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Jones The Idler

Here’s an attempt, probably futile, to depersonalize the thread below on the moral judgment of the actions of an unemployed/underemployed man. In this thought experiment, I want you all to focus on the following facts about a fictional character we will call Jones, a factory worker who lost his job at age 48, and has been idle ever since. The facts of the case:

  • Jones has not worked steadily for five years, since his factory closed.
  • He is willing to work again, but only if he can get a job as satisfying and as remunerative as his factory job. The last post-layoff gig he had paid $45/hr, which he found acceptable, but that dried up too. He has not looked for work he considers beneath his level of worth and skill, because of “bitter memories” from his previous work life.
  • He is healthy and intelligent, spending his days reading, playing music, and writing.
  • Jones does not live extravagantly, but he and his wife are rapidly spending down their savings. Jones has borrowed money against his house to help fund his lifestyle, and, like his wife, is cleaning out his 401(K) so rapidly he has had to pay withdrawal penalties.
  • Jones brings in $12,000/yr from his pension. Mrs. Jones is disabled, and brings in $12,000/yr, plus what she can get by doing odd jobs. It is not enough to support them, even though they live modestly.
  • What’s going to happen when the money runs out? Jones says, “The future is always a concern, but I no longer allow myself to dwell on it.”

You work as a professional counselor. Jones is a stranger who comes to you for advice. Here are the questions facing you:

1. Given that he is physically and mentally capable of work, is Jones right to refuse to look for work that would pay him a salary lower than what he thinks he deserves? Why or why not?

2. Is Jones justified in not allowing himself to dwell on the question of how he will support himself and help support his wife in the future? Why or why not?

Please, no sidetracks into discussions of the problems with capitalism or economic policies, or the unfairness of life, all of which may well be true. Even so, what would you advise Jones to do? Why?

Let me shift the framework a bit. Jones is not a stranger; Jones is your son. You are not in a position to offer him money or a place to live. All you have to offer is your advice. What do you tell him to do? Explain your reasoning.

One more shift: Mrs. Jones is your daughter. You are not in a position to offer her money or a place to live. All you have to offer is your advice. What do you tell her to do? Explain your reasoning.

I’m not going to publish any responses that don’t directly answer at least one set of these questions. Don’t refer to the previous discussion; this is a thought experiment.


98 Comments (Open | Close)

98 Comments To "Jones The Idler"

#1 Comment By Edward Hamilton On January 12, 2014 @ 4:27 pm

The details in this hypothetical account are almost perfectly cherry-picked to trigger an instinctively negative response from me. The idea that “$45/hour” is a sort of living wage baseline for someone with factory-line skills is enough to make anyone with a substantial investment in post-secondary education mutter unhappily. I surrendered 15 years of the prime of my life to earn multiple college degrees and function as a glorified lab technician and write papers to pad the CV of a tenured professor — while this guy is angry about not being able to permanently draw a salary for doing something that requires no specialized academic training at all. So my knee-jerk reaction is that he’s insufferably arrogant, and the mere possibility that his spendthrift approach toward retirement planning will result in some government program swooping in to rescue him is a searing indictment of the culture of dependency. As it stands, my advice would be “Start beating the bushes, and come back to complain when you’ve submitted at least as many job applications as I’ve needed to, after ten times your cumulative educational investment”.

But it would be easy to tweak the details of the account to arouse quite a bit more of my sympathy. I regard moving from factory work to the service sector as a mostly lateral transition, not a step down. Suppose he were a white collar office manager with an MBA, now forced to become a Walmart greeter, or (horribile dictu!) a formerly tenured academic downsized by the loss of his university department in a bad economy. Now I feel like he’s suffering a meaningful insult, and I swing around to denouncing the cruelty of the economy for reducing a brilliant professional to degrading pink-collar servitude.

You can see how it’s difficult to disentangle these questions from matters of culture and social class. Money is essentially an egalitarian aspect of life, and someone whose sole apparent priority is to maintain a lucrative income is someone who, by my way of thinking, has decided to suppress idealistic principles of pride and self-identity in favor of letting the market dictate his value to society.

You can’t say “let tomorrow worry about itself” unless you are also willing to live as a lily of the field – and lilies aren’t known for demanding a salary at 1.7 times the annual median for the modern post-industrial world. Spin me that sob story, and I’m reaching for a dozen scathing proof-texts about sloth from Solomon’s proverbs. But if the cruelty of the economy were responsible for taking a nobly impoverished artist, or academic, or priest, or itinerant Galilean prophet(!) — someone who had already dismissed the idol of comfortable wealth and accepted an intentionally ascetic path — and reduced that enlightened person to wearing a stupid hat and an apron at the local burger joint to avoid starvation, well, now I’m not nearly so keen to sit in righteous judgment.

If you refuse to accept a job as a matter of pride, then the basis for your pride matters quite a bit, and had better be something more noble than the size of your paycheck.

