Sunday, January 28, 2018

Charles Murray on Culture vs. Economics:  An interview

Tamar Jacoby:

It's an age-old debate between the left and the right. The left says poverty—inner-city poverty and working-class poverty—is mostly about economics. The right says culture has at least as much to do with it. You're a longtime proponent of the cultural explanation. Can you spell that out for us?

Charles Murray:

I believe—I've believed for 40 years—that the reforms of the 1960s and the sexual revolution combined to create a perfect storm. And that storm changed the rules of the game for poor people—especially young poor people. In 1960, if you were male, working age, and not physically disabled, you were in the labor force. You were either working or you were looking for work. If you were a woman in your 20s, you were probably already married and had children.

Now let's be clear—this is not the natural state of affairs. Your late teens are not the time you want to get up every day and go to work at the same time even if you don't feel like it. If you're a guy, it's certainly not the time when you naturally say, "I think I want to get married."

And yet, into the '60s, there were norms. And those norms held, almost universally.

But then, at some point in the '60s, the rules changed.

By 1970, it had become much easier if you were a guy to commit a crime, get caught for it, and still not go to jail. It was much easier to slide through school, even if you were a troublemaker, and end up with a diploma without having learned anything or having faced any pressure to learn something.If you were a young woman at the end of the 1960s, if you had a baby, you were not the only girl in your high school class who had one. There were probably half a dozen others. The stigma was pretty much gone. You could afford to take care of the child without a husband. And you could live with a boyfriend, which you couldn't have done before.

Meanwhile—the other element of the perfect storm—there was the sexual revolution. The pill was first put on sale in 1960. For the first time in human history, women had a safe, convenient way to have sexual intercourse even if the guy did nothing to protect against pregnancy. Naturally, this had a huge effect on family formation.


So let me play devil's advocate. I say it's not an either/or. Okay, culture plays a huge role. But doesn't economics have at least as much to do with it?

The US lost 5.6 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010—30 percent of manufacturing employment. The guy who used to make $25 an hour in a fabricating plant now has to work at Wendy's for minimum wage. And this in turn drives other changes—cultural changes.

When you can't find a job that pays what you're used to, you drop out of the labor force. And then the women in your community are much less interested in marrying you. And pretty soon, those women are raising kids on their own, etc., etc.

In this theory, economics and culture intertwine and drive each other. Is there anything to that?


I'm not denying that these things have occurred. I'm not denying that they have interacted. But I wish people would take a closer look at the timing.

The problems we're talking about start in the last half of the '60s. That's when labor force participation started to decline, when out-of-wedlock births started to rise, when crime rose. But in the last half of the '60s, the jobs hadn't left.

The economy was red hot.

And as we've seen in the years since, things don't get much better when the economy improves. We had a natural experiment in the late 1990s. There were "help wanted" signs everywhere. You could work as many hours a week as you wanted, even if you had low skills and little education. Even then, employers were begging for welders and electricians and cabinetmakers—and they were willing to pay $25 to $30 an hour.

What happened? White male labor force participation stopped declining for a couple years. But it did not go back up. People did not flock back into the labor force. There was no turnaround.


It's very hard to put Humpty Dumpty back together again?


Exactly. Some of the most depressing research has to do with chronic unemployment. Once you've been out of the labor force for a while, getting back in is really hard.


So this brings us to policy. What can we do about this? I guess that's one reason I cling to economic causality along with cultural causality. Culture is so hard to change.


We've been trying 20, 30, 40 years—policy intervention after policy intervention. And most of what we've tried hasn't worked or worked only around the edges.


What about reasserting the norms? Moral suasion—by government or civil society—could that work?


I think there should be a lot more of it. As we know, the educated middle class has been doing better and better in recent years—economically and maintaining the old norms. But that new upper class has been AWOL in the culture wars.

They get married. They work long hours. They're engaged in their communities. But they don't say, "This would be a good idea for other people as well." They're nonjudgmental. They don't preach what they practice.

I don't mean people should get bullhorns and go down to working-class neighborhoods and yell. That's not how it worked in the 1950s.

But the norms were in the air. Values were promulgated by people at the top of society as a matter of course.

It's about policymakers and people who write TV shows and people who make movies. They need to start saying, "You know, it's really a good thing for kids if their parents are married. It's really important that guys get into the labor force and stay there."


