The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) isn’t a website I follow very much. But then again, I don’t really follow many websites or blogs very religiously. I get almost all of my news from Facebook (my friends list to be more exact) and it’s generally a pretty reliable way to get the news without using Google. Meanwhile I can also chat with my friends at the same time and catch up with them and see what’s going on with the people I care about most.
That said, this isn’t a post dedicated to praising Facebook (it’d be a very short post) instead I discovered an article by Michael Cook (via a friend on Facebook as it happens) called The Zombie Epidemic of Idle Men, which, to be fair to Cook, wasn’t the original title and FEE wasn’t the original venue for it. Instead it was posted on a site called Mercator.net under the title America’s ghost legions of idle men which…okay, that’s not that much better.
Honestly, the FEE is better just because it’s shorter.
It was also reposted on Intellectual Takeout which is apparently raising money so it can…”save western civilization”.
So last I checked FEE wasn’t a sanctuary website for folks who think the decline of western civilization is something libertarians should be concerned about. But maybe they didn’t notice…maybe I’m just going to pretend that this article isn’t blatantly appealing to alt-right folks all over the place and the editors at FEE are somehow blind.
It’ll help me sleep better.
But enough preface, let’s dig in:
While “unemployment” has gone down, the work participation rate, and especially the male work rate, has been relentlessly declining for most of the post-War era and is now reaching a crisis with Depression-era levels.
So first off, Cook does a rather reckless thing from a writing perspective.
What’s the difference between unemployment and “the work participation rate”, exactly? Is it because I’m not a trained economist that the difference isn’t immediately obvious? Be that as it may, it’s still in poor form to rely on an unclear distinction (and this is to someone who is versed in lots of political theory) and never explain it.
As far as I can tell, “work participation” is different from the employment rate because the former counts folks who are in the labor force that are actively in a job or looking for one. While the unemployment rate is simply referring to those who aren’t in the labor force anymore. So this seems like a subtle difference to me, but admittedly it’s a real one.
The word “crisis” here is question-begging. What makes work declining in popularity such a crisis to begin with? It’s only a crisis if we assign value to the modern workplace and Cook gives us no reasons to do this in the first place. So why should we consider anything that’s going on to be objectionable, let alone worthy of the name crisis?
Let’s move on to the next notable passages:
One-sixth of all men of prime working age in America – men aged between 25 and 54 – are not just unemployed, but have stopped looking for jobs altogether. …
“Unlike the dead soldiers in Roman antiquity,” he writes, “our decimated men still live and walk among us, though in an existence without productive economic purpose. We might say those many millions of men without work constitute a sort of invisible army, ghost soldiers lost in an overlooked, modern-day depression.”
Look, I’m (among many other things) a poet and I get that being…a bit loose with language, we’ll say, can be fun and worth its time and effort occasionally. But really? Decimated men? Does Cook and the demographer he’s quoting here, Nicholas Eberstadt, have any idea what it is actually like to see men return from war and be…decimated?
I don’t mean to make too much out of one adjective, but this is a rather serious one. It seems notable to me that going through unemployment in a “first world” (whatever that means) country in the 21st century is comparable to the dead soldiers of Rome. I guess there’s being melodramatic and then there’s men’s rights activism.
That isn’t to say these men don’t suffer. When I identified as a man (most of my life) I certainly suffered to some extent when I was unemployed (though I think it’s for more complex reasons than just being unemployed) but I also had a lot of fun. I did a lot of things I wasn’t able to do and worked on skills I might not have had the time to otherwise. I’ve had periods of months where I’ve been able to see life in many different ways through travel and I did this so I could get away from work, not so I could become a member of some made up army of invisible soldiers.
It isn’t that I don’t think that men suffer from unemployment, I’m sure that they do. In a world that puts so much emphasis on being employed and conflating masculinity with being the breadwinner (as this article itself does) it’s probably very challenging for any cis male to not feel disempowered in this situation. But we should be clear about their situation and not dress it up in this quasi-poetic language that obscures more than it reveals.
Here’s a really fun quote to take out of context:
Never before in American history have so many men done absolutely nothing.
To me this is a great sign of progress in society!
Well, sort of.
For rhetorical purposes anyways, I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as Cook and Eberstadt are trying to make it out to be. It’s not an inherently bad thing to do nothing, as I’ve written, doing nothing can be a complicated but often positive source of creative energy for many of us. And so can idleness, laziness and whatever else you want to associate with it.
This remark isn’t true in any case. It isn’t that these men are doing “absolutely nothing” it’s just that they’re not conforming to ridiculous standards that must have been grabbed from the 1950s if not earlier. Men are no longer the breadwinners and the ones who work hundreds of times more than women, so it must be “nothing” that they’re doing!
Because, of course, nothing could replace the marvels of the historic (or modern) workplace. There’s no way that creative and independent endeavors, spending time with their family more, dividing house work more equally or anything else could be interesting to men, no way no how.
