“Coming Apart” Book Review

“Coming Apart – The State of White America 1960-2010″ by Charles Murray  focuses on the increasing divergence of upper and lower classes in the United States.  Besides the economic inequality, the two classes are actually becoming different cultures.

There, I just summarized the first half of the book, and saved you untold hours of wading through demographic minutia.  And his conclusion makes sense, but what’s the point?

In the second half we find out, when the author veers from analysis to opinion presented as fact, such as:

1)      There is “no doubt” that America could not succeed without the “founding virtues” of “industriousness, honesty, marriage, religiosity.”


2)      “The answer is that there are just four” (domains of happiness), “family, vocation, community, and faith.”

In the last chapter (“Alternative Futures”), we finally get to some meaty discussions such as “the American Project vs. the European Model”.  Basically, the author feels that the Europe cripples its population by robbing them of self-respect and self-actualization.

Mr. Murray’s ultimate hope is that there will be a “Civic Great Awakening” in the response to the “collapse of the moral pillars of the welfare state” and leading the change will be the “new upper class”.

In the last few paragraphs, Mr. Murray invokes the popular concept of American Exceptionalism.

“Historically, Americans have been different as a people, even peculiar, and everyone around the world has recognized it. I am thinking of qualities such as American industriousness and neighborliness discussed in earlier chapters, but also American optimism even when there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for it, our striking lack of class envy, and the assumption by most Americans that they are in in control of their own destinies. Finally, there is the most lovable of exceptional American qualities: our tradition of insisting that we are part of the middle class, even if we aren’t, and of interacting with our fellow citizens as if we were all middle class.”

Really, is he serious?

In today’s United States, there is a severe class and economic divide and the wealthy believe very much that they are different (and superior).

This myth of superiority is the reason that the poor continue to vote against their own best interests, and the reason is that they hate themselves.  They are ashamed of being poor, which is why they cling to the identity of ‘middle-class’.  No one will admit to being poor.

The best summary of this logic was written by Kurt Vonnegut in “Slaughterhouse-Five.”  “Poor Americans are urged to hate themselves” and so, “they mock themselves and glorify their betters.” “The most destructive lie is that it is very easy for any American to make money.”   It follows that the reason for their poverty is their own sloth, stupidity, and evil, and by comparison the wealthy are saintly geniuses who bestow their bounty upon the masses.

In summary, “Coming Apart” is a work which uses overwrought statistical analysis to lay a framework for a personal political viewpoint.  Mr. Murray no doubts hopes that the reader will conclude that his conclusions are unassailable since they are based on such a mass of data, graphs and tables.  In reality, the data and his conclusions have little in common.

And even his analysis shows some surprising weaknesses.

Errors in the analysis of “Coming Apart”

Ten-year old data

Much of Mr. Murray’s analysis regarding differences between poor and wealthy zip codes is based on 2000 Census information.  If he had delayed the publication of his book by a few months, he could have included the recent 2010 Census results.

Mr. Murray actually states this omission of timely and important data enhances his analysis.  In a section titled “The Serendipitous Merits of Using 2000 Census Data”, he states, “But in some ways, using the 2000 census has an advantage. I believe that the segregation of the new upper class will prove to be more extreme in 2010 than it was in 2000, but it was already extreme in 2000. The consequences of the segregation of the new upper class are not something for us to worry about in the future; these consequences have been working their way through our society for many years even now.  The 2000 census numbers help make that point.”

I have no idea what he is saying here.  I think he is unwittingly demonstrating that you can’t make a logical argument to disregard the most recent statistics available.

Zips vs. ZCTA’s

The other glaring error with the analysis in “Coming Apart” is Mr. Murray’s unawareness that all zip codes are not created equal.  ZIP codes were implemented in 1963 by the Postal Service, and do not represent geographic areas.  Rather, they are essentially lists of addresses that are used to improve the efficiency of mail delivery.

The Census Bureau realized that people refer to specific areas by their ZIP code, and created their ZIP Code Tabulation Area (ZCTA) as a reporting level for the Census demographic data.  But here’s the problem – the Census ZCTA’s and the USPS ZIP codes are different shapes, which can result in significant differences in their data.

Yes, ZCTA’s and ZIPs are much the same, and can be used interchangeably in most cases.  But Mr. Murray’s methodology mixes racial and socioeconomic data from the Census ZCTA’s with statistics geocoded by USPS mailing addresses.

There is an excellent analysis from Washington State University showing the differences between ZIPs and ZCTA’s, and provides real-world examples of how they can lead to misleading geographic racial and economic profiles.


I doubt that the ZCTA/ZIP differences would critically affect the conclusions of his analysis, but the ignorance of this important issue does raise concerns regarding the book’s scientific rigor.

3 Replies to ““Coming Apart” Book Review”

  1. The so called lower classes vote Republican because they do not share Democratic Party values on homosexual marriage, affirmative action, illegal immigrants that change their culture and etc. To many people, life is more than money. To some, including yourself, it is all about money

    1. Professor,
      It’s interesting to note how quickly values are changing, whether or not they can be identified with one political party or the other..
      In the last Presidential campaign, there was a great emphasis on “family values”, using hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
      But in 2012, these are seemingly not such a concern because it would seem that the general public has grown much more accepting of other peoples’ life choices.
      Thanks for the comment.
      Best, Bert

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