Men Loafing

by Don Boudreaux on August 2, 2006

in Work

Russ posted on the recent New York Times report on men choosing not to work.  This letter-to-the-editor in today’s edition of the Gray Lady nicely describes the phenomenon:

To the Editor:

Are you trying to portray this as a social problem? No way. The phenomenon has been around since men have existed.

There is a word for it in English: loafing.

Victor Sanchez
Battle Creek, Mich., July 31, 2006

Bravo for Mr. Sanchez.

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{ 32 comments }

save the rustbelt August 2, 2006 at 9:26 pm

If I remember correctly one of the men profiled had done 30 years or so in a steel mill.

That is work, relatively speaking, being a professor is loafing (been there done that).

John Dewey August 3, 2006 at 8:44 am

save the rustbelt,

Mental work and communicative work can be just as tiring as physical work, but in a different way.

Some of the professors I've known were loafers, and exhibited little commitment to their profession. But many others worked very hard and very long to get ideas through to students, to set up and conduct research tests, to keep their knowledge current, and much more. You claim to know that professorship is loafing because you've "been there done that". Is it possible you didn't enjoy the work enough to muster the commitment?

Half Sigma August 3, 2006 at 9:48 am

Professors will teach two classes for six hours of work a week, and get summer's off. The world's cushiest job.

If the job were subject to true free market competition, (there are zillions of PhDs who can't find jobs as professors at any salary at all due to institutional restraints on free market employment of professors), the wage would go down to practically nothing.

Randy August 3, 2006 at 9:55 am

John,

I've gotta go with Rustbelt on this one. I've worked in factories, construction, offices, and management. I've also done a few stints as an instructor. The physical jobs are much harder than the mental jobs. All it takes to recover from a hard day at the office is a good walk or maybe a bike ride. The only way to recover from a day on the line, or a day putting in cable, is a good nights sleep. And if you work Saturdays too, like I often did, there really is no recovery except to sleep in on Sunday.

P.S. This is one of the main problems I have with extending the retirement age as a solution to the Social Security shortfall. The people who offer this solution don't seem to have a clue about how hard some people work – or how long 30 years can be.

John Dewey August 3, 2006 at 10:30 am

Randy,

I will not dispute that some jobs are physically demanding. But I don't agree that necessarily makes them "harder". How hard a job is for a partilcular individual depends on how suited he is for the job.

The most physically demanding jobs are being eliminated. Few cities still have garbagemen who lift heavy cans into trucks. Robots are replacing most line workers in factories. Higher quality materials have increased the life of roofing shingles, cutting the manhours required for roofing work per house. You guys are referring to a working world that will soon not exist.

Your argument about not extending the retirement age seems to ignore personal responsibility. The few workers who remain in physically demanding jobs should recognize they won't be able to do such work when they're 65. It should be their responsibility to learn and find work they can continue to do.

Please don't tell me that no one will hire seniors. I've hired several over the past decade, and they've worked well for me. Warren Meyer (www.coyoteblog.com) primarily hires seniors for his large service business. He claims they love the work.

Randy August 3, 2006 at 10:45 am

John,

I hear you – and there's a reason I don't work in a packing plant anymore. I also think that, for many, retirement will not be an option. But I don't think there are as few of the hard jobs as you imagine. They just tend to be invisible. You drive by the road workers and construction sites without ever really seeing them. A factory is just a big building by the side of the road on the way to the office. The oil rigs are offshore. The mines in out of the way places that few ever see.

I think that raising the retirement age will simply result in more disability claims. I truly doubt the savings will be anything close to what is expected.

Noah Yetter August 3, 2006 at 12:57 pm

"If the job were subject to true free market competition, (there are zillions of PhDs who can't find jobs as professors at any salary at all due to institutional restraints on free market employment of professors), the wage would go down to practically nothing."

That depends entirely on the subject. Wages for English and Philosophy professors would very likely be even lower than they are now. Wages for Accounting and Finance professors, not so much. Those professors already earn more because they have higher opportunity cost; they can earn quite a bit of money applying their knowledge rather than passing it on.

Also many professors work at teaching schools and have 4-5 classes per semester, and 2-3 in the summer (though often for extra pay). One economics professor at my old school taught part time at 3 other nearby community colleges.

quadrupole August 3, 2006 at 1:18 pm

It really comes down to opportunity cost. A PhD computer scientist who is qualified to teach at a major research university (ie, both grad and undergrad courses) could easily command double what the university is paying them in the open market. The cushiness of the job effectively becomes additional compensation. The problem is that universities have strong egalitarian tendencies, and so tend not to want to pay one class of professors (those in technical and finance fields) 4 or 5 times what they pay other classes of professors (those in the liberal arts). This effectively inflates the wages of the liberal arts profs, and drives up the cost of higher education. Fortunately for universities, public financial aid picks up a lot of the slack, so they can get away with it.

