Economics · Men · The Working World

Book Review: Men Without Work by Nicholas Eberstadt

One of the more interesting books I recently read is Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis (2016) by Nicholas Eberstadt who is associated with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). In around 150 pages, Eberstadt thoroughly spreads out what should be a prime issue in US labor policy. Yet, as so often, the fate of men tends to be of little interest. Many of you are probably aware that men rank highly when it comes to workplace related deaths, suicide rates, delinquency, homelessness, and many other pressing issues. Yet, as so often, when men suffer it is not seen as a public policy issue.

Eberstadt provides the reader with copious amounts of data, most of which is coming from government sources. With hard, cold numbers it is difficult to argue. In particular in the left, wide-ranging arguments are made based often on no data at all. Just think of empirically unsupported claims such as that “diversity” leads to increased productivity, when it is true that the most productive teams are fully homogeneous. “Diversity” likewise undermines trust but, hey, you can’t let facts get in the way of ideology. I find books written by authors on the left generally unreadable. Quite the opposite tends to be true on the other end of the political spectrum.

The big takeaway of Men Without Work is that men have increasingly been dropping out of the labor force. Their numbers are so enormous that the “un-working men”, as Eberstadt calls them, nowadays outnumber the number of unemployed men by a factor of 3 to 1, which is completely bonkers. I was completely unaware of this phenomenon. In this book, we learn how these numbers have developed over time. Some of the possible explanations are the loss of the local manufacturing base with, in conjunction with mass immigration, leads to a double-whammy for the American male. Eventually, they end up being discouraged and prefer living off welfare or mooching off relatives.

The picture of these men is hardly encouraging. We learn from extensive studies that shows that these men almost completely idle away their time instead of making an attempt to rejoin the labor force. Those are men who have seemingly completely given up on life. While there is no explicit connection made in the book, I would suspect that the opioid epidemic also plays a role here, which leads to millions of Americans sitting in front of their TV, stoned. The corresponding discussion by Eberstadt is very enlightening. He turns philosophical for a moment and contrasts “leisure” with “idleness”. Whereas the former elevates, the latter corrupts. This distinction would also be relevant in discussions about Universal Basic Income as there is no indication at all that a bunch of lefties getting more government handouts would lead to an explosion of creativity.

At a few points I would have liked Eberstadt to prod the numbers a bit more thoroughly. For instance, there is little discussion of the effect of women joining the workforce, which likewise is a factor that led to the displacement of men in the workforce. There are many jobs that are effectively only available to women. Government comes to mind. Considering that there is no similar workfare program available for men, it is of little surprise that they are losing out. Yet, one big problem is male delinquency. Would you hire a felon? Well, businesses seem to think likewise. Considering that men are dramatically overrepresented in the slammer, it is only consequential that applying for disability benefits and getting opiates on Medicaid is an attractive option. Then again, it seems that women can kill their babies and only get a slap on the wrist. As a guy, you’ll get locked away. Thus, gynocentrism may be to blame in the end.

The book concludes with two responses, one by a lefty, and one by a right-winger. It is well worth having a look at Men Without Work just for the response by lefty Jared Bernstein. On p. 172 you’ll find a time series that shows a staggering drop of the labor force participation rate. The downward trend is so obvious you wouldn’t even have to run a linear regression on it, it’s that obvious. Yet, this left turns around and says that this isn’t a downward trend at all because there are cyclical ups and down. This part was beyond belief, but it serves as an excellent example of the almost proverbial dishonesty of the political left. Seriously, if your stock portfolio lost 30% of its value, then the fact that the drop-off isn’t linear but happens with ups and downs won’t placate you very much.


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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Men Without Work by Nicholas Eberstadt

  1. Aaron, I’m an American who lives in a smaller town that has it’s issues. My two cents:

    1)Immigration is a non-issue in the United States. I consider myself in the center politically and Republicans are completely wrong on this issue. There is no immigration problem in the United States. I have many friends who own businesses. Not one has hired an immigrant but would sure like to as you can’t find anybody with a bit of work ethic anymore which leads to:

    2)Loss of a manufacturing base is definitely an issue which leads to less jobs for men who are not capable of moving up the ladder in the service sector.

    3)That idleness has lead, partly, to the opioid epidemic which has severely hit my town.

    4)I’ve spoken to many of my old teachers who have are still teaching in the grade schools. What they tell me is that kids will be kids but the parents, regardless if they are still together or single parents, are horrible. That I feel has not let many young men in the United States weather the economic and opioid storm.

    1. “Republicans are completely wrong on this issue.”

      Well, Democrats are completely wrong as well on that issue.
      Here’s my limited understanding from across the pond. Please correct me, ifI’m wrong, I’m looking forward to an interesting debate.

