Thursday, August 03, 2006

David Brooks on Men Not Working

Behind the prophylactic barrier known as the TimesSelect subscription wall, David Brooks adds his 2 cents (give or take a penny) on the recent New York Times article on "Men Not Working," which I discussed here and here. His offering is titled, "Bye-Bye, Bootstraps," and begins:

In all healthy societies, the middle-class people have wholesome middle-class values while the upper-crust bluebloods lead lives of cosseted leisure interrupted by infidelity, overdoses and hunting accidents. But in America today we’ve got this all bollixed up.

Through some screw-up in the moral superstructure, we now have a plutocratic upper class infused with the staid industriousness of Ben Franklin, while we are apparently seeing the emergence of a Wal-Mart leisure class — devil-may-care middle-age slackers who live off home-equity loans and disability payments so they can surf the History Channel and enjoy fantasy football leagues.
Where's the evidence for this being a change? The largest part of being rich is being talented and industrious. But this isn't really knew--I think it is a good description of the six decades since World War II, at the very least. And I've never really considered the rich to be particulaly idle, on the whole. Given my location, consider the particular case of Nelson Rockefeller. It would not have been possible for him to have been born any richer, and he was the furthest thing from idle. It's hard to imagine any of today's super wealthy out-hustling him. (For an excellent biography, read The Imperial Rockefeller by Joe Persico.)

The part of Brooks's story that is a change is the extent to which middle class men are opting out of the labor force. But Brooks ascribes too much of it to character and not enough to positive changes that may be facilitating it. Middle class men now have home equity and wives' earnings to fall back on. Those are resources that will be consumed in some way eventually. In this case, they are consumed in the form of late career leisure. Would the men and their families be better off tomorrow if they saved them instead of consuming them? Of course, but I don't think Brooks can really make the case that middle class men of a prior generation would not have availed themselves of the same opportunities had they been presented with them.

Brooks does allude to the genuine concern when he refers to disability payments. Sooner or later, "Men Not Working" lead to greater numbers of men (or their surivors) drawing more from the social safety net. For example, choosing not to work in late career, even without receipt of unemployment or disability payments, increases the implicit rate of return on lifetime Social Security taxes paid. It also lowers income tax receipts from what they might otherwise be. Somebody else has to pick up that tab.

The policy response, if there is one, is to consider instruments of fiscal policy that are less redistributive--defined contribution (rather than defined benefit) retirement systems and consumption (rather than income) taxes.


Tom C said...

Ok, I'm about to verge on professor territory, but here goes: Over the last 40 years, our economic system has had to adjust to an historically high influx of labor: first minority men, then women of all kinds. We nearly doubled the amount of workers, and still managed to find positions and places for them. 100 years from now, I bet people will be amazed.

But that doesn't mean there aren't lingering effects. If we take the pool of "jobs that can be done by middle aged men" and then add to it competition from 1) Many more middle aged white guys living to 70 years; 2) Middle aged black, latino and Asian guys; 3) Women -- you can see that maybe wages and opportunity will not be what they used to be. The natural reaction of some? Opt out.

Bibamus said...

Um, is this a joke?

At least Brooks's column was (or seemed to me) tongue-in-cheek.

But: "The largest part of being rich is being talented and industrious."?

Come on. Seriously?

doc said...

The original Times article is interesting, but the evidence--as opposed to anecdotes--for a decline in labor force attachment for older males (ages 55 - 64, for example) is essentially non-existent. Labor force participation rates for those men have largely increased over the past decode. See my longer take on this here: (and scroll down one post).

Andrew Samwick said...

If you find it funny, then you are welcome to think of it as a joke.

The Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans is here. The names at the top are dominated by the founders of Microsoft, Berkshire Hathaway, Dell, Oracle, Wal-Mart, and the like. That's talent and industry, and some inheritances after the founders have passed.

Or, if you like, consider Paul Krugman. Between his Princeton compensation, his textbooks, his speaking engagements, and his popular writing, he is surely one of the most well off academics of his generation. Is this not due to his talent and industry?

Anonymous said...

These men are opting out of a game of musical chairs where the chairs are pulled out from under them.

Ben Stein wrote about UAL in January, 2006. The workers of UAL had their jobs, their savings, and their pensions taken from them.

On the brght side, the people who had the talent and industry to manage the financial engineering that destroyed the workers of UAL have done very well for themselves. Maybe they will make the Forbes list.

Arun Khanna said...

I don't see the problem here. U.S. worker productivity is competitive with nearly any other OECD country. Lesiure is (and should be) higher in an above average OECD country.
If this trend continues, David Brooks might end up criticizing American college students for putting fun and frolic on par with studies.

Bibamus said...

Hmm, ok. I wasn't trying to be completely snarky - I took the tone of the Brooks piece to be mostly a joke, but I wasn't sure about your post. (And, as always, thanks for the follow-up comment.)

A couple of (more serious) points then:

1) Inherited wealth is not for nothing. My count is 11 of the top 25 in that Forbes list with inherited wealth (by their call, not mine). S Robson Walton may be the most talented and industrious man on the planet, but that isn't why he's rich.

