The laziness dogma

Jeb Bush speaks at a meet and greet in Iowa Monday.
Jeb Bush speaks at a meet and greet in Iowa Monday. AP

Americans work longer hours than their counterparts in just about every other wealthy country; we are known as the “no-vacation nation.” According to a 2009 study, full-time U.S. workers put in almost 30 percent more hours in a year than their German counterparts, largely because they had only half as many weeks of paid leave. Not surprisingly, work-life balance is a problem for many people.

But Jeb Bush, who is still trying to justify his ludicrous claim that he can double our rate of economic growth, says that Americans “need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families.”

Bush’s aides have tried to spin his remark, claiming that he was referring to workers stuck in part-time employment. It’s obvious from the context, however, that this was not the case. The real source of his remark was the “nation of takers” dogma that has taken over conservative circles – the insistence that a large number of Americans are choosing not to work because they can live leisurely thanks to government programs.

This laziness dogma is everywhere on the right. It was the hidden background to Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent remark. It underlay attacks on unemployment benefits at a time of mass unemployment. It drives claims that workers receiving disability payments are malingerers. “Over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts,” says Sen. Rand Paul.

It all adds up to a vision that the biggest problem facing America is we’re too nice to fellow citizens facing hardship. And the appeal to conservatives is obvious: It is another reason to slash aid to the less fortunate while cutting taxes on the rich.

Given how attractive the right finds the image of laziness run wild, you wouldn’t expect contrary evidence to make much dent in the dogma. Federal spending on “income security” has shown no upward trend as a share of GDP. It surged during the Great Recession but quickly dropped back. Paul’s numbers are wrong. Disability claims have risen no more than you would expect given the aging of the population. But no matter, an epidemic of laziness is their story and they’re sticking with it.

Where does Jeb Bush fit into this? Well before his “longer hours” gaffe, he professed himself an admirer of Charles Murray, a conservative social analyst famous for his 1994 book “The Bell Curve.” What Bush seems to admire most is a more recent book, “Coming Apart,” which notes that over past decades, working-class white families have changed the same way African-American families changed in the 1950s and 1960s, with declining rates of marriage and labor force participation.

Some of us look at these changes as consequences of an economy that no longer offers good jobs to ordinary workers. Murray, however, sees the changes as the consequence of a decline in traditional values, enabled by government programs which mean that men no longer “need to work to survive.” Bush presumably shares that view.

The point is that Bush’s call for longer work hours wasn’t a verbal stumble. It was an indication that he stands firmly on the right side of the great divide over what working American families need.

There’s now an effective consensus among Democrats that workers need guaranteed health insurance, higher minimum wages and enhanced bargaining power. Republicans, however, believe that workers aren’t trying hard enough, and that the way to change that is to strip away the safety net while cutting taxes on wealthy “job creators.”

And while Jeb Bush may sometimes sound like a moderate, he’s very much in line with the party consensus. If he makes it to the White House, the laziness dogma will rule public policy.

Paul Krugman is a columnist for The New York Times.