[NFR: Just to be clear, Edward, the $45/hr figure was taken from the NYT story about Mr. B., the real-life Jones, who said that was what he was paid at the last regular job he had — a job he told the Times was the level of job he would consider taking, versus anything lesser. I mean to say, I didn’t pull that figure out of a hat for the sake of making you unsympathetic. — RD]

#2 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 12, 2014 @ 4:31 pm

Erin gets my vote too.

But otherwise, I don’t think its any of my business to give him advice. He is well within acceptable ethical boundaries to live his life as he sees fit and accept whatever the consequences may be. Nobody really needs to be parsing his life for him.

#3 Comment By J. mc.. Fa ul On January 12, 2014 @ 5:03 pm

1. Given that he is physically and mentally capable of work, is Jones right to refuse to look for work that would pay him a salary lower than what he thinks he deserves? Why or why not?

It depends. The choice is his. Thetre is no moral component to that decision.

2. Is Jones justified in not allowing himself to dwell on the question of how he will support himself and help support his wife in the future? Why or why not?

Sure. He will have to live with the consequences.

Jones is seekign advice? What is the problem, if any? Am I a financial advisor or soem other kind of counselor? I’ll answer as a financial planner.

This issue is the same issue faced by all non-wealthy people. His income is $24,000/year. What are his expebses per year?

Can he cut expenses to $24k? If he can cut to $30 k, would he be willing to work at a low paying job for a few month every year?

What is his realistic life expectancy? Will he live to 65? What is his wife’s life expectancy?

The familial relationships are utterly, utterly irrelevant. If 48 year old Jones is my son, I am probably over 68. He has survived nearly 5 decades without my advice and assistance.

At this stage in life, I owe him nothing and he owes me nothing. He will have to live and die on his own. Same answer if Mrs. Joens is my daughter.

We are talking about late middle age adults here. They have successfully survived to date and thy have all the skills to continue to do so in the future. a near 70 year-old old fart has no words of wisdom that are liley to be helpful to these people.

Their choices are not my choices but their choices are not immoral nor do they show any lack of character.

#4 Comment By Just Some Guy On January 12, 2014 @ 5:04 pm

First of all, allow me to express my disappointment that this thread is not about some new Terry Jones/Eric Idle collaboration.

Part of how you compute the moral calculus of Jones’s decision depends on if you think human existence has a purpose or telos.

For example, if you think that the telos of life is the pleasure and comfort of the radically emancipated individual, then Jones’s decision is perfectly acceptable, and one can only quibble about if he is pursuing this end prudently.

If you think the telos of life is the responsible discharge of one’s duties to kith and kin, then Jones’s choices are morally appalling.

These are at least two of the poles this discussion swings between. But they are not the only possibilities.

One could, with the Westminster Shorter Catechism, affirm that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. (And I think there are other good ways to answer this question; I’m just choosing this specific answer for the sake of argument.)

And this is where I would begin if I was in the position to counsel Jones. For example, the scenario says this: “He is … spending his days reading, playing music, and writing.” Suppose he is reading theology to prepare for teaching a catechism class, practicing piano for Sunday’s service, and writing edifying essays for the church newsletter? If these activities are part of his true vocation, then he ought to pursue them, even if he can’t get paid for doing them. I would council him to continue doing these things, only in a manner that won’t bankrupt him.

At any rate, for everyone, I think the key is to live not just responsibly but also purposefully. A responsible life can also be a purposeless life, and just as much a waste as that of an “idler.”

#5 Comment By JonF On January 12, 2014 @ 5:29 pm

It is possible to live on 24K– if you do not have rent or a house payment, and you live in a cheaper part of the country where property taxes are not exorbitant. My younger step-sister, for whom that is true, gets by on about that much, with the added benefit of a paid-off car and Medicare (she’s on disability– no, SSDI alone is not paying her 24K). Most of us however are not in such a sweet spot.

#6 Comment By JonF On January 12, 2014 @ 5:34 pm

Re: There is honor in every kind of work

Hmm: telemarketing? That’s what I did when things got tight in late 2002, for ten awful weeks. I have trouble seeing any sort good in that, though I’d love to hear someone, with nothing to hawk to the rubes at dinner time, find praise for it.

#7 Comment By Marc Tully On January 12, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

Alright, I’ve avoided saying anything, but I’ll enter the fray. I’ll say simply that Jones is obviously wrong not to search for, and in the event that he gets it, take work that he finds to be ‘beneath’ him. But it is certainly not because ‘honest work of all kinds holds inherent dignity, and that it ennobles human nature,’ as you, Mr. Dreher, and others, seem to think. It’s simply and only because by not working he fails to fulfill his obligations to his wife. Honest work has no inherent dignity, and the claim that it does is the capitalist’s ‘Arbeit macht frei.’ That may be too strong or too false to be true (that’s a joke), but what is true is that work, in sense we’re taking it here, derives all of its value from the ends that it serves. The ‘honest work’ he might take is valuable only because it would allow him to fulfill his obligations, and for no other reason. Surely digging ditches is not an end itself–only a madman could think so. At best, it helps one to acquire virtues which themselves allow one to endure hardships, not shy away from what is ‘hard’ or fails to use one’s full talents–but the work itself is not ennobling at all. Again, it would only be ‘instrumentally’ valuable. The only ‘work’ that is *inherently* dignified, if I can use that phrase, is the ‘work’ of contemplating the highest things–God, the heavens, etc.. I don’t mean to be sputtering high-minded nonsense–this is just straight from Aristotle. We could also make room for exercising certain virtues as ends in themselves (‘inherently dignified’–a phrase I don’t believe Aristotle uses), but ‘honest work’ is not a necessary condition for exercising those virtues.

