« Obama's "Honest Budget" | Main | Time Waster for the Day »

March 09, 2009

Working Affluent *DO* Work Harder

Not that this is anything new for Matt Yglesias, but this latest post takes his habitual illogic to new heights:

... there’s the obscene implication that if people are poor, it’s because they don’t work hard and certainly not as hard as those long-toiling business executive. As I wrote back in October 2008:
I’m a veteran of several moves of a “let’s get a bunch of friends together and all move a bunch of stuff” variety. Today, I hired a moving company. It was a good choice. It’s also the kind of thing that, on a more political note, really dramatizes how bizarre it is that people often characterize current levels of inequality in the United States as reflecting a desire to reward hard work or say that in the United States you can get ahead by working hard. I’m sure the partners at Jones Day and the wizards at Goldman Sachs work hard, but I don’t think you can seriously deny that moving furniture for a living is hard work.

Indeed, one of the main advantages that professional career offer is precisely that, money aside, they don’t involve the sort of taxing physical labor associated with many low-skill jobs. Guys who move furniture are, of course, working extremely hard. And even your basic retail employee needs to be on her feet for hours and hours at a time while “executives” comfy chairs. And, again, I don’t think the Salvadoran guys who moved my bed found themselves in that line of work because they were too busy partying in college.

So what?

Look, I'm the last person in the world who is going to tell you manual labor isn't "hard". But that's not the point most of the "revolting overclass" are making. They're not saying that no one else works hard.

They're saying that contrary to some of the insinuations casually being tossed by the Obama administration and its defenders, affluent workers are affluent for a reason.

Several reasons, to be precise:

1. On average they work longer hours.

2. They made smarter choices with their lives. Labor prices (that's "wages" to the folks at home), like any other commodity sold in a free market, are subject to the laws of demand. If you choose to do something anyone can do: a job that requires no special training, knowledge or skills, you're not going to command as high a price as someone who can provide a rare skill or talent. This is not exactly rocket science.

I can testify to this first-hand.

During the years my sons were small, I had no college degree and because I couldn't command a salary high enough to offset the cost of child care, I chose to earn money by performing jobs that involved manual labor: painting houses, providing home day care, mowing, trimming and landscaping my neighbors' yards.

And I'll be the first one to tell you that is hard work. To this day, I am prone what I euphemistically call 'heat prostitution' as a result of too many days spent pushing a lawn mower in the N. Carolina sun with a 35 pound child on my back in a child carrier. When you're 24 you think you'll live forever. You don't count on the fact that the human body can only take so much abuse.

3. They deferred present gratification to maximize future rewards.

Again, throughout my life I've worked mostly in manual labor or low-skilled jobs. Who do you think were my friends whilst I was engaged in these endeavors? Other folks with no college education who worked at manual or low-paying jobs.

And I can tell you a few things about these folks:

1. Many of them are smart. Very smart, in fact.

2. None of them worked the hours traditionally expected of white collar high earners. Not a one.

3. Many if not most of them preferred to work fewer hours. They liked not having the stress involved in managing other people, and they liked not having to take their work home with them.

Any job comes with benefits and drawbacks. My husband is tethered to a Blackberry 24/7. I call it his Vibrator. It goes off at 3 am when we're sleeping. It has this obnoxious blinking light that I have secretly dubbed The Lidless Eye of Mordor. It has, in consequence, been banished from the Boudoir. If I have to hear "Bzzzzzt! Bzzzzzzzzt!" at the moment just before attaining Shangri-La, I expect it to be a sex toy and not some bozo who can't wait to tell my esteemed spouse about an impromptu staff meeting that could just as easily have been planned during the work day (aka: that magical time during which people traditionally get paid for doing work).

The point of Tigerhawk's video was not that no one else works hard. The point was that the working affluent work longer hours on average than the working poor or even the working middle class. The data happen to back him up whether we're talking about the U.S.:

During most of the 1900s, the hours of work declined for most American men. But around 1970, the share of employed men regularly working more than 50 hours per week began to increase. In fact, the share of employed, 25-to-64-year-old men who usually work 50 or more hours per week on their main job rose from 14.7 percent in 1980 to 18.5 percent in 2001.

This shift was especially pronounced among highly educated, high-wage, salaried, and older men. For college-educated men, the proportion working 50 hours or more climbed from 22.2 percent to 30.5 percent in these two decades. Between 1979 and 2002, the frequency of long work hours increased by 14.4 percentage points among the top quintile of wage earners, but fell by 6.7 percentage points in the lowest quintile. There was no increase at all in work hours among high-school dropouts.

