Worklessness, Stratification, and Normative Diversity

Ross Douthat has written a really important column that brings a number of important arguments about the changing nature of work to a wide audience. Drawing on Scott Winship’s new article in Breakthrough Journal, he explores the rise of worklessness among less-skilled adults and the parallel increase in work hours among skilled workers, trends that, when coupled with assortative mating, have tended to exacerbate income dispersion across households.

The most controversial passage in Ross’s column, and the passage that has been most egregiously misrepresented, in my view, is the following:

Many of the Americans dropping out of the work force are not destitute: they’re receiving disability payments and food stamps, living with relatives, cobbling together work here and there, and often doing as well as they might with a low-wage job. By historical standards their lives are more comfortable than the left often allows, and the fiscal cost of their situation is more sustainable than the right tends to admits. (Medicare may bankrupt us, but food stamps probably will not.)

There is a certain air of irresponsibility to giving up on employment altogether, of course. But while pundits who tap on keyboards for a living like to extol the inherent dignity of labor, we aren’t the ones stocking shelves at Walmart or hunting wearily, week after week, for a job that probably pays less than our last one did. One could make the case that the right to not have a boss is actually the hardest won of modern freedoms: should it really trouble us if more people in a rich society end up exercising it?

The answer is yes — but mostly because the decline of work carries social costs as well as an economic price tag. Even a grinding job tends to be an important source of social capital, providing everyday structure for people who live alone, a place to meet friends and kindle romances for people who lack other forms of community, a path away from crime and prison for young men, an example to children and a source of self-respect for parents. [Emphasis added]

Note that Ross isn’t trivializing the fact that work at the low end of the labor market can be monotonous and unpleasant. Yet he argues that labor force participation nevertheless provides a source of structure and meaning. The obvious rejoinder is that those who don’t participate can find other sources of meaning, in kinship networks or through non-market work, and that is true. Yet as kinship networks fray, it is just as likely, if not more likely, that those who find themselves disconnected from the world of market work find themselves socially isolated along many other dimensions. 

I think of the issues Ross raises as absolutely central to America’s future, and more broadly as central to the future of the the affluent market democracies. There are lots of issues that come to mind:

(1) Given the stagnant labor market, there is a great deal of concern about the scarcity of “good,” which is to say remunerative and stable, jobs. But there is also a larger normative question surrounding the scarcity of “meaningful work.” Is meaningful work — that is, stimulating and challenging work that serve as a source of self-esteem — a positional good that is scarce by definition, as modes of work that were once privileged and that afforded a high degree of autonomy are steadily commoditized and industrialized? Or does work, including undesirable work, become meaningful because it represents a way that we contribute to self-support and to participation in the wider community? My inclination is to believe that the latter is true, drawing in part of Richard Robb’s “economics of becoming” (EOB) thesis and in part on Judith Shklar’s conception of wage-earning as a core element of public esteem in the American political tradition. But it must be said that this is very much contested terrain. Indeed, I would argue that attitudes towards work — what makes it meaningful, whether or not the ideals of self-help and conditional reciprocity ought to be enshrined in our public institutions — is the real axis of conflict between the social-democratic left and what we might call the moralistic-market right. 

(2) One commonly-held social-democratic view is that if the decrease in work hours among less-skilled workers isn’t necessarily alarming, and it might actually be a kind of egalitarian force. During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, for example, many conservatives warned that the redistributive elements of the legislation would tend to depress labor force participation. In response, some on the center-left replied that if some nontrivial number of people are working merely because they fear not having medical insurance, surely the decent and humane thing to do is to give them medical insurance and allow them to leave freer, better lives, particularly if these people are older or otherwise on the margin. Matt Yglesias has (rightly) described this as akin to the northern European pattern, in which output per hour is high and work hours tend to be lower among the less-skilled, which in turn depresses consumption levels somewhat. 

(3) The problem with the social-democratic view (potentially) is that the European phenomenon Matt identifies is arguably a reflection of a normative consensus. Consider the findings of Weinzierl and Lockwood, who’ve inspired a more ambitious writing project:

Individuals differ in the value they place on consumption relative to leisure. These preference differences help explain why some earn more than others, and they are a central part of popular and scholarly debates over taxation. In this paper, Benjamin Lockwood and Matthew Weinzierl show that variation in these preferences may also help explain why the extent of redistribution varies across countries and US states, and why (at least in the case of the United States) redistribution is weaker than conventional theory would suggest. More generally, Lockwood and Weinzierl argue that neglecting the role of preferences substantially impairs our understanding of both optimal and existing tax policy. Overall, findings suggest that this paper’s generalized normative optimal tax model may be a better guide to policy advice than the conventional one. 

So what are the implications of variation in preferences regarding consumption and leisure?

More variance in reported preferences is significantly associated with less redistribution across both countries and US states, conditional on observed variation in incomes and the correlation of income with preferences.

That is, some societies include people who value leisure, e.g., time spent with family and friends, far more than consumption, e.g., the enormous grills used by David Brooks paradigmatic “Patio Man.” There are others in which the reverse is true. And then there are societies in which there is no real consensus — that is, we have people who “work for the weekend,” a category that includes many if not most of the people in the community in which I was raised (real life was about family, etc.) and people who find meaning primarily through professional achievement, a phenomenon that is more pervasive in the world I find myself in now. Preferences obviously aren’t everything. Yet we’d expect that if variation in preferences isn’t random, that it would play into income stratification in various ways. People who really value leisure might be somewhat more sensitive to increases in marginal tax rates, for example, while people who are defined by their work will work long hours no matter what. Or the opposite might be true. Much depends on individual circumstances, e.g., family and economic obligations, age, etc. This “normative diversity” is a challenge to redistribution because it implies that “Patio Men” will have to subsidize people who, like almost everyone in my extended family, prefer drinking tea and chatting with friends to working long hours. (The fact that many people in my family have to work long hours all the same is often a source of bitterness and disappointment.)

Our cultural project could be to encourage “Patio Men” to value consumption less and leisure more. But it could be that these preferences run pretty deep. My own view is that this diversity is neither here nor there — a universal obsession with consumption, and a universal consensus around long work hours, as we find in South Korea — might prove culturally brittle and problematic. (Daniel Tudor’s Korea: The Impossible Country offers great insight into some of the pathologies that have emerged around long work hours.) Yet much of our entrepreneurial vigor comes from our relatively high concentration, for a western country, of obsessive, work-crazed high achievers, and I suppose I find the prospect of a European-style consensus around the value of leisure unattractive. (Far better to be inclined towards leisure in a society of hard workers, for obvious reasons.)  

(3) The debate over wage floors is closely tied to this larger debate about work. In effect, the real political debate over wage floors is not whether or not we ought to have one, as conservatives who call for the abolition of minimum wage laws have been marginalized. Rather, it is about where we ought to set wage floors and, to an extent, whether or not wage floors ought to be supplemented by or substituted with wage subsidies. One problem is that conservative elected officials have tended to focus on making the case against raising wage floors and not making the case for robust alternatives, thus ceding the argument from poverty alleviation to the left, despite the fact that raising wage floors is an extremely inefficient and ineffective means of meeting that goal. Yet one will be more drawn to wage subsidies if one sees them, as I do, as a kind of alternative to traditional social transfers. That is, if one believes in EOB, wage subsidies aren’t simply one of several tools we might use to raise household incomes. They represent a different vision of the kind of economy we want to see. This is one reason why I think it is best to describe efforts liberalize labor markets as efforts to increase economic inclusion, as lowering barriers to entry, like occupational licensing restrictions, and increasing the incentives to participate in aboveground labor markers, like wage subsidies and efforts to reduce the implicit marginal tax rates created by complex congeries of social transfers, will together tend to draw marginalized populations into the economic mainstream.

(4) And finally, it is very gratifying to see people talk about incarceration and the disability rolls, two seemingly disconnected issues that in fact relate to the slow-motion deterioration of the labor market position of less-skilled men, to family disruption in high-poverty neighborhoods that reverberates throughout society, and much else.

Scott Winship deserves our thanks for sparking this conversation — and his forthcoming contributions, in Breakthrough Journal and National Affairs, will be more interesting still — and so does Ross for distilling lots of very complicated themes. One article I highly recommend as a companion to Scott’s article is Jerry Muller’s new cover story for Foreign Affairs on “Capitalism and Inequality,” which itself complements Brink Lindsey’s indispensable new book Human Capitalism.

* At some point I’m going to need to work on my titles, which are fast becoming a parody of SEO unfriendliness.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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