The Benefits of Work to the Worker—A Timeless Issue

As I mentioned in The Luminous and the Shady, Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” contains many timeless insights. The passage from “Les Misérables” quoted below came to mind as I was listening to a recent EconTalk interview of Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economics professor, titled, “Edward Glaeser on Joblessness and the War on Work” in which two economists discuss aspects of the value of work.

My earlier post highlighted Victor Hugo’s insight as to the unhelpfulness of the distinction between “the fortunate and the unfortunate.” Here I juxtapose another Victor Hugo insight about the benefits of work to the worker with an excerpt from the above-mentioned podcast.

Economists often focus on the benefits to society of people working. In “Wealth” I posited a moral argument for work that was simpatico with the typical economist perspective. [i] The podcast interviewer, Russ Roberts (See AUTHOR’s NOTE below) says some things simpatico with that perspective. This post presents a perhaps more important perspective on the subject—the non-monetary, non- moral benefits to the worker—which is the perspective of Hugo and Glaeser.

The point made by Glaeser in the quote below is a modern-day, science-based perspective that is noticeably different from, but simpatico with Victor Hugo’s point in the first passage quoted below. In short, while economist typically focus on the importance to an economy that people wanting jobs and that people who want jobs finding jobs, Glaeser claims that the lives of people who have jobs are, on average, better on many very important dimensions than the lives of people who do not have jobs. For example, Glaeser says, “So, if we look at life satisfaction, happiness, we look at divorce, we look at opioid use, we look at disabilities of a variety of different forms, they are found disproportionately–wildly disproportionately–among the ranks of the jobless.”  Hugo highlights the poisonous fruits of idleness in a very different but extremely powerful way. I hope you enjoy the contrast, and the similarities of the perspectives of Hugo and Glaeser, and appreciate their importance.

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AUTHOR’S NOTE: If you are not aware of EconTalk podcasts, you are missing out on something consistently enlightening and entertaining. It is a weekly talk show hosted by Russ Roberts (a professor, economist, author, poet, rap video producer, and scholar) that “features one-on-one discussions with an eclectic mix of authors, professors, Nobel Laureates, entrepreneurs, leaders of charities and businesses, and people on the street. The emphases are on using topical books and the news to illustrate economic principles.”

I strongly urge you to give EconTalk a try. To get a good sense of the show, I recommend that you start with this podcast: Munger on John Locke, Prices, and Hurricane Sandy. Though it was recorded 2012, the ideas discussed in this podcast are timeless and apply to what occurred during and after Hurricane Harvey. (Sadly, the economic illiteracy that induces government officials to act in ways that make matters worse during disasters has changed little since that podcast.)

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An excerpt from Les Misérables, Volume IV – Book Fourth. Chapter II. Mother Plutarque finds no Difficulty in explaining a Phenomenon, Pg. 93:

THE SET UP: While on an evening stroll down a deserted road, aged and slow Jean Valjean was attacked from behind by Montparnasse, a young, agile and strong gang member with an intent to rob. An instant later Valjean had the thug pinned to the ground. Valjean kept Montparnasse pinned until he quit struggling and appeared to be dead. Then Valjean stood up and said:

“Get up.”

Montparnasse rose, but the goodman held him fast. Montparnasse’s attitude was the humiliated and furious attitude of the wolf who has been caught by a sheep. . . .

The goodman [Jean Valjean] questioned, Montparnasse replied.

“How old are you?”

“Nineteen.”

“You are strong and healthy. Why do you not work?”

“It bores me.”

“What is your trade?”

“An idler.”

“Speak seriously. Can anything be done for you? What would you like to be?”

“A thief.”

A pause ensued. The old man seemed absorbed in profound thought. He stood motionless, and did not relax his hold on Montparnasse.

Every moment the vigorous and agile young ruffian indulged in the twitchings of a wild beast caught in a snare. He gave a jerk, tried a crook of the knee, twisted his limbs desperately, and made efforts to escape.

The old man did not appear to notice it, and held both his arms with one hand, with the sovereign indifference of absolute force.

The old man’s reverie lasted for some time, then, looking steadily at Montparnasse, he addressed to him in a gentle voice, in the midst of the darkness where they stood, a solemn harangue, of which Gavroche did not lose a single syllable:—