As a result, there has been a reversal in the relationship between wages and hours. In 1983, the most poorly paid 20 percent of workers were more likely to put in long work hours than the top paid 20 percent. By 2002, the best-paid 20 percent were twice as likely to work long hours as the bottom 20 percent. In other words, the prosperous are more likely to be at work more than those earning little.

...or Australia:

Professionals who are usually on a salary are particularly vulnerable to employer demands for longer hours. Hours at work are supplemented by extra hours spent travelling on behalf of the company and attending business functions.

Some professional groups and management executives work 70-80 hours per week with extra work in times of heavy demand. Over eighty percent of professional scientists and engineers surveyed by the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists, and Managers of Australia (APESMA) said they regularly worked unpaid overtime. In such situations those who refuse to work these hours will be passed over when it comes to promotions because it is taken as an indicator of lack of commitment to the company.

...or the EU. What's more, the fewer hours worked by Europeans seem to be a response to... guess what?

Tax policeh:

Europeans pay a price for their extravagant leisure. The average Frenchman produces only three-quarters as much as the average American, even though productivity per hour is slightly higher in France.

This raises more than one interesting question. First, why do Americans choose to work so much? (Or, if you prefer, why do Europeans choose to work so little?) Second, who's happier?

One thing to keep in mind is that all of this is new. As recently as the 1970s, Europeans worked slightly more than Americans. So the right question is not just "Why is Europe different?" but "What changed?"

What changed, according to Nobel laureate Edward Prescott, is tax policy. In the early 1970s, European and U.S. marginal tax rates were comparable--and so were European and U.S. labor supplies. Between the 1970s and the 1990s, the U.S. marginal rate (inclusive of payroll taxes) stayed fixed at about 40%, while the French rate rose to 59% and the Italian rate to 64%. On a country-by-country basis, steeper marginal tax hikes are closely correlated with shorter workweeks and expanding vacations.

Why do high wage earners work longer hours? Two words: marginal benefit:

After declining for most of the century, the share of employed American men regularly working more than 50 hours per week began to increase around 1970. This trend has been especially pronounced among highly educated, high-wage, salaried, and older men. Using two decades of CPS data, we rule out a number of factors, including business cycles, changes in observed labor force characteristics, and changes in the level of men's real hourly earnings as primary explanations of this trend. Instead we argue that increases in salaried men's marginal incentives to supply hours beyond 40 accounted for the recent rise. Since these increases were accompanied by a rough constancy in real earnings at 40 hours, they can be interpreted as a compensated wage increase.

Food for thought for those who think raising taxes on the working affluent will motivate high wage workers to keep their incomes at the present level in order to fund Obama's transformation of the American economy.

Posted by Cassandra at March 9, 2009 03:25 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Yes, I earn more money than an average Joe but an average Joe does not work 12-hour days 7 days a week for months in a row...

Posted by: olga at March 9, 2009 04:58 PM

Amen. I did applications programming and support for years before taking a sabbatical (made possible by a very nice salary). If I go back to work - and I may have to, considering the carnage in the stock market - I'll probably look for a job where working late to finish a program; doing installs on weekends; and getting beeped at, yes, 3am because overnight processing failed again are not in the job description. And I fully expect to make less for not having to endure the longer hours.

Posted by: Elise at March 9, 2009 05:22 PM

Where did I read recently a quote by Margaret Thatcher:

"The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money."

I think our days of being the most productive people on the planet are rapidly coming to a close.

A red light flashing on anything electronic in the bedroom is usually not good news.

Posted by: vet66 at March 9, 2009 05:37 PM

A red light flashing on anything electronic in the bedroom is usually not good news.

You don't have to put on the red light...."

Posted by: I'm going to pay for this.... at March 9, 2009 05:56 PM

"I'll probably look for a job where working late to finish a program; doing installs on weekends; and getting beeped at, yes, 3am because overnight processing failed again are not in the job description."
Just returned from the annual commiserations with the tax preparer... *groan* Elise, if you find two, please let me know. I'll do code, admin, networks or project mgmt for food. I can do lab work too... And I come with my own faraday cage.=8^}
ZZZZZzzzzt! Ouch!

Well as they say, how do you make a small fortune in the stock market?
Step #1) Start with a much larger fortune.

Posted by: bt_in-an-indeterminate-state_hun at March 9, 2009 06:16 PM

I'll have it noted that I did NOT say a word about certain passages in the Princess' post. I would also have noted that the not saying what was poised ever so readily upon the tip of my tongue has resulted in extreme pain and emotional distress. So much so that my own personal fear of royal retribution for the release of a certain picture or two would pale in comparisson. I suggest beer........in copious amounts.......delivered mooey pronto to: The Corner@VC might be the proper payment to stave off any further episodes of pixelated confusion.
Awww, crap, I think I just blew it out of tune....

