Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Charles Murray Reiterates Willpower


I really liked Tierney and Baumeister's book Willpower. Their argument is that willpower is a very useful skill, one that like a muscle tires when used, but can be strengthened through repetition. We should all practice daily acts of self-control to become more productive.

Charles Murray's latest book Coming Apart addresses the same theme, noting that society is splitting up into classes based on their abilities, which are highly driven by bourgeois values. Over the past 50 years, the working class have lost their industriousness, honesty, religion, and respect for marriage, and he presents a bunch of data to bolster this argument (eg, less than 5% of college educated white women have children out of wedlock, but 40% of white women without college do). This book is a straightforward extension of the main arguments in his two prior best sellers, where in Losing Ground he argued that the Welfare State is destructive to productivity and ethical development, and in The Bell Curve that society is sorting itself into a meritocratic class structure. By focusing on white people and that portion of individual skill amenable to environment--willpower--he tries to avoid issues of genetics and racial politics that were a large part of The Bell Curve commentary.

Murray argues the well-off should set a better example by not apologizing for their squareness, but rather, by advocating their lifestyle and scorning those who fail to live up to it—we need more of what is usually called 'blaming the victim'. Murray singles out the modern welfare state as the key instigator for our moral squalor, but I rather think our lack of faith in bourgeois values in general was the first mover here. Surely enlarging the dole increases the size of its patronage pool, but I still think policy is more symptomatic than causal.

Consider that in the 19th century novelists popularized the idea that cultural constraints or expectations were often arbitrary and led to seemingly needless shame and psychological problems (eg, The Scarlet Letter, The Brother's Karamazov, Jane Eyre). A slew of social scientists picked up the vibe, especially Freud or the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse), and the Marxists. For example, in Freud's view sexual urges were viewed as having a powerful biological basis, while traits such as responsibility, dependability, orderliness, guilt, and the delay of gratification, are imposed by a repressive, pathology-inducing society, often a mere 'transference' from some guilt-trip inspired by traumatic potty-training or one's desire to have sex with one's mother. A bourgeois conscience became a hang-up that prevents you from realizing your authentic self (note the importance of 'self-actualization' in mid 20th century books like The Invisible Man). It never occurred to them that having no constraints or conscience has worse problems.

The subversive agenda of these writers was to pathologize traditional Western norms such as those celebrated by Puritans, Quakers, and Calvinists. Such norms were rarely perfectly achieved but nonetheless seen as unambiguously good, and so aspirational. It's useful for anyone but especially children to have clear goals as to what is the 'good life', and an important point to remember in this arena is that we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, especially in comparison with the untried.

After the Frankfurt school infested America, the beatnik idea that we should all 'tune in, turn on, and drop out' was a logical extension, supposedly an incredibly profound insight on how 'to be' (as usual, expertise was confounded common sense, as any family with an addict will tell you such a drug-induced stupor is the opposite of ennobling). Traditional parent-child relations, though popular on TV at the time, were being sullied in the academy as involving the suppression of human nature, and so the cause of domination and authoritarianism, which led to the Hitler (really, read The Authoritarian Personality). A healthy individual, meanwhile, does whatever he feels, which should involve rejecting their parent's strictures.

The end result was not total consciousness and keen insights about truth and beauty, but rather, nihilism and depression. The 'Greatest Generation' built things like Hoover dam and created a country of unprecedented prosperity and universal education; then, as if to prove that failure is endogenous, raised the greatest generation of naive, self-absorbed whiners in the History of Man.

My parents graduated college when such progressive ideas were intellectually dominant. They considered discipline, such as that required by drilling exercises, to be deeply destructive, and education was simply about figuring out how to release the genius that exists in all of us (this probably explains a little of why I liked Willpower so much, because I see very clearly how these principles would have been helpful for my upbringing). This naive zeitgeist reached its intellectual apogee, unfortunately, right about when and where I was born (1960's California) and turned that beautiful Eden into a failed state, a suicide New Yorker intellectuals might not notice from the gated community that is Manhattan (median home price a cool $1.4MM).

Scribes have always been jealous of the wealthy and powerful, thinking that an elite set of navel-gazing intellectuals such as themselves would be more efficient, as if they wouldn't turn into illiberal tyrants in short order (see what became of young intellectuals Trotsky, Mao, Ho Chi Min, and Mugabe). They convince themselves prior attempts along these lines were co-opted, but that's purely self-serving confabulation. Unfortunately, these same people dominate the media and academia by their very nature (wordsmiths), so it will be hard for modern mores to change because people wise enough to see it's wrong will tend to simply succeed off the grid, without reconciling their success theoretically in a treatise.