Further, the idea that someone who takes menial but albeit ‘honest work’ is ‘supporting himself’ would have been a joke to the Greeks–one needs one’s own land and presumably slaves to be self-sufficient (complicated again by the ideal of the ‘philosopher’ who is self-sufficient to the highest degree). In working, one is selling one’s labor/work/body to another, repeatedly, precisely because one isn’t self sufficient and cannot support oneself. One is required by baleful necessity to put oneself in the thrall of another, and that, according to the Greeks, will only serve to inculcate low and vulgar (in the more etymological sense of the word) habits and modes of thought. (on this, see K.J. Dover’s ‘Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle’).

Some work *is* beneath us, but sometimes we have to do it because others depend on us. That doesn’t change the fact of more, less, and undignified work. Part of the problem is that, arguably, most people have a loftier opinion of themselves than is usually warranted, so they’re often wrong about what they judge to be beneath them. But that needn’t undermine the principle. Self-knowledge is just really hard.

#8 Comment By Beyng On January 12, 2014 @ 6:01 pm

This entire discussion reminds me of a blurb that appeared in my local news a couple of weeks ago when the renewal of expiring unemployment benefits was a question before Congress. As such allegedly “hard news” stories increasingly are, it was a blatantly ideological puff piece.

The “hook” began by quoting a local man in his mid-30s. Seven months ago, Mr. Smith (let’s call him) had been laid off from his I.T. job. And, “just as he has most days for the past seven months,” Mr. Smith began his day by plopping down in front of the computer to search and apply for jobs.

Mr. Smith, as quoted in the article: “I must have applied to maybe a dozen jobs!”

In seven months. In seven months of allegedly doing little more except job searching day in and day out. In seven months of “job searching” while collecting unemployment.

So he’s applied to twelve–or likely fewer–jobs in seven months, and, in his own words, he refused even to consider jobs below his self-prescribed standard. He would not consider retail, food service, landscaping, or any other jobs. No, it was an equivalently lucrative job or nothing–or rather, the dole. And indeed, the point of the Mr. Smith’s appearance in the article was not to serve as a modern morality play but rather to whine about how his unemployment benefits were about to expire. We’re seriously supposed to sympathize with–and then subsidize–a guy who’s only applied to about ten whole jobs in seven whole months.

Now, I realize the plural of anecdote is not data, and I know this doesn’t speak directly to the case of Jones. But I found it a telling fable. It’s easy to wax social democratic about the perils of the capitalist labor market. But seriously, folks.

#9 Comment By Tyro On January 12, 2014 @ 6:07 pm

I should probably comment because I did stand up for Beggerow.

I would tell Mr. Jones the following:

$24k is not an unreasonable amount to live on if your expenses are low. His expenses are way too high if he’s dipping into the equity in his house. I’d tell him to never, never dip into his capital. Instead, sell the house and buy something cheaper or rent something such that getting by on $24k/yr is an option, even if he and his wife need to move for it.

I’d suggest he work 15-25 hours/wk and to move to such a place where that is an option (this was more of an option in 2006 than it is in 2013). But a non-strenuous non-abusive workplace is out, so that means someplace like Radio Shack rather than Target or Wal-Mart.

That said, though, in this economy at his age with a history of manual labor, his best bet would be to qualify for disability until SS kicks in. The big benefit of that would be that switching to a low-cost lifestyle beforehand would be that he and his wife would be well-equipped to live on that.

Someone who does not dwell on the future is not wise, but such a person is only manifesting the natural human condition. You can’t change human nature.

#10 Comment By pnw machinist On January 12, 2014 @ 6:08 pm

“Don’t refer to the previous discussion”

Rod, could you please provide a link to said “discussion”?

In 2010, at age 58, I left my self-employed career and entered the workforce after a somewhat soul-crushing year long job search. Before commenting further, I would like to peruse any previous threads on this topic.

#11 Comment By Sam M On January 12, 2014 @ 6:41 pm

Edward Hamilton,

This is pretty misguided:

“The idea that “$45/hour” is a sort of living wage baseline for someone with factory-line skills is enough to make anyone with a substantial investment in post-secondary education mutter unhappily.”

You don’t just go to the factory and make that much by being a dunce. These guys get a ton of specialized training that might well put your education to shame. You have any idea what it takes to be a class-A die setter? A tool maker? A competent machinist?

