Last week I looked at the multiple ironies of the young Barack Obama’s dismissive 1994 review of The Bell Curve. Today, 20 years after the publication of Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s magnum opus, let’s score the authors’ predictions.
First, does America in 2014 still look like the America described in The Bell Curve?
Yes, America today is like the America Herrnstein and Murray described, only more so.
One scandalous assumption of The Bell Curve was that racial differences in average intelligence (and the behavioral traits that correlate with intelligence) wouldn’t change very quickly. Twenty years later, Herrnstein and Murray look prescient on that count.
Heck, very little has changed even in the 42 years I’ve been reading social scientists. As I’ve joked before, when I became interested in the quantitative literature on educational achievement in ninth grade in 1972, the racial rankings went:
Indeed, the biggest change since The Bell Curve has been that Asians are now pulling away from whites for undisputed control of the top spot.
Second, let’s review Herrnstein and Murray’s more ambitious and alarming predictions from their semi-dystopian penultimate Chapter 21, “The Way We Are Headed.” (Chapter 22, “A Place for Everyone,” offers policy suggestions to bring about a more heartening future.) As the subtitle Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life explains, The Bell Curve is chiefly a book about the growth of inequality. In 1994 they saw three main tendencies:
An increasingly isolated cognitive elite.
A merging of the cognitive elite with the affluent.
A deteriorating quality of life for people at the bottom end of the cognitive ability distribution.
Unchecked, these trends will lead the U.S. toward something resembling a caste society, with the underclass mired ever more firmly at the bottom and the cognitive elite ever more firmly anchored at the top, restructuring the rules of society so that it becomes harder and harder for them to lose.
That seems awfully timely.
Do you think the rich in America already have too much power? Or do you think the intellectuals already have too much power? We are suggesting that a “yes” to both questions is probably right. And if you think the power of these groups is too great now, just watch what happens as their outlooks and interests converge.
All of the problems that these children [of low intelligence] experience will become worse rather than better as they grow older, for the labor market they will confront a few decades down the road is going to be much harder for them to cope with than the labor market is now.
It’s hard to argue with that, especially after another two decades of the establishment winking at illegal immigration, which has done poor Americans no good whatsoever.