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Decline of biblical work ethic explains latest jobs report

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In this photo illustration, a person files an application for unemployment benefits on April 16, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia. |

The latest Employment Report shows the slowest jobs growth so far this year, at only 194,000 jobs added, which is a bit more than half the job growth of the prior month and less than most economists expected. Asking why a certain economic statistic is lower than economists expected is just another way of asking why economists' expectations were higher than reality. Why did economists think more people would be going back to work than actually did? And a related question is, why does this new report show job growth slowed but unemployment fell dramatically?

The answer to both questions lies in understanding how the government defines unemployment. "Unemployed" means looking for a job, but not having a job. Therefore, there are two ways to leave the statistical category known as "unemployed:" you can either get a job, or you can stop looking for one. The unemployment number is neutral on those two options. If a lot of people who are looking for work get work, unemployment drops. Likewise, if a lot of people who are looking for work give up and stop looking, they are seen as leaving the workforce, and again, unemployment drops.

So, what happened in the latest report? A large proportion of the drop in unemployment was due to people leaving the workforce. They gave up. Why? We don't know for sure, but some surveys indicate they did it because they're afraid of COVID. Some commentators have suggested that it is because they're afraid of vaccines (which are sometimes a condition of employment,) and there is the issue of a lack of childcare when many schools are not yet open.

But I think that there is a cultural issue that we're missing: we are no longer afraid of the stigma that used to attach to able-bodied people who didn’t work.

Some free-market economists who focus exclusively on economic incentives ("maximum utility") expected a flood of workers into the workforce when the various extended government benefits ended. But those of us who understand that economics is embedded in culture knew that a cultural shift away from believing in the dignity and necessity of work would affect labor market dynamics. How could it not? Part of the cost/benefit trade-off in any economic activity is moral intuition. Not working means you can get in more binge watching and feeding your video game addiction (which I guess is a kind of benefit), but it might also mean shame and guilt.

We have a voice in our head that represents what a reasonable universal observer might think. We learn it from how other people act and talk. We feel bad (unless we're sociopaths) when we do something that the voice of our internalized moral code would disapprove of. This is something Adam Smith taught the world, and which our friend, the brilliant, Christian, Nobel Prize-winning economist Vernon Smith, is now reminding us of. If you listen to my recent interview with Deirdre McCloskey, you’ll hear that we talk about the idea of "permission." Society gives permission, or does not give permission, to pursue the prudential virtues of the middle classes. I used the phrase "cultural permission" and McCloskey seemed to embrace that. The revolution in human betterment started when opinion-molders in English literature (about which McCloskey writes) and in the American pulpit gave ordinary people cultural permission to become entrepreneurs.

Our opinion-molding elites are now giving less and less culture permission for us to be business owners, and more and more cultural permission for us to stay jobless. This is evidenced in the rise of Universal Basic Income as a mainstream idea in our politics. Historically, even liberal politics at least played lip service to the necessity for the able-bodied to work.

That collapse of the work ethic is now merging with an unbalanced perception between risk and reward regarding COVID. One side of our political divide sees the playing up of COVID risks as politically virtuous, while the other side seems committed to playing it down. Both sides pick and choose data to fit their agenda, but the exaggerators seem to have the biggest market share. An ethic of sloth and an atmosphere of fear reinforce one another, as Mark Horne (author of Solomon Says, a wonderful commentary on Proverbs) recently wrote, showing how Proverbs connects fear and sloth.

"The lazy one says, ‘There is a lion outside; I will be killed in the streets!’"

Proverbs 22:13

The example of Jesus and His early disciples, particularly the Galilean fishermen Peter, Andrew, James and John, is instructive here. Recent findings from osteoarcheology (the archeology of bones) show us that there was a terrible problem with parasites during Jesus’s time on earth. Further archeology and historical evidence shows us that this risk was centered in low-lands near water, for example, the Jordan River Valley and the fishing villages around the Sea of Galilee.

Inhabitants of these places, due to their climate and proximity to water, were at a heightened risk for Malaria, a malady recognized in the ancient world. They didn't know about the mosquitoes as carriers for a parasite; they thought it was a feature of the air. Josephus refers the "pestilential air" around these zones. But the people who pursued a living in the fishing industry despite these risks are the kind of people Jesus recruited to build His core leadership team. He even went so far as to make Capernaum, a fishing village in the pandemic danger zone, His base of operations. If the moral imperative was "safety first," then Jesus and His early followers violated that moral imperative. But, of course, Jesus defines the nature of virtue, so He cannot violate a true moral imperative. Therefore, avoidance of illness is not a moral absolute which blots out all other duties, such as making a living, or pursuing the business of the Kingdom movement.

Our shift towards absolutizing hygiene and diminishing the duty to work is what the pure incentive model of economics misses.

Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”

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