You probably are working harder and longer

Pete Ross, talking about Bernie and other countries that spend more domestically:

“That way no one has to live in fear of losing out in the lottery of life. That’s what social democracy is, and those of us who live in them recognize that what we have is pretty damn great.”

This sort of thinking is common outside America, and one that Bernie supporters hang their hat on. They’re not wrong insisting that instead of spending money on foreign matters we should spend it here. But a guy in Australia doesn’t get to claim a high horse for that country’s high domestic spending. The reality is Australia and other nations get to have high domestic spending precisely because the United States is picking up the tab for their defense. Canada, for instance, would be a much different place if they knew we weren’t here. Just as Indianapolis would be a much different place if Carmel would just pay for all our police officers.

This behavior is so pervasive even Barack Obama is pissed, urging NATO allies to increase their funding for defense based on their GDP (which is a really dumb measure: on what planet does it make sense to say “I must spend X% of my income on Y”? That’s like walking into a car dealership and saying, “I must spend $25,000.”)

Anyway, I was recently reading about the research of economists Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst, “Measuring Trends in Leisure [PDF]”. They measured the stuff Americans do from day to day between 1965 and 2005.

“Aguiar and Hurst document what they call an increase in “leisure” that primarily affected men with low education. In the first survey, in 1965-66, men with college degrees and men who had not completed high school had nearly the same amount of leisure time per week, with just a two-hour difference. They were only an hour apart in 1985. Then something changed. “Between 1985 and 2005…men who had not completed high school increased their leisure time by eight hours per week, while men who had completed college decreased their leisure time by six hours per week.”

In other words, if you’re sitting around feeling like you’re doing a lot more work and others are doing quite the opposite, you’re probably right. More Americans, particularly low-educated men, are just plain spending more time goofing off. This research indicates college-educated people are working more hours and producing more, while the bottom has gone the other way. On a chart it almost looks like half the country is working twice as hard to make up for the opposite decrease on the other end.

And here in America, where our culture derives from four virtues of honesty, industriousness, family, and religiosity, goofing off pisses people off in the “industriousness” virtue and part of the “honesty” virtue. No one wants to work all day just so some other guy can coast along. That feeling is so pervasive a lot of people can’t get past the fact our own uncle is drowning in medical issues. This is why Trump/Cruz supporters are so mad, even if they’re the ones most likely goofing off the most.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m aware a lot of people don’t goof off and just have a hard time in life. But it doesn’t change the fact most people know more people who are plain lazy than people who have been bankrupted through medical bills or student loans. I say that as someone who lost a mother to a $2 million tumor.

And to be clear: this kind of leisure activity people are doing isn’t even what you could describe as active leisure, like reading a book or exercising. It’s mostly watching TV.

We’ve found ourselves in a cultural deadlock between not wanting to support lazy people and caring about the truly unfortunate. But apparently we spend all our time working to support a big military so every other country can have high domestic spending. This is a tough nut to crack in either direction for Bernie or Trump/Cruz.

And this increase in useless leisure on the low end and the decrease in available time on the high end probably leads us to a lot more problems, like low civic engagement, low community involvement, and less time building worthwhile relationships.

A nugget in the idea of giving poor people money

Sheilla Kennedy has a piece on welfare recipients receiving cash assistance and not actually, as Doug Masson put it, spending it “sinfully or whatever we’re afraid of”.

This reminded me of a story from NPR a few years ago on a similar experiment in Kenya through GiveDirectly, a charity that just straight up hands cash, no strings attached, to poor people. The thinking being, “poor people know what they need, and if you give them money they can buy it”.

But to some veterans of the charity world, giving cash is worrisome. When we first reported on this we spoke with Carol Bellamy, who used to run UNICEF, and who said people might spend the money on things like alcohol or gambling.

To see whether this was actually happening, researchers did an experiment. They surveyed people in Kenya who received money from GiveDirectly, and a similar group of people who didn’t get money.

The results from the study are encouraging, says Johannes Haushofer, an economist at MIT’s Poverty Action Lab who was one of the study’s co-authors.

“We don’t see people spending money on alcohol and tobacco,” he says. “Instead we see them investing in their kids’ education, we see them investing in health care. They buy more and better food.”

People used the money to buy cows and start businesses. Their kids went hungry less often.

Back at UNICEF, they were surprised and “impressed” at the results. Though there are two caveats: people were just as sick as they always were, and school attendance and results didn’t dramatically change. And to add to that: researchers are skeptical this will actually help in the long run. Short term, yes, this sort of thing does do well. Long term, maybe not so much.

This leads me to two philosophical nuggets. The first: how annoying is it that someone from a different culture, background, experience, and place in life would be so inclined to tell other people how to live and what’s best for them, and actually be in a position to influence that?