“My child, you are entering, through indolence, on one of the most laborious of lives. Ah! You declare yourself to be an idler! prepare to toil. There is a certain formidable machine, have you seen it? It is the rolling-mill. You must be on your guard against it, it is crafty and ferocious; if it catches hold of the skirt of your coat, you will be drawn in bodily. That machine is laziness. Stop while there is yet time, and save yourself! Otherwise, it is all over with you; in a short time you will be among the gearing. Once entangled, hope for nothing more. Toil, lazybones! there is no more repose for you! The iron hand of implacable toil has seized you. You do not wish to earn your living, to have a task, to fulfil a duty! It bores you to be like other men? Well! You will be different. Labor is the law; he who rejects it will find ennui his torment. You do not wish to be a workingman, you will be a slave. Toil lets go of you on one side only to grasp you again on the other. You do not desire to be its friend, you shall be its negro slave. Ah! You would have none of the honest weariness of men, you shall have the sweat of the damned. Where others sing, you will rattle in your throat. You will see afar off, from below, other men at work; it will seem to you that they are resting. The laborer, the harvester, the sailor, the blacksmith, will appear to you in glory like the blessed spirits in paradise. What radiance surrounds the forge! To guide the plough, to bind the sheaves, is joy. The bark at liberty in the wind, what delight! Do you, lazy idler, delve, drag on, roll, march! Drag your halter. You are a beast of burden in the team of hell! Ah! To do nothing is your object. Well, not a week, not a day, not an hour shall you have free from oppression. You will be able to lift nothing without anguish. Every minute that passes will make your muscles crack. What is a feather to others will be a rock to you. The simplest things will become steep acclivities. Life will become monstrous all about you. To go, to come, to breathe, will be just so many terrible labors. Your lungs will produce on you the effect of weighing a hundred pounds. Whether you shall walk here rather than there, will become a problem that must be solved. Any one who wants to go out simply gives his door a push, and there he is in the open air. If you wish to go out, you will be obliged to pierce your wall. What does every one who wants to step into the street do? He goes downstairs; you will tear up your sheets, little by little you will make of them a rope, then you will climb out of your window, and you will suspend yourself by that thread over an abyss, and it will be night, amid storm, rain, and the hurricane, and if the rope is too short, but one way of descending will remain to you, to fall. To drop hap-hazard into the gulf, from an unknown height, on what? On what is beneath, on the unknown. Or you will crawl up a chimney-flue, at the risk of burning; or you will creep through a sewer-pipe, at the risk of drowning; I do not speak of the holes that you will be obliged to mask, of the stones which you will have to take up and replace twenty times a day, of the plaster that you will have to hide in your straw pallet. A lock presents itself; the bourgeois has in his pocket a key made by a locksmith. If you wish to pass out, you will be condemned to execute a terrible work of art; you will take a large sou, you will cut it in two plates; with what tools? You will have to invent them. That is your business. Then you will hollow out the interior of these plates, taking great care of the outside, and you will make on the edges a thread, so that they can be adjusted one upon the other like a box and its cover. The top and bottom thus screwed together, nothing will be suspected. To the overseers it will be only a sou; to you it will be a box. What will you put in this box? A small bit of steel. A watch-spring, in which you will have cut teeth, and which will form a saw. With this saw, as long as a pin, and concealed in a sou, you will cut the bolt of the lock, you will sever bolts, the padlock of your chain, and the bar at your window, and the fetter on your leg. This masterpiece finished, this prodigy accomplished, all these miracles of art, address, skill, and patience executed, what will be your recompense if it becomes known that you are the author? The dungeon. There is your future. What precipices are idleness and pleasure! Do you know that to do nothing is a melancholy resolution? To live in idleness on the property of society! to be useless, that is to say, pernicious! This leads straight to the depth of wretchedness. Woe to the man who desires to be a parasite! He will become vermin! Ah! So it does not please you to work? Ah! You have but one thought, to drink well, to eat well, to sleep well. You will drink water, you will eat black bread, you will sleep on a plank with a fetter whose cold touch you will feel on your flesh all night long, riveted to your limbs. You will break those fetters, you will flee. That is well. You will crawl on your belly through the brushwood, and you will eat grass like the beasts of the forest. And you will be recaptured. And then you will pass years in a dungeon, riveted to a wall, groping for your jug that you may drink, gnawing at a horrible loaf of darkness which dogs would not touch, eating beans that the worms have eaten before you. You will be a wood-louse in a cellar. Ah! Have pity on yourself, you miserable young child, who were sucking at nurse less than twenty years ago, and who have, no doubt, a mother still alive! I conjure you, listen to me, I entreat you. You desire fine black cloth, varnished shoes, to have your hair curled and sweet-smelling oils on your locks, to please low women, to be handsome. You will be shaven clean, and you will wear a red blouse and wooden shoes. You want rings on your fingers, you will have an iron necklet on your neck. If you glance at a woman, you will receive a blow. And you will enter there at the age of twenty. And you will come out at fifty! You will enter young, rosy, fresh, with brilliant eyes, and all your white teeth, and your handsome, youthful hair; you will come out broken, bent, wrinkled, toothless, horrible, with white locks! Ah! my poor child, you are on the wrong road; idleness is counselling you badly; the hardest of all work is thieving. Believe me, do not undertake that painful profession of an idle man. It is not comfortable to become a rascal. It is less disagreeable to be an honest man. Now go, and ponder on what I have said to you. By the way, what did you want of me? My purse? Here it is.”

And the old man, releasing Montparnasse, put his purse in the latter’s hand; Montparnasse weighed it for a moment, after which he allowed it to slide gently into the back pocket of his coat, with the same mechanical precaution as though he had stolen it.

All this having been said and done, the goodman turned his back and tranquilly resumed his stroll.

