In ‘The Missing Fifth,’ New York Times columnist David Brooks attributes joblessness to lack of ambition among American men.
Twenty percent of men age 25 to 54 aren’t contributing to the workforce. Why? You might attribute the stat to the dearth of available jobs—but then you’d be in disagreement with David Brooks. In his most recent New York Times column, Brooks attributes this widespread joblessness to a lack of “dynamism.” We’re not sure we agree. So let’s break it down. (If you start to pick up on some sarcasm in what follows, that’s because we’re laying it on pretty thick.)
Brooks opens the column (“The Missing Fifth”) with a quote from a 1910 book by Henry Van Dyke, The Spirit of Dynamism: “The Spirit of America is best known in Europe by one of its qualities—energy.”
This has always been true. Americans have always been known for their manic dynamism. Some condemned this ambition as a grubby scrambling after money. Others saw it in loftier terms. But energy has always been the country’s saving feature. So Americans should be especially alert to signs that the country is becoming less vital and industrious.
Read: In 1910, this country was largely white and didn’t fret over (or, God forbid, spend tax dollars on) the health and wellbeing of its lower classes. Nowadays? Well, now that they took the coke out of Coca-Cola, American men have lost their vim, and the economy is paying the price:
One of those signs comes to us from the labor market. As my colleague David Leonhardt pointed out recently, in 1954, about 96 percent of American men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today that number is around 80 percent. One-fifth of all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work.
Yes, that 20 percent are all sleeping in and watching The Price Is Right. None of them is trying to find employment in the worst job market since, ya know, the Great Depression. These good-for-nothing layabouts are just “not getting up.”
The number of Americans on the permanent disability rolls, meanwhile, has steadily increased. Ten years ago, 5 million Americans collected a federal disability benefit. Now 8.2 million do. That costs taxpayers $115 billion a year, or about $1,500 per household.
Obviously all of these disabled people are gaming the system. None of them could actually be, ya know, disabled? Brooks doesn’t raise the issue of whether a portion of these people are cheating us out of our tax dollars; he hopes we’ll assume (as he does) that people on disability simply lack energy and dynamism. If only America was the way he imagines it used to be, everyone would just walk it off and get back to work.
Part of the problem has to do with human capital. More American men lack the emotional and professional skills they would need to contribute.
Apparently, back in 1910, men were renowned for their emotional skills. He follows up this claim with statistics on the joblessness of those without high school diplomas versus college graduates. That is, he lets the claim that more men today lack emotional skills to hold a job stand totally unsupported by evidence—or even just an anecdote about the time Tom Friedman’s caddy had a bad attitude. Here’s the accompanying graph:
Besides the increase in laziness, Brooks briefly acknowledges that there may be other reasons that the fifth is missing.
Part of the problem has to do with structural changes in the economy. Sectors like government, health care and leisure have been growing, generating jobs for college grads. Sectors like manufacturing, agriculture and energy have been getting more productive, but they have not been generating more jobs. Instead, companies are using machines or foreign workers.
A fair point. But what he covers euphemistically as “structural changes” might better be described as “lack of opportunity.” In the first 70 years of the 20th century, a man without a high school diploma could find a job (with security!) that could propel him into the middle class. The reasons for the lack of opportunity are many and various, and addressing them would be outside the scope of a single column (although it would be a lot easier if it didn’t require citing any evidence, so let’s not sell Brooks short). But take the graph that’s actually referred to in Brooks’ column:
If you’re David Brooks, this is ample evidence that men are getting lazier.
The result is this: There are probably more idle men now than at any time since the Great Depression, and this time the problem is mostly structural, not cyclical.
Idle—not “unemployed” or “out of work” or “laid off”—just freaking inert. But can there really be any doubt that a willingness to work hard is no longer sufficient to earn a living wage? We’re betting that as (or if) opportunities return, there will be a corresponding resurgence of “dynamism” among American men. But the fact that more men than ever are having a hard time say, eating, isn’t Brooks’ primary concern.
These men will find it hard to attract spouses. Many will pick up habits that have a corrosive cultural influence on those around them.
Ahh, OK, now we’re getting to the proper order of things in Brooks’ world. Men need to be the primary breadwinners, the ones “attracting spouses.” And what are these “habits that (will) have a corrosive cultural influence on those around them”? Brooks doesn’t say, of course. He trusts us readers to supply the sentiment he’s aiming at. Namely, sissified men will get in the habit of letting women buy the groceries.
Reinvigorating the missing fifth—bringing them back into the labor market and using their capabilities—will certainly require money. If this were a smart country, we’d be having a debate about how to shift money from programs that provide comfort and toward programs that spark reinvigoration.
Unemployment and Obamacare? Forget that jazz! We need to make these layabouts (many of whom are obviously lying about being disabled) sing for their suppers.
But, of course, that’s not what is happening. Discretionary spending, which might be used to instigate dynamism, is declining. Health care spending, which mostly provides comfort to those beyond working years, is expanding. Attempts to take money from health care to open it up for other uses are being crushed.
And what are the “other uses” that Brooks would like to see this health care money spent on? He doesn’t say. He doesn’t need to. Health care costs, in today’s political environment, are code words for “money wasted on people other than me, a stand-up guy who’s worked hard and contributed while a lot of lazy good-for-nothings have skated by.”
Next time you see a politician demagoguing Medicare, ask this: Should we be using our resources in the manner of a nation in decline or one still committed to stoking the energy of its people and continuing its rise?
There’s nothing wrong with “stoking the energy” of American men, but assuming that the “missing fifth” is just lacking energy is preposterous. What they’re lacking is opportunity. And even when they are employed, many of them are lacking a living wage, health and retirement benefits, and that quaint, antiquated thing called “job security.”
David Brooks, who says he interviews 15 politicians or scholars every week (on the advice of late columnist and legendary man of the people Robert Novak), obviously doesn’t spend too much time talking to actual men. We’d like to drop Brooks into an average city neighborhood with $500 and a diploma from the local high school and see how he fares. Heck, we’ll pitch in a Ph.D. in philosophy and a bartender’s license. He’d have a tough time getting a job as a cashier, let alone anything like his current job synthesizing politicians’ ideas about the theoretical lazy people that are bringing down the economy.
(Photo: New York Times)