Next up some extremely inconclusive, narrow and altogether unimpressive data:
Millions are becoming dependent, infantilized and sick. According to a recent paper by Princeton economist Alan Krueger nearly half of the men who are not looking for work are on painkillers and many are disabled. They “experience notably low levels of emotional well-being throughout their days and … they derive relatively little meaning from their daily activities,” Krueger found. And there are 7 million of them.
How does this data prove any of that?
Besides the auspicious fact(s) that the New York Times (NYT) article linked clarifies that:
- This is a working paper (i.e. it’s not finished)
- The reason they are on painkillers (besides pill addiction and not mere moral vice or laziness) seems to be linked to having jobs to begin with.
- “The connection between chronic joblessness and painkiller dependency is hard to quantify.”
- “…it’s hard to generalize across a large group of people…”
- “More research is clearly needed.”
None of these points are to downplay the very real problems going on here. I don’ deny (again) that men are suffering but the reasons why they are suffering and the reasons why they aren’t working isn’t some grander sign that western civilization is declining. Most of the decline in labor force participation can be explained by gains made in women’s rights, less need for formal employment, cultural shifts about what men “need to do” in the family, etc.
Of course, to many of the people writing these articles, I suppose these are potential signs of the decline of western civilization. For myself, if “western civilization” means less rights for women, more centralized and hierarchical corporate jobs and less equity towards men in the family in terms of their role, then count me the heck out.
And it isn’t like there aren’t alternative statistical information to explain these gaps in employment either:
The proportion of the male population 25 to 54 years that was not in the labor force rose from 9.2 percent in 2004 to 11.5 percent in 2014. (See chart 5.) In both years, the largest share reported illness or disability as the main reason for not working. From 2004 to 2014, the percentage of men 25 to 54 years who did not work because of illness or disability increased from 5.3 percent to 6.0 percent.
According to the Social Security Administration, the number of men 25 to 54 years who received Social Security disability benefits rose from 1.8 million (or 2.9 percent of the population in that age group) in 2004 to 2.0 million (or 3.2 percent of the population in that age group) in 2014.5
Another source of data, the Veterans Supplement to the CPS, also showed an increase in the incidence of disability. Among male veterans 25 to 54 years, the number who reported a service-connected disability rose from 726,000 (or 9.3 percent of the veteran population in that age group) in 2003 to 1.2 million (or 19.1 percent of the population in that age group) in 2014. (The CPS Veterans Supplement was not conducted in 2004.) Male veterans who reported a severe disability—that is, a disability rating of 60 percent or more—increased from 134,000 (or 1.7 percent of the population in that age group) in 2003 to 384,000 (or 6.3 percent of the population in that age group) in 2014.6
The percentage of men 25 to 54 years who did not work because of school attendance rose from 0.9 percent in 2004 to 1.6 percent in 2014, while the proportion that cited home responsibilities edged up from 0.9 percent to 1.2 percent.
And that’s compared to women, who, by the way, “…more likely than men to be nonparticipants in the labor force…”
The percentage of women 25 to 54 years who were not in the labor force rose from 21.9 percent in 2004 to 24.2 percent in 2014. (See chart 6.) Unlike men, women most often cited home responsibilities as the main reason for not working: in both 2004 and 2014, 14.3 percent of women 25 to 54 years said they did not work because of home responsibilities.
Well, finally, a grand victory for western civilization, huh?
And what did they do with their time? Learn French? Paint watercolors? Help at a local nursing home? Vacuuming? None of the above. They spent less time in volunteer and religious activities than the other three groups. They don’t read newspapers much. They don’t vote much. A third of them have used illegal drugs in the past year.
Okay, let’s take this one by one:
- Less time in volunteer and religious activities: Religious activities are (usually) not worth getting involved with anyways, so good for them. Volunteer activities depends on who organizes those activities in the first place. If it’s the government then I’d say you’re better off without those “opportunities”.
- They don’t read newspapers much: Who does? Has Cook heard of the Internet? I would assume so given he is the main editor of a website…but you never know.
- They don’t vote much: Awesome! “Representative” democracy is a sham anyhow.
- A third of them have used illegal drugs: Okay…like what? Because marijuana is still illegal in a lot of states and in almost all states up to a certain amount. And in any case, who cares? What people do with their bodies is their own business and certainly not mine. I’ll care if it ruins their lives, but I’m not getting upset about middle-class dudes smoking pot and watching TV “too much”.
Basically, they did nothing much. Time-use studies show that:
“When it came to ‘television and movies (not religious),’ the contrast between NILF men and all the rest was so enormous that it suggests a fundamental difference in mentality. For un-working men watching TV and movies ate up an average of five and a half hours a day. That’s four hours a day more than for working women, nearly three and a half hours more than working men, and a striking two hours a day more than unemployed men. …
“To a distressing degree, these men appear to have relinquished what we think of ordinarily as adult responsibilities not only as breadwinners but as parents, family members, community members, and citizens. Having largely freed themselves of such obligations, they fill their days in the pursuit of more immediate sources of gratification.”
