Connecting the Dots on the Declining Work Ethic

by | Dec 6, 2016

Connecting the Dots on the Declining Work Ethic

by | Dec 6, 2016

Connecting the Dots on the Declining Work Ethic:

Video Games, Student Debt, Drugs, and Welfare

A recent scholarly study, a recent newspaper story, a recent newspaper column, and a recent magazine article seemed at first blush to be on unrelated subjects.  But they actually had something in common:  They described reasons for the nation’s declining work ethic.

If you stick with this, you’ll see that the seemingly unrelated facts and anecdotes discussed in these sources and in this commentary are like pixels on a TV screen.  When the dots are connected, they will form a clear picture of why the work ethic has declined in large segments of society.

Video Games and Slackers

Erik Hurst and other researchers at the University of Chicago, Princeton University, and the University of Rochester have published a study showing that:

  • A whopping 22% of men between the ages of 21 and 30 without a college degree are not working, versus 9.5% of this cohort that was unemployed in 2000. Using the common vernacular, these men are known as slackers.
  • On average, this group spends 12 hours per week on video games, and it’s not unusual for some gamers to spend more than 30 hours per week in their virtual world.
  • Most live with parents or relatives, and amazingly, are content with their lives.

Two related personal anecdotes are immediately below.  (Anecdotes can be skipped without losing continuity):

  • When my son entered engineering school seven years ago, his first roommate in the dorm was a fellow engineering student. Instead of studying, the kid spent all of his free time playing video games.  The roommate was so introverted and removed from reality that when my wife and I helped our son move into his dorm room, the gamer darted out of the room without making eye contact or otherwise responding normally to our hello and pleasantries.  As the semester went on, we worried for our son’s safety, as the roommate fit the stereotype of a mass shooter.
  • I recently spoke with an hourly-paid Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) who helps to care for my mom in a 24/7 nursing center. She plans to get a nursing degree while working.  She told me that she is married to an unambitious guy who works an off-shift in an hourly job in the call center of a bank and gets home at 11:00 PM.  When I asked her if his coming home late at night awakens her, she sighed and said, “No, he plays video games in another room until 4:00 in the morning, which is the time that I have to get up for work.”  She went on to say in exasperation, “What’s a gal going to do?  Most guys nowadays are like this.”

Not surprisingly, studies have shown that brain synapses and attention spans are being short-circuited, by not only the time spent on video games but also the time spent tweeking and texting on smartphones and other electronic devices.  This suggests that gamers get caught in a downward spiral.  Those who begin life with short attention spans and the need for constant stimulation are attracted to video games.  Then the excessive playing of the games shorten the gamers’ attention spans even more and increase their need for additional stimulation.

Meanwhile, the media and academia, blinded once again by political correctness, remain obsessed with women’s issues while ignoring the tragedies befalling boys and young men, who, as other studies have shown, are more harmfully affected than females by the nation’s high divorce rate and the corresponding absence of a positive male role model.

Tuition Debt and the Skyrocketing Cost of College

A recent news story was about the U.S. government’s plan to forgive at least $108 billion in student debt in coming years—a plan that Donald Trump essentially supports.  As I wrote in March of last year, tuition debt and the unwarranted skyrocketing cost of college have produced a new form of indentured servitude and a disincentive to save and work hard.

Tuition debt now totals $1.1 trillion, having grown by $855 billion in just the last 10 years.  A whopping $131 billion of these loans are in serious delinquency.  There are approximately seven million borrowers in default on their federal or private student loans.  Unlike other kinds of loans, borrowers cannot escape federal tuition debt through bankruptcy.

Defaulting on a student loan can result in wage garnishments without a court order and can damage credit ratings so severely that defaulters can never hope to buy a house or other big-ticket items.  This in turn affects home sales and family formations.

This is a repeat of the subprime housing bubble but with a few notable differences.  In the subprime housing bubble, mortgage loans were given to borrowers with bad credit histories, shaky employment, and little collateral.  In the subprime tuition loan bubble, loans go to borrowers with no credit history, no employment, and no collateral.  It’s like randomly picking a stranger out of a crowd and loaning him tens of thousands of dollars.

