Ross Douthat has concluded, based on God knows what evidence, that people who are underemployed and have no hope of getting an actual good-paying job have a pretty soft life:
IMAGINE, as 19th-century utopians often did, a society rich enough that fewer and fewer people need to work -- a society where leisure becomes universally accessible, where part-time jobs replace the regimented workweek, and where living standards keep rising even though more people have left the work force altogether.Oh, the terrible burdens of the rich! Tell me more, Ross, about why they should envy the not-fully-employed:
... the decline of work isn't actually some wild Marxist scenario. It's a basic reality of 21st-century American life... This decline isn't unemployment in the usual sense, where people look for work and can't find it. It's a kind of post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job. So instead of spreading from the top down, leisure time -- wanted or unwanted -- is expanding from the bottom up. Long hours are increasingly the province of the rich.
Many of the Americans dropping out of the work force are not destitute: they're receiving disability payments and food stamps, living with relatives, cobbling together work here and there, and often doing as well as they might with a low-wage job.Wow! Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, hunh?
Seriously, what inspired Douthat to write this paean to the joys of scraping by with no health care, no vacation days, no job security of even the two-weeks'-notice-if-terminated variety, and no double-digit hourly remuneration, ever? A few too many viewings of Portlandia? Or maybe that faux-rap song about thrift-shopping all The Kidz are grooving to?
Nahh -- Douthat's inspiration probably included the Heritage Foundation's notorious report concluding that poor people in America aren't really poor because they have (gasp!) refrigerators and microwave ovens. (Never mind the fact that this is because consumer electronics have become cheaper and cheaper; the problem is, if you were to sell your used refrigerator or microwave, it would pay for only a few days' worth of food or utilities, and let's not even talk about health insurance.) Right-wingers argue that, because electronics are getting cheaper, the fact that income inequality is increasing doesn't matter -- yes, poors, you earn less, but that Blu-Ray player is really cheap at Walmart this weekend, so who cares if you can't afford medicine for your kids? (OK, they don't say that last part, but it's implied.)
Douthat does see some downside to poor people's life of luxury:
... the decline of work carries social costs as well as an economic price tag. Even a grinding job tends to be an important source of social capital, providing everyday structure for people who live alone, a place to meet friends and kindle romances for people who lack other forms of community, a path away from crime and prison for young men, an example to children and a source of self-respect for parents.So according to Douthat -- and I bet you're just shocked to learn this -- underemployment is bad mostly because it's bad for underemployed people's souls. They'll never be able to meet proper mates with whom they can have exclusively procreative sex, as the pope demands! (OK, I made that part up, too, but this is Douthat, so that's clearly implied.) They'll turn their kids into juvenile delinquents!
Here the decline in work-force participation is of a piece with the broader turn away from community in America -- from family breakdown and declining churchgoing to the retreat into the virtual forms of sport and sex and friendship. Like many of these trends, it poses a much greater threat to social mobility than to absolute prosperity. (A nonworking working class may not be immiserated; neither will its members ever find a way to rise above their station.) And its costs will be felt in people's private lives and inner worlds even when they don't show up in the nation's G.D.P.
Douthat does at least note that they'll never get out of their economic rut. But he seems much more concerned about their "private lives and inner worlds." Stop worrying about whether they have benefits! What you should be worrying about is that they're skipping church and bowling alone!
I'll close with a late D.C.-based pundit who understood this issue a hell of a lot better than Douthat: