The decline of the white working class: A conversation with J. D. Vance and Charles Murray

Sadly, this makes way too much sense. Saw the program and finished the book today. I have seen much of what he describes, although never so extreme. I never saw any domestic violence, or much violence in general, for example. But I have seen a decline in culture and morality over my lifetime and a decline in the work ethic. Some of it is related to the decline of marriage among working people and the instability that goes with that.
The author makes several points that fit in well with my experience. For example, among working class boys it was/is a bad thing to be smart in school. I liked school, but I would not admit it around my friends, since liking school was for girls. If you did not want to get crap from your fellows, you literally played dumb. Another related, more subtle but maybe more insidious, idea is that you should not have to work hard at learning. If you are “good at it” you will just come naturally and if not you are just out of luck. Systematic practice applies to sports but not to learning.

Another good point relates to being in a different culture. I also did not know how to tie a tie or which fork to use at fancy dinner parties. I still recall very clearly how I taught my self how to use silverware properly by watching and copying the wife of the British ambassador. I actually practiced at home. I still don’t get how networking works for me. I got very good at using networks in my job, but I still cannot bring myself to use it for personal benefit. I know what to do and how to do it; I just cannot bring it to bear.

And there are some attitudes that I do not want to change. I deeply respect anybody who does a job well, no matter what that job is. I never want to feel that my status entitles me to something I did not earn. In my personal travels, I never used my diplomatic status to skip ahead, even when it was very tempting to do so.

The dominant idea that Vance and I share is that habits and behaviors to a very large extent determine outcomes. Vance mentions that his parents sometimes earned very high incomes, but their habits and behaviors kept them from being successful. We can recognize that nobody has an equal chance as anybody else w/o blaming failure on others or on terrible circumstances. Choices matter.

The decline of the white working class is serious threat to American democracy. We have always counted on this group to be the backbone of our society, the source of stability. I would not want to take the analogy too far, but the working class was like Boxer, the horse in “Animal Farm,” strong, dedicated and loyal, but undervalued. The “elites” could make fun of them/us knowing that they would always absorb it and keep on working. If that stops being true, we are in a world of hurt … and it looks like it is stopping being true.

On additional observation about Vance’s book, that may mitigate the pessimism above. There is a kind of negative survivor bias at work in his (and Murray’s and Putnam’s) examples. Those that have succeeded better have move up and away. The white working class today is smaller than in 1960 and not the same qualitatively. In 1960, most of them had only HS education or less. Today their kids often are college educated. Maybe that is the group we should be using as comparison.

Anyway, it is well worth watching the presentation and well-worth reading the book, “Hillbilly Elegy.”

PS Vance was a Marine serving in Al Qaim until 2007. I am not exactly sure when he left. I visited Al Qaim in October 2007. He might have just left or just been leaving.