The Opinion Pages | OP-ED COLUMNIST
The Laziness Dogma
Americans work longer hours than their counterparts in just about every other wealthy country; we are known, among those who study such things, as the "no-vacation nation." According to a 2009 study, full-time U.S. workers put in almost 30 percent more hours over the course of a year than their German counterparts, largely because they had only half as many weeks of paid leave. Not surprisingly, work-life balance is a big problem for many people.
But Jeb Bush — who is still attempting to justify his ludicrous claim that he can double our rate of economic growth — says that Americans "need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families."
You see this laziness dogma everywhere on the right. It was the hidden background to Mitt Romney's infamous 47 percent remark. It underlay the furious attacks on unemployment benefits at a time of mass unemployment and on food stamps when they provided a vital lifeline for tens of millions of Americans. It drives claims that many, if not most, workers receiving disability payments are malingerers — "Over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts," says Senator Rand Paul.Mr. Bush's aides have tried to spin away his remark, claiming that he was only referring to workers trying to find full-time jobs who remain stuck in part-time employment. It's obvious from the context, however, that this wasn't what he was talking about. The real source of his remark was the "nation of takers" dogma that has taken over conservative circles in recent years — the insistence that a large number of Americans, white as well as black, are choosing not to work, because they can live lives of leisure thanks to government programs.
It all adds up to a vision of the world in which the biggest problem facing America is that we're too nice to fellow citizens facing hardship. And the appeal of this vision to conservatives is obvious: it gives them another reason to do what they want to do anyway, namely slash aid to the less fortunate while cutting taxes on the rich.
Given how attractive the right finds the image of laziness run wild, you wouldn't expect contrary evidence to make much, if any, dent in the dogma. Federal spending on "income security" — food stamps, unemployment benefits, and pretty much everything else you might call "welfare" except Medicaid — has shown no upward trend as a share of G.D.P.; it surged during the Great Recession and aftermath but quickly dropped back to historical levels. Mr. Paul's numbers are all wrong, and more broadly disability claims have risen no more than you would expect, given the aging of the population. But no matter, an epidemic of laziness is their story and they're sticking with it.
Where does Jeb Bush fit into this story? Well before his "longer hours" gaffe, he had professed himself a great admirer of the work of Charles Murray, a conservative social analyst most famous for his 1994 book "The Bell Curve," which claimed that blacks are genetically inferior to whites. What Mr. Bush seems to admire most, however, is a more recent book, "Coming Apart," which notes that over the past few decades working-class white families have been changing in much the same way that African-American families changed in the 1950s and 1960s, with declining rates of marriage and labor force participation.
Some of us look at these changes and see them as consequences of an economy that no longer offers good jobs to ordinary workers. This happened to African-Americans first, as blue-collar jobs disappeared from inner cities, but has now become a much wider phenomenon thanks to soaring income inequality. Mr. Murray, however, sees the changes as the consequence of a mysterious decline in traditional values, enabled by government programs which mean that men no longer "need to work to survive." And Mr. Bush presumably shares that view.
There's now an effective consensus among Democrats — on display in Hillary Clinton's planned Monday speech on the economy — that workers need more help, in the form of guaranteed health insurance, higher minimum wages, enhanced bargaining power, and more. Republicans, however, believe that American workers just aren't trying hard enough to improve their situation, and that the way to change that is to strip away the safety net while cutting taxes on wealthy "job creators."The point is that Mr. Bush's clumsy call for longer work hours wasn't a mere verbal stumble. It was, instead, an indication that he stands firmly on the right side of the great divide over what working American families need.