No wonder pornography is flourishing on the internet.
Gosh, there’s so much to say about this.
First off, I love that Cook is so damn conservative he’s saying porn is “flourishing” on the Internet. Like it’s somehow some sort of revelation that porn is popular on the Internet. I got news for Cook, I’ve been looking at porn online since I was 14 or so.
And the quote he uses is filled with more question-begging premises. Why is it such a bad thing if men stop being the sole breadwinners of a family? Or even just the main one? Doesn’t this give the men less stress in their lives than they would otherwise? Has the modern workplace been transformed from a stressful hellhole in the last few months and no one told me? Since I sincerely doubt that is the case, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that these “immediate sources of gratification” are probably much better for these men than work is.
The next point is a mixed one, at best:
How do they support themselves? Eberstadt is scathing: “The short answer is, apparently they don’t.” They are supported by parents, wives, girlfriends and government handouts. “Whatever the reasons or the motivations,” he says, “they are essentially living off the rest of us. Social cohesion is a direct casualty of this development, and social trust could scarcely help but be degraded by it as well.”
I agree that supporting yourself is important and that, ideally, we shouldn’t rely on government handouts. But the reality of the situation is that most people can’t live that sort of lifestyle, the economy being what it is. I also agree that “social cohesion” has taken a hit from the welfare state but the sort of cohesion I’d like to see instead has nothing to do with what Cook or Erbstadt want but rather more based on the anarchist ideas of mutual aid institutions.
Institutions that have historically helped the most marginalized, not the most privileged.
This next part is frustrating:
Eberstadt also identifies it as the year when the Great Incarceration began.
A crime wave started which was handled by jailing more and more criminals. Nowadays the US has the highest incarceration rates in the world. Even after release many of these men enter the legions of prime-age men who are not looking for work. “The circumstances of this ex-prisoner and at-large felon population are, it seems, a matter of almost complete indifference to the rest of us,” says Eberstadt. “These people only show up in our national statistics if and when they again run afoul of the criminal justice system.”
The 13th is a great movie that (among many other things) dispels the idea of the “Great Incarceration” and I recommend watching that if that’s an idea you’re thinking about taking seriously. I don’t remember all of their points offhand and would rather not speak for them in any case, so I’ll just counter that brief remark with a brief recommendation.
Anyways, the real reason this passage is so frustrating is because Cook and Eberstadt don’t seem to at all care about these men who were felons. They’re in this bizarre shock that men who just went through the American prison system came out disaffected and would prefer not to.
Eberstadt points out that this is a serious moral issue for the United States which must not be ignored. It is bizarre that the hardest-working country in the world should harbor a huge pool of able men whose lives are slowly being destroyed through idleness.
“The death of work has ushered in additional costs at the personal and social levels that may be difficult to quantify but are easy to describe.
These include the corrosive effects of prolonged idleness on personality and behavior, the loss of self-esteem and the respect of others that may attend a man’s voluntary loss of economic independence, and the loss of meaning and fulfillment that work demonstrably brings to so many (though admittedly not all) people. Thus, the great male flight from work may well have increased our nation’s burden of misery in an incalculable but nonetheless immediate manner. Should this come as a surprise? Hardly. The surprise would be if a social emasculation on this scale had increased the happiness of those concerned.”
Okay, to return to one of my first points…why is this a “serious moral issue” to begin with? It’s only that if you presume that work is inherently good or laudable. But it’s not clear why we should think that about the modern workplace or any other workplace that has existed throughout the history of the US.
Secondly, things that are difficult to quantify don’t become true just because you can easily describe them. If I say there are a million birds in the sky during the movie Birds that’d be hard to quantify but it wouldn’t be any more true just because I could imagine what adjectives would best fit that specific context.
The loss of self-esteem is something I’ve already addressed here a little bit and otherwise. But generally, people put so much value into work (again, including this article!) that it makes people feel like they’re useless if they can’t get a job. And it isn’t just normal people who feel like this, even some of my closest anarchist friends feel like this at times.
If work so easily brings demonstrable benefit to people then where is the evidence? Of course work can give meaning and fulfillment but the question to ask is: Is this the norm? If it isn’t then it makes no sense to get jazzed up about a concept that tends to produce much more disutility than utility.
This article, from top to bottom, is a total mess.
It’s almost completely source-free and relies on many premises that are poorly argued for and extrapolated on. I’m not going to claim I’ve done a perfect job in this article, but at least I’ve cited where some of my counter-arguments are coming, given external statistical data and referred back to earlier counter-arguments I’ve made for further resources.
The biggest problem here is that Cook and Eberstadt think that the death of work is a bad thing.
But the death of work isn’t to be mourned, it is to be celebrated.
And as anti-work advocates, we come not to praise work, but to bury it.
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