#143 Why Work?

the christian economist dave arnott

#143 Why Work?

Three million Americans quit working, but how are they living when “there is no free lunch”? We are Biblically commanded to work in order to serve our neighbors.  


How can three million people leave the workforce and still make a living?  Good question.  There is no free lunch, but these folks are eating something from somewhere. 


Poppy Fields

Andy Kessler writes in the Wall Street Journal recently and offers a couple of answers in his column titled, A Nation of QuittersThe subtitle gives away the answer: A new class avoids work while living off their affluent parents.  Oh, so someone IS paying their bills, it’s just not them.  I read this quote from Mr. Kessler’s article to my sophomores at Dallas Baptist University this week, as an encouragement to them:  It is cultural malaise, motivational submission. Society now promotes mediocrity and calls it equity—witness the scarcity of SAT test-score requirements for college. Too many got a taste of not working and liked it.  Why is it an encouragement to them?  Because this does NOT apply to my DBU students.  The easiest way to be a big fish is to find a suitably small pond.  They are big fish in this pond of lazy, non-workers.  

Who is paying?  Parents. They can afford it: As of March, baby boomers were sitting on a whopping $71 trillion to spoil their kids with. Did you know that half of U.S. households currently support an adult child?

The Statler brothers sang Countin’ flowers on the wall in 1965 and the rockabilly remake by Eric Heatherly in 2009 is worth a listen.  A few lines: Countin’ flowers on the wall, that don’t bother me at all.  Playing solitaire til dawn with a deck of 51.  Smoking cigarettes and watchin’ Captain Kangaroo, now don’t tell me, I’ve nothing to do.  

Someday I will write an entire podcast on The Wizard of Oz as a political/economic allegory.  But I will limit myself to only one observation today.  The poppy field prevented Dorothy and her friends from reaching the land of Oz.  It represented things that distracted people from real life when L Frank Baum wrote the story in 1900.  Opium is made from poppies.  Today, it’s marijuana, video games, and Facebook.  The video game “Fall Guys” has 50 million players.  

Socrates said, “A life unexamined is not worth living.”  I like Oscar Wilde’s take, “A life unlived is not worth examining.” During a small family work project in the pasture last weekend, our granddaughter reminded her five-year-old brother, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”  That’s probably pretty good advice, and it’s Biblical.  When Paul gave folks that advice, in second Thessalonians, they were being lazy, because of their expectations.  They expected Jesus was going to return soon, so they were not working.  I like how Eugene Peterson worded it in The Message, 10-13 Don’t you remember the rule we had when we lived with you? “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” And now we’re getting reports that a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings are taking advantage of you. This must not be tolerated. We command them to get to work immediately—no excuses, no arguments—and earn their own keep

Oh, this will surprise you: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is getting Biblical on us:  She predicted in 2019 that the “world is going to end in 12 years.”  How about that: AOC is channeling the Thessalonians who the Apostle Paul talked about.

By the way, here is one of my favorite comments to students who wait until the last minute to do their homework, “Christians believe Christ is going to return, and He may return before your assignment is due.  So, delaying your work is not procrastinating, it’s showing your faith!”  Just kidding, of course. 

When I’m demonstrating the 11 elements that move supply and demand curves, I point out that the only one that moves BOTH demand and supply curves is expectations.  You see, if demanders think the price is going to come down, they will wait to purchase.  If they think it’s going to go up, like now, during our current inflationary cycle, they will buy soon.  By the way, that’s one of the evils of inflation: It encourages the opposite of what the Bible teaches.  It encourages spending, instead of saving. 

But back to expectations: If consumers expect that the government is going to pay off their student loans, and give them food stamps and unemployment benefits, they will accept them.


Work is Good

In a five-minute PragerU video, Michael Tanner from the Cato Institute points out that not working is rational behavior when there is more incentive NOT to work than to work.  This is pretty simple stuff.  One of the seminal books in economics is called Human Action by Ludwig von Mises.  Economics is all about putting motivations where you want them.  And the Christian worldview is also.  As my favorite worldview philosopher, the late Davey Naugle used to say, “It’s ordering your loves.”  In Latin, it’s Ordo Amoris.  That Aristotelian idea takes me a little further into the philosophy that I should go, but it’s a true description of the problem I’m addressing today: Whom do you love? If you love your neighbor, you will supply products and services she demands.  I can’t quite figure out how living off your parents or the government is showing love to others.  Nor how parents supporting their adult children is love.  A simple definition of love is caring for the long-term development of another person.  Financially supporting an adult who is capable of supporting himself does not show love, because it does not produce development. 

I unpack more of the Biblical background for this idea in podcast #24 titled Work is good.  It’s actually one of the Ten Commandments of Economics that Sergiy Saydometov and I found while writing our book Biblical Economic Policy.  

And, I received a great insight when I was interviewed by Dennis Prager for his fireside chat.  Honor the Sabbath assumes that we’re supposed to work the other six days of the week.  Pretty good thinking, I suppose.  Oh, In 1908, the first five-day workweek in the United States was instituted by a New England cotton mill so that Jewish workers would not have to work on the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.  It became more common when Ford adopted the idea in 1926.  


Policies that Promote Production

My job is to simplify economics for my sophomores.  So here it is: There is only one thing that separates rich from poor nations, and it’s the title of podcast #27 Policies that Promote Production.  Yes, there are lesser contributions to a country’s wealth, but that’s the big one.  If your country has policies that encourage people to serve one another via work, your country will get rich.  If your country has the opposite policies, your country will be poor.  Which way are we headed in America?  Frightening, isn’t it?

In the classroom at Dallas Baptist University, I teach the work section pretty directly from the textbook, authored by Gregory Mankiw.  He says there are three things that discourage work: 

  1. Minimum wage
  2. Unemployment payments
  3. Labor Unions

Notice, that politicians who favor bigger government support all of these.  There is a really good Biblical argument that all of those demands are supposed to be supplied by the church, not the government.  You can add social security to the list also.  There is no Biblical basis for social security.  That’s another podcast for another day. 


Work as Recreation

Next month, I’m presenting an academic paper at the Christian Business Faculty Association that grew out of podcast #132 titled Work as Recreation.  The Christian worldview has three components: Creation, fall, and redemption.  Work is a part of creation because God gave Adam and Eve work to do in the garden.  After the fall, it became difficult, but it was not invented there.  Our call is to serve our neighbors by supplying them with products and services they demand. When we do that, we “re-create” the world by using our made in God’s image innovativeness to create new products and services.  If you say it fast re-creation becomes recreation, and that’s our economic Christian calling. 


We Pretend to Work

The Russians had a saying during the Communist years, “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”  Well, that now describes America.  Mr. Kessler again, No more nose to the grindstone. Now there’s “quiet quitting” and “ghosting coasting,” what we used to call “mailing it in,” “slacking off,” and “good enough for government work.” In a twist, companies are now “quiet firing.” Hey, you can’t quiet fire me, I already quiet quit.’ 

Many years ago, I watched a video clip from a national news program, explaining how workers wanted to bring their dogs to work.  My comment: “The next recession will solve all this.  They will be the first to go.”  But, what if they’re NOT only a small slice of the population?  

Oh, by the way.  A student just this week explained that he was going to miss our Econ quiz on Thursday because of a family emergency.  The family dog had cancer and he needed to say goodbye to his friend.  I responded, “Not for a dog.  You made a commitment to be in class.  Keep it.”  He was in class on Thursday.  People respond to incentives.  If you put them in the right place, you get higher productivity.