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An excerpt from “Edward Glaeser on Joblessness and the War on Work” with a different, modern take on the value of work to the worker (If you would rather listen to the conversation, click on the link above and go to the 60 minute mark):

Russ Roberts: We opened with–you raised the question early on about meaning in life. A lot of people are pushing for Universal Basic Income as a way to soften the blow of joblessness from technology, if it is coming, if it is as bad as it might appear to be, for some. Sounds like you’re not a big fan of that solution.

Edward Glaeser: A world in which 30%, 40% of America all lives on the dole? Is that a good world?

Russ Roberts: Well, they wouldn’t be living on the dole. They’d be living on the 70%. It’s important to–‘the dole’ always makes it sound like it’s coming from somewhere else. It’s coming from the 60-70% who are working.

Edward Glaeser: That’s right. For sure. For sure. But I think it’s not just an issue of–yes. I mean, I’m less focused on the fact that we would have to–assuming that you and I were still among the working–that we would have to pay for it than I am that it’s just–it’s a horror for the 30%. It’s not just that the 70% have to pay for it. I mean, you’re telling them their lives are not going to be ones of contribution; their lives aren’t going to be producing a product that anyone values? That they are just going to be taking a check from somewhere else? How in the world does that not lead to incredible social problems within the United States? How does that 30% not become, does not, bored, become incredibly resentful and hostile towards the 70% that write the checks? This is–I think this is a horror story that has been dreamed up. And it’s one that, you know, just not the slightest knowledge of what human beings value in their lives. The idea that happiness just involves getting a check seems crazy to me.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I point out in an essay that if you teach your students that utility maximization is–that the essence of economics and the essence of life is maximizing utility subject to an income constraint, you might tend to overemphasize the material relative to the nonmaterial. We do tend, with our focus on utility maximization, income, GDP [Gross Domestic Product]–and I say this as an economist who often has written on the fact that utility can include non-monetary things, of course. But, we do tend to focus on the material. And, our policy advice overwhelmingly focuses on the material. So, I think you and I are in a minority in worrying about, as economists, worrying about whether a world where 30% or 40% of Americans are not working is, might be a not-so-healthy place.

Edward Glaeser: I think that’s right. But I think it’s not very hard once you get people thinking about this and once you get people looking at the data of what the lives of the jobless are, to move them in this area. When you tell your students–when you talk to your students about this–right? When you talk to your students about utility, and purpose in life, they don’t immediately push back and say, ‘Oh, no, the point of my life is to maximize cash.’ I’ve never once had an undergraduate who said that was the right answer. I think you’re right: Our profession has done some bad in terms of making it seem as if cash is the dominant thing in the world. It’s an important part of the world; but it’s certainly not the dominant–certainly not a wise goal for unique maximization.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I worry that we’re different, you and me. You and I are different, in the following way. I don’t play the lottery. I’m not going to ask you the personal question whether you play the lottery, Ed. But I don’t play the lottery. But if I did play the lottery and I won, I think I’d still keep my job. I like my job. I like what I do; and I like–I like talking to Ed Glaeser, on a Monday morning. It’s a treat. So, I think I’d still do EconTalk if I were filthy rich. But maybe I’m different. A lot of people, at least think that they are playing the lottery so they can retire, and live a life of leisure. Certainly, Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, and others, other writers of fiction, have tried to deal with the fact that people maybe aren’t so eager to find meaning in their life. They are maybe happy to be on TV, or soma–the drug of Brave New World–or whatever it is that makes us forget, or makes us high, or whatever it is. What do you think?

Edward Glaeser: Uh, I don’t know. It seems like these people who, as we said, are living with some other person in their house; they’ve got, you know, it’s not that they are starving; their family income is $42,000, if they’re in the long-term jobless or over 60[?] in the short-term jobless; and yet, their self-reported life satisfaction is pretty low. Their suicide rates are pretty high. It’s hard to look at the data and be convinced that the Huxley vision was particularly sensible. Now, maybe–and I’ve heard this line from Silicon Valley–maybe we could restructure society in some kind of way that gives people ways to contribute to the world even when they’re not working and enables them to do so in ways that are more pleasant than their old jobs. I just have no faith that America will be able to pull that off. I have no faith in our–I mean, as an economist, I certainly, I believe that culture matters; but I certainly have no idea how to change culture. Whereas, if you are going to work every day, it’s not just that you are doing something that someone’s likely to be giving you positive feedback for, but you are also surrounded by your mates. You are surrounded by people around you who give you some sense of social connection, and that’s also part of why having a job really matters.

Just to make clear what I meant about utility maximization in the material world: In theory, most economic models that we teach our students, and that we use, assume that your satisfaction–your utility–is the same whether you earn your income or whether it’s a check from the government. And I agree with you 100%: I think that’s probably not true. And I don’t think we understand that very well, how it’s not true. And I think sociologists–I don’t know if they understand it pretty well, but that’s what they should–in theory, that’s what they should be doing; I don’t know if we should be doing it. But, we clearly don’t, I think, understand that difference; and I think we ought to think about it.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Timeless!


[i] “For example, stay-at-home parents not only create human capital when they raise healthy and capable children (and human capital is the ultimate resource), they facilitate the production of wealth by the parent who works outside the home.”

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