Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about things I see and hear at 7-Eleven. To subscribe to the Tuesday, follow this link.
Get a Job
Your local 7-Eleven is a very different place at 7 a.m. than at 11 p.m. or 7 p.m. I worked the overnight shift at a 7-Eleven for a while — way back in ye olden days before the normalization of vagrancy transformed every commercial establishment from Starbucks to 7-Eleven and every public place from parks to busy intersections into makeshift homeless shelters and psych wards — and even in a relatively sleepy college town, things got pretty weird around 3 a.m. on Saturday. When the bartenders say, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here,” some of those people end up at 7-Eleven.
But 7 a.m. on a Monday is a different scene altogether. The people who work for a living are up-and-at-’em and in want of coffee. My neighborhood is in that stage of gentrification where you can’t afford to buy a house here anymore, but you’re still five miles from the nearest Starbucks, and the people who work in your more classic clock-punching type jobs don’t much hit the local hipster café, with its oat milk and vegan pastries.
There was a bit of a line at 7-Eleven on Monday, and I overheard a bit of conversation between the two women behind me. One was telling the other that she expected a busy day at work, because she was going to be updating some spreadsheets for her employer, which, she said, takes all day. When she started the job, she said, she didn’t know what Excel was, and she told her friend that the first time her employer had asked her if she knew how to work with spreadsheets, she thought they were having a conversation about bed-linens. She learned how to use the program from YouTube videos. It was impossible to miss her pride in this. A couple of years ago, she didn’t know how to work with spreadsheets, and now she does, and she has a different kind of job and, to some related extent, a different kind of life. Her world got a little bigger and a little richer. She deserves to be proud.
That’s the part we should pay more attention to in our debates about employment and labor policy.
Of course, it is good — and necessary — that people use their time and energy doing economically productive work. We all thrive or starve together. You know about the guy who tried to make himself a sandwich? He ground wheat into flour, milked a cow and made his own cheese, made salt from seawater, etc. It took him half a year and cost $1,500. The same guy spent four grand making a suit. And though he endeavors to make these items “from scratch,” he doesn’t really — not until he is making his own tools out of iron he mined with his own hands. The division of labor is what makes civilizations work in physical terms. The more efficient the use of labor — human action guided by human intelligence is the most precious of all resources — the more prosperous your society is.
And it also is good — and necessary — that people earn income from doing productive work. Earning a living not only allows people to take care of themselves and their families (and their communities) in their material needs but also allows them to do so in a way that gives them a measure of independence: The client who is forever reliant upon a patron for his daily bread is never really free, never really at liberty in his own life. That’s a big part of the difference between being a very highly skilled (or simply in-demand) worker vs. one who is more easily replaced: You have more choices about how you work, when you work, where you work, with whom you work, and for what you’ll work. That, in turn, gives you more choices about everything from where you live to how your children are educated. This makes people more satisfied about their situation and more confident in their ability to sustain and improve it.
But it is also good — and necessary — that this is something that in most situations people earn themselves. We could give people more choices about things like where they live and how their children are educated by simply giving them money. And, in some cases, that’s what we should be doing: There are people with serious disabilities, children and elderly people without competent families to care for them, and other classes of people who will in almost any decent modern society be provided for at some level through public expenditure. But it is a mistake to treat people as though they are disabled or incompetent simply because they are poor, unskilled, or not especially well-educated. Of course, we could maintain such people in some kind of public dependency indefinitely — we are a very rich society with great resources. But at a certain point, we aren’t doing people any favors by doing them favors — we are instead denying them the opportunity to become free and happy in a way that they cannot be as dependents.
Arthur Brooks, the great apostle of “earned success,” notes research showing that people are happier when they feel successful at work irrespective of income. “The opposite of earned success,” he writes, “is ‘learned helplessness,’ a term coined by Martin Seligman, the eminent psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania.”
It refers to what happens if rewards and punishments are not tied to merit: People simply give up and stop trying to succeed.
During experiments, Mr. Seligman observed that when people realized they were powerless to influence their circumstances, they would become depressed and had difficulty performing even ordinary tasks. In an interview in the New York Times, Mr. Seligman said: “We found that even when good things occurred that weren’t earned, like nickels coming out of slot machines, it did not increase people’s well-being. It produced helplessness. People gave up and became passive.”
The urgent political issue raised by Seligman’s research is control. We live in an increasingly complex, globalized world in which the ever-more-sophisticated division of labor leaves humanity as a whole radically better off — by almost any measure — while providing outsized rewards to a relatively narrow set of skills and cognitive abilities that are not evenly distributed and that are not earnable, which complicates the issue of earned success. There are many people who have the skills and talent to be successful entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, technologists, entertainers, cultural innovators, etc. And there is no reliable way to say with confidence who has those abilities. But most people don’t have those skills and talents and cannot acquire them. They experience the economy most intensely as something that happens to them — or something that is done to them — and economic changes very often are a source of anxiety and personal upheaval. And there is no sharp divide between the personal and the professional: Researchers have found that a man is more likely to end up in divorce court after losing a job than after an episode of marital infidelity.
