Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A tale of two lunches

Posted By on 03.14.12 at 04:30 PM

Black truffle pasta is Charles Murrays favorite.
  • Pat Castalda
  • Black truffle pasta is Charles Murray's favorite.

I was walking down State Street to get lunch yesterday, when a woman standing in front of a Subway asked me for a handout. "I haven't eaten in two days," she said, and I had no reason to doubt that. She looked to be in a bad way, smoking the butt of a cigarette and missing many teeth. I'm kind of broke myself right now, but I thought I could swing a sandwich. So we went inside and she ordered a footlong with double meat and grabbed a bag of chips. She tried to take a cup, but the Subway guy gave her a hard time: "You want a cup, get a combo. You're not cheating me." I told her to go ahead. The total was $11.83.

I went on my way, and as I was ordering a salad at a place down the street, a guy came in and asked me to buy him lunch. "Sorry," I told him. "I don't really have the money." He left, and I remarked to the counter guy that this was the second time in five minutes that I'd been hit up. "Maybe he's in on it," he said, laughing.

That morning I'd read a feature in the Financial Times, an interview conducted during a lunch with Charles Murray, the libertarian social scientist whose most (in)famous book is The Bell Curve. His latest is Coming Apart: The State of White America, 2060-2010, effusively praised by muttonheaded Times columnist David Brooks:

I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s "Coming Apart." I’ll be shocked if there’s another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society.

Excuse me, is American society all white? Of course not, but for Brooks Murray's focus is a good thing: because he's using data on "mostly white people . . . the effects of race and other complicating factors don’t come into play." Sounds like a recipe for valuable research, all right. Might class be one of those "complicating factors"?

Not for Murray and his ilk. As the Financial Times's Edward Luce puts it, "to Murray the culprit is entirely cultural—the loss of the Tocquevillian virtues of industriousness, marriage, honesty and religiosity on which he says the republic was built." Murray's book "charts the growing separation of a new lower class from a new upper class—the latter a 'cognitive elite' that tends to do all the things its blue-collar counterparts have forgotten how to do, such as get (and stay) married, read to their children, quit smoking, eat salad and get educated."

And socioeconomic factors play no role in this? Brooks's colleague Paul Krugman cites conservative David From, who offers the following analogy in the first of four pieces critiquing the book:

A social scientist visits a Gulf Coast town. He notices that the houses near the water have all been smashed and shattered. The former occupants now live in tents and FEMA trailers. The social scientist writes a report:

The evidence strongly shows that living in houses is better for children and families than living in tents and trailers. The people on the waterfront are irresponsibly subjecting their children to unacceptable conditions.

When he publishes his report, somebody points out: “You know, there was a hurricane here last week.” The social scientist shrugs off the criticism with the reply, “I’m writing about housing, not weather.”

Meanwhile, back at lunch with the Financial Times, held at Al Tiramisu, one of Murray's favorites, the author muses, "Am I or am I not going to have a martini? You know, I think I will. Sapphire martini straight up with the twist." He highly recommends the black truffle pasta, his "favorite ever dish," and asks if the FT will spring for wine. When told yes, he says, "But my guess is a $350 bottle is probably taking it too far?” Um, yes. The two men instead enjoy a nice $105 Gavi di Gavi with their barramundi (Murray) and sardines (Luce).

The final tab: $289.50. The appetizer portions of Murray's "favorite ever dish" alone were $45 each.

More Disparity Week on the Bleader.

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