      I think Republicans don’t want immigration, because Democrats want it. Democrats want it, because they favour an expansion of government and an expansion of the welfare state. Now, I understand that immigrants don’t get the same benefits immediately in the U.S. as they do in Germany, yet there’s still something to be gained for immigrants. If every immigrant who wants to go to the U.S. had only sincere work in mind and there were no government handouts, there wouldn’t be any illegal immigrants.
      So, since the Democrats are pushing for voting rights even for non-Americans I deduct that they want to use an ever increasing government and social welfare as a covert way of actually buying votes. And since Republicans want to avoid that, they are against immigration (well illegal immigration).

      The issue can be solved very easily (lol) by removing social welfare. I’d like to see how immigration looks like in such an environment. Heck, you could do a full blown open-border policy and what would happen is that those who come, come for work.

      That would also fix point 4). I’m not sure if for kids, non-divorced parents are as horrible as divorced ones, but let’s assume it’s really that fucked up. Would you say that if suddenly people had to look out for themselves a bit more, instead of almost totally relying on government, that this would fix the parenting issue?
      What you want to get to, is a point where offspring is created only if it makes sense. Sense, economically and socially. Imagine this scenario: If a woman gets pregnant by a man, not she alone gets to decide if she has an abortion. Sounds crazy? Government says right now “man pays, woman decides”. Say government does not enforce anything on that aspect and if the man decides that he doesn’t want the kid, he does not have to pay. She can keep it, but at her cost. You know what would happen? Women would carry condoms in their bags, when going out. Something you practically never see. The current situation the western world has with bad parents and the resulting bad kids, comes from the illusion of having no downside. I say illusion, because it’s only a question of “when”, not “if”, that this crazy experiment of less and less people financing a safety net for more and more people, will fail.
      The bigger point I’m getting to is:
      It’s not globalization, it’s not immigrants, it’s not the race. It’s the incentives that we set.
      Set the right incentives and you need not worry about the outcome.
      All the issues you mentioned above are problems due to bad long-term incentives. The first step to fix this, is to drastically reduce government and to increase individual freedom and the resulting individual accountability.

    2. Comes down on how you define “problem”. The whole point about immigration helping the economy is that it lowers the cost of labor, which sounds cool when the economy is expanding and there are not enough workers to cover vacancies. Business owners and capitalists are generally happy with that
      But lowering the cost of labor means that the lower native workers are now competing with the new arrivals willing to do the same for less. Its not true that immigrants take over jobs that natives are no longer willing to do, as we have been told a thousand times, they take over jobs that natives are not willing to do at the price the immigrants will do.
      Economists usually talk about the “lump of labor fallacy” and argue that native workers can now trade up, while usually ignoring or downplaying the costs involved in adapting, which in reality turn out to be significant enough that many just drop out of the workforce and go on disability, welfare, or retire early.

      BTW regarding the effect of women joining the workforce, I was surprised to learn recently that none other than Elizabeth Warren had written a book about it called The Two Income Trap. I havent read it yet, but here is a link to the summary:

      https://paychecksandbalances.com/two-income-trap-elizabeth-warren/

      1. @Yarara
        “But lowering the cost of labor means that the lower native workers are now competing with the new arrivals willing to do the same for less. Its not true that immigrants take over jobs that natives are no longer willing to do, as we have been told a thousand times, they take over jobs that natives are not willing to do at the price the immigrants will do.”

        If I don’t want to do a job per se, or if I don’t want to do it at the price someone else does it, that’s about pretty much the same. Say, I think that I should get price X for my product/service, yet the market is at an equilibrium at price 0.8X, then I’m the stubborn prick who doesn’t want to accept that people aren’t willing to trade at price X. I can now change the product to make it worth X, or I can lower my price, too.

        “Economists usually talk about the “lump of labor fallacy” and argue that native workers can now trade up, while usually ignoring or downplaying the costs involved in adapting, which in reality turn out to be significant enough that many just drop out of the workforce and go on disability, welfare, or retire early.”

        If anything, it shows you that knowing that there is a social security to pick you up, you become less competitive. Working is literally unattractive.
        Is this now the immigrants’ fault? Or is it rather that government provided social security is an incentive that leads to an unproductive outcome?
        You said it very well: “the costs (…) turn out to be significant ENOUGH”.
        Yeah, exactly: significant enough relative to consuming social welfare/disability.
        As for the early retirement, I don’t see the issue, as long as the worker has had his personal retirement account and adapts his lifestyle according to his purchasing power.
        Don’t get me wrong, I think that immigrants should match in terms of culture, and I’m not for indiscriminately opened borders, but closing borders as sort of a lower income class protectionism, that’s just idiotic. Get some pressure going on them in addition to a tightening of social welfare, if already we can’t remove it totally and then see how the competition at the end benefits everybody.

  2. When ‘toxic masculinity’ is now deemed by some psychology body to be an actual mental malady or psychological condition, and all sorts of go-girl fempowerment programs (e.g. grants, initiatives, etc)…it’s hard for a guy to get excited about life.

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