David Frum

02.26.13

Should We Rejoice a Post-Work Future? Ctd.

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After going through the comments on Ross Douthat’s coloumn ‘A World Without Work,’ as well as some of the comments from our ‘Should We Rejoice a Post-Work Future?’ series, it is clear that it put a bad taste in a lot of peoples’ mouths.

Douthat makes really valid and important points, but as Times commenter Douglas from Minneapolis aptly states,

The topic of this piece is important - REALLY important. Unfortunately, Ross, you haven't thought this one through.

….The system of economics we currently use requires an individual to have purchasing power.

…A society that doesn't need workers requires an entirely new economic system - one for which there is no model in existence.

Douglas is right. The situation Douthat discusses in his column is a matter of fact. There is an abundance of unemployment and underemployment in this country. Douthat’s prescription is for Americans to go out there and become their own bosses and avoid entitlement programs that keep people stuck in an ugly cycle, a conservative point of view.

Many commenters in the Times seemed to miss this part, and instead of offering other, more liberal solutions to the problem (which very much exist), they instead argued the existence of the issue. As Mark Thomason of Clawson, Michigan put it,

This is so wrong it is painful.

Before the current unemployment crisis, we had a national product and personal productivity 100x or more what it was when we were a wealthy country at the start of the industrial revolution. There was still work for all, and the product of all was distributed among us all, not equally, but not just foodstamps and hitting on relatives either. We were all richer together than we had been, and we all had work, and we all had income from that work as some reasonable share in the product. There is no reason that cannot continue, so everyone has more of the ever increasing product of the country. It is not as if we have so much now that nobody wants any more. 

The important detail that Mr. Thomason is missing is that wage stagnation is not a new phenomenon; it has existed for a number of decades and has recently gotten worse. Also, when we think of the economic boom of the aughts, one major contributor was the upward trend in the housing market. 

Many other commenters simply attacked Douthat for not thinking about the unemployed and underemployed that cannot pay for necessities such as good housing and health care. Mitch Gitman of Seattle analyzed the piece much like we did at FrumBeast.

Ross Douthat has hit upon what scares me about our economic times. It isn't the mini-depression we're slogging through. These things happen after financial crises, and eventually economies recover, however slowly and painfully.

No, what scares me is what feels like an inexorable decline of labor--or more broadly, human capital--in America, which to some extent the crash of 2008 was a symptom of.

There's the high unemployment rate, which would be that much higher if not for the "kind of post-employment" Mr. Douthat describes. But then there's a job market that's gravitating toward the extremes of low pay and high pay and, just as troubling, low engagement and high engagement.

And now that the stock market is back near its pre-crash highs, what if the employment malaise of today really is the new normal?