The favorite bromides of the populist Left are like the favorite bromides of the populist Right in that they promise to give people who feel powerless more control over economic tides: For Democrats, that means minimum-wage rules, entrenching the power of labor unions, using the tax code to discourage offshoring and imports, etc., while for Republicans that means tariffs, entrenching the power of market incumbents, using the tax code to discourage offshoring and imports, etc. These policies make more sense if you think about them not as economics but as psychotherapy.
We have in some sense been here before: During the rapid 19th-century transformation of the U.S. economy from a largely agricultural one to a largely industrial one, ownership of wealth became more concentrated — and wealth inequality was much more pronounced among industrial workers than among agricultural workers, more pronounced in the cities than in the countryside, and more pronounced among black Americans than among whites — it was more pronounced where the innovation was, where the change was happening. The post–Civil War pattern retraced the post-Revolution pattern: The Revolutionary War was an economic catastrophe for the colonists. Before the war, scholars estimate, colonial households had on average higher incomes than did English households, even when the average included slaves — and, on top of that, the same scholars calculate that New England had less economic equality than any other similarly developed society in the world. The war was a serious setback, but the American economy grew dramatically after independence — and wealth inequality increased, too, especially in the South. Economic revolutions produce outsized growth, and the fruits of that growth accrue disproportionately to those who are closer to the edges of innovation. You could still make a good living selling horse tackle in 1903, but not the kind of fortune that Henry Ford was about to make. Many businesses have greatly expanded their operations by selling on Amazon. You can make a lot of money doing that — but not the kind of money you make by starting Amazon.
This isn’t true only of celebrity entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos — it is also true, and in some senses more significant, among workers who are simply a few degrees of separation closer to them. And that is where there is a kind of inequality-multiplier effect: If you have some resources (savings, well-off parents, a high-income spouse), some skill or some education that gives you a degree of confidence about your future prospects, then you can take some risks: an unpaid internship, a low-paying entry-level job in a field with lots of upward mobility, starting a business or going to work for a new business that is still a little wobbly, etc. Seattle has a fair number of millionaires who got rich by doing an ordinary job at Microsoft in the 1980s for subpar wages and equity that turned out to be worth a fortune but could have ended up being worth nothing. It is a lot easier to take a chance like that if your Plan B is reasonably solid. If you are young Bill Gates or young Mark Zuckerberg, failure means . . . going back to Harvard.
Helping people on the margins to achieve the real and lasting happiness that comes with earned success and helping them to acquire the confidence and the resources to take on new challenges and try new things should be the fundamental pillars of conservative economic policy. Part of that is being realistic about the likely paths to success for people who are not going to get a STEM degree from a four-year university. Our national failure to pay serious attention to the interests of these Americans is both a product of a key cultural failure — the generally unstated belief that people who do non-glamorous jobs are losers and victims — and a contributor to that failure. Trying to push people into college when their real interests and abilities lie elsewhere not only sets them up for failure, it needlessly puts the stink of failure on their likeliest roads to success.
On the left, they used to like to mock conservative economic policy as a man in a top hat and monocle telling a poor man, “Get a job!” On the right, now, some have adopted the same line of criticism, mocking the Republican Party as a bunch of out-of-touch company men advising the young and the struggling, “Learn to code!” But “Learn to code!” is great advice for some people, and “Get a job!” is in many cases exactly the right course of action. It is certainly more sensible than, say, “Artificially inflate the prices of raw materials and see what that does to factory wages,” or, “You can’t do anything to help yourself — it’s all those rascally Chinese!”
“Get a job!”
Hell, yes. Shout it from the rooftops. Being good at something challenging and making a living at it makes people happy. It’s not all there is to life, and it’s not for everybody. But it’s for a lot of us.
Words about Words
David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words is a very interesting book with some very interesting observations about the word potato.
As with our discussion of mustard last week, potato has been used both to mean something desirable (“That’s the potato!” apparently was a happy exclamation, once, and potatoes has been used to mean money, as with clams or bread) as well as something undesirable or unimportant: couch potato, small potatoes, etc.
What is interesting — especially if you are former vice president Dan Quayle — is Crystal’s observations about spelling. Potato was a borrowing from Spanish — patata, itself a borrowing of the Haitian Carib batata. Unlike Spanish-speakers, Anglophone people were not naturally comfortable with that o at the end of potato, which presented a challenge for spelling it both in the singular and in the plural. Potato looked funny to them, and potatos looked like something Greek. And so potatoe was a common early spelling of potato, and survives in the plural as potatoes.
Vice President Quayle was ruthlessly mocked for misspelling potato as potatoe. It was one of those things: If the media decide you are stupid, then you are stupid as far as the news goes. When Quayle made self-deprecating jokes about practicing his Latin before a trip to Latin America, the media reported the joke as though it had been said in earnest. I was always irritated by the potatoe incident, if only because as a newspaper editor I saw an awful lot of raw newspaper copy coming across the Associated Press wire and knew from that experience that potatoe would have been the least of the American press’s sins against English.
