Briar Patch Research
I am somewhat ambivalent about this book, from a lot of perspectives, which has resulted in an odd review. The central theme is that American society is developing two grand, socially isolated classes rapidly diverging on core behavior and values. It is not a defeatist, decline of America diatribe: In fact, he states that existing trends might serve to increase American hegemony.
While I have several quibbles, I think this is a valuable piece of work that might challenge some very ingrained viewpoints.
Murray’s focus is on changes that have taken place in American society, using the John Kennedy assassination as the reference point for changes in society. Prior to the 1963 watershed date, the new upper class and lower classes shared essentially the same environment and
social rules as the bulk of Americans, what we used to call “the American Civil Religion.” Since then, there has been a rapid, perhaps inexorable self-selection process that has resulted in distinct and diverging cultures. He details the divergence of opinion between the classes on the select issues of marriage, industriousness, honesty and religiosity. This drift has been described in detail in both The Big Sort and Patchwork Nation, though from different perspectives.
His “new upper class” is a fuzzy set of “people who run the nation’s economic, political, and cultural institutions.” Overall, this group comprises the top 5% of people aged 25 years and older, in senior managerial and professional positions. Counting their families, this is a population of just under 2.5 million adults. He defines this further into:
A narrow elite of nationally-known lawyers, Judges, CEOs in both the real and non-profit worlds, well-known media players, military leaders and academics that I used to think of as “thought leaders.” This group is miniscule, containing from 10,000 to100,000 individuals.
A broad elite, based locally and regionally, rather than nationally. Bluntly, I think we should just be able to call them the nobility and the aristocrats. I have a concern that
even the Narrow Elite conceptually misses the truly wealthy families whose assets and power eclipse many nation states. They are highly private, and in many ways as invisible as they want to be. Both broad and narrow elites have been subject to periodic, catastrophic culling—those at the summit seem to be at least partially resistant to this.
The middle class, or classes, just isn’t discussed to any real extent, as he is presenting segments that are evolving away from the center of society, the big winners and eventual losers. I would like to think I am interested in seeing his opinions on the same trends for everyone else… but I’m not. Remember the whole “hide in the closet” meme I mentioned? Something can
be valuable without being fun to experience first-hand.
The New Lower Class… I have a concern with this. Murray’s “new lower class” is a) layer on top ofand still distinct from the traditional poverty/powerless strata. He characterizes it as people who have, for any number of reasons, “never quite gotten their acts together.” It is a very broad and fuzzy group, comprised largely of men who aren’t making a living, single women with children, otherwise productive individuals self-isolated from their former communities. He thinks it should probably include former and current criminals, and otherwise stable families living on the razor edge of their resources.
This assemblage of distinct groups —which Murray is unable to quantify-- just isn’t convincing. I think the New Lower Class is not a distinct entity, but is the failure-based residue of more successful families. He missed—perhaps just by timing—the far too-large group of overeducated and highly articulate underemployed, unemployed, and nonemployables. They are not Lower Class yet… but may be real soon. To invent a phrase, they are the frictional residue of societal change. To paraphrase someone we had beaten into our heads at The Little Red High School, they are tinder for a Revolution of Thwarted Expectations.
My remaining problems are minor, and most likely spring from my not having thought of the techniques first.
First, the book is somewhat limited in focus. Since the ENTIRE subject area of “race and class in America” is littered with preconceptions, established opinions, and knee-jerk reactions he has limited the discussion to “non-Latino Whites”, though he maintains the trends are broad-based and cross-ethnic. While clever in concept, and extraordinarily well-executed, limiting the data to a group it is “OK to disrespect” in some intellectual circles may be leaving factors out that could be important. Maybe not. I am pretty well convinced he has captured some major trends; the results resonate with both Patchwork Nation and The Big Sort. Still, I have lingering doubts that
we didn’t survive at least a close approximation to the situation he, and the other authors, describe in the mid-1700s and late 1800s.
Second, he uses vast amounts of impeccable third-party data, and has included appendices with supplemental material describing his methodology and data sources. If anything, the book is too detail rich; many times I wanted to just give up and hide in the closet to escape the relentless onslaught of information. He nearly beats you to death with charts and graphs.
Third, his method of paralleling the effect of certain selected trends on semi-fictional upper and lower class communities is useful, but jarring, and rapidly gets annoying. He illustrates trends in idealized communities with anecdotes and (entirely too much excruciatingly detailed) anecdotes from the real ones.