More generally, we could probably play the game of 'you naming people who are rich due to their talent and industry and my responding by naming people who are rich for other reasons, or despite have no discernable talent or work ethic' all day long. While I would agree that this matter is, ultimately, an empirical question, and I am open to being persuaded on this point, I don't think this particular line of argument, such as it is, goes anywhere.

2) Even granting that, by and large, the richest people tend to be talented and industrious it doesn't follow, logically, that this is the "largest part" of why they are rich. That is the part that strikes me as being far from obvious.

3) Not really a main point, but just to throw this out there: talent is a funny thing. What you mean, I think, is that rich people have (and, to be fair, develop, in many cases) "talents the market rewards at this point in time", rather than "talent", broadly speaking.

My larger point, I suppose, is that it seems to me that talent and industriousness are neither necessary nor sufficient characteristics for acquiring wealth. There are a lot of lazy, untalented rich people, and there are a lot of industrious, talented poor people. And it seems to me that I run in to way more of the latter than should exist in a world in which talent and industriousness are the largest part of being rich.

Alan said...

Alan Beggerow here,

What is so puzzling to me is the notion that people have an obligation to society to work and 'be productive'. The main reason people work is to provide income for the things they and their families need and want. As long as people are not 'on the dole' as some put it, earn enough to provide for themselves and families, are not invcolved in criminal activity, and therefore pay their 'dues' to society by paying taxes, what's the difference?

The marketplace has changed, the economy has changed, so doesn't it follow that the workforce would change also? The article in the NY Times has brought forth the issue for discussion and debate. And it needs to be debated. The traditional ways of thinking about labor and working are not going to fit with the changes in the market and economy. To restrict labor to an archaic tradition is not fair to the worker or society.

It is this change in the workforce that is the most threatening aspect, for it is the change that people can see and experience directly. This issue is bringing to the fore people's fear of what can happen to anyone, regardless of how hard they work, regardless of how strong their work ethic is. It is this fear that is causing some to lash out about the article, and me. I understand that. I've actually had my fears come true. And I can tell you, at least in my case, the fear was worse than the reality.

Lord said...

If the only job offered is 10%, 20%, or even 30% of what you have made, then how much sense does it really make to work? Work around the house is probably more valuable than that. How much less redistributive do policies have to be to compensate? Is this a problem which needs a solution in terms of more consumption and less income taxes? Do we really need to make people desparate enough to work? I see little in the way of an economy desparate for workers.

Anonymous said...

What passes for capitalism today is a rigged game of musical chairs. It's a game run by looters who steal the chairs they want.

If people decide not to play the looters have a real problem. Good.

Roland Patrick said...

"What is so puzzling to me is the notion that people have an obligation to society to work and 'be productive'."

Now that's puzzling!

Where did you get that idea?

Alan said...

"What is so puzzling to me is the notion that people have an obligation to society to work and 'be productive'."

Now that's puzzling!

Where did you get that idea?

From the Tucker Carlson interview for one, and others that have told me the same thing. Trust me, it's not my idea at all. I maintain that most people work to provide for their needs. The benefit to society is not foremost in many people's minds. To be sure the benefit to society is there, but it is a result from folks providing for themselves, not the reason they work. Of course there are some that are financially well off that work because they want to, because it gives them something to do, a purpose in life. Nothing wrong with that either.

One of the aspects in this debate is the thought that somehow, even after 30 years of working in a steel mill, that I am dead weight. That because I have chosen a different way to make ends meet (for many reasons) that I am not 'productive', that I am ignoring my 'societal obligations'. I'm not taking this personally, for what others think of how I live is of no concern. But it is quite interesting, the different opinions out there on what makes a life worthwhile and who determines what you are worth. Too many times the impression is brought forth that the victims themselves are to blame.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you have a plan, Alan. Go for it.

Roland Patrick said...

'From the Tucker Carlson interview for one, and others that have told me the same thing. Trust me, it's not my idea at all.'

I don't know what Tucker Carlson interview you're talking about, but he's hardly any kind of authority on economics. It sure looks like you've got some kind of chip on your shoulder that's making you misinterpret what others are saying about 'unemployment'.

Alan said...

The Tucker Carlson interview I refer to is the one he did with yours truly on Wednesday, which can be viewed at the link:

It's the video labeled 'Men Not Working'.

Your absolutely right about Carlson not being an authority on economics, but he is far from the only one that thinks all that don't work (at least in their estimation of what 'work' should be for others) are lazy bums. As far as a chip on my shoulder, perhaps. But trust me, over the past 4 days I've heard it all about this issue. The good, the bad, the sensible, the compassionate, the condemning.

Lord said...

That people are paid according to their marginal productivity is one of the most misleading statements made. More correctly, they are paid according to the marginal productivity of the positions they occupy. The difference is if productivity were an attribute of the person, it may increase over time but it would be relatively stable, but as it is an attribute of the position, it can fluctuate widely depending on the vagueries of the market. Instead of being driven by the skill, education, and experience of the person, it is driven by connections, networks, judgements, and interpersonal relations they establish. People don't advance by becoming more productive; they advance by finding and obtaining more productive positions. The productivity can vary with the progress and decay of the field, the waxing and waning of industries, and chance occurences.