This morning, Thomas Sowell offered his readers a reflection on work. If just that, the column’s one identifiable point would have made for a nice Wednesday morning pat-on-the-back: we don’t always enjoy work, but doing one’s job well, whatever it is, should foster a progressive career.
Apparently, though, Sowell wanted to contribute to a larger debate. “It was painful,” he wrote, “to see an internationally renowned scholar say that what low-income young people needed was ‘meaningful work.’” He concluded the column with this: “Telling young people that some jobs are ‘menial’ is a huge disservice to them and to the whole society. Subsidizing them in idleness while they wait for ‘meaningful work’ is just asking for trouble, both for them and for all those around them.”
So, a scholar recently said something about youngsters benefitting from meaningful work, and some policy might allow those youngsters time to look for work before settling into McJobs. Leaving merits momentarily aside, let us note how Sowell’s column exemplifies ineffective, echo-chamber rhetoric: (1) When making a policy point, the posited argument or policy proposal ought be concisely, but fairly, presented; and (2) rants may make for a tasty, rare burger for the red meat crowd but do little to further civic debate.
From which scholar does Sowell dissent? A google news search for “scholar and ‘meaningful work’” this afternoon brought up a collection of National Review-ish websites containing Sowell’s syndicated column. Perhaps Sowell refers to Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty comment on there being no bad jobs, and the subsequent reaction? We can’t be sure. And with what policy does Sowell urge our skepticism? Does it have anything to do with the recent stories in the NY Times on menial tasks composing unpaid internships or burgeoning advocacy groups helping jobless college grads? I couldn’t figure it out. Nor should it be the reader’s job to figure it out.
Maybe–probably–it is all just a rant. The value of a rant is, like the value of attending a rally, group identification. It exposes some of your gut instincts and assumptions, connecting you to others feeling those same emotional pulls. Apart from securing a sense of self and of belonging, group identification can increase the sway of whatever identifiable policy the group prefers.
The value in rants’ and rallies’ group identification is also its limit. Such speech bolsters identity and solidarity rather than confronting the points on which reasonable people may differ with nuanced, dispassionate argument. Hence, the absence of campaign slogans with which anyone disagrees. We all favor life, we all favor choice, opportunity, hope, progress, and values. Rants and rallies digress, in the end, to meaningless code words associated with one group or another, with little value to civic debate.
The result is the type of writing in Sowell’s column, intended solely for already-receptive readers convinced, in this case, of the inanity of academia, the absolute virtue of the private market, and the parasitic nature of the unemployed.
Too much of a category of education is, according to Sowell, ruining the social norms that foster work ethic. Sowell defines that category as “absolutely counterproductive courses that fill people with a sense of grievance and entitlement, without giving them either the skills to earn a living or a realistic understanding of the world required for a citizen in a free society.” Consequently, college boys are tipping buffalo in Yellowstone and college girls are hitch-hiking. That is really his argument. Further, colleges are breeding a society of unrealistic expectations. To wit, “educated elites” push the harmful idea that youngsters should get meaningful work.
Sowell stumbles upon something here that could really be useful. He asks: “What is ‘meaningful work’?”
Indeed, what underlying assumptions, fears, and expectations ought we address in assessing a job market bursting with educated, thoughtful, and qualified youngsters for whom scant opportunities are open? Over the past couple decades, the landscape of skills and status awareness has changed exponentially. With an internet connection, one can freely take an MIT course. Likewise, one can keep tabs of exactly what position any high school peer has aquired. One need not have read Alain de Botton’s “Status Anxiety” to guess at the emotional, even existential toll experienced by anyone giving a damn about It All these days.
But, Sowell treats us to no such inquiry. Rather, he composes a straw man of what some unidentified group of “Utopian intellectuals” think of meaningful work: the “notion seems to be that it is work whose performance is satisfying or enjoyable in itself.” And it is never done solely for money. From there, Sowell really decks out the strawman as something of a Platonic Republican desiring “a society where all-wise elites would decide what each of us ‘needs’ or ‘deserves.’”
(It’s always a little exciting to come upon the more hyperbolic segments of a rant. Is there really someone out there this purports to describe? Is it a true depiction of that person’s argument? Please, then, let there be a counter point, this can’t help but be an invigorating debate. But alas, it never really is a true depiction; or, when rarely so, the depicted is too far out there to represent any meaningful policy proposals.)
“At the very least,” a calmer Sowell contends, “many intellectuals do not want the poor or the young to have to take ‘menial’ jobs.”
We come again, then, to what might be the heart of some policy debate about which Sowell has something to say. But I have no idea what the debate is, and what Sowell has to add. The very next sentence he write is this: “But people who are paying their own money, as distinguished from the taxpayers’ money, for someone to do a job are unlikely to part with hard cash unless that job actually needs doing, whether or not that job is called “menial” by others.”
I think he’s saying that someone has to perform menial work which, to Roomba’s great vexation, is a truism. Fantastically, he states the truism within a demonstrably false claim. In fact, those “paying their own money, as distinguished from the taxpayers’ money” are exceedingly likely to pay for jobs that do not need being done. Today, I spent money on clothes, music, television, and ginger ale all of which I did not need. Most jobs stem from want rather than need, as ought be understood by any economist thinking over the Great Recession.
So, without really addressing the point, or making much of an argument, Sowell airs out what he really wants to air out, the message so favored by the readers of every page that popped up when I tried to find out what he was talking about: “People who lack the skills to take on more prestigious jobs can either remain idle and live as parasites on others or take the jobs for which they are currently qualified, and then move up the ladder as they acquire more experience.” Ahhh, “parasites,” that’s the stuff. The ranting code word of Ayn Rand’s adorers everywhere. It’s good to feel that group identity sinking in.