We do sometimes change cultural norms. In our lifetimes, society succeeded in creating a new norm around smoking—and a lot of people stopped smoking.


That's right. I'm not sure it would be that simple. But I won't argue with you.

I know you'd like to hear something more optimistic, and I wish I could help you. But the one thing I'll say is that American history does seem to go in cycles.

We have a history of revivals—of what used to be called "reawakenings." In the past, they were religious. We had three or four of them. And each one had huge effects across the culture. The civil rights movement was also a kind of great awakening—an about-face in our values over just 10 years.


And you think that kind of thing could happen again?


Well, let's just say there's a lot less resistance today to some of the things we've been talking about—reasserting norms about marriage and family and work—than there was 20 or 30 years ago. Back then, I could not have said many of the things I've said today without getting hissed by the audience. So I think there is some potential for a cultural revival.

What are the odds? I don't know. But they're greater than zero. And given how little we know about how to effect change programmatically, with government interventions, I say we'd better go with the only game in town. I think that's culture.



States Look to Rein in Occupational Licensing Laws, Reduce Burden on Workers

The inability of the federal government to organize its affairs should not distract from progress at the state level. Even though an increasing number of Americans work in occupations subject to licensing requirements, from 5 percent of the workforce in 1950 to about 30 percent today, some states are fighting back.

A bill introduced in Florida would scale back licensing requirements for some professions and remove them completely for others. South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard recently proposed creating an interstate compact to facilitate people to continue working when they move to another participating state. Such reforms could improve the lives of many Americans by reducing barriers to work and mobility.

Overly-burdensome licensing requirements can limit the number of people that are able to work in licensed occupations. As I’ve written previously, a recent paper from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty estimated that if licensing requirements for the ten occupations were equivalent to requirements in the least burdensome states, employment in some professions would increase by over four percent.

For some professions, such as hair braiders, policymakers may determine that the occupation can be removed from the licensing framework altogether. For others where such a move is not practical or the arguments in favor of a move are less clear cut, they can consider reducing the requirements to levels already in place in other states, whether by reducing the number of required hours, the number of tests, or scaling back other measures.

Policymakers in Florida are taking this approach. This is welcome news, because the most recent report from the Institute for Justice found the state had the 5th most burdensome licensing laws. On Friday, the Florida House passed a licensing reform bill 74-28. If it were to become law the bill would remove seven professions, including hair braiders, nail polishers, and my personal favorite, timekeepers and announcers, from the state’s occupational licensure framework.

For other occupations the bill would significantly reduce the number of hours of training required to get a license. Barbers would require 600 hours of training, down from 1,200. Restricted barbers, with a narrower scope of practice clarified in the bill, would require 325 hours.

By shrinking the number of occupations subject to licensing regulations, and lowering the burden for some other occupations, the bill would reduce barriers to entry and increase the number of opportunities available to Floridians. A similar reform effort passed the House last year, but did not ultimately become law. However, it is a positive sign that this bill was one of the first to be taken up in 2018, and makes enactment more likely.

South Dakota Governor Daugaard recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the introduction of legislation to establish a multistate “Compact for the Temporary Licensure of Professionals.” Under the compact, individuals living in one state who have been licensed in an occupation in another participating state can receive an in-state temporary license within 30 days of requesting one. The ability to obtain a temporary license quickly would allow people in these occupations to avoid disruptions in their ability to work if they move from one participating state to another. They could continue to work while they work on fulfilling the requirements for a permanent license.

Previous research concluded that the interstate migration rate for workers in state-specific licensed occupations was 36 percent lower than for people in unaffected professions. Occupational licensing can increase the costs related to moving, as people who move miss out on earnings and have their career trajectories derailed. The authors of that study found that the increase in occupational licensing since 1980 can explain 6 percent of the decline in interstate migration since then. The higher costs deter some people from moving, and make it harder for those that do end up doing so.

The compact would not go as far as a full reciprocity agreement, in which participating states would accept licenses issued in other participating states. However, the compact would go some way towards reducing the cost and disruption introduced by occupational licensing on interstate migration.

Florida and South Dakota offer an example to other states with their occupational licensing reforms. These efforts are a step forward in terms of reviewing the occupational licensing framework in place, and seeking to find practical, actionable ways to reduce the related burdens.



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