Who is at fault here?  Three parties:  many of the borrowers themselves, the government, and colleges.

Many of the borrowers did not have what it takes to succeed in college, or only went to college to postpone working, or used tuition loans as an extension of welfare with no intention of paying back the loans.  Many others, as well as their parents and high school guidance counselors, apparently did not conduct prior Internet research before making the major life decision to go into debt to attend college.  They did not research the costs and benefits of college, what degrees were in demand, or if there were better alternatives for getting an education and getting ahead.  In their defense, the popular media and the culture in general have spread the canard that a four-year degree is the only key to success.

Consider these facts:  Many student loans go to students who shouldn’t be in college.  For example, of the 1.67 million high school students in the class of 2014 who took the SAT, only 46.2% had scores high enough to predict success in college.  Sure enough, only slightly more than half of college students in nonprofit colleges ever receive a degree, and of those who do get a degree, many have taken easy majors and face low-wage employment.

Nationwide, undergraduate college enrollment is 19.5 million, so this means that over the next four years there could be over nine million additional dropouts facing disappointment, bitterness, class resentment, dead-end jobs, and in many cases, decades of tuition loan payments.  A few months in debtor’s prison would be a blessing by comparison.

The problem of indebtedness and dropouts is far worse in such for-profit schools as the University of Phoenix, DeVry University, and Carrington College.  The median tuition debt is $31,190 for such schools, and the graduation rate is only 22%.  The University of Phoenix alone had 45,123 loan defaults from 2011 to 2014.

Much of the blame for this mess lies with the government, just as the blame for a wide range of messes lies with the government.  First, the government has devalued a high school degree through its monopoly over public education, a monopoly that is shared with hidebound teacher unions.  Employers have learned that a high school degree isn’t an indicator of an ability to speak, write and think intelligently.  (President-elect Trump’s pick for education secretary is a positive sign.)

Second, the government has made it easy for students to go into debt and has flooded colleges with not only this easy money but also subsidies and grants of every description.  This, as well as an influx of foreign students willing to pay high tuition, has removed the need for colleges to become more efficient, productive and effective; and has resulted in a building spree of swank dorms, resort-like grounds, massive athletic facilities, and gleaming classroom and laboratory buildings that are unused over the summer and in evening hours.  (Incidentally, the most highly paid government official in many states is the head football coach at state universities.)

Now the government is planning to forgive over $100 billion in student debt, thus creating an expectation and a moral hazard with future students that tuition debt will be forgiven.  Worse, the forgiveness will be tied to the income that indebted graduates earn after college (the higher the income, the less forgiveness), thus creating a disincentive to work hard and get ahead.  Worse yet, those who go into government will get the most forgiveness.

Personal anecdotes:

  • When my wife and I toured colleges with our son in his junior year of high school, we found that many colleges rivaled the high-end resorts in our hometown of Scottsdale. I told our son that in no way was he going to live in a resort for four years at our expense.  He ended up attending a state school on scholarships, worked as a resident assistant in a tired residence hall built in the 1930s with communal bathrooms, and saved the free room and board he received by making his own meals.  Who do you think has a more realistic outlook on life, my son or a college graduate who lived in a resort for four years?  Who do you think graduated with money in the bank instead of tuition debt?
  • Several years ago, a young woman proudly told me that she was attending medical school. I was impressed until it came out that she was attending Carrington College, a vocational school, to become a medical records technician.  This was a double-blow against the economy.  She not only was going into debt to obtain skills that could be learned with a high school education, but she was entering an occupation that exists only because the government had destroyed a true market in medical care/insurance 75 years ago and replaced it with economy-strangling red tape and cost-shifting and price-fixing.


In his Wall Street Journal column, columnist Holman Jenkins recently quoted a railroad executive who bemoaned the difficulty his company has in filling highly-paid non-managerial jobs.  Although the jobs pay a six-figure salary and have rich benefits and high job security, half of prospective recruits will walk out of a recruiting orientation when they find that the jobs require a drug test and might necessitate a relocation to a locale like Bismarck, N.D.

