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As Wages Stagnate For Men, America Must Look To Its Culture For Resolution

culture and populism

The following is a transcript from my radar from the June 7 edition of “Rising” on HillTV.

A study with big findings landed with little notice late last month. The University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics published “Lifetime Earnings in the United States over Six Decades.”

“[T]he majority of US men who entered the U.S. labor market since the late 1960s have seen little-to-no gains in lifetime earnings relative to earlier cohorts, despite the fact that the U.S. economy has grown significantly during the same period,” the authors concluded. “Accounting for rising employer-provided health and retirement benefits partly mitigates these findings but does not overturn them.”

“Much of this stagnation for men,” they noted, “can be traced to the conditions during the labor market entry of a cohort: Newer cohorts of men faced declining or stagnant median initial earnings relative to previous cohorts and did not experience faster earnings growth over their lifecycle to make up for the lower entry earnings.”

A 142-word blurb on the study in Axios reported on its findings, highlighting, “The lifetime earnings of the median male worker declined by at least 10% for those who entered the workforce at age 25 in 1967, compared to those who entered the workforce at the same age in 1983.”

This should be big news, particularly for a media that wishes to understand why it stood slack-jawed and teary-eyed at the Javits Center back in 2016, strangers in their own complicated country. We could talk about the legacy’s media dearth of coverage and comprehension of trends such as this one. We could return to the well of “Coming Apart” and analyze our increasingly sorted socioeconomic structure and our increasingly nihilistic elites. That would all be true and would all be important.

But while those issues are inextricably intertwined with their consequences, we can’t afford to conflate them. So let’s for a moment focus on those consequences. As those earnings have declined, obesity is up and religiosity is down.

A 2019 report from the Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project found, “Mortality from deaths of despair far surpasses anything seen in America since the dawn of the 20th century.” In parentheses, the authors added, “The trend for middle-aged whites reveals a more dramatic rise but only goes back continuously to 1959.”

“The recent increase has primarily been driven by an unprecedented epidemic of drug overdoses, but even excluding those deaths, the combined mortality rate from suicides and alcohol-related deaths is higher than at any point in more than 100 years,” the study reads. “Suicides have not been so common since 1938, and one has to go back to the 1910s to find mortality from alcohol-related deaths as high as today’s.”

The interplay of economics and culture necessarily becomes an impossible chicken-or-egg calculus. Culture changes create economic changes and vice versa. Say you take the conservative argument on birth control’s singular and deleterious cultural impact — an economic demand made the product successful, and people sought to make money off its success. Fixing such a capitalistic supply and demand would require a different economic system, one I sure wouldn’t want our government to control. Consumer demand is cultural, but capitalists can do their share to change the culture from the top down, as we’ve seen with the proliferation of corporate cultural signaling that normalizes a host of socially liberal priorities.

But this is why the University of Chicago study is worth great political consideration. Economic suffering is tracking with social suffering; that’s well-established and this is a stark new piece of evidence. In the Trump era, populism on the left and the right found new life — not merely because politicians found it advantageous but because these metrics demonstrate a genuine demand. On the right, populists find themselves increasingly and understandably allied with populists on the left. They’ve begun to suggest and support measures like direct payments for children and a rise in the federal minimum wage.

Many of these proposals have legitimacy. That’s a debate for another day. But what the building left-right populist consensus lacks is adequate recognition that rising wages, UBI, and targeted cash transfers won’t boost the working class without changes that money alone cannot induce, be it the marriage rate or fertility rate.

In his indispensable book, “Alienated America,” Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner highlighted the findings of Nick Eberstadt. Eberstadt, Carney explained, “has written plenty about the grim existence of the American men who are not in the labor force. They’re not using their free time to volunteer, go to church, or hang out with friends.”

“The inactive, Eberstadt writes, don’t do ‘much in the way of child care or help for others in the home either, despite the abundance of time on their hands. Their routine, instead, typically centers on watching — watching TV, DVDs, Internet, hand-held devices, etc. — and for an average of 2,000 hours a year, as if it were a full-time job.’”

This observation goes hand-in-hand with perhaps the central observation of Carney’s book. “It wasn’t that economically struggling individuals tacked to Trump; it was that voters in struggling or vulnerable places shifted toward Trump.”

“This is crucial,” he wrote. “Trump did well among individuals who seemed to be doing okay except that they lived in places that were very much not okay. Studying people by demographic data on a chart tells you only so much. Studying people in the context of where they are — as members of communities — is necessary if we want to understand our country.”

Carney also found, “According to our analysis of the American Time Use Survey, spending two or more hours devoted to religious activity on a given Sunday had a stronger effect on life satisfaction than did making more than $75,000 per year.”

Solutions from the government will not adequately alleviate American suffering. Actually, if Washington gets its way, those solutions will continue to buoy the fortunes of the ruling class, funneling more of our money into their bank accounts, even with the pretense of middle-class legislation. In D.C., good intentions always come with corporate baggage.

So-called “identity politics,” which I think have some legitimate applications, in the wrong hands become band-aids for deeper healing, for real community and fulfillment. Big Tech preys on this human weakness deliberately, with dopamine engineering that keeps us addicted and divided. People are making a whole lot of money off pornography, which is worsening our sexual interactions and consequently our economic ones.

For all our talk about economic populism, we need to think about what cultural populism might look like as well.