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Science & Environment

Controversial Social Scientist Charles Murray Retires


We're going to spend the next few minutes talking about race and class in America with two people who've been thinking about these issues but in very different ways. In a few minutes, we'll talk with the head of the Kellogg Foundation, one of the country's largest. It's pouring millions of dollars into ending what it calls structural racism. But first, someone you may know for his controversial writings in social science, Charles Murray. He co-authored with Richard Herrnstein the book, "The Bell Curve," which looked at IQ as a determinant of socioeconomic status - a book many critics have derided over the years as racist. His other books include "Coming Apart: The State Of White America, 1960-2010" and "Losing Ground."

Mr. Murray recently announced that he'll be retiring as the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, moving into an emeritus role. He's giving a major address tomorrow to mark this transition, so we thought we'd take this moment to talk about his career. And I started by asking him about "The Bell Curve."

CHARLES MURRAY: Why did it become so controversial? It is because IQ all by itself is kind of a flashpoint, and IQ and race - if you put that into a book, even if it's one small part of a very long book, the book becomes about IQ and race. And so I think that what I experienced after that is as simple as I violated a taboo.

MARTIN: But why IQ to begin with? I mean, there are a lot of things that one could consider and evaluate in the disparate experiences of different groups in the United States. Like, why IQ?

MURRAY: Well, the book was not about IQ and race. The subtitle of the book was, "Intelligence And Class Structure In American life." Michel, you know what? Hardly anybody realizes that the first couple of chapters of "Coming Apart" were basically a recapitulation of the argument in "The Bell Curve." That's how little people focused on "The Bell Curve's" real message.

MARTIN: Well, there is intellectual - one more question on this point before we move on - but there is an intellectual wing, if I can call it that, of the alt-right that does rely on tropes of racial difference tied to what they claim are intellectual differences. And I wonder if you think you may have contributed to that unwittingly and how you feel about that?

MURRAY: If I contributed to it, it's not because of anything that Dick Herrnstein and I wrote. It's because of what people want to say we wrote.

MARTIN: I wanted to talk about some of your policy prescriptions, which have never gotten as much attention as your controversial analyses have. But you talked about simplifying the tax code and also a universal basic income. Why do you think that those ideas have not gotten as much attention as the other parts of your professional sort of legacy?

MURRAY: Well, the universal basic income has gotten some attention from people on the left who are also in favor of basic income. But I guess that - well, this is going to sound fatuous, but I'll say it anyway. You know, there is an image of me out there for which advocacy of a universal basic income is inconsistent. It doesn't fit the narrative because this is supposed to be the hardhearted, racist, sexist, homophobe, Charles Murray. And he wants to increase spending on the poor? That doesn't fit. I want to give people a basic income, so that if you're working hard, doing the best you can, that you can not just survive, but you can have a decent life.

MARTIN: What's keeping you up at night now? What I hear in your work - whether one agrees or disagrees with your methods and your reasoning - what I do think people see in your work is a deep concern about the American social fabric. Would that be fair?

MURRAY: That's fair. And that - you talk about keeping me up at night - doesn't keep me up anymore at night, Michel, because I have to tell you that I've pretty much given up.

MARTIN: Really?

MURRAY: If you take a look at the book called "By The People" that came out a couple of years after "Coming Apart," I start it by announcing that the American project in its traditional form is dead. And I'm sorry to say that I really think that's true. I think that a great deal of what made America special is lost beyond recall, and I don't have any good policy ideas that I am at all confident will go very far in bringing that back.

MARTIN: And by that, you mean - what? - civically engaged, generally - people generally invested in the society in an equal way and...

MURRAY: You know, I'm thinking there aren't that many societies around the world. In fact, we were the one in which people who happened to live in geographic proximity to each other were as capable of solving their problems and dealing with human needs in their communities as American civil society used to be.

MARTIN: And you have no prescription for that?

MURRAY: Nope. Some of the forces at work here are simply not reversible. I am afraid that what we're looking at is the United States as a rich country, as a powerful country - that's not going to go away - we aren't going to be America, the kind of America that the rest of the world thought was both occasionally exasperating but also awfully cool and a place that they wanted to be like or wanted to go to. I think that's going to fade.

MARTIN: And your opinion of the Trump administration?

MURRAY: I'm in the same spot as a lot of people of my positions. If you go through a lot of the actual policy changes that were made during the last year, I'm in favor of a whole bunch of them. Do I think that Donald Trump represents a huge danger - both existential danger in terms of immediate disasters, but also, he's kind of the embodiment of everything that the founders told us would characterize the demise of the experiment that they set in motion.

MARTIN: That's Charles Murray. He's the author of many books. We're speaking to him on the occasion of his decision to take emeritus status at the American Enterprise Institute on the occasion of his 75th birthday, which is tomorrow. So once again, let us be the first to wish you a happy birthday. And thank you for speaking with us today, Mr. Murray.

MURRAY: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.