Saturday, December 03, 2011

David Brooks on the Work Ethic

I had intended to follow up my post, David Brooks vs. The Facts, by challenging his assertion that "nations like Germany and the U.S." are rich because we share "values, habits and [a] social contract upon which the entire prosperity of the West is based", to be distinguished from the European nations presently in crisis, but a flood of others have already done the job. I will grant that it's true, you will find commonalities between western democracies, but as those others have pointed out, when Brooks attacks nations like Greece and Italy and praises Germany he ignores Germany's higher social spending, lower average annual hours worked, high government spending, and embrace of social democracy.

Brooks states a basic philosophy that most people would describe as fair:
People who work hard and play by the rules should have a fair shot at prosperity. Money should go to people on the basis of merit and enterprise. Self-control should be rewarded while laziness and self-indulgence should not. Community institutions should nurture responsibility and fairness.
He's also correct that you can undermine that ethos, one of the obvious lessons we can draw from the communist experiment. But I think he's being both parochial and incorrect when he argues that there exists some form of Northern European / North American work ethic that simply doesn't exist in the rest of the world. I also think he misunderstands the genesis of the work ethic and what sustains it.

Let's start with Brooks' observations about the supposed decline of work ethic, something he believes is a new phenomenon,
Right now, this ethos is being undermined from all directions. People see lobbyists diverting money on the basis of connections; they see traders making millions off of short-term manipulations; they see governments stealing money from future generations to reward current voters.
Does Brooks believe that lobbyists are new? That historically they have not diverted money "on the basis of connections"? Such a belief would seem to be completely at odds with history. As for "traders making millions off of short-term manipulations", since when is that new? When we transitioned from Jimmy Carter telling us to tighten our belts to Ronald Reagan's ushering in the era of "Greed is Good", we witnessed the Savings and Loan debacle, insider trading scandals, and plenty of evidence of crony capitalism. Brooks' notion that workers have suddenly become lazy because "they see governments stealing money from future generations to reward current voters" seems absurd.

Although it's true that Medicare costs more than one would have anticipated when the system was created, and as it turns out Social Security is on the whole a good deal for most lower- and middle-earning workers (and not such a bad deal for workers who want some level of affordable disability insurance), does Brooks truly see that the nation's living up to its promises to workers who have paid into those systems over the course of their working lives constitutes "theft"? And if he does, why the praise for social democracies like "Germany and the Netherlands" that "steal" even more money to ensure that retirees avoid poverty and citizens have access to quality healthcare? It's simply not the case that the work ethic has materially changed since the housing bubble burst, or that it is weakened by offering workers the promise of eventual retirement or access to medical care.

Further, in speaking of nations that "have lived within their means, undertaken painful reforms, enhanced their competitiveness and reinforced good values," he explicitly omits mention of the United States. That's fair, given that by Brooks' measure we do not appear to have done any of those things. Yet there we are, in Brooks' mind, sitting at the top of the heap of exceptional nations due to our work ethic. What gives?

As with "kids these days" editorials, people have been writing about the decline of the work ethic pretty much since the time it was first conceptualized. Brooks seems to be asserting two contradictory thoughts - first, that the U.S. has a remarkable work ethic as compared to the rest of the world, and second that it is newly threatened by the scandals of the past six years.

I am reminded of John McCain's comments from a few years ago, suggesting that Americans are too lazy to perform hard physical labor, and wouldn't spend a season picking lettuce even at $50 per hour. If a willingness to pick lettuce or work in sweatshop conditions for wages that are a small fraction of that $50, it would see that Americans have nothing on the poor of the world - China has no shortage of workers willing to toil in factories for long hours under unpleasant conditions, Southeast Asia is full of factories producing consumer goods in what can reasonably be called sweatshop conditions, and we use thousands of Mexicans, both legally and illegally in the U.S., to harvest crops, clean houses, cut lawns, or work in the building trades. You could draw a comparison to the working poor of the industrial revolution, who also worked ridiculous hours in horrible conditions for meager pay. The commonality, of course, is not "habits, values and social capital" or a delusion held by the workers that their jobs will lead to "a fair shot at prosperity" - it's their lack of better alternatives, and fear of what will happen if they lose their meager remuneration.

Even though by historic standards, taxes are low, without presenting any evidence to support his claim Brooks contends that people are put off working by the notion that the government is "stealing" their money to support unworthy others. Can Brooks name one person who has "Gone Galt" due to the fact that our nation hasn't completely eliminated its comparatively meager social safety net, or because seniors get Social Security and Medicare? One person who has so much as slacked off at work over outrage over lobbying in Washington? When the Tea Partiers rose up against the financial industry bailout, did they quit their jobs? What am I missing?
The real lesson from financial crises is that, at the pit of the crisis, you do what you have to do. You bail out the banks. You bail out the weak European governments. But, at the same time, you lock in policies that reinforce the fundamental link between effort and reward. And, as soon as the crisis passes, you move to repair the legitimacy of the system.
Let's relate that suggestion to the U.S. - what did we do after the financial industry bailout to "reinforce the fundamental link between effort and reward" or "repair the legitimacy of the system"? The steps the government took would seemingly fall under Brooks' conception of "stealing money from future generations", with a huge reward going to a privileged special interest, well represented by lobbyists, as opposed to "current voters". But no, it's not stealing to take hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars from future generations in order to ensure that bankers never miss a bonus - that's "necessary". But if you promise somebody approaching retirement, who has paid into Social Security and Medicare for their entire career, that you will fulfill the promise that it will be there when they retire, Brooks apparently sees an act of "theft". (Does Brooks endorse any financial industry reforms that will make that industry less of a lottery, help ensure that there won't be additional crises and tie pay to actual performance?)

Although taking away the social safety net, job security, decent wages, and the other factors that helped our nation develop its middle class may in fact be effective at creating a population desperate enough to take any work at any wage, it would seem to move us much more toward the ethos of China or Cambodia than that of Germany. The retort, "But we'll still have the Horatio Alger myth", seems like small solace.

1 comment:

  1. We have a population of people who work long, hard days, both at physical labor and at 'desk jobs', and I do see that there is such a thing as "work ethic". I can also see a cultural aspect to work ethic, although not so much the one Brooks describes. Germany has a history of using Turkish workers for menial labor.

    Part of the problem with "bad work ethic" may arise from an absence of role models, but it seems to me that there are a lot of hard-working parents who have entitled children who don't understand why they can't start at the top, and a culture that increasingly favors fame over accomplishment and has long favored inherited wealth and unearned income over hard work.

    Entitlement works against a work ethic, desperation may strengthen it, but sometimes when somebody acts like a cog in a dead-end job, who sees no real return in doing anything beyond what it takes to get a paycheck and avoid being fired, it's not because they wouldn't work harder if given opportunity, it's because they recognize the reality of their situation.

    Think of the subset of workers after the fall of communism who were able to transform inefficient, state-run factories into profitable ventures. For those who were positioned to take advantage of the opportunities, the change of incentives transformed their "work ethic". But after what seemed like a promising start the oligarchs and their kleptocracy took over, thier immense reward largely unconnected to work or effort, and Russia again stagnates.