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Murray Coughs Up Solutions

In an op-ed in today's New York Times, Charles Murray says he "can't refute" the criticism that his recent book, Coming Apart, fails to offer any solutions to the class divisions he describes. "The reason is simple," he writes. "Solutions that are remotely practicable right now would not do much good."

I find Murray's confession a little weird, since, as I noted in my recent review of the book, Murray does offer solutions. They just happen not to be solutions that are terribly relevant to the problems he describes. For instance, he says we should replace the welfare state with a guaranteed income, a solution that would seem to contradict his claim that welfare breeds dependency. It's a sign of how halfheartedly this and a few other solutions are offered up that Murray has managed already to forget about them.

Anyway, in response to his critics, Murray proposes a few more solutions. And--pleasant surprise--they're mostly pretty good ones.

Murray's first proposal is to abolish unpaid internships. These are, Murray rightly points out, available only available to "rich, smart children." Henceforth, Murray says, any entity that is not a religious organization and employs 10 people or more must pay minimum wage "to anyone who shows up for work every day." Let's do it.

Murray next proposes that we "drop the SAT in college admissions decisions." I find this hard to reconcile with Murray's decades-long flirtation with eugenics, but that's his problem, not mine. "The test has become a symbol of new upper-class privilege," Murray writes, "as people assume (albeit wrongly) that high scores are purchased through the resources of private schools and expensive test preparation programs." Let's bypass that "albeit wrongly" and accept Murray's proposal that the SAT be replaced with subject-oriented achievement tests "for which students can prepare the old-fashioned way, by hitting the books."

Next Murray suggests that we substitute socioeconomic affirmative action for ethnic affirmative action. I'm not ready to ditch race-based affirmative action--I think imbalances still need to be addressed even higher up the income scale--but it may not matter what I think because the Supreme Court will likely soon disallow it. If that happens, schools and employers should create income-based affirmative action programs (assuming the Supremes, who've been pretty out of control lately, don't disallow that, too). Actually, even if the Supreme Court doesn't disallow race-based affirmative action schools and employers should create income-based affirmative action programs alongside their existing race-based affirmative action programs. It'll mean schools will have to cough up more need-based scholarships, but too bad.

Finally, Murray says employers should no longer be allowed to require employees to possess a bachelor's degree. I'll have to think about this a bit more, but it's an interesting idea. Murray's probably right that the requirement has become an arbitrary credential that discriminates against high school graduates. What I need to ponder is whether it would lead to the substitution of more invidious sorting mechanisms.

In characteristic late-period Murray fashion, he affirms with a Gallic shrug that these changes "won't really make a lot of substantive, immediate difference." But they may have "symbolic value." I have no idea how much difference they'd make, and neither does he. But most and possibly all of them are worth trying. I hope I haven't spoiled Murray's day by agreeing with him.