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.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.)
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.
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.