A million or so years ago, I taught high school English. (This was back when women could prepare for jobs as secretaries, nurses or teachers–as my father put it, “in case your eventual husband dies.” I couldn’t type well, and the sight of blood made me faint–ergo, I would teach.)

I still remember a poem from an anthology I used; a person sat at the gate of a village and responded to questions from people entering the town. They’d ask: “what sort of people will I find here?” and the gatekeeper would inquire: “What sort of people lived in the village from which you come?”

If the answer was negative–“knaves and fools”–the gatekeeper would say “You’ll find the people here the same.” If it was positive–wonderful, kind folks–the gatekeeper promised “You’ll find the people here the same.”

As poetry goes, it wasn’t great. But as wisdom, it scored.

I’ve had several opportunities to revisit the undeniable truth that we humans see what we look for. I thought about it again when I read a recent Paul Krugman newsletter. We’ve all heard versions of the rant by Bernie Marcus with which he began his column:

Bernie Marcus, a co-founder of Home Depot, had some negative things to say about his fellow Americans in an interview last December. “Socialism,” he opined, has destroyed the work ethic: “Nobody works. Nobody gives a damn. ‘Just give it to me. Send me money. I don’t want to work — I’m too lazy, I’m too fat, I’m too stupid.’”

You’re naïve if you think his take is exceptional. Without question, rich men are constantly saying similar things at country clubs across America. More important, conservative politicians are obsessed with the idea that government aid is making Americans lazy, which is why they keep trying to impose work requirements on programs such as Medicaid and food stamps despite overwhelming evidence that such requirements don’t promote work — but do create red-tape barriers that deny help to people who really need it.

Krugman says he’s not under “the delusion that facts will change such people’s minds.” But he notes that people for whom facts do matter should know that America has, over the past year, conducted what might be termed a “huge test of the proposition that Americans have become lazy.”

They haven’t.

Krugman reminds readers that the American labor force is aging, which means we should be seeing a downward trend in the fraction of adults still working. (I will add that, given our unwillingness to admit immigrants with Brown skin who are mostly younger, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.) Despite that demographic decline, the data about labor force participation by Americans in their prime working years shows that such participation is higher now than it has been for 20 years.

Bobby Kogan of the Center for American Progress reports that if you adjust for age and sex, overall U.S. employment is now at its highest level in history — again, despite the lingering effects of the pandemic.

During the pandemic, of course, social welfare supports skyrocketed. If the “socialism” of such supports really made people lazy, the data fails to show it.

Krugman explains the benefits of the current “hot” labor market–including the fact that it has increased employment for members of marginalized groups. He then concludes:

The larger point is that despite what grumpy rich men may say, Americans haven’t become lazy. On the contrary, they’re willing, even eager, to take jobs if they’re available. And while economic policy in recent years has been far from perfect, one thing it did do — to the nation’s great benefit — was give work a chance.

Given the data, what explains the constant carping from employers who say they cannot find workers? A report in CNN says we have some 8.1 million job vacancies.

This problem is concentrated among America’s low-wage workforce, hitting restaurants, warehouses, manufacturers and the service industry. Many Republicans see these numbers and conclude the problem is unemployment payments that are, in their estimation, doled out to lazy people unwilling to work.

The real reason–confirmed by several studies–is low pay.  (Seventy percent of workers receiving federal aid work full-time, and are still so poor they qualify for government aid.) When  jobs are plentiful, workers have options. That’s bad news for the businesses that have felt entitled to employing and abusing a steady supply of poorly-paid workers.

Remember the gatekeeper in that poem?

Ask a Republican why he can’t find workers, and–like Marcus–he’ll tell you it’s because Americans are lazy and the government is too “socialist.” Ask a Democrat, and he’ll tell you it’s because employers are unwilling to pay a living wage. Our expectations frame our answers.

It makes policymaking very difficult…..


  1. Too many employers pay so poorly that people literally can’t afford to work for them. I’m a cashier in a high end grocery (that pays quite decently) and sometimes hear customers complain how “nobody wants to work” while I’m struggling to bag their $300 transaction. Yes, the irony is indeed lost on them.

  2. Didn’t we discuss “projection” because this seems appropriate for this conversation?

    If we are looking at labor markets, we have multiple creators (both public and private) within the job markets. It’s a complex system of market demand and supply.

    Under socialism, central planning would take place over the market because the allocation of resources would fluctuate based on decisions by policymakers versus oligarchs—central planning versus oligarchic rule.

    Is it any wonder why these lazy (by use of projection) are worried about socialism replacing them?

    If they had been managing better, there would be no discussion about socialism because people wouldn’t need an alternative to predatory capitalism. But guess what?

  3. “The real reason–confirmed by several studies–is low pay.”

    “…employers are unwilling to pay a living wage.”