Posted by: DL Sly at March 9, 2009 06:57 PM

"Working affluent" sounds like something that a person suffers through when dealing with a bad cold.

I prefer the term "advanced contributor." If you pay more taxes than you consume, and others consume more taxes than they pay, then its not much of a bargain for you. It's charity.

But, if you are willing to pay any amount to keep the riff-raff off of your lawn, then that's economics.

And economics has a price.

Good luck.

Posted by: Mr. Gloom at March 9, 2009 06:58 PM

Well, I'd rather be 'working affluent' than working effluent...


Posted by: Cassandra at March 9, 2009 07:23 PM

"But, if you are willing to pay any amount to keep the riff-raff off of your lawn, then that's economics.

And economics has a price."

I heard that!

Posted by: Timothy Geithener Head Fed Economic & TurboTax wizard at March 9, 2009 07:44 PM

*groan* Elise, if you find two, please let me know. I'll do code, admin, networks or project mgmt for food. I can do lab work too

Don't tell the Institutional (as opposed to Real) Feminists, bt, but I'm actually thinking about (gasp) secretarial work. Okay, okay, we can call it "administrative assistant". I did it in between college and grad school in a legal office (I was finding myself in New Orleans and an interesting search it was, too) and it's often the case that if your boss has an interesting job, *you* have an interesting job - with half the headaches.

As for your own Faraday cage, most offices have a microwave already. Elevators, too. ;-)

Posted by: Elise at March 9, 2009 08:30 PM

My boss at my soon-to-be-over temp/contract office job works hours she doesn't submit to be paid for. Same with the woman (who had been out on medical leave and had her position in another department eliminated on her) is "taking my place". That's something I won't do as an hourly worker. Salaried position would be different. I am, after all, looking for a teaching position. Those are salaried, but if I ever find one, I'll have summers off... All I know is, after listen to/overhearing some of the stuff corporate execs have to deal with, they can have that high pay for what they have to deal with; I'll pass on that, thanks...

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at March 10, 2009 01:28 AM

So much so that my own personal fear of royal retribution for the release of a certain picture or two would pale in comparisson.

I refuse to bargain with terrorists... :p

Posted by: Cassandra at March 10, 2009 10:44 AM

I remember reading an article in the WSJ around 1990 that documented how the average millionaire worked 14 hours per day. That was the moment I decided I didn't want to be a millionaire.

Posted by: Rex at March 10, 2009 11:53 AM

Lots of my friends from college are bright and well-educated economic underachievers. Some chose jobs with a very high personal satisfaction component, such as working in the arts or in a pseudo-charitable field like social work. Others just gravitated toward low-paying but undemanding work in a series of fields. I sometimes employ one or two of them in temp positions, for generous hourly rates, at tasks requiring brains and basic skills but little advanced training in my field. They do an excellent job, but aren't interested in working long hours on short notice in emergencies, which is when that kind of temp position tends to be most available. They're generally broke and have no savings to speak of. They turn down jobs at times when they have been complaining that money was tight. They firmly believe that health care is beyond the economic reach of the average American, and they tend toward the "progressive" in their politics. Most are convinced, beyond the reach of any argument, that "the rich" have found a secret trick to avoiding the payment of any taxes. In fact, of course, I pay taxes to cover the cost of all the benefits I receive and all that several of them receive to boot. Any of these people could have achieved a good deal of financial security given their intellectual and educational gifts, in any economy.

I, too, fantasize about taking a John Galt-like drone position. I've already done something very like that, on a lesser scale, for the last ten years. I perform a specific professional function, in fits and starts, generally online, and am almost completely divorced from administrative or marketing duties. It gives me less income and no security but a lot more leisure. But I do it at a time in my life when I have provided adequately for myself and my family and when I am not a burden on the Parish, so to speak.

Posted by: Texan99 at March 10, 2009 11:54 AM

at the moment just before attaining Shangri-La,

And a new phrase has just entered my lexicon.

Posted by: RonF at March 10, 2009 12:49 PM

Sometimes, I say "attained Shangri-La", too :p

Posted by: Cassandra at March 10, 2009 12:57 PM

I refuse to bargain with terrorists...

The only one who would be terrorized by the release of a certain picture would be Google.

They'd have to use a Cray to handle the additional queries from Abu Dhabi...

Those Who Know, Know.

Posted by: BillT at March 10, 2009 01:28 PM




AP News Wire Service: A Massively parallel blogging system drops to its knees due to a thread lock mutex at Shangri-La();

Details after a cigarette and a shower.