Academic training is not the only kind of training. And a degree in, say, women’s studies from Stanford is not the only way to indicate you provide value to society.

#12 Comment By La Lubu On January 12, 2014 @ 7:42 pm

It is possible to live on 24K– if you do not have rent or a house payment, and you live in a cheaper part of the country where property taxes are not exorbitant.

Well sure, if Jones can count on the roof on his house lasting another 30 years, his furnace lasting another 30 years, his car lasting another 30 years, and not developing any expensive medical conditions (either that cost a lot in and of themselves, or that prevent him from doing routine housework and home/yard maintenance and having to hire that work done). Like I said—it’s doable on a temporary basis. For the long term, Jones needs to look at future needs, which at his age means earning more income so he has something to live on when it isn’t possible for him to work—even at his leisure activities.

Low incomes are a problem because they don’t allow for contingencies—something life is always guaranteed to deliver.

#13 Comment By collin On January 12, 2014 @ 7:55 pm

I would to recommend the part time work just to keep the schedule, ambition, and skills in the work place. But this is going to be a real long term economic possibility as robot future is coming the next 10 – 20 years. (Google self driving cars are a success but a pricey ($100K+) at this time.) Also I do feel like this might happen long term as one of my three sons is high functioning autist. Although he can do B level work at mainstream school, I am not seeing the ambition or termperament for him to thrive in a competitive market.

Maybe do work at a charity or church if Mr. Jones needs to feel like the work is contributing to society.

#14 Comment By Beyng On January 12, 2014 @ 8:00 pm

Sam M:

True, true. Then again, there are unionized grunts in the paper mill back home who are making $70+k per year plus lavish benefits plus full pensions when they retire who are basically unskilled workers. Their job is to push buttons or monitor automated machines all day. Regular shift work, frequent opportunities for paid overtime, double-time-and-a-half if they work on holidays, etc. And they come home with money to buy bass boats, massive pickup trucks, and so on. I’m not exaggerating.

I’m not begrudging these men (and women, but mostly men) their exorbitant livelihoods. Nor am I assuming that Jones (or Mr. Beggerow) is an unskilled worker.

But the idea that all factory workers taking home $45+/hour are super-skilled technical wizards who “deserve” high wages vis-a-vis an extremely educated scientist is simply false. In fact, in my part of the world, it’s this fact that explains much of the populist-level resentment against labor unions. That’s right: corporate robber barons and Republicans aren’t the only ones with a bone to pick with the unions. It’s a major political, economic and cultural cleavage in my hometown, actually. Unskilled (and often ungrateful) unionized workers with significant protections against overtime, etc., vs. salaried workers who aren’t necessarily in management roles but who are almost certainly more highly educated and possess greater responsibilities at work and yet who take home a fraction of the wages that a C student from the local high school.

Anyway, this is sort of irrelevant. My point, though, is that we should avoid letting this discussion rehearse all the standard ideological tropes about unions, meaningful work, etc. It’s always more complicated than that.

(Also, I sympathize entirely with Edward Hamilton’s plight, though I’m not bitter.)

#15 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On January 12, 2014 @ 8:01 pm

Re: But if the cruelty of the economy were responsible for taking a nobly impoverished artist, or academic, or priest, or itinerant Galilean prophet(!) — someone who had already

Wow. See, we have *very* different ways of looking at this. I guess I’m still enough of a quasi-Marxist that I have something of a romantic attachment to the ideal of physical labour and the factory worker where you actually *make things*, and something of a distaste for service sector jobs that smack of servility. If I were employed in any kind of industrial or agricultural labour, was laid off, and had to get a service job, I would *absolutely* regard that as a step down, and as an insult (as well as a bad sign for society).

I’m a researcher right now, making about half what Beggerow did as a steelworker, assuming he worked 2000 hours a year; if I’m successful, maybe ten years from now I’ll be making about what he did per year, and if I’m really successful in thirty years I might be making half again as much. I absolutely don’t regard biology research as any more ‘necessary’, or noble, or exalted a profession than a steelworker, and I don’t think that we should necessarily get paid any more per hour. And I definitely don’t think there’s anything better about being an artist than a steelworker.

#16 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 12, 2014 @ 8:31 pm

First, I would tell him not to waste money on therapy. Secondly, I would definitely tell him not to allow his predicament to be publicly reported. One becomes a pariah without hope or help should the truth of a failure be told, because you will represent people’s own worst fears of what could happen to them and therefore be shunned, further ruining chances to recover. If I were his/her father, I would try to start a business that could offer my family decent employment.

