 1970 to 2000. That was nowhere in 1970. Hayek wasn’t read. Friedman was a tiny little school. Your work didn’t exist yet.

I don’t know, one had the thought – I guess I had the thought – these are deep trends that it’s hard to fight. There does seem to be quite a lot of intelligent and sort of impressive reaction against – intellectual reaction and, to some degree, political reaction. Paul Ryan is someone who studied these kinds of things and thought hard about– How do you take it? What happened?

MURRAY: For that matter, take one of the key things about the administrative state, which is that the courts have explicitly said they will defer to the judgment of the regulatory agency in complex cases. Because the court is not an expert in this and so if a regulatory agency says, “This is the interpretation,” they will tend to defer. Known as Chevron deference, and there was a case brought, which challenged a core component of Chevron deference. The Court overthrew it, and the opinion for the majority was written by Antonin Scalia.

KRISTOL: He was rethinking that I think late in life. Thomas and some of the others were against that deference.

MURRAY: You had others. But the fact is that Scalia, and he wrote it because he was trying to say to Congress, I think, “This is your job. Stop trying to [avoid it]” – But of course, Congress refuses to take up this job.

KRISTOL: He was trying to curb the courts, but the price of that was not curbing the administrative agencies. Maybe the challenge is much greater. When you combine these sclerotic government institutions issue and the cultural changes and the other sort of things that are built into modern society, it’s hard to fight on that many fronts at once, perhaps. It does seem with Trump, we got, temporarily, perhaps overwhelmed on that front.

IV: The Bell Curve Revisited (1:00:45 – 1:10:55)

KRISTOL: Let me ask you finally about The Bell Curve. Extremely impressive and interesting book. I guess, your most controversial, and that’s saying something. Twenty years ago, I think, right?


KRISTOL: How does it stand up in your opinion? This last topic we’re talking about – that really foresaw, by raising this issue of IQ that no one wants to think about – I don’t know what the right term for it –meritocracy, or you know, sort of the layer cake or whatever. The way in which good intentions and good policies we would probably defend, letting people into universities based on merit and not on birth and not on family name and so forth, and then people marrying each other from those universities. Which again is fine, you can’t very well object to it. And then their kids going to those universities and given how much of IQ is hereditary and given that the environment those kids are going to have is better anyway because parents –

MURRAY: This is a very good summary you’re doing of the book, Bill.

KRISTOL: Am I doing okay? Well, no, this is aside from all the scientific work you and Richard Herrnstein did on the actual IQ question. But I mean, so 20 years later, is it more that way? Is there anything you missed? Is there anything different?

MURRAY: I think that when Dick and I predicted the emergence of a cognitive elite, I don’t think anybody would say we’re wrong at this point.

KRISTOL: And you used that term? That is really early.

MURRAY: People don’t realize that I recycled in the first couple of chapters of Coming Apart. I recycled the material in The Bell Curve on this cognitive elite. I said I was doing it in a footnote, but none of the reviewers of the book noticed. Because when you really read The Bell Curve, the interesting thing about The Bell Curve – I will say very quickly – is there any scientific assertion in The Bell Curve which has been overturned?

The answer is no. We were so extremely cautious. The Bell Curve is going to become relevant again for a reason that was not The Bell Curve’s topic, and that has to do with group differences. Because the genome has been decoded, we are now identifying specific single-nucleotide polymorphisms known as “snips,” which are the thing that determines differences. We’ve identified hundreds of those related to educational attainment, which is, of course, a proxy measure for IQ. We’re learning lots about the genetic determinants of personality characteristics. We’re learning lots about the physiological differences between men and women, and cognitive differences and the rest. And the short statement is –

I cannot stress this is not The Bell Curve, but it is what created the controversy about The Bell Curve, that we are going to – we, the geneticists, which do not include me – are going to unravel this story over the next ten years to a large degree. The picture won’t be complete in ten years, but the progress in doing it is exponential. They have extremely powerful new methods of doing it, and for those with eyes to see, it’s already quite clear, which should be obvious to everyone, and it should not be scary to anyone, groups of people are different.

I’m not talking about whites and blacks, I’m talking about Welshman and Irishmen, for heaven sakes. I’m talking about French and Germans. There are all sorts of ways in which groups of people who have been identified sociologically or anthropologically as groups are also different genetically.