Don Boudreaux August 3, 2006 at 1:49 pm

Aren't we here overlooking the question that should be most relevant: What is the value of ad hominem arguments?

Let's assume that I and every other college professor loafs continually and is vastly overpaid to do so. (In fact, I can't resist saying that I wrote the post "Men Loafing" while waiting — loafing? — in the Atlanta airport for a flight home to northern Virginia. I was returning from a conference in Santa Fe, paid for exclusively by an exclusively private foundation; a few days earlier I flew directly to Santa Fe from Tampa. My wife and I were in Tampa lecturing and leading discussion groups at Cato University — another event paid for exclusively by an exclusively private operation. But I digress.)

So what if I and other college professors are overpaid loafers? What relevance does this fact have for evaluating the accusation that persons who refuse to work at jobs they consider to be beneath them are themselves loafers?

Oh, by the way, I paid for my undergraduate college education by working every summer, and during holiday breaks, at Avondale Shipyards in Louisiana. So if Save the Rustbelt excuses the former steel worker for now sitting home and reading novels all day long, surely he can excuse me for now loafing in role of a college professor.

Randy August 3, 2006 at 2:29 pm

True, the ad hominem argument is useless. But Rustbelt is correct that a steelworker who retires early after 30 years can hardly be accused of loafing.

The open question is should the society contribute to such "loafing"? The answer at this point has been determined to be yes. By law, future professors are encouraged to take advantage of public funding to achieve the positions in which they can "loaf", and steel workers are encouraged to take advantage of public funding to achieve positions in which they can "loaf". Repeat – by law.

P.S. John, it occurs to me that it comes down to what we mean by "harder". The doctor works hard to achieve knowledge, but once obtained, applying the knowledge is not that hard. "You have diabetes – see the nurse for your regimen – next". The knowledge of the coal miner, on the other hand, is obtained easily, but applied with great difficulty day after day. Philosophically it seems similar, but its a whole different life. And those who would make policy need to understand this.

Half Sigma August 3, 2006 at 2:40 pm

"So what if I and other college professors are overpaid loafers? "

So what if some 50 year old blue collar guy is loafing?

Both the college professor at the state school and the blue collar guy are getting money from the government to pay for their loafing.

John Dewey August 3, 2006 at 3:22 pm

Randy: "The doctor works hard to achieve knowledge, but once obtained, applying the knowledge is not that hard."

The physicians I know spend a lot of their "free" time ensuring they keep current in their profession. My wife has worked with physicians in hospitals for 30 years. She knows very well how much medical knowledge has changed.

Doctors and nurses definitely do not acquire all their knowldege at one time. My wife is certified for the operating room. She is required to continue learning throughout her career in order to maintain that certification.

Many other professionals are required, either to maintain certification or through market pressures, to keep their knowledge current. College professors – particularly those in economics, business, law, and the sciences – would certainly fall into that category. Keeping current is no easy task.

Randy: "Philosophically it seems similar, but its a whole different life. And those who would make policy need to understand this."

Why? If you're referring again to increasing the retirement age, it still comes down to personal responsibility.
That's the only policy issue I noticed in the posts above. Did I miss something?

John Dewey August 3, 2006 at 3:33 pm

Randy,

One more point about physicians. The ones my wife works with all work very long hours. Often their day starts at 6:00 AM as they prepare for an early surgery. It doesn't end until 6:00 PM, after seeing numerous patients in the office. For many it doesn't even end then, as they have other non-patient tasks.

Randy August 3, 2006 at 4:14 pm

John,

Doctors may have been a bad example. Most of the medical doctors I know do put in some long hours. A long day is physically demanding in and of itself.

Yes, the retirement age is the policy issue I was referring to. Personally, I think that raising the retirement age to 70 is, overall, a good idea, as long as people are still allowed to retire at 62. Those who can't handle another 8 years of hard labor can still get a reduced benefit, while those who find another 8 years feasible will receive a higher benefit for doing so. Its a recognition that raising the retirement age is most punishing to those who do the most physically demanding work.

John Dewey August 3, 2006 at 4:24 pm

"Personally, I think that raising the retirement age to 70 is, overall, a good idea, as long as people are still allowed to retire at 62."

