Posts Tagged ‘Work ethic’

The ‘irresponsibility’ of the poor

March 23, 2015

Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed and well-fed.
                ==Herman Melville (1819-1892)

My circle of friends are mostly white, college-educated, middle-class people who call ourselves liberals.

Liberals are supposed to be the ones who make excuses for the short-comings of minorities and poor people, but this isn’t true of my friends.

poverty-and-marriage-650Instead, whenever the conversation gets around to social problems, the consensus is that poverty is bad and racial discrimination is bad, but “lack of personal responsibility” is a big thing, too.  Bill Cosby’s name comes up a lot.

I’m uncomfortable with these conversations because, on the one hand, there’s a certain amount of truth in what’s being said, and, on the other hand, I don’t think I have standing to make harsh moral judgments about people who face difficulties so much worse than anything I ever did.

There are people who are completely messed up—unable to hold a steady job, uninterested in marriage and family responsibilities—who wouldn’t be able to make it in the best of societies.

On the other hand, the few poor people I know aren’t like that.  They are people who are struggling bravely against great odds.

There’s one young black man I know.  He was convicted as a teenager for robbing a drug dealer.  For that one mistake, he basically has no future, even though he is hard-working, intelligent and well-mannered.

On the other hand, I have a distant relative by marriage, a middle-aged white man who was in trouble all through his teenage years, smoking dope and getting into trouble, and constantly being bailed out by his father.  He turned himself around, and is now a responsible adult with a good job.

It is fine with me that he got all these second chances.  But if his father had been poor, or black, or both, he wouldn’t have gotten them.

And then there are the young black men who, after each big snowstorm, come walking down the middle of my street with snow shovels across their shoulders, asking if I need my driveway shoveled out.  I usually hire them even when I don’t strictly need it.

They’re all polite and hard-working.  Maybe these qualities will be enough to raise themselves into the middle class.  But if the number of people with middle class incomes continues to shrink, the only way they’ll be able to do it is by bumping somebody else out of the middle class.


How much do we really need to work?

July 13, 2012

The Greater Rochester Russell Set had a round-table discussion of Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” in which, among other things, Russell contended that a four-hour work day would be sufficient to produce everything that people need—provided that you eliminate work to produce munitions, useless luxuries and status symbols, and to support an idle rich class.

I have come across the four-hour work day many times over the course of my life.  It could well be true.  A certain irreducible minimum of work is needed, but no advanced country has ever collapsed as a result of reducing the work week or the work day, that I know of.

But I wonder whether the argument for the four-hour work day has any empirical basis.  Are there any communities, utopian or otherwise, that adopted a four-hour work day?

I suppose the so-called “primitive” people would be an example.  One of the complaints of white European conquerors was that native Americans and Africans were lazy; that is, they were satisfied with what to a European appeared to be bare subsistence, and were unwilling to work for wages or raise cash crops to get anything more.  A common solution was to impose taxes, which they had to earn money to pay.

I’m re-reading Eric Foner’s great historical work, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, which says that the goal of many of the Northerners was something called “compulsory free labor.”   They thought that the freed slaves should continue to work on the plantations and pick cotton, but what the slaves wanted was to own their own land, grow their own food and sell crops only to buy what they could not provide for themselves.  Many of the white people, Northerners and Southerners, thought that was proof that Negroes were “lazy”; they didn’t want to work for other people.

People differ on what counts as work and what doesn’t.  Thomas Geohegan, in his book about German social democracy, wrote that the average German does much less paid work than the average American (and also, by the way, about half as much as the average Greek), but the German spends much more time doing chores—cooking, cleaning, laundry, ironing, etc.—which, however, are not thought of as work.

As for myself, I like being retired, and being able to choose for myself what I do and don’t do.  I enjoy my web log, but I would hate blogging for money and always having to worry about how many views I get.   It would be hard to go back to working for a boss.  I know this is a privilege, and I know that most people aren’t so lucky.

Click on In Praise of Idleness for a link to Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness”

Click on The Right to Be Lazy for a link to an 1883 pamphlet by Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son-in-law, which anticipates Russell’s argument.

Click on It’s the 21st century: why are we working so hard? for thoughts of a contemporary writer in The Guardian. [Added 7/14/12]

Click on America’s Misguided Culture of Overwork for an interview with Thomas Geohegan on work in Germany and the United States.

Click on Are the Greeks the Hardest Workers in Europe? for the figures on Greek and German hours worked.


Progressives and the work ethic

November 16, 2011

One of the differences between self-described conservatives and progressives is that that conservatives are judgmental about the moral failings of those below them on the social and economic scale, and progressives are judgmental about the moral failings of those above them on the social and economic scale.

Another is that conservatives emphasize the responsibility of individuals for their own fate, while progressives emphasize how individuals are affected by the social and economic structure.

I recently read some on-line criticisms of the Occupy Wall Street movement on the grounds, not that the protesters are wrong on the facts, but that protests against economic injustice cause people to sit on their hands and do nothing about their personal situations.

The grain of truth in the conservatives’ criticism is that no matter now badly off you are, there are things you can do to try to improve your condition.  If you wait until the world becomes just, you’ll have a long wait.  This is the Bill Cosby attitude.  He tells young black people that just because things are stacked against them, that’s all the more reason to commit yourself to self-improvement, education and hard work.

It is possible to imagine a situation in which people use the unfairness of life as an excuse for idleness and irresponsibility.  But that not is anywhere near the situation in the United States today.  All the people I know are working harder and taking on more stress, with decreasing reward.  Financiers and corporate executives as a class are not getting an ever-increasing share of the national income because they work harder than everybody else.  They get it because they know how to leverage their access to other people’s money.

I admit that I personally do not have a strong work ethic, and never have.  I work hard on things that I care about or things that I enjoy, but otherwise I work only as hard as I have to.  I don’t think unremitting hard work is a value.  It is a means to an end, and the end should be the freedom to live a full life.

Click on A New Declaration of Independence for Salon’s suggested demands for the Occupy Wall Street movement, which touched off the debate.

Click on The Only Thing Missing from “A New Declaration of Independence”: Any Sense that Adults are Responsible for Their Choices for Matt Welch’s critique of the Occupy movement in Reason magazine.

Click on Tea Party vs OWS: The psychology and ideology of responsibility for Will Wilkerson’s follow-up comment on the Big Think web forum.

Click on Who Killed Hard Work And Personal Responsibility? to read Matt Yglesias’s rebuttal on the ThinkProgress web log.

Click on Who is against individual responsibility? for Tyler Cowen’s rejoiner to Yglesias on the Marginal Revolution web log