#17 Comment By Isaac On January 12, 2014 @ 9:02 pm

1. My advice to Jones here is that he set his sights in terms of wage expectations lower and that he just take a job, any job. While I think that Jones’s feelings of disappointment and discouragement are totally understandable, the fact of the matter is that he’s never going to have the work opportunities that were available to him as a young man. All of those living-wage paying jobs have either been automated, sent overseas, or else taking by illegal immigrants.
(***I should say here that I disagree with the phrasing of this question (namely, rather than saying “he thinks he deserves”, “he deserves” would be more appropriate). While I agree that Jones’ expectations of $45 an hours are unreasonably high, it would seem to me that Jones would likely be quite contented with accepting a job that paid more than the starvation wages which are commonly offered by the likes of Wal-Mart and McDonalds. A job which pays a living-wage should not be considered a luxury afforded exclusively to NBA players or porn stars simply because the “free-market”, whatever that means, says so.)
2. Is Jones justified in not allowing himself to dwell on the question of how he will support himself and help support his wife in the future? Why or why not?
Absolutely. Who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, or the day after, or a week from now? So long as all the real power lies in the hands of an elite-class of international bankers intent on making the wages of Americans “more competitive”—indeed, on some Sunday talk show that I was watching last week, there a lady there who apparently writes for The Economist and who was calmly explaining how America is set to experience increased economic growth for just that reason, that the average wages of the American worker is “more competitive”, which is to say lower—than I would advise Jones to continue to not think about his economic future, because there is only more bad news ahead.

#18 Comment By RB On January 12, 2014 @ 9:19 pm

I second Erin and Darth Thlulu.

$24K a year for two adults who own their home should be plenty. When my husband was in the military, our base housing took 50% of our monthly, leaving us with $1000/month for gas, car, clothes, and food for a family of five. And we weren’t permitted to garden, and lived in more expensive area. We made it.

Even now, if I had $24000 a year to spend on all our expenses excluding mortgage payments, my standard of living would rise. If a growing family of nine can make it on 24K a year, one older couple can.

We had a scary unemployment period right after my husband left the military. The company promised a permanent position and hired us knowing they would lay us off in just a couple months. We were unemployed in a new area, didn’t know anybody, renting, had high debt (we went into debt in order to move ourselves to the job) and I was pregnant with #5. So we have been there.

What got us out of it was help from our church, my husband’s willingness to take absolutely any honest work, and a lot of prayer. What really tipped our situation into the livable was paying tithing on anything we had, and finding opportunities to serve.

My husband took a temporary contract job and did his very best for pennies. That impressed the people he worked with and landed him another job, and then a better one after that, one that paid so well it got us out of debt and moved us back home near family.

I’d give Mr. Jones the exact same advice if he were my son, and Mrs. Jones the same advice if she were my daughter. Tithing. Humility. Service. Those sacrifices open doors that we can’t see.

#19 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 12, 2014 @ 9:33 pm

…enough to make anyone with a substantial investment in post-secondary education mutter unhappily…

Well, life is enought to make them mutter unhappily. The notion that everyone should go to college, that going to college is going to get you into a high-paying job, so its worth taking on any amount of loans to do so, is all just highly over-rated.

The worst of it is, with so many college graduates on the market, you can’t get a job as assistant manager at a department store, unless you have a bachelor’s degree in political science.

#20 Comment By Tyro On January 12, 2014 @ 11:03 pm

We had a scary unemployment period right after my husband left the military … My husband took a temporary contract job and did his very best for pennies. That impressed the people he worked with and landed him another job, and then a better one after that, one that paid so well it got us out of debt and moved us back home near family.

When was this? That makes all the difference.

It’s all well and good to preach the rewards of hard work in good times. These days, opportunities aren’t there.

#21 Comment By Andrea On January 12, 2014 @ 11:30 pm

I read an AP story tonight about a 67 year old electrician who can’t find work and thinks he will have to work at McDonald’s without an unemployment check. The same guy could come to North Dakota, work for a couple of years and retire on two years of wages, provided he’s able to arrange for temporary housing. Life in a man damp or rented room is likely not pleasant, but hundreds of people do it. Electricians of any age can set their price in western N.D. Some of these guys have to be willing to go where the work is. I might tell this guy to go work in the oil fields.

#22 Comment By Andrea On January 12, 2014 @ 11:30 pm

Man camp. Auto correct is annoying.

#23 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On January 13, 2014 @ 1:03 am


It’s weird that you say that. I was about to suggest the exact same thing, ‘North Dakota ‘. I hear it’s a great place to find a job right now.

#24 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On January 13, 2014 @ 1:08 am


Good for your buddies in the paper mill. I’m glad some factory workers are making that kind of income, and that the good life isn’t reserved for lawyers and financiers. not yet, anyway.

#25 Comment By RB On January 13, 2014 @ 1:19 am

Tyro, that was in late 2007.

My husband had another brief period of unemployment a year later, and we did the same thing we’d done before, except for accepting food from our church–after the first time we’d gone without, we’d made it a priority to always have a three-month supply of food on hand. So we had plenty if rice and beans (and beans and rice!) to see us through that second skinny time.

