During a recent interview, presidential candidate Jeb Bush outlined his economic plan, which included a goal of achieving 4 percent economic growth.
As for how we might achieve that growth, Bush went on to commit a grave and sinful error, daring imply that Americans might need to work a bit harder:
My aspiration for the country — and I believe we can achieve it — is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see,” he told the newspaper. “Which means we have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families. That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this rut that we’re in.
The pundits descended, the trolls ignited, and the competing politicians proceeded to pounce, including his chief rival, Hillary Clinton, who tweeted: “Anyone who believes Americans aren’t working hard enough hasn’t met enough American workers.” The media followed in turn, running numerous stories on the “real” barriers to economic growth: economic inequality, low wages, and — my personal least-favorite — a lack of “good jobs.”
Bush eventually retorted, later explaining how his remarks were taken out of context and so on and so on.
There’s plenty of fun we can have in debating all that. But regardless of what he did or didn’t mean and what the present or future reality might actually be, the whole spectacle serves as a rather discouraging case study on our country’s shifting cultural attitudes. Recall the basic sequence of events:
- Politician says we should work more hours if we want to stay competitive.
- Americans respond by working harder complaining about hours and whining about jobs and wages.
Note that every previous generation in America worked far longer hours in far worse jobs and were far poorer than we are today. They toiled in dire conditions, breathing dirty air, working exhausting hours, and bringing in little pay. And yet, would their first (or second or third) response to #1 be anything close to #2?
Would our ancestors respond to this type of rallying cry with pessimism and entitled shruggery? Would those who persevered through the Great Depression — who had every reason to be frustrated and broken by their toil — respond to calls for increased hard work and perseverance by saying, “I’m already working hard and long enough, and by the way, get me a better job”?
Our attitudes about work and wages matter. They have the profound power to transform hearts, orient the work of our hands, amplify our economic vision, and elevate the trajectory of civilization. But when corrupted, they distort and pervert the economic order to our peril, distracting us toward narrow materialism and contract-obsessed minimum-mindedness.
When one considers this, the reactionary angst on display may seem small, but it is nevertheless a signal of an increasingly warped American imagination.
The arguments will vary as to what the “real” economic solution might be. But if I’ve learned anything about the hearts and minds of those who built this country before us, I have a hunch they wouldn’t respond to “work harder” with moping cynicism.
I’m not sure what they’d say, but the voice in my head sounds more like, “Oh yeah? Watch this.”