Sunday , December 17 2017
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Miserable 21st Century

Summary:
Nicholas Eberstadt in Commentary, (HT Marginal Revolution) offers a revealing look at what's wrong with "middle" America's stagnation. Read the whole thing, but the following snapshot jumped out at me. He starts with a review, probably familiar to readers of this blog, of the sharp decline in work rates, even among prime-age men and women.As of late 2016, the adult work rate in America was still at its lowest level in more than 30 years. To put things another way: If our nation’s work rate today were back up to its start-of-the-century highs, well over 10 million more Americans would currently have paying jobs.Why are so many not working, not studying for work, and not even looking for work? What is going on in their lives? One answer:The opioid epidemic of pain pills and heroin that has been ravaging and shortening lives from coast to coast is a new plague for our new century...According to [Alan Krueger's] work, nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts—an army now totaling roughly 7 million men—currently take pain medication on a daily basis. I think Krueger had a different idea in mind: that they are in pain, indicated by medication, so can't be expected to work. How the explosion in disability jibes with a much safer workplace is an interesting puzzle to that view.

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Nicholas Eberstadt in Commentary, (HT Marginal Revolution) offers a revealing look at what's wrong with "middle" America's stagnation. Read the whole thing, but the following snapshot jumped out at me.

He starts with a review, probably familiar to readers of this blog, of the sharp decline in work rates, even among prime-age men and women.
As of late 2016, the adult work rate in America was still at its lowest level in more than 30 years. To put things another way: If our nation’s work rate today were back up to its start-of-the-century highs, well over 10 million more Americans would currently have paying jobs.
Why are so many not working, not studying for work, and not even looking for work? What is going on in their lives? One answer:
The opioid epidemic of pain pills and heroin that has been ravaging and shortening lives from coast to coast is a new plague for our new century...
According to [Alan Krueger's] work, nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts—an army now totaling roughly 7 million men—currently take pain medication on a daily basis.
I think Krueger had a different idea in mind: that they are in pain, indicated by medication, so can't be expected to work. How the explosion in disability jibes with a much safer workplace is an interesting puzzle to that view. Eberstadt has a different interpretation, and the lovely thing about facts is they are facts, not interpretations.
We already knew from other sources (such as BLS “time use” surveys) that the overwhelming majority of the prime-age men in this un-working army generally don’t “do civil society” (charitable work, religious activities, volunteering), or for that matter much in the way of child care or help for others in the home either, despite the abundance of time on their hands. Their routine, instead, typically centers on watching—watching TV, DVDs, Internet, hand-held devices, etc.—and indeed watching for an average of 2,000 hours a year, as if it were a full-time job. But Krueger’s study adds a poignant and immensely sad detail to this portrait of daily life in 21st-century America: In our mind’s eye we can now picture many millions of un-working men in the prime of life, out of work and not looking for jobs, sitting in front of screens—stoned.
(Mark Aguiar, Mark Bils, and Kewin Charles and Erik Hurst have a new paper coming soon, which I just saw presented, "Leisure Luxuries and the Labor Supply of Young Men", with some more facts about time-allocation of non-working young men. They emphasize cheaper and better video games and leave out drugs.)
But how did so many millions of un-working men, whose incomes are limited, manage en masse to afford a constant supply of pain medication? Oxycontin is not cheap. As Dreamland carefully explains, one main mechanism today has been the welfare state: more specifically, Medicaid, Uncle Sam’s means-tested health-benefits program. Here is how it works (we are with Quinones in Portsmouth, Ohio):
"[The Medicaid card] pays for medicine—whatever pills a doctor deems that the insured patient needs. Among those who receive Medicaid cards are people on state welfare or on a federal disability program known as SSI. . . . If you could get a prescription from a willing doctor—and Portsmouth had plenty of them—Medicaid health-insurance cards paid for that prescription every month. For a three-dollar Medicaid co-pay, therefore, addicts got pills priced at thousands of dollars, with the difference paid for by U.S. and state taxpayers. A user could turn around and sell those pills, obtained for that three-dollar co-pay, for as much as ten thousand dollars on the street."
You may now wish to ask: What share of prime-working-age men these days are enrolled in Medicaid? According to the Census Bureau’s SIPP survey (Survey of Income and Program Participation), as of 2013, over one-fifth (21 percent) of all civilian men between 25 and 55 years of age were Medicaid beneficiaries. For prime-age people not in the labor force, the share was over half (53 percent). And for un-working Anglos (non-Hispanic white men not in the labor force) of prime working age, the share enrolled in Medicaid was 48 percent.
By the way: Of the entire un-working prime-age male Anglo population in 2013, nearly three-fifths (57 percent) were reportedly collecting disability benefits from one or more government disability program in 2013. Disability checks and means-tested benefits cannot support a lavish lifestyle. But they can offer a permanent alternative to paid employment, and for growing numbers of American men, they do. The rise of these programs has coincided with the death of work for larger and larger numbers of American men not yet of retirement age. We cannot say that these programs caused the death of work for millions upon millions of younger men: What is incontrovertible, however, is that they have financed it—just as Medicaid inadvertently helped finance America’s immense and increasing appetite for opioids in our new century.
The VA has also been a part of getting veterans addicted to pain killers.

If you dozed off, the main point: Half of non-working prime age men take daily pain medication. Half of non-working prime-age people are in Medicaid, which pays for re-sellable opiates. Three-fifths of non-working prime age Anglos receive disability payments. The latter benefits disappear if you take a job, or if you move, a steep disincentive that Nick does not mention.

I knew the story, but was not really clear on the magnitude. Half.

An advantage of government-subsidized drugs Nick points out: crime is down. However, our criminal justice system offers another barrier to employment and advancement:
...rough arithmetic suggests that about 17 million men in our general population have a felony conviction somewhere in their CV. That works out to one of every eight adult males in America today.
In the understatement of the year,
we might guess that their odds in the real America are not all that favorable.
The bottom line
And when we consider some of the other trends we have already mentioned—employment, health, addiction, welfare dependence—we can see the emergence of a malign new nationwide undertow, pulling downward against social mobility.
Actually looking at people's lives in this way is devastating to the nostrum that "inequality" is mysteriously increasing and just needs more transfers, or its just a lack of "jobs" which can be brought back by left-wing "demand" or right-wing trade restrictions.
people inside the bubble are forever talking about “economic inequality,” that wonderful seminar construct, and forever virtue-signaling about how personally opposed they are to it. By contrast, “economic insecurity” is akin to a phrase from an unknown language.
This is I think an inartful choice of language. I hear "insecurity" a lot from the left, for example just how it is that obese people have trouble paying for food. And, Orwellian language or not, they do have a point. "Insecurity" is not the core of the problem. "Barriers to Advancement" sounds too old fashioned. "Caught in the web of awful disincentives" is more accurate but does not sing.
The abstraction of “inequality” doesn’t matter a lot to ordinary Americans. ...The Great American Escalator is broken—and it badly needs to be fixed.
With the election of 2016, Americans within the bubble finally learned that the 21st century has gotten off to a very bad start in America.
Reading the Weekend New York Times, especially the Review, I think this is actually false. Americans within the bubble are still foaming at the mouth with Trump Derangement Syndrome. But when they get a grip,
Welcome to the reality. We have a lot of work to do together to turn this around.
John H. Cochrane
In real life I'm a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. I was formerly a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I'm also an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. I'm not really grumpy by the way!

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