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.”
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…..