Disincentives to Work

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece, “Fast Food Premium,” which argued that, as restaurants began offering higher wages and even signing bonuses to employees, those increased wages would get passed along to consumers, and would result in wider inflation (a big “thank you” to jonolan at Reflections from a Murky Pond for expanding upon the premise of my post with his own, excellent piece, “UBI —> UBM“).  My observations might be deemed “prophetic” if they weren’t so blindingly obvious:  higher input costs mean higher prices.  That’s basic economics.

Of course, the ongoing labor shortage is not due to a booming economy, per se, but due to excessively generous federal unemployment benefits, which have effectively increased the minimum wage for restaurant employees:  many such employees are paid more to stay at home, collecting unemployment, than they are to flip burgers, wait tables, etc.  Mogadishu Matt highlights this phenomenon in a reblog of a John Stossel piece:  the issue is not a labor shortage, but a problem of incentives.

Stossel makes a compelling moral point in his piece (emphasis added):

“No one wants to work,” says a sign on a restaurant drive-thru speaker in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Please be patient with the staff that did show up.”

I never wanted to work. I got a job because I had to support myself. That was good for me. It forced me out of my comfort zone. It made me a better person.

Had government offered me almost equal money not to work, I never would have applied.

Stossel is an incredibly hardworking journalist and commentator, so he might be a bit coy here, but the truth is that many people, given the option, would not work.  That’s why retirement is such an attractive proposition:  work hard for forty-five or fifty years, and enjoy maybe one-to-three decades of relaxation and financial independence.

The problem is, no one improves just sitting around watching daytime television and eating TV dinners.  Sure, those are fun, mindless pastimes, but they’re not exactly soul-enriching or -improving.

Work can be difficult, stressful, unrewarding, and draining.  But it also teaches us how to deal with difficult, stressful, unrewarding, and draining situations—and how to deal with them more effectively in the future.  I’m a far better teacher now than I was ten years ago, in part because I have experienced and overcome a number of obstacles, not least of which is conquering the subject matter I teach (a process that is never truly completed).

Work has become less difficult and stressful, and more rewarding, because I had to struggle in the early years, when I would spend hours at Thomas Cooper Library putting together lesson plans and relearning American History.  I taught myself difficult ideas from Western Philosophy by laboriously reading and annotating dense excerpts from my college Philosophy textbook.  I’ve become a better musician by teaching it and playing it.

When the government—or any entity—subsidizes idleness, it corrodes the character-building potential of work.  That’s one reason we have young people today—and my generation is especially bad about this—who quit jobs at the first signs of difficulty, struggle, or pushback.  I myself sometimes vent these frustrations.

Short-term unemployment insurance is a prudent and compassionate policy.  Extended benefits that promote idleness are damaging.  Indeed, the longer the term of the supposed beneficence, the longer its corrosive effects seem to be.

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