I've only read the prologue and first chapter of Charles Murray's new book on growing class inequality. (That's all that I can download for free on my e-reader—I'm looking forward to reading the rest when I can borrow it from my local socialist bibliothèque, err, I mean, the D.C. public library.) So far, I've found two statements in Murray's prologue particularly interesting.

First, Murray correctly notes that income poverty was roughly cut in half between 1949 and 1963, going from 41 percent to just under 20 percent, and that this was a phenomenal achievement. Because the official poverty series published by the federal government starts in 1959, the decline in poverty in the 1950s doesn't get as much attention as it should, including from anti-poverty researchers and advocates. (Income poverty, of course, continued to decline for 10 years after 1963. The overall decline between 1949 and 1973 was about 73 percent. As I've discussed in a chapter in Half in Ten's recent report on poverty, over this entire period, income poverty trends basically tracked rising real median incomes and sustained rates of low unemployment. As the political center of gravity shifted to the right in the Carter-Reagan years, positive trends in both income poverty and real median incomes slowed and stalled out.)

Second, Murray argues that what he calls the founding "American project" was about "demonstrating that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems."

There's an interesting relationship between these two statements, one that Murray himself fails to draw. Murray writes that he "focus[es in the book] on what happened, not the whys." But if he dug a little deeper here, he'd see that his second statement above helps provide the why of the first—that is, the phenomenal reduction in income poverty between 1949 and 1963 was due in large part to Americans "coming together ... to solve their joint problems." Here are some of the ways in which Americans did this before 1963: 

  • the GI Bill, which made it possible for millions of World War II veterans to attend college or vocational school (interestingly, FDR's initial proposals on this front were modest—it was WWII veterans coming together that made it a transformational program); 
  • the creation and strengthening of social insurance programs to reduce economic insecurity;
  • the creation and strengthening of labor market institutions, through measures such as the minimum wage and strengthening of workers' associational rights to form unions to come together in the workplace; 
  • sustained and substantial investment in public infrastructure; and
  • sensible financial regulation that limited asset bubbles and other abuses that undermine working-class economic security. 

I suppose Murray might argue that these aren't examples of "voluntarily" coming together so they don't count as consistent with the American project, but this would be a very odd claim. Whatever they were, the founders weren't voluntarist anarchists. Moreover, Murray himself doesn't appear to be one given the copyright symbol that appears on one of the very first pages of his book. In essence, Murray begins by informing readers that they may be subject to coercion from the government if they make copies of it, read it aloud in public, or violate any of the other federal rights established by title 17 of the United States Code. Since Murray didn't opt to license his book in a more voluntary way, say under the Creative Commons approach, it's hard to take his voluntarism too seriously. 

Now, let's look a little more closely at two of the ways in which Americans came together in the pre-1963 period: public infrastructure investment and unionization. On public infrastructure, as James Heintz, Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier have shown, investment grew at the same strong average annual rate as the economy between 1950-1979 (with particularly strong growth in the 1950s), but between 1980-2007 infrastructure investment didn't keep pace with economic growth. 

As for collective bargaining, or as Murray might put it, American workers coming together to solve their joint problems in the workplace, after the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the share of wage and salary workers who were union members steadily increased until it reached its historical peak in the mid-1950s (about 35%), a number that had dipped only modestly by 1963.  There is little question that the increase in unionization contributed to the large reduction in poverty between 1939 and 1959, or that the subsequent severe slide in unionization has contributed to limited progress on poverty since then. 

Someone who believes in the American project and is interested in questions like "why has class inequality increased so much?" and "what can we do about it going forward?" would reasonably think that restoring American workers' ability to come together to solve their joint problems of not getting their fair share of economic growth and productivity gains over the last three decades is a good idea. Similarly, they would reasonably think that 1950s-scale investments in public infrastructure, particularly in things like schools, high-speed rail, and other forms of mass transit, all of which can help promote a shared civic culture, are worth considering. 

Alas, based on what he sees in the prologue (and other reviews I've read of the book), it seems like Murray sees Americans as relatively powerless to come together in these ways—as he blithely puts it in the passive voice: "most of [the reasons why class inequality has increased] involve forces that cannot be changed." Put in the active voice, this would read: America cannot change the forces that have produced growing class inequality. If President Obama described us as powerless in this way, Mitt Romney would be demanding that he apologize to America.