TBT: Disincentives to Work

I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom this week, but it sure feels like things are falling apart all around us:  food shortages, rising unemployment, riots.  I think we’re in for a really nasty summer, but I hope I’m wrong.

We’ve been muddling through longer than we realize.  While gas prices have only shot up in the past five months, people have been dropping out of the workforce for a good while now.  Back in the Obama years, conservatives used to mock (rightly) the government’s unemployment figures for leaving out the labor force participation rate, which was pretty paltry back then (something like only 60-70% of working aged people were actually actively looking for work; the unemployment rate was based off that portion, rather than all working aged adults).

Now we’re in the midst of what the mainstream media is calling “The Great Resignation,” with millions of Americans quitting their jobs.  That’s due in part, I believe, to the generous government largesse during The Age of The Virus.  We’ve all gotten a taste of easy money—inflation be damned!—and now we want the gravy train to keep on rollin’.

But I think it goes deeper than that.  My generation in particular—prone to wokery, alas—legitimately has gotten the short end of the economic stick, entering the workforce during a recession, saddled with billions in student loans and overcredentialed.  Granted, some of those problems were our fault—we fell for the siren song of expensive degrees—but we were largely following the advice that had worked for our parents’ generation.

Understandably, many of my peers did not want to go back to waiting tables and pouring coffee for strangers—or going back to other thankless jobs.  Not all of those folks are deadbeats or mooches—some of them are just worn out.

Regardless, the government’s sticky hands are in all of this mess (for example, college tuition is so astronomically high because the government will keep extending loans to anybody to get them to go to college, even if that person isn’t going to earn much with his degree).  Work is annoying, stressful, and demanding—but doing it makes us better people.

With that, here is 26 May 2021’s “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.

6 thoughts on “TBT: Disincentives to Work

    • It would not surprise me if we were. There are some interesting overlaps in our lives from before we knew each other, like how you heard Brass to the Future warming up outside of New Brookland Tavern when you lived nearby.

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      • Ha! Very true. It’s funny how these little connections are made. I’m so glad we are friends.

        By the way, we’re doing another front porch concert at my house tomorrow (Friday, 27 May 2022) at 6 PM. Feel free to stop by if you’re able to make it. Just hoping the rain slacks up before 6 PM.

        Liked by 1 person

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