Politics & Policy

Newt’s Right: Put the Kids To Work

From Williamson’s Political Dictionary, Vol. 1: newt, [noot; nyoot] v., to put one’s foot in it while putting one’s finger on it.

The usual half-wits (and quarter-wits, and hemidemisemi-wits) are having a great deal of fun with Newt Gingrich’s characterization of child-labor laws as “truly stupid,” a comment that launched a thousand Dickensian exaggerations. Never mind that Newt Gingrich was undeniably correct, even if he does have a knack for saying the right thing in a way that makes it sound wrong.

The former speaker is working from the radical notion that if we lower barriers to work-force participation then we might reasonably expect to see higher levels of work-force participation, and that if we erect barriers to work-force participation, we might reasonably expect  to see less of it.

Here are a few truths that rarely are spoken: About half of Americans will not really benefit from a four-year college education, and we should not waste the time and resources to put them through four (or five, or six) years of undergraduate work at a satellite campus of Mediocre U. And let us not overlook the fact that one of the most precious resources being wasted is the time, energy, and money of millions of 18-to-24-year-old Americans who could be making better use of their youth. The evolution of the bachelor’s degree into a general professional license has resulted in the massive misallocation of human capital (and financial capital) that mostly serves the economic interests of a very narrow and parochial special-interest group: college faculty, staff, and administrators, a reliably overpaid and underworked population of sinecure-clingers insulated from economic realities by our baroque education-funding system and protected by such medieval institutions as tenure.

Gingrich was right to say that the real value of a first job isn’t the money one earns but the lessons one learns: how to show up on time, how to be honest, how to be dependable, how to take direction, how to separate one’s personal life from one’s professional obligations, etc. Having fewer 16-year-olds working as part-time janitors does not mean that you will have proportionally more of them fine-tuning their Harvard admission essays. Having more 16-year-olds working as part-time janitors does not mean that we will have proportionally fewer rocket scientists and Ezra Pound scholars down the road. Most of our young people aren’t headed down that route.

One of the most dangerous and destructive tendencies in American public life is the upper class’s habit of generalizing its own desires, tastes, approaches, and interests onto the body politic at large. Thus did (for example) Governor Reagan help transmit the Hollywood elite’s culture of at-will divorce to the middle and lower classes. Unlike the rich and famous, the women and children of the middle and lower classes are not protected by vast amounts of money and social capital, and therefore were poorly positioned to endure the havoc that no-fault divorce wrought upon American family life, a development from which the nation probably never will recover. (Oops.) Our elites seem to be imagination-challenged, and they can never quite realize that other people are making their life choices while consulting a very different menu of options. This class blindness is the source of Karl Rove’s sputtering horror at the idea of his children “picking tomatoes.” It is also the source of Barack Obama’s managerial liberalism, which implicitly holds that if the poor ignorant wretches in the non-elite classes would only make the same life decisions as Barack and Michelle Obama, then they would get (roughly) the same outcomes. But that is not the case.

There is a relatively small minority of high-IQ Americans who form what Charles Murray famously called the “cognitive elite.” There is a larger group, but still a relatively small one, of very driven people who are attracted to a particular occupation early in life — those people who always knew that they were going to become doctors, truck drivers, teachers, boxers, newspapermen, farmers, automobile mechanics, what have you, and take the necessary steps to do so early in life. But there is a relatively large group of young people who are of average or below-average IQ, have no particular skills, and no clear path set for them early in life. Early work experiences are critical for people in this group, both because they instill necessary habits and provide necessary experience, and because having a variety of early work experiences provides a richer range of options. The more work experiences one has early in life, the more likely one is to encounter an occupation that matches one’s talents and interests.

In the course of doing a little reporting on long-term unemployment in New York (see “Keeping Blacks Poor,” National Review, February 2010), I learned some depressing stuff:

There’s not much other work to be had in the Bronx, where unemployment is currently at about 13.1 percent. Much of the Bronx is young and black or young and Hispanic. Nationally, the unemployment rate among blacks rose to 16.2 percent in the year-end numbers, while the rate for whites fell to 9.0 percent. For black youths, the numbers are startling: 50 percent for 16–19-year-olds, 26 percent for 20–24-year-olds. A study from the Community Service Society of New York puts actual work-force participation among black men 16–65 years of age in New York City at about 50 percent, and the number for young black men nationwide is just 40 percent.  Never mind the jobless recovery: For a great many black Americans, it’s been a jobless eternity, in good times and in bad. Why? 

One of the factors that stood out in my interviews was lack of early work experience. These perennially unemployed thirtysomethings hadn’t lost jobs at factories or been the victims of outsourcing: They had never had a real job of any kind. In many cases, many of the men in their families and circles of acquaintance had never had a long-term job of any kind, either:

At 35 years old, C has never held a job. His friends, acquaintances, known associates (C is a little foggy on whether he’s on probation or parole, but he’s got some known associates): no jobs, never really had them. His father? Do not ask C about his father. In fact, the only people C can think of who have jobs are women: His mother worked, the mother of his children works. He did know a woman who was dating a taxi driver once. C says he would like to work but is more of an independent businessman. He describes the informal work he has done as “this and that.”

There are always economic tradeoffs, of course. But the alternative to work for a lot of teen-agers is not lacrosse or volunteering on the Obama campaign or putting in a couple extra hours of study for the SAT. If you want to say that as a general rule we’d prefer to keep teen-agers away from work during the school year because we want to emphasize academic achievement, fine: But you should have the intellectual honesty to admit that you are simply elevating the interests of one group of young people over those of another. It’s a lot like the minimum wage: You may think that putting a floor on wages is worth the tradeoff of higher unemployment for low-skilled workers and permanent unemployment for the least-skilled workers, but you’re still making a trade. (And maybe you’re not the person best situated to judge the economic interests of people you’ve never met and about whom you know nothing?)

Gingrich’s suggestion that young people be employed doing manual labor at the institutions charged with educating them is characteristically insightful and bold — meaning that he’s already walking it back a little bit, because All The Right People are aghast that somebody, somewhere, may not be dreaming of seeing the leaves turn in Princeton.

—  Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, published by Regnery. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.


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