Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Charles Murray at the AEI

Charles Murray was honored by the AEI last week, and gave a talk on happiness in the context of modern America. His talk hit on an interesting paradox of welfare programs aimed at the poor, that it negatively affects the satisfaction of life for those who are most likely to gain life satisfaction via non-vocational activities. Most liberals see faith as authoritarian delusions, and family and community needs as the responsibility of the government. That's not horrible if you have an great job and are good at it  because you can bask in the status from that job, but if you are merely a hard working mensch your path to a meaningful and satisfying life is diminished:
To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (we don't get deep satisfaction from trivial things). You have to have put a lot of effort into it (hence the cliché "nothing worth having comes easily"). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences.

There aren't many activities in life that can satisfy those three requirements. Having been a good parent. That qualifies. A good marriage. That qualifies. Having been a good neighbor and good friend to those whose lives intersected with yours. That qualifies. And having been really good at something--good at something that drew the most from your abilities. That qualifies. Let me put it formally: If we ask what are the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life, the answer is that there are just four: family, community, vocation, and faith.
the sources of deep satisfactions are the same for janitors as for CEOs, and I also said that people needed to do important things with their lives. When the government takes the trouble out of being a spouse and parent, it doesn't affect the sources of deep satisfaction for the CEO. Rather, it makes life difficult for the janitor. A man who is holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life. He should take deep satisfaction from that, and be praised by his community for doing so. Think of all the phrases we used to have for it: "He is a man who pulls his own weight." "He's a good provider." If that same man lives under a system that says that the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, then that status goes away. I am not describing some theoretical outcome. I am describing American neighborhoods where, once, working at a menial job to provide for his family made a man proud and gave him status in his community, and where now it doesn't. I could give a half dozen other examples. Taking the trouble out of the stuff of life strips people--already has stripped people--of major ways in which human beings look back on their lives and say, "I made a difference."

Just as you can't give someone respect, you can't give them security, shelter and clothing, without taking away much more. Sure one can imagine situations where a helping hand is appropriate--pathologies, temporary crises--but these are exceptions, perhaps one tenth of what the modern state addresses.


RCJ said...

What a load of crap....
Let me posit the negative, it is very clear that institutions (and I'm not just talking about government) can take away food, shelter, clothing, medical care, is also very clear that creating frameworks that make it profitable to take these away are all around us... but you are willing to give air time to truly silly paradigms, what can we expect next "The noble savage" ... sheeesh you are capable of much better than this... Yes people need to create ownership of their own humanity and dignity but allowing seriously corrupt business and corrupt governments to impoverish, strip and starve people can make the task of finding your humanity infinitely harder...

Anonymous said...

Generalizing from Murray's argument, wealth is generally very bad for humanity, especially inherited wealth. If you think welfare robs the poor, imagine the corrupting influence of growing up in a stable upper-middle-class background, or even worse actually inheriting wealth. How can we hold our heads up high when so much has been given to us already?

How many virtuous communitarian poor people attended Murray's American Enterprise Institute talk?

Eric Falkenstein said...

Corruption is bad, but there the government is merely enforcing the law. I think the redistributive programs--welfare, affirmative action--are activities that take away more than they give. I'm all for punishing bad guys.

As per spoiling children, I think too much wealth is bad thing. But the key is a parent is allocating wealth and favors, using all sorts of sticks and carrots inconceivable for a government. The government just has a blanket criteria.

Anonymous said...

But who says the government is in the business of providing community? The government generally provides tangible things like money, housing, education, and health care. And not that much of them either.

Is the liberal mindset really that we shouldn't have families and communities, just government? I'm a liberal and this is news to me.

Eric Falkenstein said...

I think liberals downplay the importance of an economic provider. If food and shelter are rights, one key function of the father is taken away, and for many, this is enough to make the family dissolve, leaving just grandma to watch the kids. Many families are strengthened by the struggle of necessity, something that existed for millenia but only over the past 120 years, is now considered a barbaric anachronism.

The community as well used to be neighbors getting together, helping each other in schooling and defense. Community also refers to self-organized groups, such as professions and religions, that involve complex tit-for-tat favor exchanges. Religion has fallen significantly in importance. Industry groups now have to obey various laws and regulations set by authorities far away with little discretion for members. Policing and schooling are done by groups with top-down objectives that disregard local norms and mores. When you need food to feed your kids, you don't go to your neighbor, instead, you go to food shelters. In many cities, being a good neighbor means merely leaving people alone, asking and expecting nothing, except from government via leaders who lobby for abstract transfers of services via taxing the wealthy.

