The Poor Should Spend More Time at Work!

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Are class disparities partly a function of how many hours people are willing to work? And what does this have to do with Duke basketball? New York Times columnist David Brooks attempted to answer these and other questions this week during one of his crosstalk sessions with fellow Times regular Gail Collins.

First, Brooks advanced his theory that Duke, the moneyed Goliath of March Madness, took the NCAA championship because they'd worked harder for it. "The rich are not always spoiled," said Brooks. "Their success does not always derive from privilege." Brooks then moved from sport to sociology, though his target remained the idea of the plucky underdog: "For the first time in human history, rich people work longer hours than middle class or poor people. How do you construct a rich versus poor narrative when the rich are more industrious?" Bloggers, though, have been largely unmoved by Brooks's argument, firing back with rebuttals that range from the statistic-minded to the scatological.

  • Let's Go Back to Basketball For a Second  Gail Collins's real-time response to Brooks's socioeconomic point was mild enough: "I’m pretty sure that the work gets more and more pleasant the higher up the ladder you climb. Forty hours in a chicken-plucking factory feels a lot longer than 60 hours managing a large corporation." But she couldn't let his defense of Duke stand: "I’m sorry, when the difference is one weensy basket, I’d say Duke won neither by privilege nor hard work but by sheer luck."
  • There's a Reason the Poor Work Fewer Hours  The American Prospect's Monica Potts admits she's "had a hard time coming up with the stats" that support Brooks's claim about the man-hour gap. But even assuming that claim is true, Potts goes on to say, it probably doesn't tell the whole story:
I suspect that low-wage earners just aren't allowed to work as much as they might want to. They're probably the employed -- not the employers -- and their bosses aren't going to let them work overtime just because they need more money. If they do work overtime, they're probably asked to work off the clock, or just aren't paid properly ... I suspect that, if you dug behind those numbers a bit, there isn't a lot of choice involved in working hours at the lowest income levels.
  • Brooks Transposed Cause and Effect  Matt Yglesias at Think Progress follows up on Potts's point with a reminder about the relative elasticity of workday length. "A company can go out of business, but as long as it’s in business the executives need to be working pretty long hours," Yglesias writes. "But when business slows down, a firm can reduce the hours of its cashiers (or what have you) and therefore reduce expenses and also the cashiers’ income. To then look at the situation and say 'well, the cashiers would have more money if they worked harder' is basically backwards—if the labor market were in better shape, people would work longer hours and get paid more on a per hour basis."
  • Suggests a Certain Sheltered Background  At True/Slant, Matt Taibbi launches into an anti-Brooks jeremiad that employs more colorful anatomical imagery than can be recapped here. Between expletives, Taibbi does offer his view that "only a person who has never actually held a real job" could advance the line of reasoning that Brooks set forth. "There is, of course, a huge difference between working 80 hours a week in a profession that you love and which promises you vast financial rewards," Taibbi writes, "and working 80 hours a week digging ditches for a septic-tank company."
  • In Defense of Brooks...  National Review's Reihan Salam cites a few of the "stats" Potts asked after, and adds a bit of personal observation: "The low-wage earners that I know tend to have a different mix of priorities: they engage in more household labor, they often have creative pursuits that aren't terribly remunerative, etc." Salam doesn't take a hard-line stance about working-class Americans one way or the other, noting instead that "some serve as informal public goods providers in their neighborhoods. Others engage in practices that are frowned upon by the wider society. The world is complicated."
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