(Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he researches and writes extensively on demographics and economic development generally, and more specifically on international security in the Korean peninsula and Asia. Domestically, he focuses on poverty and social well-being.)
Can President-elect Donald Trump Make America Great Again? And can he make it great again for the 7 million men neither in work nor looking for work? This is the question I asked Nicholas N. Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute after reading his book Men Without Work. If Trump is to stand a chance, he will have to stop fetishising manufacturing and instead Make Small Business Great Again!
In this important book, Eberstadt examines a problem that was pretty much ignored in the election: the post-war flight by men from the world of work. This is the ‘male retreat from the labour force’ or ‘mass voluntary flight from work by men’ which is a ‘grave social ill’.
These 7 million men not in work nor seeking work are not doing any childcare or taking care of the home. Instead, they are enjoying up to 8 hours of screen time a day either watching TV or playing computer games and retreating from civil society. In addition, many are addicted to painkillers.
As Eberstadt pointed out, historically Marx said that religion was the opium of the people, but now “opium is the opium of the people.” These men are financially supported by either family members and/or disability insurance. It is a bleak picture indeed.
I asked Eberstadt if he believed Trump could turn things around for this group of men. He pointed out that these men have been easy to ignore – they have not taken to the streets to riot or protest. They are not traditionally seen as a victim group because society usually views men as the protectors not a group in need of protection. So the first thing to do is highlight the problem.
Eberstadt has limited hope that manufacturing can be revived to its former glory. Manufacturing has been ‘fetishised’ until now when, in fact, these jobs only count for about a tenth of all jobs.
Instead he believes there should first be a debate on the problem whereby a consensus could be built across the political spectrum. Then there should be a focus on small businesses that have really provided the jobs in the past. “These small business have been in a bad way since 2007 where more have closed than opened.”
Secondly, Eberstadt believes there should be major reform of the disability insurance system sustaining many of these men. “The US has a peculiar social welfare programme”, Eberstady explains, especially disability insurance “where the unintended consequences are that it incentives those on the margins to say they are incapable of working and then keeps them there until they can collect their pensions.”
Eberstadt was also very passionate about the millions of men not in prison but with felony convictions. He is appalled that the US government does not even keep information on them. As such he has had to make some well-informed estimates that these men are largely out of the workforce.
He points out that these men “have paid their debt to society and now we have an interest in forgiving them and getting them back in the game.” But without even elementary information to see what approach works, it will prove very difficult to have real reform. This is something that needs to change.
Only time will tell whether Trump can turn things around for these 7 million men currently cut adrift from the labour market and indeed civil life. They have been an easy group to ignore by the ‘bubble class’ so eloquently explained by Charles Murray in Coming Apart. Trump should be better placed than Hillary Clinton to make the necessary reform. She was only ever interested in every other group other than the unemployed male. And that reform cannot come quick enough.
(Image: Gage Skidmore)