Whence comes this sudden wave of economic determinism?

All of a sudden it is pulled out of the closest as a weapon against Charles Murray, such as by Paul Krugman (and here and here), Rortybomb, David Frum, and others.  Bryan Caplan brings some sanity to the debate:

I’m baffled by people who blame declining marriage rates on poverty.  Why?  Because being single is more expensive than being married.  Picture two singles living separately.  If they marry, they sharply cut their total housing costs.  They cut the total cost of furniture, appliances, fuel, and health insurance.  Even groceries get cheaper: think CostCo.

These savings are especially blatant when your income is low.  Even the official poverty line acknowledges them.  The Poverty Threshold for a household with one adult is $11,139; the Poverty Threshold for a household with two adults is $14,218.  When two individuals at the poverty line maintain separate households, they’re effectively spending 2*$11,139-$14,218=$8,060 a year to stay single.

But wait, there’s more.  Marriage doesn’t just cut expenses.  It raises couples’ income.  In the NLSY, married men earn about 40% more than comparable single men; married women earn about 10% less than comparable single women.  From a couples’ point of view, that’s a big net bonus.  And much of this bonus seems to be causal.

More plausibly it is the rise in female income (among other factors, including the rise of birth control, read more here) which is behind the decline in marriage, but that doesn’t fit with traditional mood affiliation, which finds the rise in female income to be good (which it is), and the decline in marriage to be — neither good nor bad per se but not exactly worth celebrating.  If you can blame capitalism and wage stagnation for the decline of the family among lower earners, so much the better for ideology but as a sociological proposition that is a very weak hypothesis (do you see convincing links to real sociological evidence, showing this to be the dominant factor? No) and as Caplan shows it doesn’t fit with the economics either.

Remind me again, how is wage stagnation supposed to explain the pronounced decline in religiosity, among lower earners, as shown by Murray?  It’s well-known that a secular outlook is a normal good, and that on average poorer countries are more religious than wealthier countries.

I’m struck by how many people are offering negative comment on the new Murray book who have not read it, or who do not appear to have read it.  I found it to be a much less controversial book than the commentary makes it seem, and actually I had stopped thinking about it, except for all the negative reviews I see it getting.  It is unpopular because it disrupts current moral narratives about economic and social decline, as much on the right as on the left I might add, not because it is relying on dubious facts.  It is simply redescribing inequality through a somewhat different lens.  There’s much less at stake here than meets the eye.

Maybe I should not even be responding, but then again I am a determinist and does not Karl Smith have a good forecasting record to date?


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