It is good to have an editor.
Corporate-speak is a bottomless well of linguistic barbarism, and a reader writes in to ask about the use of persist as a transitive verb. Apparently, he receives memos instructing him to do x in order “to persist” y, as in: “We have to implement new procedures to persist these developments.” Apparently, this is meant to communicate something like “make persistent” or “ensure that this persists.”
Yikes, ye gods, and Yeezus: no.
Send your language questions to [email protected]
Home and Away
This recent drama in Austin isn’t the first time Texas Democrats have shut down the democratic process in the name of saving democracy from . . . the democratic process. More in the New York Post, America’s Newspaper of Record.
You can listen to me and my amigo speaking of many things in this episode of Jay Nordlinger’s Q&A. A listener writes to point out that the “suddenly, then all at once” line is from Hemingway, not Fitzgerald. My bad — and thanks to Alec for the correction.
You can buy my latest book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. Danker than you’d expect.
My National Review archive can be found here.
Listen to Mad Dogs & Englishmen here.
My New York Post archive can be found here.
My Amazon page is here.
To subscribe to National Review, which you really should do, go here.
To support National Review Institute, go here.
In Other News . . .
There is a new show on television called Kevin Can Go F**k Himself. It is a dark sendup of the old sitcom trope of the feckless schlub married to an implausibly attractive woman.
My first name is inherently comical. It’s just one of those words, like kumquat or snarf. I don’t know why those Welsh phonemes in that order are funny, but they are.
You don’t even have to hear it.
Kevin has not been a great name when it comes to television and cinema. Before Kevin Can Go F**k Himself, we had the school-murderer drama We Need to Talk about Kevin.
Kevin in Up wasn’t too bad, even if she was ruthlessly misgendered. Kevin the Minion is the least-cool Minion. Kevin the penguin from 3-2-1 Penguins? Ask Wikipedia: “While Kevin has no specific job on the ship other than cleaning, he is always ready to help when needed by the others.”
Kevin from The Wonder Years? Please.
You can tell it’s a problem name because you can’t really make a hero or a villain out of it. Kevin the Impaler? Kevin the Terrible? Chairman Kevin? Generalissimo Kevin? Nope. King Kevin? Sounds like something on the children’s menu at a 1970s burger restaurant. Or maybe, to quote The World According to Garp, “a flavor in a gay ice-cream parlor.”
(I’m pretty sure that line is from Robin Williams, not from John Irving.)
Here’s an approximate transcript of an actual conversation including nine-year-old me:
Kevin: “Why’d you name me ‘Kevin’?”
Kevin’s Long-Suffering Mother, Lighting Her 22nd Winston of the Day: “You were named after the preacher who married your father and me.”
Kevin: “You’re divorced.”
Kevin’s Long-Suffering Mother, Exhaling Blue Smoke: “That’s right.”
Kevin: “Does that mean I can change my name?”
KL-SM&C.: “. . .”
Kevin: “I mean, it didn’t take.”
Saint Kevin is such a lame saint that I didn’t even choose him for my patron — mine is Thomas Becket, as portrayed by Richard Burton.
“Kevin can go f*** himself.” Don’t think I haven’t heard it before.
But I think Karen still has it worse.
David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words, mentioned above, really is worth your time. A certain kind of pedant (this kind!) will especially enjoy his discussion of the “greengrocer’s apostrophe.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the mechanics of politics lately, particularly in its relation to the mechanics of religion. On Sunday, I heard a very interesting sermon about factionalism in the early church, which Saint Paul dissects in his letter to the Corinthians. Apparently, some early Christians formed cliques seeking to identify themselves with some prominent figure in the church, whether Paul or Peter or Apollos or someone else. “Was Paul crucified for you?” he asks. “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
Politics, especially presidential politics, is a similar kind of status game. The president or presidential candidate is a mascot for a particular tribal identity, and in his elevation they see their own elevation — or else they see their own defeat and humiliation in his defeat and humiliation.
What’s particularly distasteful about that sort of thing, to my mind, anyway, is that there is no reciprocal relationship. Partisans will adore and, indeed, will worship a political leader, but he does not return the sentiment to the individual partisan. That’s the sad lot of the populist politician: He must find his power in being the voice of an aggregation of people to whom he would not give a second’s consideration as individuals. Take your pick of the great current populist leaders and ask which one has a son or daughter who married a factory worker. (I’ll wait.) As individuals, such people are not the sort the politician would be friends with, invite to his home for dinner, go into business with, lend money to, be happy to see one of his children marry, etc. They have value only as an electorate — which is to say, as a mob. The politician doesn’t care what any of them thinks or does or loves — only what all of them do, or the majority of them. In that way, the politician is someone who sells his soul for the good opinion of people he despises by the inch but worships by the mile.
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