I think many liberals presume that we have many economic rights under the umbrella of human rights, and their provision does not adversely effect the social mores or morality of people. In fact, it frees people to read philosophy and associate with like minded people in mutually beneficial ways, unconstrained by the ethnocentrism of the shire. But it doesn't work like that, it instead makes people less compassionate, less neighborly, less responsible, and breaks down family bonds. An unintended consequence to be sure, as both those for and against government programs all want strong families, communities, and life satisfaction.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous again.

Much of these problems are related to "liberalism" in the classical sense. Actually, just make that "modernity."

The emphasis on individualism, the high value placed on freedom and choice, the prominence of the market and market values, and urbanization -- I think these pose, and have posed, serious problems for "community" for hundreds of years now.

I saw the Harvard economist Stephen Marglin give a talk a few weeks ago. Marglin has a book out about how economics erodes community values. You know how economic thinking prioritizes self-interest, the pursuit of profit, and rationality? That clearly cuts against community, belonging, moral values, tradition. You know, back in the day, bankers used to know the whole community, but now that we have fancy-pants securitization, is it any wonder that we had the housing bubble and the financial crisis? Blah blah blah.

Of course Marglin is a socialist and probably disagrees with you on virtually everything else, but it's fascinating how similar the two of you sound on this community thing.

I agree that welfare policies have had unintended consequences, especially on family formulation and stability (also on work incentives). I just think that you are simultaneously overemphasizing the importance of the traditional family (Barack Obama was largely raised by his grandparents, to put the point anecdotally) and placing too much importance on leftist policies in undermining the family.

Anonymous said...

And again, this:

Many families are strengthened by the struggle of necessity

is just weird. People on welfare are still poor, whether we measure by income or status. Under this theory of family strength, poor people should have the strongest families, even the ones on welfare. And we should have no confidence that middle-class, upper-middle-class, and rich people could maintain good families. And yet almost all of this worry is directed towards the poor, who clearly do struggle.

Anonymous said...

Would that George W. Bush and Hank Paulson have heeded the esteemed Murray's advice.

I suspect these GOOPERs took away much from shareholders of BAC, C, MS, GS, etc. by showering them with but literally hundreds of billions in taxpayer largesse.

Lewis and Pandit now believe themseleves to be JP Morgan himself reincarnated.

We also have the spectacle of Bush/Paulson first laundering money through AIG to send $15 billion in cash to Goldman so it doesn't look as if Goldman needed taxpayer funds.

Bush, Paulson, Lewis, Pandit, et al surely would place high on the Bell Curve.

Speaking of which, is it too rude to mention, that the 'mathematics' behind the Bell Curve was similar to the 'mathematics' (correlation) behind much of the 'risk management' used by Lewis et al?

Anonymous said...

From NN:

Recently saw a play in NYC called "Zooman and the Sign". It was produced by an African American theatre company regarding violence in a neighborhood in Philadelphia circa 1980. Long story short, there was a family 'aunt' introduced for a touch of comedy in an otherwise very serious drama who ranted a good 5 minutes on the negative effects on Food Stamps in the community. The EXACT example was used; when you needed food you used to goto your neighbor and therefore you HAD to be nice to each other. Thus a strong sense of community was developed. The introduction of handouts completely changed this dynamic and neighbors could live next to each other for years and do nothing when say a child was murdered, raped, robbed, etc...

Incidentally the play revolved around a sign that, I am paraphrasing, "The killers of our daughter are free because our neighbors will not step forward and identify them."

Eric Falkenstein said...

Marglin thinks business consolidates power inefficiently, whereas government is more efficient because it is accountable via elections and referendums. I think government consolidates power inefficiently whereas businesses are more efficient because they must compete economically. The relative advantages and disadvantages of these two mechanisms is clearly complicated.

That I and Murray agree with radical like Marglin is not so strange. Noam Chomsky sometimes describes himself as a classical liberal, just like Milton Friedman. But they disagree on means to that end, mainly based in their relative views on government vs. the free market.

Anonymous said...

Same Anonymous who's been posting most of the comments on this thread (but not the one about Bush and AIG).

I actually agree with you, Murray, and Marglin about the fact that the importance of community is dramatically understated in modern life, so much so that many people don't even have the vocabulary to talk about it. (This is especially true for the college-graduate portion of the population.)