The economy can affect individual financial destiny, but not as much as learning to live within one’s means. And so far as I’ve seen, a man who is willing to work, and work hard, will be able to find some work–however humble–even in skinny times. I’m LDS, so my perceptions are colored by that–we have employment services in my church and a lot of social networking for jobs, and a nice church welfare system. I’m of the belief that if a man at least tries to get a job, he may not be employed, but his attempts to do the honorable thing will bring blessings.

If I didn’t believe that way, though, I can see why someone would give up and go on welfare. I have an in-law on welfare and Section 8, who has a far more expensive lifestyle than I do, with much nicer, newer things. It’s not a simple judgement; I can see how, for her, using generics/store brands of some things is a step down that she emotionally can’t afford to take.

Jane hit the nail on the head in the confusion our culture has about dignity vs. pride, and how that determines the lifestyles people lead. My welfare-recipient in-law feels her dignity is too battered to suffer the insult of a further reduced lifestyle–she does not want to “feel poor”. I say that without rancor. I remember being there myself. That’s why service is so important for hypothetical Mr. Jones. He needs to realize his worth isn’t based in how much money he receives or gives, and that he has other things to offer. Most people without serious psychological maladies want to be Very Useful Engines, no matter what the economy.

#26 Comment By relstprof On January 13, 2014 @ 3:03 am

[NFR: You are not really answering the questions, but using the thought experiment to sermonize about the Beggerow case. We’ve all had a crack at that in the earlier thread. Answer the questions here and I’ll publish your remarks. — RD]

#27 Comment By kag1982 On January 13, 2014 @ 3:56 am

The fact that a factory worker with no special skills or higher education was making nearly six figures might be part of the problem with the U.S. economy to begin with. If Mr. Jones was just a guy on the line, that seems greatly out of whack.

#28 Comment By artsandcrafts On January 13, 2014 @ 6:50 am

Excellent comment by Fran Macadam; I also liked Erin Manning’s and M Young’s advice.

#29 Comment By MBrown On January 13, 2014 @ 8:49 am

@Sam M

“You don’t just go to the factory and make that much by being a dunce. These guys get a ton of specialized training that might well put your education to shame. You have any idea what it takes to be a class-A die setter? A tool maker? A competent machinist?”

I do know the answers to those questions, as I am a machinist and own & operate a machine shop. The difference between the education of which he speaks and that training is that the training in question is usually done on the employer’s dime, while the education is typically paid for by the individual. If I start someone at $15/hr and then train them until they earn $22/hr and then they leave, more power to them if they can use the training that I paid for to get another job at a similar pay rate. But if they can’t find a job that similarly values the training that I paid for, let’s not pretend that some cosmic injustice has occurred.

#30 Comment By Nick On January 13, 2014 @ 9:21 am

1. Given that he is physically and mentally capable of work, is Jones right to refuse to look for work that would pay him a salary lower than what he thinks he deserves? Why or why not?

He is well within his rights to do, or not do, whatever he wishes. What he is NOT within his rights to do is demand that I subsidize him with ever longer unemployment benefits. If he’s too vain to take whatever work he can get and improve his lot, then he can suffer the consequences when his pension and equity run out. Not my problem, or any other taxpayer’s.

Putting that aside, however, he’s much less likely to find work with a giant hole in his resume than if he was at least doing something. An employer might just catch on to his sense of entitlement and inflated sense of self-worth by looking at the gaping hole in his work history. I suppose the solution to that is for the government to create a law prohibiting discrimination against the long-term unemployed. We wouldn’t want employers drawing rational inferences in making their hiring decisions.

2. Is Jones justified in not allowing himself to dwell on the question of how he will support himself and help support his wife in the future? Why or why not?

Again, it’s their life. And if she wants to fall with him, that’s her prerogative. But, here again, what they should not receive is public assistance. They should not be declared “disabled” simply because he’s lazy and she won’t leave him.

Having been laid off relatively recently, I empathize with people who don’t want to just jump into the first job that comes along. I empathize with people who don’t want to have their skills and experience wasted by giving up on their profession or area of expertise. But those who can sustain themselves have an obligation to do so, and if they are unwilling, the rest of us have no moral or ethical obligation to make up the difference. Let them eat Tastykake.

#31 Comment By mrscracker On January 13, 2014 @ 9:46 am

I’d first ask Mr & Mrs Jones why they can’t live on $24,000. a year.That’s more than twice the income I raised 8 children on.
And if Mr or Mrs Jones was my child-as the scenario here goes- they’d know how to make do, not be borrowing money, nor be sitting on their backsides listening to music.
My daughter paid room and board at college by raising baby calves, turkeys, rabbits & sheep, butchering & selling rabbit meat, cleaning neighbors homes,cleaning out the school septic system, doing campus groundswork on a tractor, & making repairs in dorm rooms over the summer when other kids went home.No way would she accept this scenario.

#32 Comment By Sam M On January 13, 2014 @ 9:54 am


“Unskilled (and often ungrateful) unionized workers with significant protections”

Edward Hamilton is an academic making this charge against laborers. I suspect that laborers would make the same charge against academics. Neither fully understanding the other industry.