Finally, and perhaps centrally, there is a whole neoCiceronian “O tempora o mores!” feel to Coming Apart, which reaches its peak in his references to another Great Awakening as a potential outcome to the trends he cites. Like we need another wave of that? Even though the other
main alternative outcome to his scenario is a move toward an increasingly non-viable elite-and-welfare state of the European model, I just can’t stretch my credulity that far. I suspect that the self-styled Fourth Great Awakening is effectively sealing itself off from broader society.
This is another one of those big, fuzzy books I have been annoying you about, works that might not
pertain to any particular “part of the Process”, but provide and bolster a solid understanding of environmental and historical conditions that can help make all of and analyst’s predictive and prescriptive work more solid and reality-based.
You should read this book right after you finish The Big Sort, as it provides a wealth of detail
on how what Bishop and Cushing described has worked out long term. If you are the least bit concerned that you might not be 100% sure of what is going on in America, and why, Patchwork Nation will provide valuable insights—whether you agree with the authors or not.
I was predisposed to dislike this book based on the background of the lead author and annoyingly
light-weight writing style, but my opinions were changed by their innovatively ad-hoc methodology (similar to some expedients I had to adopt when the Data Just Wasn’t There) (but maybe more rigorous at times) and the thoroughness of their research. Even if one might quibble a bit on some of their choices, this is an admirable piece of work that should be on your desk, with a couple
of bucks worth of stickynotes hanging from its pages. If nothing else you should immediately run over to their admirably well-designed and informative website, patchworknation.org, and just play with the data.
Here are some reading notes:
“The idea is fairly simple: on a map, two counties may be hundreds or
thousands of miles away from each other, but in terms of their shared
experiences, they’re like neighbors—or siblings. … we basically
gathered every piece of relevant county data we could. We measured
income level and local economic activity; racial and ethnic
compositions and immigration patterns; levels of adherence to such
religions as evangelical and mainstream Protestantism, Mormonism, Judaism
and Catholicism. We looked at housing-stock indicators and
population density, and whether the county is isolated or located within a
major metropolitan area. We also examined the education level of the
population, along with recent population growth and migration
figures. And we sorted consumer spending estimates for a variety of
specific spending categories, including alcohol, tobacco, housing.
Property taxes and charitable contributions. (p7ff)
Why twelve types? …Our goals was to create a usable, easily
understandable tool for the media… when we were done, the clustering
suggested twelve. (p8)
The twelve types were all chosen by comparing each to the average U.S. county,
a place populated by about 95,000 people with a median household
income of about $37,000. Those people are 87 percent white, 9
percent African American, and 7 percent Hispanic. …11 percent of the
families live in poverty, and 15 percent live in mobile homes.
Roughly 30 percent of people are employed in trade and service-sector
jobs, 17 percent work in education, 16 percent work for some form of
government, 15 percent work in manufacturing, 10 percent are
self-employed, 7 percent are employed in agriculture, 5 percent are
employed as professionals or executives and 1 percent work in the
military. In the average county 16 percent are enrolled in college.
The twelve types:
Boom Towns—384 counties, 59.3 million people…
Campus and Careers—71 counties, 13.1 million people. A younger population, lots of college students and people just starting their post-graduate careers…
Emptying Nests--- 250 counties, 12.1 million people. …older than average, with lots of boomers and retirees living on fixed incomes. They are also less diverse than the nation
as a whole…
Evangelical Epicenters—468 counties, 14.1 million people…
Immigration Nation—204 counties, 20.7 million. … primarily in the Southwest… large Hispanic
populations, lower than average incomes and higher than average poverty….
Industrial Metropolis—41 counties, 53.9 million people. …big industrial cities, these places are
more densely packed, younger and more diverse than the average county…
Military Bastions—55 counties, 8.4 million people.
