He's also a local resident, living just over South Mountain in Burkittsville, Md., with his wife of almost 29 years, Catherine Bly Cox.
Murray, 69, published his latest book, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010," in January. In it, Murray looks at working-age white Americans in the upper 20 percent and lower 30 percent of the socioeconomic scale, and presents statistics to point to several trends that alarm him.
He says America is developing a new, elite, upper class that secludes itself in exclusive neighborhoods such as Bethesda, Md., Chevy Chase, Md., and McLean, Va. This class embodies what Murray calls the four American "founding virtues" -- industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity. Members of the upper class typically work long hours, obey laws, live in two-parent families and attend church.
The poor working class, on the other hand, is in tatters. Murray presents statistics that show a lower class that is deteriorating in terms of Murray's founding virtues -- a large percentage men of working age do not work, even during a strong economy; prisons contain a higher percentage of lower-class people than upper-class people; more than half of babies born to poor working-class families are born to single mothers; and church attendance has fallen off a cliff.
Murray doesn't address America's middle class in his book. But he does point out that the new, elite class governs, teaches and owns businesses but separates itself from the experiences of ordinary Americans. This isolation of the people who run the country from most Americans, Murray says, is a problem.
Since publication, the book and Murray have received international attention, including reviews in The New York Times, the Financial Times, Slate and the Huffington Post, even an appearance on "The Colbert Report."
A few weeks ago, Murray squeezed in a visit with The Herald-Mail before heading overseas on a trip to Asia, where two of his children live.
Your Wikipedia bio says you have a connection to Asia.
I grew up there in effect. I was in my 20s, went over there when I was just out of Harvard. I was in Thailand for six years, from 1965 to '70 and from '70 to '72. And I started out in the Peace Corps and then stayed on.
So those first five years, I was 22 to 27. I fell in love with the country. I married (my first wife), had one child while I was there. And now both of my children from that marriage live in Asia, so we have to go back there just to see the grandchildren.
I wanted to talk to you about "Coming Apart" and your research in general, and how it might map onto Washington County. Fifty years ago, 75 years ago, Hagerstown was an industrial powerhouse. But the economy has changed. Society has changed.
We also have seen, here in Burkittsville, the same kind of things. We have the seen the trends I'm describing statistically reflected in the lives of our friends and neighbors.
One thing you talk about is a decline in industriousness.
When you talk about problems in the labor force, where you have increasing numbers of men who are out of the labor force even in good years, we see examples of that around here.
You can talk to almost anyone who runs a small business (in Burkittsville) — heating, cooling, you name it — and they will talk very openly about it's very hard to get kids to come to work for them at good wages — not minimum wage -- to learn the trade. It's very hard to find people who will come to work every day on time and do a good job.
How do you encourage people to work without being artificial about it or incentivizing certain behaviors?
The book is not talking about the kinds of problems that are easy to solve. If you have a guy who is out of work because there are no jobs available and he is desperate to work, the answer is simple. Get the guy a job. He'll take it, he'll show up. Everybody is happy.
That problem is really easy to solve. But how do you solve the problem of a 25-year-old kid who can't hold onto a job? He gets a job. Two days later, he shows up a hour late. The boss says, "Look, you're supposed to be here on time." The kid goes off in a huff and quits. Or worse, takes a poke at the boss.