Before I get to the second philosophical nugget, a brief interlude:

I do not know how to make a million dollars in a year. I theoretically know from a mathematical expression that it would require earning $2,739 a day, or about how much a lot of people make in a month. But I do not currently possess a mechanism for earning that much money in a year. Though I intend to be in my golden years thanks to investments and savings that I hope will someday pay off.

I am, however, keenly aware of how I can earn between $0 a year and $80,000 a year in 2016. On a slightly loftier scale, I know how I could probably earn $100,000 a year within a few years.

Which leads me to this conclusion about myself: I am not yet worth a million dollars. I can hear someone out there opining that my life has more value, how could I possibly put a dollar amount on my existence, and why would I even think such a thing. But the practical side of me plainly recognizes this.

The world is neither better nor worse for having me in it. Most everyone, including myself, are just not that special, and the marketplace agrees accordingly by delivering to you and me the wages we currently earn. I make exactly what I’m capable of, apparently, and while I continue to try and learn and grow and be better, that takes time, energy, and a concerted plan on my part. As we go along, we learn what it takes to earn $20,000, $40,000, and so on per year. Plus, we come to value the effort it took to go from $30,000 to $40,000.

Now back to my aforementioned second philosophical nugget: could it be that giving money to people doesn’t work in the long-term because recipients don’t know what to do with it? That their intentions are entirely incorrect?

I can now hear someone out there groaning because they think I think poor people don’t know what to do with money. That’s not necessarily true, but this does raise logical questions:

  1. How much money should a person receive?
  2. For how long?
  3. Doesn’t it seem logical that some people will just choose to “give up” and live off such a payment?

I say number 3 knowing people, alive today, who do exactly that. You probably do, too. And those people are aggravating. Because you know your money is just being thrown at them in the current hodge-podge of pre-specified “relief buckets” we have today with minimal effect.

And we do have a body of research on what happens when you reward one group with a tremendous windfall: lottery winners. And that frequently fails them, largely because they don’t know how to handle it, it overwhelms them, and in some ways, ruins their life. As the NY Times put it, people “lose their values”.

The advice our grandparents gave us still holds true: remember the value of a dollar, how hard it is to earn it, and be humble. This is the crux of a lot of fiscal conservative thinking: I worked really hard to earn this dollar, and I will gladly pay for the effective, efficient use of a portion of it for things that helped me along the way (schools, clean water, etc.), but I and I alone will decide what to do with the rest. If that means being generous with it (as people should be), by donating it to a church, a nonprofit, or my pet cat, that is my decision. And I am closer to the decision to know the impact and effectiveness of that dollar.

So when I hear ideas about giving cash to people, sure, $30,000 is a far cry from $2 million, but the values stay the same. The root of the problem still exists. The people you’re around are still there. Like operating a needle exchange without ensuring treatment options for drug addicts, nothing really changes in the end, does it? Except maybe some slightly higher or lower polls or statistics in a couple spots.

Why do Republicans worry about immigrants so much?

I’ve been doing some homework lately on political history and beliefs. Things like, “Why do Republicans worry about immigrants so much?” As in, why are Republicans more concerned with immigrants learning to speak English and “act American” than most Democrats?

To the best of my ability from scouring books and threads and editorials and other sources, I’ve formed a reason that makes some sense: immigrants may dilute understanding of the country’s founding and endanger the nation. This is viewed as immigrants not being patriotic enough, loyal enough, or dedicated enough to a unified America.

This notion seems to come from early days of the republic and came to a head around the time of mass Irish immigration. The belief being, “The country is very new, we here are all of the belief we’re better off without a King. What happens if too many people come here and don’t hold that belief?”

It’s not unreasonable that a fledgling American democratic experiment even as late as the 1860’s might sincerely concern itself with the notion of “dilution”. “We all literally came here to get away from that form of government. We’d appreciate it if you didn’t try to change that.” This is how America’s melting pot theory actually came along as a compromise: you can maintain your customs (we might even come to really like some of them), but this is how our government works. So you can have your cultural-pluralism, but assimilate on a few things, too.

Today this has mutated into more xenophobic arguments. There’s no amount of immigration from, say, Syria, that’s ever going to overtake our democracy with Sharia law. And concerns over draining social services is likely a red herring due to a glut in the market that gets filled. Of course there’s a startling rise in foreign applicants for public benefits once you open it up to them.

If you feed yourself a heavy diet of news on mass immigration, that problem seems much larger to you. However, I’m not convinced the people most vocal about prohibiting immigration are also the same people who understand the historical context. One can also argue that given this crux of the issue, that the American experiment is fragile, it would seem almost insecure to think we’re still insecure today after generations of case law, rulings, policies, and establishment.

I have more faith in the republic today. I have more faith that it will continue to withstand challenges to its principles of democratic rule, for example, than early pioneers and civil-war era citizens likely did.