Currently there existis a dominant coalition of the lumpen-proletariat and their patronizing, indulgent, but highly status-oriented advocates who aspire to lead the new reverse dominance hierarchy. The leaders will argue that we should expropriate if not imprison the rich and their like because 1) mass redistribution will always win a referendum and 2) such a process needs leaders, and who better than those most articulate and faithful to the hive?

Subsequent to the anti-nuclear family claptrap within modern literature and sociology departments, psychologists have found that children will accept high levels of parental controls, but only if the relationship with the parents is positive. The key is having moral authority that comes from demonstrated competence and consistency. So too will the lower classes accept judgment from the upper classes if they think such observations come from those who believe what they say and say something true and important. Currently, they simply hear about how great it is to be a victim, how noble it is to be poor, powerless, or discriminated; to be wronged is the ultimate in righteousness. This simply isn't true and the poor know it. Suffering does have meaning when it cannot be controlled, and in such times a stoic attitude is truly heroic, often taken out of a higher duty to one's neighbors and family. But simply suffering low status because one does not have a job, stopped paying their mortgage, is in jail, or did not learn a trade, is usually the result of simple sloth and shortsightedness, and all their friends and family know it.

Alas, successful people are ashamed to assert they have better genetics, values, and habits--even though they quietly believe it to be true--and so are content to let the media and intellectuals push the delusional idea that success is like when Paris Hilton had sex on a digital camera and built a career out of it: luck, connections, and chutzpah, but no discipline, ingenuity, and perseverence. With such examples it becomes defensible to suggest most of the rich are like that--mere lucky hacks in the game of life. The flip side is that those who are unsuccessful are suffering for no fault of their own.

Thus, every day we see people championing the pathetic in journalistic essays: a scared mother of four on food stamps, or her selfless Community Activist advocate. No one champions the simple strivers, those who take care of themselves and in the process alleviate society of one more charity case, and along the way create wealth via 'gains from trade' implicit in market transactions. A simple prosperous mensch who does not hypocritically claim he primarily works for others is off the radar, implicitly insulting to any intellectual making considerably less than him.

The kind of change Murray is talking about will not happen until productive, successful people again feel pride in their distinguishing learned characteristics, including the willingness to shame people who do not have them. Consider that at the height of America's growth, the most popular form of fiction lionized were Horatio Alger stories, which lionized initiative and material prosperity. On the bright side, the ideas of Freud, Marxists, the Frankfurt school, and their destructive spawn are on the decline, mainly because they were never sciences they aspired to be, rather, intellectual fads once plausible but no longer (eg, no trendy writer is going impress his readers by giving his subjects Freudian complexes the way Norman Mailer did). Children of beatnik-influenced parents like me are not doubling down on the manifest failures in that philosophy. On the other side, failed big governments like Argentina, Brazil, and India highlight that countries are not like companies, they do not have to transform to survive when they go bankrupt. I wish people would valorize bourgeois virtues, but I don't see a catalyst around the corner, especially with 1/6 of Americans getting some kind of welfare.

32 comments:

Chuck Be said...

Damn. At first, I couldn't believe that 1/6 Americans get some kind of welfare. Until I read this article:

http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2010-08-30-1Asafetynet30_ST_N.htm

I'm unfamiliar with the details of Medicaid. That sounds like another debate. But the Unemployment + Food stamps numbers are enough to make the point.

Anonymous said...

Great essay.

If Hollywood was hit by a giant asteroid, perhaps the things you suggest would have a chance.

As it is, there is too much profit in using the poor as a conduit to siphon freshly printed greenbacks from the system.

The more fool-hearty and worthless the poor become, the more profitable they are to corporate america. It is the logic of the corporate-welfare state, as a parasitic elite thrives by spreading parasitism in others.

Dave Pinsen said...

Eric,

You make some good points here, but I think you overstate the case in places, and overlook some other variables. Just a few examples:

"No one champions the simple strivers"

Bruce Springsteen does (though he also dabbles in victims on occasion). So do most country songs. So does pretty much every pickup truck commercial. So do many politicians in their stump speeches. Those are just a few media/cultural examples that come immediately to mind.

