Thursday, February 16, 2012

Coming Apart

Charles Murray has a new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. You might remember him as the coauthor of the Bell Curve which, as I remember, did not get much respect from empirical micro people.

Whether the new book is interesting or not, the promotion materials come with a quiz. Here's what happens when I take it:

1.Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American neighborhood in which the majority of your fifty nearest neighbors did not have college degrees?
Seven points maximum. Score 4 points if you answered “yes” plus a bonus point for every five years you have lived in such a place up to fifteen years.

This was true in the neighborhood I grew up in. On my street, for example, the most educated people, other than my parents (who had a B.Eng. and B.S., respectively) were high-school teachers. Colonel Hill across the street, an alcoholic, had a high school education, the next-door neighbor was a retired farmer, and in the family two doors down, the father drove a gasoline transport truck (often parked in front of the house), and the mother had a lower-level job in a mental health institution. In the latter two families, it is not clear if any of the adults had even finished high school.

Score: 5

2. Did you grow up in a family in which the chief breadwinner was not in a managerial job or a high- prestige profession (defined as attorney, physician, dentist, architect, engineer, scientist, or college professor)? Seven points maximum. Score 4 points if you answered “yes” and 3 bonus points if the chief breadwinner for most or all of your childhood was in what you consider to be a blue-collar job.

I get zero here. My father was an engineer.

3. Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American community under 50,000 population that is not part of a metropolitan area and is not where you went to college? Seven points maximum. Score 5points if you answered “yes,” 6 points if the place was under 25,000, and 7 points if you lived in a town of fewer than 10,000 people or in a rural area.

Bingo. About 10,000 in Cobourg, Ontario at the time: 6 points. But I actually lived in the township, outside of town, so 7 points. I went to school with many people who lived on farms.

4. Have you ever lived for at least a year in the United States at a family income that was close to or below the poverty line? You may answer “yes” if your family income then was below $30,000 in 2010 dollars. Graduate school doesn’t count. Living unemployed with your family after college doesn’t count. Seven points maximum. Score 5 points if you answered “yes” and two bonus points if you experienced poverty both as a child and as an adult.

5 points here. Though my father seemed busy with an engineering consulting business, he had a pet project - the local radio station - which he owned and poured his own money into. In spite of siphoning much of his consulting income into this operation, Radio CHUC, Cobourg Ontario, ran on a shoestring. One of my father's former employees who came to my father's funeral told me that his paycheck bounced more than once.

5. Have you ever walked on a factory floor? Six points maximum. Score 2 points for “yes,” 4 points if you have ever had a job that entailed routine visits to factory floors, and 6 points if you have worked on a factory floor.

Not only did I work on several factory floors, I also did hard labor out of doors. I was a union member. Why didn't he add points for that? 6 points.

6. Have you ever held a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day?
Six points maximum. Score 3 points if you answered“yes,” add 2 bonus points if the job lasted longer than a summer, and a bonus point if you’re talking about a job that made you ache all over.

I had three different jobs that hurt badly (stacking concrete blocks, sanding gun stocks, loading meat). Loading meat (quarters of beef) made me hurt all over. 4 points.

7. Have you ever had a close friend who was an evangelical Christian? Four points maximum. Score 2 points if you answered “yes,” and 4 points if you are an evangelical Christian yourself.

My closest friend in the world, my sister, is indeed an evangelical Christian. She also holds a math degree from McGill University. What do you think of that? 4 points.

8. Do you now have a close friend with whom you have strong and wide-ranging political disagreements? Four points maximum. Score 2 points if you have one such close friend, 4 points if you havemore than one, but not if they are disagreements within the same side of the political spectrum (no points if you are a liberal who has an ultraliberal friend or a conservative with an ultraconservative friend).

This is a bit of a strange one. My brother is a conservative, Roman Catholic Albertan. I have strong and wide-ranging disagreements with him, but these are not voiced. We are very tolerant of each other, which I think should qualify me for bonus points. But I'll just take 4, as I certainly have many friends like this - some famous ones even.

9. Have you ever had a close friend who could seldom get better than Cs in high school even if he or she tried hard? Score 4 points for “yes.”

My friend Bob Dawe was a C student, though I think he eventually graduated high school. Sadly, I heard the other day that he had died. Score 4 for Smiley.

10. During the last month have you voluntarily hung out with people who were smoking cigarettes? Score 3 points for “yes.”

My son smokes. I don't like it, but I tolerate it, and the smell of cigarette smoke does not actually bother me. My friends all smoked where I grew up (including Smiley). Score 3.

11. What military ranks are denoted by these five insignia?

On this one I have no idea: zero.