We agree on this.

"Raising the retirement age is most punishing to those who do the most physically demanding work."

I agree that anyone continuing to do physically taxing work into their 60's will have more difficulty. To me, though, that's a personal responsibility issue rather than a policy issue. I would never favor different rules for folks just because they unwisely worked too long in a tough job.

Randy August 3, 2006 at 5:06 pm

Define "unwise". Say I'm late 40s, I have a physically demanding job but I'm good at it, a wife, 3 or 4 kids I'm hoping to put through college, a mortgage, and hopes to retire someday. Would it be wise for me to take an office job somewhere? Perhaps. But the truth is that if I was cut out to be an engineer I would have been one in my 20s. The jobs available to me in my 40s and 50s are unlikely to pay nearly as well as the one I've gotten good at. No, I think most in this situation would think it "wiser" to tough it out and retire at 62. And I think proposals that would take that option away are going to meet with serious resistance.

John Dewey August 3, 2006 at 5:40 pm

Randy,

I think we only disagree about whether the government – meaning the taxpayers – should bear the burden of the wealth-maximizing choices of some folks. Nearly everyone could find a less demanding job at age 45 or 50. True, some of those jobs do not pay as well as many of the physically-tough or dangerous jobs. But the option is there.

I agree that most Americans have no intention of taking responsibility for their own well-being. They will resist as long as possible reforming Social Security. An enormous wedge will be driven between seniors and their grandchildren, who are going to face a tax burden twice what we're facing today.

How serious will our grandchildren be in resisting such a tax burden? I don't have the answer to that. I'm surprised 20-somethings and 30-somethings aren't already complaining dauly to their congressmen.

Bruce Hall August 3, 2006 at 5:46 pm

It sounds like there is an awful lot of confusion between exertion and work. Work tends to imply that something constructive (societally) is happening. Exertion can be a part of work, but it is not necessary to have great exertion to achieve positive results.

That said, I "retired" after 5 years of service in the Air Force and 30 years in industry, neither of which required the exertion that I spent in my summer jobs during high school and college. Yet, I believe the overall contributions I made during the last 35 years were greater than those during my school years.

Dr. Boudreaux' "loafing" in writing his blog entry was work in the sense that it contributes to the thinking processes of others and forces them to examine their attitudes, which in turn may be a very constructive piece of work.

I have learned that "retirement" from one area of commerce has enabled me to participate in another from the "loafing" comfort of my own home. My three sons have discovered the same thing and are earning handsome amounts from the comfort of their homes. They pick their own hours and work anywhere within their "wireless" network, including the lake.

So the narrow definition of work based on exertion is no more applicable than is the narrow definition of "loafing" based on lounging in the comfort of one's home.

I prefer the more mundane distinction between useful activity and idleness.

Randy August 3, 2006 at 6:03 pm

Bruce,

Agreed. People are rewarded for creating value, not expending energy – which is as it should be. But public policies are problematic when they apply to both those who create value while expending little energy and those who create value while expending significant energy.

Half Sigma August 3, 2006 at 6:21 pm

"People are rewarded for creating value"

More often, they are rewarded for being able to transfer value from others to themselves.

For example, college professors are able to transfer value from PhD students to themselves.

Noah Yetter August 3, 2006 at 6:39 pm

"Say I'm late 40s, I have a physically demanding job but I'm good at it, a wife, 3 or 4 kids I'm hoping to put through college, a mortgage, and hopes to retire someday. Would it be wise for me to take an office job somewhere?"

What it would be wise for you to do is save more money, given the realization that you will not be able to do your job as long as you would one less physically demanding.

"More often, they are rewarded for being able to transfer value from others to themselves."

"More often" makes this statement false. See if you can understand why. Hint: look at the proportion of those who make their living by transferring value compared to that of those who make their living by creating value.

Half Sigma August 3, 2006 at 7:11 pm

"Rewarded" is the key word. The guys collecting garbage are creating value. But I'd hardly call the low pay they get for such a dirty job a "reward."

Rewards go to people who transfer value: the investment bankers, the salesmen, the college professors.

JohnDewey August 4, 2006 at 6:33 am

Half sigma,

Are there still low paid garbage collectors in the U.S.? The only garbage collectors I ever see drive big trucks that use robot arms to pick up containers. Those garbage truck drivers make a decent wage, and they don't get very dirty.

Is garbage collection still not automated where you live?

I'm sure that every low paid worker everywhere feels "rewarded" when they get their paycheck. Otherwise they wouldn't be working. Their pay may not be high enough for you, but it's not your decision about what they'll work for, is it?

