January 16, 2012; Daily Beast (Newsweek) | The insightful, relatively conservative-leaning Harvard economic historian Niall Ferguson has a brief opinion piece in Newsweek suggesting that it isn’t just the left (such as Occupy Wall Street activists) who are critical of the division between rich and poor. He suggests that Republicans avoiding discussions of inequality by attacking President Obama for waging “class warfare” are doing themselves a disservice. Ferguson says that “true conservatives are not complacent about inequality [because]…they understand only all too well that a capitalist economy must soon lose legitimacy if the benefits of economic growth flow only to a tiny elite.” 

As an example, Ferguson notes that libertarian political scientist Charles Murray, reviled and revered in different circles for his book The Bell Curve, “is no apologist for Wall Street.” Here is the sentence from Murray that we think might shake some nonprofit readers: “the boards of directors of corporate America—and nonprofit America, and foundation America—[have] become cozy extended families, scratching each others’ backs, happily going along with a market that has become lucrative for all of them, taking advantage of their privileged positions—rigging the game, but within the law.” Read it again. It is a powerful indictment that one might imagine both Occupiers and Tea Partiers endorsing. 

Murray’s analysis of the causes of—and the solutions to—hardening class stratification in this nation might not get much support from the Obama administration. He rails against “overeducated elitist snobs” living in the “SuperZips” (the 883 richest zip codes in the country) who “have little direct experience with the lives of ordinary Americans.” He also rails against the lower-class communities, arguing that the problem isn’t joblessness, but a diminishing work ethic and a preference for “goofing off.” With more goofing off, more crime, lower church attendance, and other factors, Murray suggests, according to Ferguson, that “the traditional bonds of civil society have entirely atrophied in lower-class America.”

To bridge the gap between the “snobs” and the “lower-class communities,” Murray opposes more welfare spending, which he says actually helped cause the breakdown of working class communities. Rather, Murray would replace social welfare spending with a system of guaranteed basic income. Then, he suggests that we focus on rebuilding or strengthening family, vocation, community, and faith—in a way, rebuilding the bonds of self-reliance and mutual aid and undoing the reliance on government programs such as public education.

We probably buy Murray’s analysis of the back-scratching interrelationships of the nation’s economic and social elites in corporate, (big) nonprofit and foundation circles.  He is also probably right that the elites have little sense of the lives of regular working people. We don’t buy his idea of scrapping the New Deal and the Great Society, but Murray’s analysis—and Ferguson’s—does merit some nonprofit debate. —Rick Cohen