Posted by: Seymore's Cray at March 11, 2009 11:26 PM

Miss Ladybug, I hate to be the one to tell you, but teachers either:

1) work in the summer - teaching summer school, taking a minimum-wage job in a retail establishment, doing yard work or painting for money, or working on planning for the next year

2) go to school - professional development classes (average 2-3 weeks at a time, away from home - travel & lodging expenses NOT paid), graduate classes to get to the next step on the salary scale, or mandatory district classes

3) or, accept living on the skimpy savings they managed during the school year. At savings account rates, so, if there is inflation, we're losing money.

If they change jobs, they often have to pay COBRA for the summer. Failure to do so invalidates payment once they do become employed for any existing medical condition.

During the school year, many districts have you:

1) working non-stop during the day. I mean it. I've almost wet myself more than once, as I can't get free to go to the bathroom (between classes? Can't - we have to 'monitor' the halls during class changes). My lunch is taken up at least 1 week a month with lunch duty - mandatory.

And, for crying out loud, the lunch is only 22 minutes long - and, during that time I have to visit the only bathroom in walking distance (2 minutes, minimum, if there is not a line), check my mailbox, walk to the teachers' workroom to eat, and return to my class before the bell - gotta monitor those kids!

If a parent wants to meet with me, I'm expected to:

a) come in early

b) stay late

c) or give up lunch, if necessary

All with no extra pay or time off.

If there's a weather emergency day, I have to report anyway. Failure to do so (on icy/snowy/hazardous roads), means that I am docked a personal day. If I have no personal days left, I lose a day's pay.

My evenings and weekends, I have to plan and grade. I can't enter the grades for assignments at home, although the district tech staff says that it's possible, so I have to stay after school and do that. Oh, and let's not forget weekly faculty meetings. And twice monthly district professional development - on my time and dime. And, recently, the school decided that they would finally pay for the after-school tuturing I've been doing all along - unpaid. But, that's 2 days a week I have to stay for an extra 2 hours. (Funny, but SOME of the teachers leave early - and I get stuck with their kids. But they're still getting paid - I have no idea how they manage it.)

That's in addition to teaching "bell to bell". It's a job with no down time. No chance to make a phone call to schedule a doctor's appointment (assuming that I could find a doctor in my health plan who has after-school hours). No chance to catch your breath after a difficult class. No way to comb your hair, stretch, get away for a few minutes, THINK. It's constantly reacting to urgent needs (and then interrupted by even more urgent needs), biting your tongue when students curse, are rude, lazy, or difficult. God forbid a parent asks why their kid is doing so poorly, and you respond with the truth "he's lazy and ignorant". Instead, you twist yourself into pretzels avoiding stating the glaringly obvious. Parents whose child copies other students' work (or whose parent does their homework) come in to demand an explanation of why they can't pass a test to save their life.

You say, "they are not a good test taker". That's not the truth. They are a GREAT test taker. The test told the truth - they don't know SQUAT!

Posted by: Linda F at March 15, 2009 07:52 AM

Linda F - Let's make teaching a regular, full-time job. Forty hours a week, an hour for lunch, 2 15-minutes breaks, year round. Vacation time that starts at a week a year and goes up based on time on the job. Sick days, personal days.If the job is too big for 40 hours a week then the school needs to hire more teachers or aides.

I've never understood how politicians on both sides of the aisle can insist year after year that teaching is a crucial job yet do so little to make it a decent job.

And a teacher should be able to vote a kid off the island. Years ago I read an article about a self-made millionaire who asked a teacher at his old school - in a very bad part of town - what one thing he could do that would make the most difference to the students. Simple, she said: give me a place to send the one or two kids in each class who are making it impossible for me to teach and for the other kids to learn. If we're going to have a bank for toxic assets maybe we need a school for disruptive kids. Heaven knows it would have to be cheaper.

Posted by: Elise at March 15, 2009 08:58 PM

give me a place to send the one or two kids in each class who are making it impossible for me to teach and for the other kids to learn.

That, in a nutshell, is why I did menial jobs for a good 10+ years of my life: to be able to afford to send my boys to private school. I don't think there's a whit of difference b/tween public and private school insofar as the ability or dedication of the teachers.

But it has become impossible to maintain any kind of standards in the public schools because you can't fail anyone. Nor can you kick them out of school.

Standards mean nothing if they are not enforced. IOW, they mean nothing anymore. And the notion that you're doing disadvantaged kids a favor by not requiring them to try is unconscionable. If you've been dealt a rough hand in life, you need to try *harder* to overcome it. Sure, it's not *fair*. Lots of things in life aren't fair: like being handicapped or not having parents who care about you. But hard work is the only way to overcome a disadvantage.

I'm not sure how we forgot something so obvious.

Posted by: Cass at March 15, 2009 09:20 PM