They will have different outcomes in life for reasons that are genetic in origin, and they are not the fault of the unfairness of society, and that goes in spades for males and females. All of this runs against the prevailing – it’s more than political convention, it’s dogma. The dogma is that if men and women are different in important outcomes in life, it’s the result of the unfairness of structures and systems. If blacks and whites are different in outcomes of life, etc., etc.

We are facing over the next ten years a headlong crash between a deeply held dogma of the social sciences and the way the world works as revealed by the physical sciences. I must say I am looking forward to it as – I’m fighting schadenfreude at this point because it’s going to be a story that we should have known is coming.

It is coming, but I do want to say on record, it’s not a story to be scared of. Human beings are not stacked into superior or inferior groups, neither are sexes, but it’s way different than the university wants things to be.

KRISTOL: But it’s not inconsistent with the American way of life or the principles of the Declaration or Founding. I’m asking, is that right? It shouldn’t be understood as a challenge to that particularly.

MURRAY: The answer to all of this, we must treat people as individuals. If you treat people as individuals, the fact that you have different distributions becomes meaningless. Because if you’re an astrophysicist with an IQ of 145 and you happen to be an African American, you’re still an astrophysicist with an IQ of 145. Same goes for any kind of stereotype about people that –

You just treat people as individuals. But, Bill, I say that, which is the American ideal – that’s what we were founded on. Now, you think of the enormous structure for treating people by groups that pervades the law and practice in this country. Are we just going to throw all that out? What’s going to happen when the material hits the fan?

KRISTOL: People can deny reality a long time. You know what I mean? It’s nice to think when my father famously said, that a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. That was very clever, not quite true or accurate, I would say, because, in fact, neoconservatives had thought more about these things than the mugged-by-reality, you know, conveys.

Mike Scully, a young man who died quite young, unfortunately, was sort of a protégé of my dad’s. There were all these neoliberals in the early 80s – Gary Hart and those people who were trying to accommodate some of the criticisms of the Great Society, but still be kind of more big-government, welfare-state people. They wrote a lot of things, and I think Mike – I’m not sure if Mike wrote this or said this – it’s in the oral tradition anyway. Mike said that a neoliberal is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality and refuses to press charges. I repeat that, I’ve said that a couple times, probably in these conservations.

I think it’s a very deep insight. People have a great ability, nations have a great ability, whole intellectual classes have a great ability to get mugged by reality and resist it for a long time. Ultimately, one assumes one pays a price for that. You know, the Soviet Union comes tumbling down and so forth. You can have a lot of resistance and a lot of damage done in the resistance, actually.

MURRAY: Let me offer why I think this time will be different. Look, if Dick Herrnstein and I present data based on correlations and patterns within the data and scores on subtests of the IQ, trying to infer such things as a genetic role, all of that, you can argue that from kingdom come. And they have. It doesn’t make any difference how good your analysis was and how strongly the weight of data is on your side, it can always be litigated and lost.

Hard science is different. There are ways of overturning the findings of hard science, but it’s a very demanding thing. You have common ground rules everybody has to play by. At this point, they are able to predict about ten percent of educational achievement, purely on the basis of specific locations within the gene that were the very bottom of this curve. What happens when you can explain 30 percent, 40 percent? How do you argue against that being true?

You can’t do it the same way you can argue against social science data. I take your point about people resisting to extraordinary lengths, this is going to be a kind of challenge they have not had to face before. I think that cognitive dissonance is going to come into play here, too. Because I think a lot of academics who have asserted they believe X about a gender topic or a racial topic or whatever already don’t believe it. This is going to cause a cognitive dissonance problem there, too.

KRISTOL: That will be interesting. We’ll have to have a conservation about it. It’s hard to tell, of course, but is there an inflection point, do you think? Are we talking about something that is two years away or 10 years away?

MURRAY: I’ll be serious. I think three years. We will know so much in three years that it will then start to seep into the mainstream media. It’s already out there, but, of course, nobody has to pay attention to it yet. I follow this literature closely and hardly a week goes by that there’s not a new thing being published. I think it is only a couple of years away.

KRISTOL: We’ll have to have a conversation about it in less than a couple of years even.

MURRAY: That will be fun.

KRISTOL: Sounds great. Thank you, Charles, and thank you for joining us on CONVERSATIONS.