"Consider that at the height of America's growth, the most popular form of fiction lionized were Horatio Alger stories, which lionized initiative and material prosperity."

Consider also that America grew to that height as a protectionist nation, and the moral decline you lament here coincided with our subsequent embrace of free trade.

Now, am I suggesting that a change in trade policies is solely responsible for all of this? Of course not. But it played a role in the decline of good-paying blue collar jobs, and that has definitely played a role in the decline in bourgeois values. There was more incentive to be disciplined, industrious, etc., when those values could land you a job that could support your family.

Today, even millions of educated white collar types can't find work. One example came up during President Obama's Google+ meet-up this week, where a woman mentioned that her husband, a semiconductor engineer, had been unable to find a job. I'm guessing a lack of bourgeois values isn't what's holding that guy back.

Re this:

"On the other side, failed big governments like Argentina, Brazil, and India highlight that countries are not like companies, they do not have to transform to survive when they go bankrupt."

Is it fair to lump Brazil in there? After its economic crisis in the late '80s, Brazil's government did transform itself, adopting a new constitution, changing its currency, pursuing macroeconomic stability (under both elected rightist and leftist governments). Brazil seems to be doing fairly well these days -- unemployment there is under 5%, its sovereign debt is now investment grade, etc. Granted, it's had the tailwind of the commodity boom, but it seems a stretch to call Brazil's government today a failure .

Patrick said...

Agree with a lot of this stuff phenomenologically, having lived in Argentina for 4 years (and the US ain't far behind) but I think the conclusions and the whole mentality is a dead-end.

Like this: http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2323#comic

Willpower is molded by the will-to-power. Things change, the universe is a great becoming ect. Wealthy "moral" people rationalizing their lives is just the will-to-power shaping reality, but then stopping and hiding, and it doesn't command tremendous respect against the raging tides of chaos. Order always falls to chaos, eventually, precisely because chaos is better organized. Hence conservatism isn't the best way to use your brain cycles, you'll end up telling yourself the same things over and over again, not very interesting.

Charlie Chisel said...

Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy. - HLM

International Evidence said...

Murray is severely failing to look above the rim of his own saucer. He postulates hypotheses but does not deign to look at evidence from other countries to confirm or falsify it.

As it is, simple statistics from similarly developed Northern European countries put a dampener on his "losing my religion" hypothesis, and also to his "children out of mawwage are baaad" thesis.

B. A. said...

I am with you on this one, Eric.

Anonymous #5 said...

Consider that at the height of America's growth, the most popular form of fiction lionized were Horatio Alger stories, which lionized initiative and material prosperity.

What sort of fiction was popular at the height of America's critical thinking?

Anonymous said...

It is human nature to think, "NOW, we are coming to a crisis." The fact is that the mercantile class has been loathed throughout history, and yet it has managed to do pretty well in spite of that. Perpetual hand-wringing about how things are so different and dangerous now gets to be boring after awhile.

paul said...

I think tiffany jewellery is stalking you...

Mercury said...

The catalyst around the corner is Keynesian induced monetary collapse and the subsequent economic fallout that will follow. We’re in so deep at this point that no political superman can fix our many and massive systemic problems and failures. And as long as the culture/government continues to reinforce all the crap outlined in this post there will be damn little bottom-up pressure for (it hurts to say it)….change. However, the sooner inevitable collapse comes to pass the better since the number of people who still remember what things were like before the culture, government and economic incentive structure deteriorated…is only going to get smaller and smaller.

How do we bring about collapse sooner rather than later? Why, vote Obama in 2012 of course. Let’s make inauguration 2013 the last participation trophy ever!

Another possible outcome is that technology continues to allow for and support further deterioration, stratification and tribalism in ways similar to those speculated by Neal Stephenson back in 1995: http://www.amazon.com/Diamond-Age-Illustrated-Primer-Spectra/dp/0553380966

Anonymous #5 said...

The fact is that the mercantile class has been loathed throughout history

Thank you. "You cannot serve both God and Mammon."

I'm fascinated by the fact that Eric thinks that America peaked in the 19th century, and that the 1960s -- a period in which real per capita incomes increased by more than 30% -- were a horrible period of economic decline.

History is marked by both egalitarian and non-egalitarian ideals. This allows sloppy thinkers to ascribe all good things to one set of ideals and all bad things to the other while laboring under the illusion that they are observing real patterns in the world.