Nevertheless I fundamentally disagree with all of you because I don't believe there is a clean convenient split between market forces and government forces when it comes to community. Food stamps are too abstract, too commodified, too impersonal? But food sold at the grocery store isn't? To me this sounds like blaming government for relying on bureaucracies, just because we all know that bureaucracy is a ridiculous organizational form that could never survive in the private sector.

As you imply in your last comment, it seems that the debate here isn't really about community and modernity per se, but more about government and the market in general. I just find it frustrating when people find a way to blame all the problems of modernity on their political opponents (I thought Marglin was very irritating, but to be honest individualism seems like a much more obvious threat to community than food stamps).

As an aside, I grew up in poverty in America (although I never would have used that term growing up), and I generally find middle-class and upper-middle-class leftists pretty infuriating and condescending when they talk about poverty. It especially angers me when they become outraged at the mere suggestion that poor people may actually have agency; it becomes apparent that concern for poor people serves mainly as a chip to use in political debates with other well-off people. But redistributive welfare policies actually ease poverty and make life a little bit better for the poor. Really, I don't think the poor have it too easy in this country.

Anyway, how many high-powered business executives make for terrible spouses and parents, just because they dedicate so much time to their careers and the pursuit of money and status? So I have to chuckle a bit when Murray goes in front of the American Enterprise Institute, talks about the importance of family and community, and leaves his the audience with the message... that we should lower taxes on the rich because welfare is bad for poor people.

Tomasz Skutnik said...

Hi Eric.

Reading Charles Murray words, Mike Rowe's (of Dirty Jobs fame) TED talk jumped right into my mind. See Mike Rowe: Celebrating work -- all kinds of work. It's about modern society perception of "low quality, low pay" jobs. Seems relevant to me.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 2 here. Eric States:
"Most liberals see faith as authoritarian delusions, and family and community needs the responsibility of the government."

Huh? Statement of (outlandish) opinion thrown out as a fact for your premise.

If any passionate liberals read this blog, they would be screaming about these assumptions.

To say that they don't believe in family and community responsibilities is just silly -- just ask some liberals if this is true.
Many people base their their activism in their faith; Jesus talked much more about helping the less fortunate than he did about homosexuality (if he spoke about the later at all).

There is widespead appreciation, on the left and right, that Welfare was debilitating.

Eric Falkenstein said...

I tried to describe the ways in which liberals assume family and community responsibilities in my comments. I did not mean to say, or if I did it was incorrect, to say that liberal want this to happen. The effect of many government programs, however, is to lessen the responsibilities of neighbors and families. Murray explains this dynamic in his books Losing Ground and In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government.

Anonymous said...

Murray was quite right about the impact of welfare and government programs on lessening responsibilities.

The largest recipients of welfare in my lifetime are the parters of GS and shareholders of BAC (all through the courtesy of men endoresed by the AEI -- Hank Paulson and George W. Bush).

With nearly $200 billion in government funds and gurantees, Ken Lewis considers himself to be both a financial genius and a victim.

Anonymous said...

Yup, lack of community infests poor neighborhoods. I blame food stamps:

"For the bonus class, the work-hard-play-hard mentality was a badge of success. It began with the scrum to get into the best schools, the best grad programs, the best firms and ended with the push to be the best in one’s community. Social and professional competition was a way of life.

Money is the one thing that gives this group a sense of solidarity. It’s the admission ticket but also the defining factor of their identity. It’s hard for someone to feel shame when admitting fault means resigning from their way of life.

Take away the bonuses, and the financial class has no safety net. Lose your job out here and you’ve got little margin for error. There’s little social cohesion, too. We live our lives interdependently. Someone might give you business opportunity, but no one can carry you. No one expects to be carried. Affluent towns are not communities; they’re clubs. If you cannot pay the dues, you have to resign."

Anonymous said...

The GOOPERs are 100% correct. Giving taxpayer money to 'backstop' (translated free put options) the trades of those who worked so hard to get to a trading desk surely can't be considered welfare in any sense of the word.

First, these people are mainly rich and white and score well on Chuckie Murray's IQ tests. Hence by defintion any taxpayer subsidy to cover their losses should be considered an investment and not welfare.

Second, we should not focus on such things as over profit and loss when dealing with rich white people. What manner of cretin (some scoring poorly on Chuckie's tests?) would dare suggest that an individual bonus be tied to overall company performance.

Next thing you will know is that these evil liberal Democrats will insist that bonus pools be paid out of company generated cash flow.

Thank God we have blogs like this that call a spade a spade!