12. Option 1: Who is Jimmie Johnson? Three points maximum. Score3 points if you identified Jimmie Johnson as the NASCAR driver.Score 1 point (consolation prize) if you identified him as the for-mer coach of the Dallas Cowboys (the coach spells it
Jimmy, not Jimmie).

Don't know who this is: zero.

Option 2: Have you ever purchased Avon products?
Score 3points for “yes.”

No. zero.

14. During the last year, have you ever purchased domestic mass-market beer to stock your own fridge? Score 2 points for “yes.”

No. zero.

15. During the last five years, have you or your spouse gone fishing? Twopoints maximum. Score 1 point for “yes” and 2 points if you or your spouse go fishing more than once a year.

No, I don't go fishing. I've paddled canoes frequently though, so what about that? Zero, though, I guess.

16. How many times in the last year have you eaten at one of the following restaurant chains? Applebee’s, Waffle House, Denny’s, IHOP, Chili’s, Outback Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday, T.G.I. Friday’s, Ponderosa Steakhouse. Four points maximum. Score a point for each time you ate at one of them up to 4.

I ate in a Chili's in an airport during the last year: 1 point.

17. In secondary school, did you letter in anything? Two points maxi-mum. Score 2 points if you got any high school varsity letter except for the debating team or chess club. Score 2 points if you were a cheerleader or in the marching band.

I'm giving myself 2 points for marching band. I was in the band, which was mostly a concert band, but on rare occasions we did march. I was actually in a marching band at Queen's University, so that makes me feel better about the 2 points. Note here that my school had no "letters," nor did it have a debate club, or a chess club.

18. Have you ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club,or a meeting at a union local? Score 2 points for “yes.”

My father was a proud member of the Rotary Club, and took me there on several occasions. I even went to a Rotary convention in Maple Leaf Gardens with my father. 2 points.

19. Have you ever participated in a parade not involving global warming,a war protest, or gay rights? Score 2 points for “yes.”

Yes, our school band once played in the Cobourg Santa Claus Parade, on a float (of sorts). 2 points.

20. Since leaving school, have you ever worn a uniform? Two points maximum. Score 1 for “yes,” a bonus point if you did so as part of your job, and a third point if it was while you served in the armedforces.

What about coveralls? I wore those in the meat plant. What about a hard hat? Wore that. What about safety goggles? Wore those too. What about a hair net? That too. Zero points on this one though.

21. Have you ever ridden on a long-distance bus (e.g., Greyhound,Trailways) or hitchhiked for a trip of fifty miles or more? Two points maximum. Score 1 point for having used each form of transportation.

I have taken trips on buses, and hitchhiked extensively in the 1970s. One trip I made a number of times in 1972-73 was from Cobourg Ontario to the University of Western Ontario - about 200 miles one way for weekends to see my then-girlfriend. Richard Moses and I hitched from Cobourg to Newfoundland (ferry from Cape Breton included) and back once.

2 points.

23. During the 2009–10 television season, how many of the following series did you watch regularly? American Idol, Undercover Boss, The Big Bang Theory, Grey’s Anatomy, Lost, House, Desperate Housewives, Two and a Half Men, The Office, Survivor.
Four points maximum. Score a point for each series up to 4.

House, The Office. 2 points.

24. Have you ever watched an Oprah, Dr. Phil, or Judge Judy show all the way through?
Four points maximum. Score 1 point for each of the three for which you have watched an entire episode and a bonus point if you watch any of them regularly.

zero here.

25. What does the word Branson mean to you? Four points maximum. Score 2 points if you knew that Branson is a big entertainment center in the Midwest, and 4 points if you’ve gone to Branson yourself.

This is easy. I live in Missouri. I know what it is. 2 points.

My total: 55
Some of the questions made specific reference to the United States, but what the heck, Canada is about the same as that anyway.

According to Murray, I could be:

1. A lifelong resident of a working class neighborhood: 48-99 with typical score of 77.
2. A first-generation middle-class person with working-class parents: 42-100 with a typical score of 66.

Actually, as mentioned above, both of my parents had bachelor's degrees from McGill University. My father was an engineer, my mother a chemist. On my mother's side of the family, by grandfather had a medical degree, and my grandmother had a B.A., both from McGill University. My father's parents were working class Montrealers. Thus I would not call us working class. We were rich in human capital, worked like everyone else, and sometimes did not have much income. Thus, I had to work at low-skilled jobs to get myself educated. Currently I live in a relatively wealthy neighborhood in St. Louis, and I believe I am in the top 1%.

Kind of a silly test, right?


  1. This is from the review of Herrnstein and Murray's book 'The Bell Curve' in the Journal of Economic Literature (June 1995) by Arthur Goldberger and Charles Manski:
    "We conclude that The Bell Curve is driven
    by advocacy for HM's vision, not by serious
    empirical analysis. America may or may not
    be on the way towards a custodial state. Policy
    interventions may or may not be effective.
    We know no more after studying The Bell
    Curve than we did before."