Theoretically a careful thinker could measure ideology and economic growth and quantify the causal impact of one on the other. Such a thinker wouldn't mistake lazy stereotypes for actual insight though.

This reminds me a lot of the housing bubble narratives perpetuated here. While the going was good, the bubble was proof of how financial innovation was a great boon to all mankind. When things popped and the economy plunged into recession, suddenly the dirty government intervention in the housing market was so blindingly obvious. That's the convenient thing about living in a mixed economy -- something good happens, credit the rich; something bad happens, blame the government.

But this isn't an ideology that is impervious to facts, it's simply hard-headed scientific thinking, sir!

Anonymous #5 said...

However, the sooner inevitable collapse comes to pass the better since the number of people who still remember what things were like before the culture, government and economic incentive structure deteriorated…is only going to get smaller and smaller.

How old are you? FDR was elected 80 years ago.

OMG IT'S TOO LATE.

Mercury said...

@Anon#5 - At one point the risks associated with easy credit looked like a reasonable price to pay for getting less successful groups of people over the hump into the more affluent, "stakeholder" category. It also allowed messy cultural issues to be side-stepped since the raw data showed that in past decades at least home ownership=wealth building.

Now, not so much but the political Left dominates the group that is still pushing for even more easy consumer/mortgage credit.

Most of the better and important aspects of American culture were still very much intact post-Roosevelt (ie. The 1950’s). If this were not the case then California movies and TV wouldn’t mock and savage this era so relentlessly.

Also, “per-capita incomes” is the key there. Take a look at the real buying power of middle class incomes and it’s not so pretty.

Anonymous #5 said...

I mentioned per capita incomes in the 1960s. I believe the median real income also rose by about 30% during that decade.

Regarding the credit crisis, our blog host has repeatedly argued that market participants had no way of predicting the housing crash, even as he blames government policies for predictably creating economic disaster. This isn't a matter of drawing a line at some point, this is just doublethink.

Speaking of doublethink, I always thought of Hollywood as a creature of raw capitalism whose moral sense is constrained by its bottom line, no more or no less. Isn't capitalism good? If some Hollywood mogul makes millions selling crap to the masses, isn't he simply a hardworking striver who creates jobs? Why do you envy and hate him for his success? If you don't like his movies, why don't you make your own movies and defeat him in the marketplace?

Oh right, because we can imagine the people in Hollywood as artsy liberal elites living in expensive Manhattan apartments and drinking fancy wines. As opposed to the good elites (private equity guys or oil executives) who represent all that is noble in America. Because the reason Manhattan apartments are so expensive has nothing to do with Wall Street (good guys) and everything to do with New Yorker intellectuals (bad guys). Oh, and did I mention how liberals love to demonize their opponents?

There's just so much obvious circular reasoning... not that I seem to be making any progress here. Eric recently had a post about how you didn't need any evidence to win a discrimination lawsuit. Fascinatingly he needed no evidence to believe this claim. Double standards everywhere.

Mercury said...

Good grief. *sigh*

Anonymous #5 said...

Right, that was pretty incoherent. I mean to say that the current level of financial distress has nothing to do with an international housing bubble that made a large number of people on Wall Street very wealthy, and everything to do with too many beatniks and not enough Horatio Alger stories.

Oh, and to the extent that the finance sector is responsible for any bit of the current economic slump, it's only because a do-gooder liberal government that tried to help minorities forced them to implement bad policies.

Now I'm making perfect sense. The only externalities in life are created when the profit-seeking entertainment industry imposes hippie values on a population too stupid to understand their own interests.

Eric Falkenstein said...

anon #5: It doesn't do you any good to mischaracterize my views into straw men and whack them down, it won't change my mind, I won't waste time responding to your rambling critique, and doesn't help you understand people like me or our arguments. I suppose you do it to convince yourself you have refuted someone forcefully--with wit and sarcasm like John Stewart!--but fooling yourself to get satisfaction is only detrimental to yourself. Aspire to better things.

Michael Meyers said...

Eric,

Right on... great blog post.

I believe I have a better perspective on childrearing via my own grandchildren, and it's very clear to me that "traditional" values must be taught, and taught with vigor.

Regards,
Michael

PS- When we have a President that demonizes success we've reached a major low as a society.

Patrick R. Sullivan said...

'...not that I seem to be making any progress here.'

Maybe another approach, say abandoning the boxing the compass of logical fallacies.

Leo said...

