Sunday, February 24, 2013


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.

... 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.
Oh, the terrible burdens of the rich! Tell me more, Ross, about why they should envy the not-fully-employed:
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.

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.
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!

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:


PurpleGirl said...

If underemployment is so great, when is Douthat joining its ranks?

Ten Bears said...

Portlandia is pretty cool, and most of us get a chuckle ore it. But all would be well advised that like all of television it is fiction and doesn't represent the real Oregon.

Mark said...

"If underemployment is so great, when is Douthat joining its ranks?"

He doesn't have to "join". Guy has got a great gig. Getting well-paid for randomly-published columns in the NYT is well-paid "underemployment" for anyone else.

Victor said...

I won't read the whole thing, because it'll make me want to make an example of this fat, puffy, pundiTWIT, and beat him with my fists until his skull fragments are smaller than grains of sand, and I can pour what's left of what passes for his brains through a strainer, with no visible lumps.

I'm not a mean or violent man by nature, but his lack of concern for people like me, who are in our mid-50's, unemployed, and with NO prospects of ever doing ANY, let alone meaningful, work, makes me madder than anything I've ever read by any of the fucking usual band of sociopaths who represent the Conservative side of the Op-ed page.

Please don't let me get anywhere near this fucking moron, or I'll be facing life in prison for beating him to death - which may, actually, now that I think about it, be the best way for me to handle my future.

M. Bouffant said...

The standard "to hell w/ any financial reality, it's a moral issue" screed justifying wage-slavery from another easy-living pundit.

Does it ever stop?

WereBear said...

Every time I read about Douthat (can't do it unfiltered) he seems even more pompous and clueless.

And I understand he's young. Are we to be subjected to this for decades to come?

PurpleGirl said...

Mark: From Wikipedia:

... is a conservative American author, blogger and New York Times columnist. He was a senior editor at The Atlantic and wrote Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012), Grand New Party (Doubleday, 2008) with Reihan Salam, and Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hyperion, 2005).... Douthat is a film critic for National Review and has also contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, the Claremont Review of Books, GQ, Slate, and other publications. In addition, he frequently appears on the video debate site In April 2009, he became an online and op-ed columnist for The New York Times, replacing Bill Kristol as a conservative voice on the Times editorial page.

The man has several gigs, the NY Times is only one of them. I'd like to see him survive on ONLY one of those gigs and at a reduced salary. Let him try to survive on a mid-five figure amount.

John Taylor said...

Douthat is describing the loss of a way of life in America. In the richest country on the planet this shouldn't signal destitution for those who can no longer sustain themselves with work. The food stamps and assistance for those in need is the price we have to pay for our failed capitalist system. I'm sure those who are underemployed would jump at the chance of meaningful employment.

Ten Bears said...

I too, Victor, have observed that under our circumstance life in the joint looks like a pretty good retirement option, but to be honest, and maybe it's the v-vet in me, but if it comes to that I think I'll just go postal and let the cops gun me down.

Bulworth said...

"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."

I don't think the word "destitute" means what Douthat thinks it means.

For example, having to live with relatives, as opposed to being on one's own, is kinda destitute. It certainly would be in my case.

I'm a bit surprised Douthat left out the homeless. They aren't destitute either I guess. For cryin out loud, some of these homeless peoples have shelters they can go to. What could be better than that?