The Corner

Should Americans Be Poorer?

I have been writing about work this week, and our strange attitudes about it. Among those strange attitudes is the one belonging to Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, who is – and I am not making this up — a “professor of leisure studies” at the University of Iowa. (Brave new world, that has such job titles in it!) Writing in Politico, Professor Hunnicutt asks: “Why do Republicans want us to work all the time?” As Democrats try to spin away the Congressional Budget Office’s report about the likely economic effects of the Affordable Care Act, similar pieces have popped up throughout the Obama administration’s public-relations arm, which we pretend is a news media.

Professor Hunnicutt characterizes Republican views thus:

The president’s critics, in high dudgeon, are fulminating about lay-abouts and scofflaws actually choosing to work less than what God intended, predicting a host of ills that will supposedly befall the nation, from moral turpitude to economic ruin.

That is tendentious to the point of intellectual dishonesty, which is no less than one expects from an American academic. But with apologies to this magazine’s founder, I will inflict upon Professor Hunnicutt the grave insult of assuming that he believes what he has written.

Work is the production of economic goods. Work more, produce more. It should but unfortunately does not go without saying that principle does not suggest that there is economic value in putting additional man-hours of labor into less-productive practices; a farmer working four hours with a tractor does more work than ten farmers each working eight hours with hoes. (“Why not use spoons?” etc.) Properly understood, work is measured by not by man-hours but by economic output. I cannot speak for Republicans (who can rarely speak for themselves), but I would answer Professor Hunnicutt’s question this way: I want Americans to work more rather than less because I want Americans to be richer rather than poorer.

The “money illusion” refers to the tendency of people to view economic affairs in nominal rather than real terms, e.g. people may feel like they’ve made a lot of money selling a house they’ve owned for 20 years because the price has trebled, even if they’ve lost money in inflation-adjusted terms. But there is a broader sort of money illusion at work. It is true that many Americans’ money incomes have stagnated in real terms in recent years, even as their real quality of life has increased radically. Put simply, we have more stuff and better stuff than we did in the 1970s or the 1950s; if an American making $50,000 a year could go back in time to 1950 and make the inflation-adjusted equivalent income, he would feel poor.

Labor is a resource, and American labor a particularly valuable one. Sensible people want Americans to work for the same reason that we want to make use of our natural gas and to irrigate California farmland: We want the country to be richer rather than poorer.

This sort of thing is utterly lost on Professor Hunnicutt, who produces from his pocket a particularly stale chestnut regarding Henry Ford, that he believed that paying higher wages was essential to “assuring adequate consumer demand.” I have often heard it said that Henry Ford was a genius for “paying his workers enough to afford his cars.” I very much doubt that Henry Ford believed any such thing, but perhaps he did; he believed a lot of crazy things. The actual history of Ford very strongly suggests that the firm paid market wages, higher than those paid by some similar firms largely because the company had difficulty keeping employees, who were quickly burnt out on its assembly lines. (Ford would sometimes see personnel turnover equivalent to the company’s entire work force in the course of a few months.) “Paid them enough to buy his cars” is a timeless, deathless myth, but it is economically illiterate on its face: Why doesn’t Ferrari pay its workers enough to buy Ferraris? Rolls-Royce? The belief that one can create a functioning consumer market for one’s own goods by overpaying for labor or any other input is magical thinking. But our academics have a weakness for magical thinking.

The newly organized anti-work faction for the most part is little more than the flashing of partisan gang signs: Obamacare apologists are abject, and there simply is no failing in the program that they will not attempt to defend. That is to be expected.

The real problem is that there are people who apparently actually believe this stuff. They have made an elementary conceptual error: National economies are not household economies. There are times in individuals’ lives when leisure becomes more valuable than the return from an additional hour’s work. We take vacations and retire for a reason. But you cannot put a national economy on vacation, much less retire it. To argue that Americans as a whole should work less is to argue that Americans should be poorer. 

There are those on the left who do believe that Americans should be poorer: Environmentalists believe that higher levels of consumption are an ecological catastrophe, and protectionists believe that Americans would be richer if their wages went down relative to the prices of consumer goods and service. (The Ford fallacy again, but in reverse.) Republicans should not have a terribly hard time explaining to the electorate that their policies are intended to make the country richer rather than poorer, but so far they have not developed a very convincing way of explaining it. The problem is that even simple truths can be difficult to articulate, while intellectually bankrupt falsehoods such as those furthered by Professor Hunnicutt sound plausible to the credulous — and to those looking for someone to blame. 

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