The 'Greatest Generation' built things like Hoover dam and created a country of unprecedented prosperity and universal education; then, as if to prove that failure is endogenous, raised the greatest generation of naive, self-absorbed whiners in the History of Man.

Are you serious? What do you make of the unprecedented advances in science (let's just take for example the ones in the medical field)? Or are you just generalizing your predicament?

B. A. said...

"They considered discipline, such as that required by drilling exercises, to be deeply destructive, and education was simply about figuring out how to release the genius that exists in all of us"

There is this best selling book called "The Element" by Ken Robinson precisely about that. Tells people how horrible and outdated school is today, and how it kills the genius in each of us. And goes on to show the examples of many celebrities that found their "element" and did well without or despite school, mostly in arts.

For every drop out turned rock star or billionaire entrepreneur, there are probably thousands of others who thought school wasn't good enough for them either, dropped out and did fk all with their lives, and now live on welfare and blame capitalism. None of those guys get interviewed in the best selling book. All you get to see is the Paul McCartneys. And this is a highly recommended book.

Anonymous #5 said...

mischaracterize my views into straw men and whack them down

I apologize Eric. Straw men caricatures suck. They're almost as bad as literature professors who hate the nuclear family and preach that hard work is pointless because success in life is 100% due to luck.

Seriously, I'm sorry your parents were hippies.

Algerdo said...

"including the willingness to shame people who do not have them"

If the fruits of your living are so sweet surely they can stand on their own as a beacon.

Mercury said...

Algerdo: I would say they do stand on their own as a beacon but it is that much harder for the lost and struggling sailors (to continue your analogy) to see them through the fog generated by many of the socio-economic elite - who advocate views and support government actions that de-emphasize the very virtues and “best practices” which they themselves have closely followed in their own lives and which are often largely responsible for their success in the first place.

Tel said...

http://www.ncsociology.org/sociationtoday/v21/merit.htm

"In The Meritocracy Myth, we do not suggest that “merit” is a myth. Rather, we argue that meritocracy the idea that societal resources are distributed exclusively or primarily on the basis of individual merit is a myth. It is a myth because of the combined effects of non-merit factors such as inheritance, social and cultural advantages, unequal educational opportunity, luck and the changing structure of job opportunities, the decline of self-employment, and discrimination in all of its forms."

Anon#5, would that be the sort of sociology professor you were thinking of?

By the way, I do accept that luck is involved in success, but as any gambler knows, over time luck works equally for you and against you. The fact that outcomes are stochastic does not in any way reduce the importance of good strategy. Mind you, most sociologists seem to struggle with statistics *SHRUG*. What can you do?

Anonymous said...

Nice article Eric. Keep up the good work.

eh said...

...on their abilities, which are highly driven by bourgeois values.

Huh? What are you trying to say here? How do you define an 'ability'? Then please explain how you think "abilities" are "highly driven by bourgeois values".

D├ębile said...

Tel: Mind you, most sociologists seem to struggle with statistics *SHRUG*. What can you do?

Do you have any data to substantiate that claim? Epistemological studies show that social sciences (and specifically sociology) have been tightly linked to quantitative methods since Quetelet and Comte. For example SPSS was one of the first available statistical software package in 1968 and was specifically targeted for social sciences.

On the other hand you are certainly struggling with statistics. As every gambler knows you can be wiped out or you can break the bank. Also try thinking about luck events as random walk shocks and you might arrive at a different conclusion...

And at the end of the day it is precisely statistics that defeat Eric's fallacious theses: it can easily be verified that the children of hippie college graduates with bourgeois virtues are more likely to have a higher income than the children of poor uneducated willpower-lacking parents.

Eric Falkenstein said...

'epistemological' studies? Spoken like a true social scientist.

Algerdid said...

"Mercury said...
Algerdo: I would say they do stand on their "

The anger is what I was talking about. "Shaming" is remaindered woman talk (no one is angrier than a remaindered woman. Epistemological studies show..). Not coming from a place of strength in any case. Do people with conservative lifestyles need a bogeyman to fill out the picture (Satan, Mexicans, Huffpo, whatever)? Does that tension help keep the structure standing? What happens without it?

Anonymous said...

@ International Evidence wrote: "simple statistics from similarly developed Northern European countries put a dampener on his "losing my religion" hypothesis, and also to his "children out of mawwage are baaad" thesis."

Can you point me in the direction of those? Thanks!