    1. Arthur Golberger taught me econometrics. I would bet the bank on that opinion.

    2. Jim Heckman had a similarly biting critique published in the JPE (1995) where the only favorable thing he could say about Herrnstein and Murray is that they were working on important questions that social scientists should not be afraid of.

  2. Wait, you're an evangelical christian?

  3. Perhaps you are Canadian and that makes a difference?

    1. Yes, I fudged a bit. The questions say things like "American neighborhood," which obviously does not apply. I took some liberties, under the argument that there is less difference between Ontario and Michigan than, say, Michigan and Louisiana.

  4. I may be going out on a limb here, but I think the test has value. My parents score in the 40s, my wife and I are in the 30s, and my kids are around 10. The descriptions that go along with these scores are pretty accurate.

    My guess is that your score is an outlier among economics professors at highly ranked universities. Maybe your background has something to do with your refusal to put up with BS from Princeton?

    1. My colleague Bruce Petersen gets 52. He lived in the UP and worked in mines.

  5. Brought here VIA Worthwhile Canadian Initiative. I spend a lot of time reading Krugman, Delong, Thoma et al. but feel I need to spend more time reading some good ideas from different perspectives. So… my point:
    1) Williamson: You seem to have lots of comments along the lines of, “you need to stop obsessing over Krugman” --- I think that’s bogus. If there is disagreement I want to hear about it, read about it, and discuss it, not sit in awe, applauding authoritative voices. And it’s a blog, I’m here for fun – so I’m glad to get extra entertainment when the dispute heats up. (I realize this has little to do with this post lol.. *slaps own wrist)

  6. I thought it was silly at first, now after reading the book... I don't think it is. You seem to be an outlier though... Being from europe and ignoring the us-centric questions, it is probably right. No friends that got 'all Cs'; all my friends have masters degree. Intelligence was not a factor for those who don't (they are very good programmers). Never visited factory floor; almost never worked that my body would hurt (certainly not having such job).

    Actually, the only contact I have with non-educated 'class' is because we don't have so many stratified neighborhoods; corruption and wild-west development have probably somewhat mitigated such development. Some of my friends who live in such areas are trying (I would say 'genuinly') to blend in the local communities; still, it seems a little won't play a string quartet with these people...

    The book had a few interesting points:
    * divorce seems to distort the inequality statistics; marriages of similarly educated people too
    * the 'intelligence inheritance' is strong enough to explain 'education mobility' (education of child vs. education of his parents)

    I would like to see some counterpoint because it made sense to me (certainly more sense than what I've read from some socilogist).

  7. So, the test is "silly" because it doesn't describe you well, Steve?

    Almost all NFL cornerbacks would have BMI scores that qualify them as "obese." Does that make BMI silly for evaluating populations? No, it is just silly to expect it to apply to every individual.

    1. Actually, I thought about this, and the test is not silly, as it actually taught me something. I have to write another post on it. Later.

  8. sounds like a quiz made up by someone who thinks that they know what blue collar means.

    on #15, should get extra points 5 for hunting, and 10 if you've shot and eaten something at least as large as a deer. Bonus points if you know the difference between a rifled slug, sabot, #7 shot, and T shot, and which to use for grouse, which for a deer, which for geese, an, which for an intruder breaking into your home.

    on #12, you should get points if you own NASCAR or NFL related wear regularly (like a Troy Polamalu hat).

    on #14, most people in the blue collar town i'm from drink microbrews.

    #23/24, forgot "American Guns" "Sons of Guns" on Discovery. Do "Gold Rush" and "Bearing Sea Gold" count? How about "Dirty Jobs"? Do you get extra points if you have held one of those dirty jobs??

    Do you get extra points if you wear camo on the weekends, own camo jeans/sweatpants, or jeans that look like camo in your favortite football

    What no points if you know someone who lives in a mobile home (even if they have 2 acres??)

    #15, -5 points if you lettered in debate, drama, or chess in HS. -5 if you did not participate in a sport. sorry, marching band would not have made it because those were the people who could not make the cut for football (all-boys HS here, cheerleads came from the sister school).

  9. ...jeans that look like camo but in your favortite football colors (e.g. camo-patterned white and purple for the Baltimore Ravens)

  10. i heard there is a scoring point for when you decide to rent in germany. The landlord gives you a score based on the answers you provided in the interview and that way you looked. That determines if you get the place or not. When I had to rent apartments in Buenos Aires in the trip I made to Argentina, I thought it was going to be like this. Fortunately no, they choose the first one to get there!