Noah Yetter August 4, 2006 at 12:23 pm

How does an investment banker, a salesman, or a college professor not create value? I just don't even know where to begin, it's quite clear you fail to grasp the most fundamental concepts at work here.

Jeff Younger August 4, 2006 at 8:16 pm

Don and others, I'm confused. Why is loafing an irrational economic choice?

If a people can obtain the goods needed to satify their wants with little labor, and choose to labor little, what's the problem?

anon August 5, 2006 at 1:08 pm

Loafing is a perfectly rational choice. What's irrational is subsidizing other people's loafing. And yet we've chosen to do so on a massive scale.

Jeff Younger August 5, 2006 at 4:19 pm

Anon wrote: "What's irrational is subsidizing other people's loafing. And yet we've chosen to do so on a massive scale."

I agree, but the people mentioned have worked for decades at confiscatory rates (35%+) of taxation. Is it economically rational to write off that huge loss? Why not recoup the confiscated monies later in life?

I think this another example of free market economists engaging in fantasy. Certainly, if the labor market were free, then Don’s characterization would be undeniably correct. There’s just one problem: the labor market is not free. In fact, it’s one of the most regulated, taxed and planned markets in America.

I am a free market advocate, but I do not let this blind me to the fact that government regulation creates real economic incentives, nor do I warrant that responding to those unavoidable incentives is necessarily irrational. I don’t think we should PRETEND that the American economy is free because it most certainly is not.

I now have to give the standard disclaimer: I am a free market advocate. I often question free market thinkers on their fundamental assumptions. These thinkers are used to challenging other people’s assumptions, so they often get very nasty when people question their assumptions. To repeat: I am a free market advocate. I’m still betting I’ll get another post calling me a socialist or a protectionist. It'll probably be from John Dewey. Yawn.

JohnDewey August 6, 2006 at 5:16 am

Jeff Younger,

Have I called you or anyone else a socialist or a protectionist? I don't remember doing so. Can you point me to a post where I've done that?

Did I ever get "very nasty when people questioned my assumptions"? What do you mean by "very nasty" anyway?

I do disagree with posts that are offerred on this blog. If that's what you object to – if you don't want anyone to disagree with you – maybe you shouldn't post a comment.

Trumpit August 8, 2006 at 3:01 am

There's a word for RICH people who don't work and thus live off the labor of hard working people like yours truly: LOOTING!

John Dewey August 8, 2006 at 10:49 am

Trumpit: "There's a word for RICH people who don't work and thus live off the labor of hard working people like yours truly: LOOTING!"

I don't think I'm rich, but I'm probably wealthier than 90% of the population.

Over the past 13 years my bookstores have provided parttime jobs for dozens of college students. Every one of them happily agreed to work for the wages I offerred. I didn't enslave a single one.

Ten days ago, at our huge anniversary sale,
at least 20 customers thanked me for providing quality books at very affordable prices over the years. They were all glad to shop in such a clean, organized store staffed by courteous, upbeat employees.

For the past 8 years I've not worked in my stores, but continued to enjoy the profits generated by those hardworking young employees. Does that make me a looter? Who's being looted?

If I will my store to a relative who carries on the business, both young employees and customers will be pleased. Will my relative be a looter?

Trumpit August 8, 2006 at 7:00 pm

John Dewey-

There are welfare checks then there are WELFARE checks. I suggest that you are cashing the latter. How do I know this? by your self-serving comment: "… at least 20 customers thanked me for providing quality books at very affordable prices over the years."

I'm glad you can pat yourself on the back for providing "quality books at very affordable prices." What were you going to provide your customers: beat up old books at unaffordable prices? You would have been driven out of business in a New York minute. I'm sure that the retired old folks who showed up at your anniversary party were there for the free cookies and kool-aid, not to congratulate you for giving low wage part-time employment to their grandchildren.

John Dewey August 9, 2006 at 6:34 pm

Trumpit, you amuse me. But I'm also a bit puzzled. What caused your antipathy for entrepreneurs, those "RICH people" who reap rewards from organizing the efforts of others? Have your employers taken advantage of you? Why not start your own business, then, and become a "LOOTER" yourself?

Tell me, sir, how would you entice entrepreneurs to start new businesses if they cannot foresee monetary gain? What can possibly be wrong when RICH people use their money to create jobs for those poor souls who cannot create their own jobs? What can be wrong when RICH people provide funds – investment – for other RICH people to create jobs for non-RICH people?

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