    Look back just 2 years and consider your income today with prices 2 years ago and consider how much better you would find your economic situation. We watch as prices increase from week-to-week just to put food on our tables, much of it is lower quality; incomes have increased but cannot keep up with rising prices. There is only one issue that remains the same today as 2 years ago…and 20 years ago…the inequality of tax rates on the wealthy and corporations where the higher costs to increase their profits are coming from. The majority of Americans would “Buy American” IF we could find American to buy. Two years ago I bought a TV which proudly proclaimed on the box “Assembled in America”. BFD!

    “…what explains the constant carping from employers who say they cannot find workers?” Let me carp a bit on the cable industry which has done away with technicians; they now send customers the Internet and cable boxes via USPS or UPS with “easy to follow instructions” and we are expected to perform technical electronic work ourselves to install and set up the systems. Where have all the cable guys gone?”

    On June 29th there was a serious storm here which blew down electric wires and left many thousands without power for 3 to 5 days. It was a terrible storm with much damage but not such that the local AES should have been unable to repair the power outage faster. It was a heavy thunderstorm; not a tornado or a hurricane and we were not bombed; where were the AES technicians? Have they gone the way of the cable technicians. Funny thing; I had my AES monthly bill ready to mail during my 4 day power outage; my statement came with the notice that AES has applied to increase our rates. The day before the storm I had invested in the economy of this country by buying several packages of meat…it all went into the City trash bin with the rest of my fridge and freezer food to be picked up the day after the power was restored. Mine is just one of thousands here in Indianapolis who don’t get what we pay for whatever the reason there aren’t workers to provide the services to simply subsist day-to-day…including those who are still working.


  4. Blaming others is a time honored human tradition.

    If we are unhappy as children, we blame our parents.

    If we miss that stage and move on to high school, our circle of blame for our unhappiness expands to teachers and authority in general.

    If we become unhappy adults, and we’re still not happy we blame anyone different, the more obviously different the more of our blame they share.

    Happy, satisfied people embrace personal accountability for their happiness over their whole lives.

    Life in retrospect for those who bother to think instead.

  5. I was at a DePauw luncheon, in 1976, to which I was invited in my capacity as SBP (Student Body President). A woman at our table said she lived in the D.C. area and saw people, on her way to and from work, who were “poor” but looked fine to her. When I asked if she drove or took mass transit. She pointedly said, “I am driven.” I followed up with: And where do you work?” She was a volunteer at one of the museums. I think it was the Hirschhorn. I said something like, “Well isn’t that nice.”

  6. Todd. You are assuming that the “central planning…policymakers” would make good decisions. I think that, being human, they would be subject to the same pressures, temptations to corruptions and mistakes as the people who currently do the planning. There needs to be a balance between regulation(i.e. planning) and free market forces in order to have a healthy economy that supports the common good.
    I agree with you that our current condition gives too much power to the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. However, I also think that it makes more sense to call for rebalancing the system we have than to expect people to substitute a different system. “Pure” socialism wouldn’t work any better than pure capitalism. It would just create a whole new set of problems.

  7. Here in rural Indiana I am tired of hearing people complain about all of the job openings and stating that “nobody wants to work anymore”.

    In my opinion, one of the most positive results of the pandemic is that low wage employees had the opportunity to find higher wage work. They had a chance to breathe and take stock of their lives along with having the time to obtain training for better jobs. The enhanced unemployment insurance payments gave millions of low wage workers the opportunity to escape jobs that can easily be described as slavery.

    I knew this improvement to the lives of low wage workers would negatively affect our wallets, except the well-to-do and wealthy, with higher prices and it meant we might have to start making different choices about what we can or can no longer afford to buy or do. I am one of the millions of people who can no longer afford some of the things I previously could, but I accept that it is because hard working people are no longer forced to accept slave wages. I am glad the pandemic exposed the numerous businesses that exploited their employees with low wages.

  8. Gee. Imagine somebody from the 1% who has more money than God pointing a greedy finger at those not as fortunate as himself. It’s what delusional, projecting capitalists do. It’s who and what they are. Why, for example, is there such a battle over the minimum wage when the corporate greedsters keep gouging their own consumers with unwarranted price hikes on EVERYTHING? Greed. Pathological self-importance.

    A quote from John D. Rockefeller – then one of the richest people in the world – from years ago makes my point. When told that he was ever so rich, the questioner asked, “How much money do your really need, Mr. Rockefeller?” He answered, “Just a little more.”

    The reason Mr. Home Depot attacks socialism – something he really doesn’t understand (obviously) – is because he and his 1% pals want it ALL. Every last dime. It’s what Karl Marx recognized and wrote about in the 1850s. Nothing will change among the 1%. They are one-trick ponies.

    Am I projecting by looking at the bad in people of the 1%? Not really. I just want some fairness and egalitarian actions. When the 1%’s incomes keep going off the charts while the working class has to fight for a survivable wage, these rich guys have NO argument about socialism or anything else involving the class warfare they embrace so readily.

    What do the working people want and need? Just a little more. The greed belongs to those who have much. This is evidenced by spending habits. The working classes spend virtually every dime they earn, while the 1% send their profits to foreign banks to avoid paying U.S. taxes.

  9. To the point of Shiela’s blog, I heard a point of wisdom a few weeks ago.

    If you meet a jerk once a month, you’ve most likely met a jerk. If you meet a jerk every day, you’re the jerk.