Minority Central—364 counties, 13.5 million people. Heavy populations of African Americans and
Native Americans… lower incomes and higher poverty rates…
Monied Burbs—286 counties, 69.1 million people. …higher than average household incomes and
educational attainment, and they tend to be closely split in presidential races…
Mormon Outposts—44 counties, 1.7 million people. …often rural and sparsely populated…
Service Worker Centers—663 counties, 31 million people. …tourist centers or midsized towns where many people live without employee benefits and on the margins…
Tractor Country—311 counties, 2.3 million people. …white, rural and remote, with sparse populations and farming and agribusiness as their economic base…
We sorted all of the nation’s 3,141 counties, but counties can be complicated places. Many are large and contain highly diverse populations, which could make categorization difficult. The recovery, such as it was, only emphasized the differences among the various community types. …national level approaches can be too blunt for a highly segmented economy. Everyplace in the nation is not the same. (p146ff)
The economic policies of the next decade could easily deepen existing cultural and attitudinal divides in the United States. …Different places will seek different solutions. (p156)
…many of the changes in American culture over the past twenty years haven’t broken down the walls between communities within the Patchwork Nation. They have built them higher. (p188)
The number of truly common American cultural experiences is shrinking.… The first nation-wide radio broadcast didn’t come until 1927. American communities were isolated from each other before then. Our national media culture hadn’t existed for all that long before niche marketing, cable TV and the Web began breaking it down. (p210ff)
The communities of the Patchwork Nation are headed in different directions because, in many ways, the people in them want to head in different directions—and because now, more than ever, they are not only free to go, they are being pushed that way. (p212)
The twelve community types aren’t spinning apart, they are shifting, evolving. Some of them are moving further apart as some of them are moving closer together. It’s easy to imagine old community types splitting and new ones forming. (p218)
There are just scads of details, sparkling datagems scattered to the winds with a profligate hand. I think you will find many Useful Things. I did not, for example, think I would ever use something like this to help pick the next city we will live in, but the framework they present confirmed our reasoning and illuminated our choices in a very different way.
Every once and awhile I come up
with a book with New Art: something I can repurpose to my own nefarious
ends. Alien Invasion: How to Defend Earth is one such work.
It provides many insights and techniques useful for planners and
strategists, regardless of specialty, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who
might need to address analyze seemingly unprecedented, career-killing,
situations, or plan in low-information environments.
First, it is for real. This is a serious work by written by authors Travis
Taylor and Bob Boan, multiply-degreed professionals from the defense and space
industries. Incidentally, Taylor is, also, both a rising SF author and star of
the television science program “Rocket City Rednecks”. They are pushing
this work out as an ice-breaker for serious discussion, and make it clear right
from the start that it is incomplete and far from as polished as they would
like. There are lots of things that people more senior to you in the
information food chain just do not want to hear, and this work can give you
some ideas on how to not only get them on the table, but epoxy them there until
they are addressed. Keep in mind that we are currently in an environment
where control of the “High Frontier” is vital to EXISTING national security,
but funding for near-earth exploration is looked on as a unnecessary frill to
be cut as soon as encountered.
Second, The text is soundly grounded in history. Never forget that your funding
is only as good as the story you tell to get it, and a wealth of historical
case studies can be beyond price at pitch-time. For technique-thieves,
they demonstrate how examples from popular literature and entertainment can be
used to provide gut-level problem size scaling accessible to wide
audiences. The authors draw examples from the vast treasury of sci-fi
entertainment and world history to demonstrate that vastly asymmetric force
correlations have happened both “on TV” and multiple times in our recent past.
Cavalry, steel armor and firearms were advanced terror-weapons to the stone-age
sophisticates encountering them for the first time. Sea-going vessels
were as strange to many shore-hugging natives as starships will seem to us.
The plow, telegraph and railroads were, world-wide, simply unstoppable.
Third, it is simply the best book I have seen on how to professionally handle
contentious, high-impact, low probability scenarios beset with iron-bound
conventional wisdoms. Starting with the examination of existing belief sets
(they elegantly demolish the conventional wisdom of the Drake Equations) they
examine current civilian disaster/continuity programs and show the problems of
disaster preparedness are universal and generally have scalable responses. No
matter how unworldly the causes, the impacts fall into predictable categories
with known, knowable, and/or optimal responses. Problems such as having
response plans be well known without revealing confidential plans and
perceptions are well addressed. For all that, there are some odd holes,
where things that pretty obviously should be discussed aren’t even brought to
the table, leaving one to ponder at length about Non Disclosure
Finally, it is well written, far better than the television special drawn from
it would lead you to suspect, and far above the rather dismal drivel one often
encounters about planning. Math skills are sometimes useful, but you can
fast-forward your brain over the equations. Keep in mind, though, that the book
has the aura of a late-night back-of-the-envelope calculation, and may be all
the proof one needs that alcohol and whiteboards should NEVER be mixed.
For many of us, it will feel like home, but with better coffee.