Building contractors and other businesses have made similar remarks about the difficulty in finding workers who are drug-free and have a good work ethic.  I encountered the same problem when I was in manufacturing and hired hundreds of workers while trying to maintain a safe, drug-free work environment.

Approximately 45,000 Americans are dying annually from drug overdoses.  Opioids account for six out of ten of the deaths, which is a quadrupling of such deaths since 1999.   Death rates from overdoses are now higher in rural areas than urban areas.

The problem manifests itself in unusual places.  To wit, I recently read the book, The Oregon Trail, about the author and his brother taking a covered wagon from Missouri to Oregon a few years ago, following the trail taken by pioneers, gold seekers, and Mormons in the mid-nineteenth century.  Grandparents with young kids in tow would stand alongside the road in front of nicely kept homes to wish them well.  Noticing that the children’s parents were absent, the author asked where they were.  Answer:  Succumbing to drug addiction, the parents had their children taken away and/or were in prison.

Substance abuse is particularly high in Alaska (along with welfare), the supposed last remnant of American rugged individualism.  The same with the “Live free or die” state of New Hampshire.  Opiate addiction also has reached epidemic levels in Vermont, the state of quaint town squares, white clapboard churches with steeples, maple syrup, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, and socialist Bernie Sanders.  In an example of cultural rot, the clothier and outfitter L. L. Bean, which is headquartered in neighboring Maine, is running a new commercial in which a guy with a scruffy beard who looks like a stereotypical slacker and doper is called a “free thinker” in the voiceover.  Other companies also are marketing high-priced goods to this low-income segment, apparently unaware that as the segment grows, their sales revenue will decrease.


The January, 2017, issue of Reason magazine has an excellent article titled, “Stuck.”  The author writes about the Appalachian coalmining town where he was born, a town that used to be relatively prosperous but is now mired in rampant drug abuse, broken families, and welfare dependency.  He asks an important question:  Why don’t the inhabitants leave?  Quick answer:  Welfare has become a trap that they can’t escape.   If they move out of the county or state to find work, they lose their welfare payments and benefits.

Personal anecdote:

This is particularly poignant to me, as fate could’ve have placed me in similar circumstances.  You see, my fraternal grandfather was a coalminer in southern Illinois when he immigrated from the old country.  My dad and aunt were born in the coal town.  Fortunately, without welfare to hold him back, Grandpa moved to St. Louis, where he worked as a barkeep and other low-paid jobs but was somehow able to send his three kids to Catholic schools, including a top-notch Jesuit high school for my dad.  It helped that taxes back then were a third of today’s confiscatory levels, partly because teacher unions hadn’t yet driven up public school taxes, thus allowing parents of modest means to keep enough of their money to pay for private tuition.

Today, about 110 million Americans live in households that receive some sort of means-tested government payment.  (The number goes up to 160 million when Social Security is included.)  The total cost of this munificence is nearly $3 trillion per year.  This is equivalent to the annual income of about 66 million American workers.  In other words, 66 million are wage slaves for 110 million of their fellow Americans.

It doesn’t make sense for many Americans to work in full-time jobs, especially for those who don’t want much out of life, preferring a lot of free time to play video games or whatever.  They can have indoor plumbing, central heat and air-conditioning, more calories than they need, a smartphone, a big-screen TV, tattoos and body piercings, emergency medical care, and subsidized rides on public transit.  They might even have enough disposable money to buy a car and some pot, especially if they feign a disability or otherwise game the system, or work off the books without paying income and FICA taxes.


Henry David Thoreau said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation.  He said this prior to the advent of the modern social-welfare state.  Today, many men lead lives of constant stimulation by means of drugs and video games, or lead lives of indebtedness from wasting time in college, or lead lives of getting free rides on the backs of wage slaves.

Which raises the age-old question facing all social-welfare states, including the USA:  Is it better for individuals and society at large in the long run to wean all able-bodied citizens off of welfare, tuition loans, and entitlements, thus inflicting pain on them in the short-run, by forcing them to choose between working or suffering the consequences of not working—and at the same time, helping those with drug addictions get over their addictions through rehabilitation instead of prison?

A related question:  Will America ever be great again if we don’t do this?

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