  10. There’s work and there’s work…imagine if you are a reasonably paid teacher, healthcare worker, tradesperson, retail worker, hospitality worker…and then you read about the new local tech company headquarters:

    “The 40-acre complex, resembling a private college campus more than corporate headquarters… It includes soccer fields, tennis courts, indoor basketball courts and an on-site Montessori-inspired school — called “Ohana” (Hawaiian for family) — just for workers’ families on campus. There’s also a “barn” space for events built … In addition to such amenities, the company offers 90-minute workout lunches, a no-email policy on vacations, and a paid-leave day to support social causes of their choice.” Folks, this is NC not Silicon Valley.

    There are two Americas of work, too and the gap builds envy, fear and hate….Follow the money.

  11. If we have 8.1 million unfilled jobs, let’s let 8 million people into the country and offer incentives to employers to identify and train their current employees to do the more technical jobs. They can move up and those we welcomed to the country can take the jobs the newly trained employees left behind.

  12. Sharon and Nancy state the state of affairs well today. Our current admixture of socialism and capitalism is the way to go, and a total surrender to either ism would be disastrous. Marx had the right diagnosis but the wrong medicine; Bernie Marcus had the wrong diagnosis and was willfully and greedily using shame as an instrumentality to pad his pocket. Remind me to patronize his competition.

    Wage increases have now finally overcome the rate of inflation, but I am not impressed since it is not so much wage increases but rather decreases in the rate of inflation that explains this seeming good news. It is basically low wages that undergirds big corporate profits and outlandish CEO pay, and I am not impressed to hear Bernie’s and other golf and country clubbers’ laments about laziness of workers as they tee up and sip their martinis.

    There is no shortage of workers who are not lazy; there is a shortage of liveable wages occasioned by boardroom need for shareholder dividends and CEO compensation, and as to isms, we should work out our labor compensation woes within the present system, starting with a massive increase in the minimum wage. Now.

  13. JoAnn,

    The reason there aren’t technical workers to install or repair a company’s equipment is those corporations figured out that they can increase profits and shareholder value by eliminating employees and putting the responsibilities on their customers.

    Why are they able to do this? Because republicans in Congress gutted the
    FTC and DOJ budgets to ensure they don’t have the manpower to enforce antitrust laws and big corporations just continue buying out their competition until there is no competition left.

  14. With all due respect to Krugman, I believe he is wrong about the reason that the
    wealthy want to install work requirements…it’s because they expect that doing so
    will then lead fewer people to apply for those benefits, whether they are lazy ,or whatever.
    I do not know that Bernie Marcus is projecting, but the wealthy have no idea, I believe, what
    life is like for the rest of the populace. I’m reminded about the time that senior Bush was in
    a supermarket, campaigning (as I recall), and commented that he had no idea about how the
    check-out system worked.
    We see what we want to see, or expect to see, as in how we interpret what our senses bring to
    our awareness.
    Mark’s volunteer woman was “driven,” as in she was not even “working” the vehicle. I’m guessing she was not from the working classes.
    The wealthy create the situation, in order to make themselves still wealthier, and then blame the people pauperized by that very situation. Special!

  15. We are at a critical mass. We are at a point where we have differing tiers of economies–justice notwithstanding. How did we get here? One cannot simply blame Republicans. Democrats helped build this very same economic landscape–they only now decry. Having said this,the question is where have you been for the previous years when this was developing? If Republicans laid the foundation, why did the Democrats enthusiastically ok the permits for said foundation?

  16. Nancy; of course I knew why cable companies did away with their technicians but they also lowered the quantity and quality of the cable they provide for the same reason.

  17. Gerald. If minimum wages are raised without raising taxes on the wealthiest individuals and corporations, reworking regulations, eliminating legal loopholes that allow price gouging and monopolies, etc. prices will just go up and rebalancing will not occur. I know about the screams of outrage following the phrase redistribution of wealth but the wealthy have never complained while wealth was redistributed toward them. The country needs a comprehensive plan to rebalance wealth distribution. Unfortunately, no one change will get it done. Can it happen short of armed rebellion? I certainly hope so.

  18. I agree with most everyone’s take today.

    Kinda off topic is the difference between Lowe’s and Home Depot. I needed a new sliding Pella patio door installed in my home. I checked around and was told that Home Depot does not “vet” their installers but Lowe’s installers have to pass a background check and are insured and guaranteed by Lowe’s. I got a better price at Lowe’s and the installers finished in 3 hours. I was very pleased with the whole process. Just FYI. I stopped shopping at the depot since.

  19. Nationwide we have to reverse “right to work laws”. They are definitely a rich mans ploy.

  20. Sharon: I agree 100% with your critique though my offering was limited to wages, unless regulated raising
    taxes on the rich will result in higher prices as the rich price gouge to maintain or even increase their after-tax position. Perhaps the Sherman Act can be amended to include price gouging as a monopolistic practice while raising the minimum wage to the level of a livable wage.

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