How an Anecdote About Work Habits Might Have Been Twisted Into an Attack on Child Labor Laws

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

The cult of "Newt the Idea Guy" continues unabated. My doubts about Newt Gingrich's reputation as a font of ideas (see here, here, and here) are based on the observation that Gingrich has done nothing to support the widely-held belief that he is a source of new ideas. To the contrary, he does nothing more than repeat old conservative ideas -- loudly and self-importantly. Even so, the media narrative has become entrenched, actively promoting the idea that "Newt Gingrich as president could turn the White House into an ideas factory" (as the title of a Washington Post article asserts), or confirming that "[i]deas erupt from the mind of Newt Gingrich — bold, unconventional and sometimes troubling and distracting" (as an article in the New York Times insists).

Once one peels away the hagiography, however, one is left with nothing more than an observation that Gingrich says a lot of things. As I approvingly quoted Maureen Dowd as saying recently, however, the things that Gingrich is saying "are mostly chuckleheaded." That does not mean that he is a fool, but only that his ideas are truly bad ideas. They are, moreover, tired ideas.

In Gingrich's imagined world, the Washington Post breathlessly tells us, "[t]here are two Social Security systems — one old, one new, running side by side. There are two tax systems and two versions of Medicare. Immigration decisions are handled by citizen councils spread across the country. And in the White House is a president who ... can fire federal judges with whom he disagrees, and some new laws are written so that they cannot be reviewed by the courts." How is that different than other Republican candidates running for President this year -- or, for that matter, any Republican running for sewer commissioner? The details are different, but every GOP candidate has attacked federal judges for decades (ever since, at least, Brown v. Board of Education), has tried to enable localized immigrant bashing, and has proposed crazy attacks on the federal income tax and the Social Security system. (The two-track idea -- an especially absurd proposal -- is certainly not Gingrich's.)

There is, in short, nothing innovative in the scope or content of Gingrich's proposals. Go to Mitt Romney's website. He has dozens of ideas -- mostly bad -- about how to fix the economy. He is no less "full of ideas" than Gingrich, yet he is not the anointed source of ideas.

Notwithstanding the inexplicable media narrative about Gingrich, I was particularly fascinated by his recent attack on the working habits of Americans living in poverty. As has been widely reported, Gingrich recently suggested that the lack of role models for children growing up in poverty could be remedied by having 9-year-olds work as janitors at their schools. Many commentators have rightly attacked Gingrich for this disgusting proposal, including Charles Blow of the New York Times, who presented evidence showing that Gingrich's assumptions about what happens in poor neighborhoods are simply wrong (and, needless to say, elitist and racist). The problem is not that poor children grow up without seeing hard-working, dedicated adults who understand the importance of a steady job, but that too many children's parents and neighbors are unable to find anything resembling a steady job. Why is the answer to that observation not that we should put willing and able-bodied people to work in steady jobs?

My take on Gingrich's bizarre comments, however, was initially somewhat more sympathetic -- but, ultimately, much more condemnatory. As it happens, I recently discussed the very phenomenon to which Gingrich alluded in his infamous comments, in my Tax Policy Seminar.

We were discussing the long-term damage to an economy of denying work to able-bodied and willing workers over long periods of time. The usual (and correct) argument is that workers are susceptible to the same kind of atrophy as is any muscle or piece of machinery: If they are not taken out for regular runs, they perform less well when finally put back to work. When one also takes into account the uniquely human aspects of work habits, it is easy to see how people can lose the ability to work productively, if denied the ability to do so over time. (The self-destruction caused by drug and alcohol abuse is only the most obvious way in which human beings destroy their own long-term productive capacity, when they have little hope of returning to productive work.)

As part of that discussion, I recalled a story (probably not apocryphal, but I cannot be sure) that I once heard about a person who had never held a job in his life, but who had been given the opportunity to work at manual labor for a decent wage. As the story goes, this guy was a model worker for two weeks, at which point he received his first paycheck. He then failed to show up for work for the next several weeks, only to reappear on a Monday morning ready to work. When the foreman asked him what had happened, he replied: "I waited until I was out of money, and now I need to make some more money."

To me, the point of this story was that the "habits of work" are anything but intuitive. What, after all, was so wrong about this guy's thinking? We work to make money, so we do not work when we do not need money. Why would anyone think that someone should report for work simply because it was a Monday morning? The larger point is that workers need to learn the expectations of their employers, not just because their employers are paying them to perform specific tasks, but because the employment relationship is much more complicated than it appears to be on the surface.

If I am right that Gingrich heard a version of this story, it is instructive just how many capricious twists are necessary to recast it as an attack on child labor laws. To me, it is not difficult to imagine a few odd people who have never been trained to think about working as a long-term relationship. I do not imagine that such people are numerous, even in impoverished communities, but I do find it interesting to think about how even one such person can shine a light on the importance of what labor economists call "job attachment" to the long-term health of the economy and all of its workers. We think of workers as mere "factors of production" at our peril.

By contrast, the lesson that Gingrich takes from such a story -- which, again, is simply a potentially instructive anecdote about one person, not an observation about the work habits of all poor people -- is that children cannot possibly learn the importance of job attachment, in a world in which many people suffer from long periods of unemployment, without themselves being put to work. Again, this is based on a plausible initial supposition: If I see people who do not go to work, I am not receiving regular reinforcement about the importance of work. But again, how in the world does one not proceed from that observation to the conclusion that we must make sure that adults in poor neighborhoods have the opportunity to work? If the problem is that children need role models, should we not give them role models?

Even if we give up on the possibility of role models, moreover, how do we move from "Children need to understand the importance of reporting regularly to work" to "Children should be forced to work at menial jobs -- while they are still children"? As a mocking report on "The Colbert Report" noted, Gingrich's conclusion is premised on the idea that children do show up for school regularly (where we can put a mop in their hands), begging the question of what exactly we have gained -- in terms of their appreciation of a being prompt and responsible -- by making them clean toilets.

If anything, this controversy show just how little content there is to the cult of Gingrich the Thinker. I am giving him the benefit of the doubt that he even heard about this anecdote, because that is the only way to believe that his initial thoughts were not purely random and malevolent. Even if he was grabbing onto an idea that might actually lead to some interesting conclusions, however, Gingrich reflexively turned it into an attack on government. Why do people not work? Because no poor people work, and as children, the government did not have them work for a wage. Therefore, child labor laws are "truly stupid." These illogical leaps are not the workings of an innovative mind. They are the undisciplined and unprincipled lurching of a politician who cannot understand anything outside his twisted view of the world.