#33 Comment By Chet On January 13, 2014 @ 10:06 am

[NFR: Chet, please confine your answer to the questions asked. I’m not saying this to be a hardass about it, but to keep people focused on the practicalities of an actual situation, not discussing the theoretical possibilities of how to create a more just society. We can all agree, perhaps, that the situation Jones finds himself in is objectionable, and not of his own making. But bills still have to be paid, and mathematics (i.e., the unsustainable fast drawing-down of the bank account over time) is not impressed by morality. What then? — RD]

#34 Comment By Tyro On January 13, 2014 @ 11:03 am

Preaching invites resistance, so maybe I would ask for his help in doing a hard, physical task. As we worked, there could be an atmosphere of good cheer and can-do spirit, lots of sincere praise and expressions of satisfaction as the job progressed, and, at the end of the day, the reward of a delicious dinner with natural mentions of being pleasantly tired.

This is completely unlike what entry level labor is like in the real world in the USA. Work is looked down upon as being fit only for the desperate or mentally incapable. Ask any employer what he thinks of his low wage employees– he generally regards them as thieves stealing money that belongs to him in the form of wages and regards any happiness or satisfaction they experience as something they only experience if they are in some way taking advantage of him.

#35 Comment By Andyra On January 13, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

I would tell Jones pretty much what Erin Manning said, although I wouldn’t be able to say it as well as she did. I’d also tell Jones that until he found paid work he would be well advised to do volunteer work, not just for ethical reasons, but also to communicate to employers that he is still a guy who gets up in the morning and is accustomed to show up every day.

As a liberal, I would have the converse moral judgment from what Nick said: a person who abuses unemployment benefits is harming all the people who genuinely need them. That makes my liberal blood boil.

The motive may not be laziness. In one case I personally witnessed Jones-like behavior, my perception was the motivation was not laziness but fear. Something along the lines of “I know if I job hunt I will fail, and I cannot bear failure, so I will not even try”.

Also, I have personally witnessed two families where the husband was laid off in a situation where he had realistically very little chance of restarting his career. In both cases, the wife had to transition from part time to full time work to keep the family solvent. When the wife had only worked part time, she was responsible for all the housework- but when she went to full time (in one case more than 40 hours per week) the husband felt that having to do housework because he was unemployed was an unbearable additional humiliation, and strongly resisted taking on this responsibility. Of course, working full time plus doing all the housework is pretty darn exausting for the wife. Would you judge that in these circumstances, a guy should start doing the housework even if it’s upsetting?

I’d also like to say that self-destructive economic behavior isn’t confined to the unemployed. A few years back I read “Busted” by Edmund Andrews, which described a family’s journey to bankruptcy and foreclosure because for emotional reasons they refused to reduce their expenditure what they could afford- and they had a good income. “Necessities” as I remember the book included daily trips to Starbucks, ipads for the children, new furniture, and very high end groceries.

#36 Comment By Bob Pfeiffer On January 13, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

Manufacturing is making something of a comeback now, but not enough for Jones’ current decision.

He (I’m looking at the unshifted case) should look at the growing areas in manufacturing, and, if needed, get some training at a community college (for skilled labor, they’re a lot better than universities). Also, if needed, he should move to a low-cost-of-living, but not dirt-poor or depressed, part of the country. He may need to accept foreclosure to do it.

One thing I will say in his defense -and here’s where I’ll have to mention the recession. The lower-paying jobs are being snapped up by people who have held similar low-paying jobs before, and are probably better at them, not by people who had higher-paying jobs before.

Also, unless he has the right kind of personality, Jones should avoid any kind of work on commission.

#37 Comment By MBrown On January 13, 2014 @ 3:59 pm


“Ask any employer what he thinks of his low wage employees– he generally regards them as thieves stealing money that belongs to him in the form of wages and regards any happiness or satisfaction they experience as something they only experience if they are in some way taking advantage of him.”

You’re kidding, right? *ANY* employer? Do you really assume that everyone is as big of a jerk as you seem to be?

#38 Comment By chris redmond On January 13, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

If he/she wants to live off his/her own savings then fine, that’s their prerogative, but if he is above taking a lower paid job but not above accepting state hand outs – party comprising taxes taken from those doing the jobs he considers himself above – he’s a shirking hypocrite.

#39 Comment By MBrown On January 13, 2014 @ 4:15 pm

My responses to the OP:

1. Given that he is physically and mentally capable of work, is Jones right to refuse to look for work that would pay him a salary lower than what he thinks he deserves? Why or why not?

He’s well within his rights to refuse to work. My response to him would be that he who is unwilling to work should not eat. It’s never a question of what one “deserves” to be paid. What a silly notion; it’s never a question what someone deserves, but rather what their labor is worth. If you want to make money, find someone willing to pay you to do something, agree on what they will pay you, and then do that. If you’re not willing to do what they’re asking for what they’re offering, that’s fine. Move on. The inverse is true for them. But at the end of the day, either they’re going to be hard up for labor or you’re going to be hard up for money, and neither of you gets to complain about the injustice of it all.

2. Is Jones justified in not allowing himself to dwell on the question of how he will support himself and help support his wife in the future? Why or why not?

“Justified”? I think that term confuses the issue. Justified with regard to whom or what standard? Is it reasonable? No, unless he doesn’t have any reason to believe that either he or his wife are likely to outlive their savings.

#40 Comment By Rombald On January 13, 2014 @ 7:14 pm

Hector gets my vote.

Industrial, agricultural and construction work may be hard, dangerous and/or badly paid. Service-sector work is intrinsically degrading.

[NFR: You’re an Englishman, aren’t you Rombald? I have this idea, perhaps wrong, that Europeans find service sector work “intrinsically degrading.” I was happy working in a grocery store as a young man. I loved stocking shelves, working the check-out, being with people, and helping them find the food that made them happy. I didn’t find it at all degrading, nor would I today. — RD]

#41 Comment By JonF On January 13, 2014 @ 7:26 pm

Re: Service-sector work is intrinsically degrading.

Bartending isn’t necessarily so. I did it myself once upon a time. It was actually fun (well, for a young person, whose friends hung out when he bartended). And if customers get unpleasant you can cut them off or have them ejected.

#42 Comment By stef On January 13, 2014 @ 10:13 pm

Your hypothetical case is largely a straw man, because someone who is married to a disabled person is probably going to be (in reality) spending most of their time as a caregiver to the disabled spouse, as well as doing a fair share of the cooking, cleaning, minor repairs, shopping, etc.

The example is gender-biased, too, in the sense of dumping all this judgment on a man who fails to work for someone else for wages. Were the genders reversed, and it was a wife who was staying at home to care for a disabled husband, there’d be “no problem,” in many peoples’ eyes.

But of course the general view is that any work at home is valueless – and not only valueless, actually faintly immoral when done by a man.

[NFR: It’s not at all a straw man. It was drawn directly from the facts presented in the Mr. B. case. Mrs. B. was on disability, but she was not immobilized. But she couldn’t get outside the house and hold a job. Mr. B. could. We got all worked up about the personality in the Mr. B. case that I just took all the facts we knew and put it into a thought experiment. You are reading too much into this. — RD]

#43 Comment By Thehova83 On January 14, 2014 @ 12:20 am

I would encourage/provide therapy from a respected psychiatrist. That’s what my dad did to me in a somewhat similar situation (although I’m much younger than Jones).

I know where your coming from Rod, but I’m thankful my dad didn’t take such a moral approach. I was fragile and would have been repelled by it.

I just finished reading Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks” which does an excellent job describing the psychology of exiting the practical world and dedicating yourself to contemplation and art (all Mann’s work addresses this theme). Mann is not an idealist and views this dedication as a tragedy, but Mann helps you understand such a desire. Definitely recommended reading to better understand what the mind of such a person is going through.

#44 Comment By Marleigh On January 14, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

What RB said. The measure of your worth isn’t the value of the money you make, it’s how hard you’re willing to work for what you can get.

#45 Comment By JonF On January 15, 2014 @ 6:12 am

Marleigh, this is very true, but the world does not treat it as such. From prideful billionaires down to street corner beggars everyone treats money itself as a sign of one’s worth– “What are you worth?” means “How much money do you have?” And in fact hard work per se is not valorized as such; indeed people who work in menial labor (which is harder than any cushy office job) are seen as chumps and cretins because they do not have a job where they can wear nice clothes, kick back in a comfortable chair, and browse the web in their down time.

#46 Comment By Alan Beggerow On January 16, 2014 @ 3:27 am

“1. Given that he is physically and mentally capable of work, is Jones right to refuse to look for work that would pay him a salary lower than what he thinks he deserves? Why or why not?”

Okay, I’ll have a go at this question:

As a counselor I would have to ask Jones for more information about his situation, such as how badly diasabled is his wife, how much money is there in the 401k’s, does he have enough to get to retirement age doing what he is doing? And that’s just for starters.

I confess I’m not very good at black and white thinking with these kind of situations. There are so many variables, and as I have been judged and accused of much in somewhat similar circumstances, I am slow to make a value judgement in Jones’ case.

As far as paying the bills, it appears that Jones has enough to continue what he’s doing, as long as his wife’s okay with the situation. Perhaps Jones won’t budge about taking a job he doesn’t want until he positively has to. If Jones can make it to SS retirement age with the money they’ve got, go for it.

#47 Comment By Alan Beggerow On January 16, 2014 @ 3:29 am

Sorry about the duplicate posts.

#48 Comment By Gwen Johnson On January 16, 2014 @ 8:24 pm

Just want to say that any man that will not work didn’t enjoy it. I work at my job because I enjoy it and the other upside is they pay me to do it. I would want to do it even after I am eligible to retire. He needs to do something he likes and get paid for it and then the $45/hour wouldn’t be as important to him.