From UBI to Anomie
By Bryan Caplan
Thanks to the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we have detailed, self-reported information each year on how roughly 10,000 adult respondents spend their days—from the moment they wake until they sleep.1 These surveyed Americans include prime-age men who are not in labor force (or “NILF” to social scientists), ordinarily in their peak employment years, who are neither working nor looking for work. By examining the self-reported patterns of daily life of these grown men who do not have and are not seeking jobs, we may gain insights into the work-free existence that some UBI advocates hold to be a positive end in its own right.
NILF men report much less paid work than their peers—an average of just 12 minutes per day, nearly six hours a day less than employed men, and almost five hours a day less than employed women, but also close to an hour a day less than unemployed men. Perhaps more surprisingly, their time freed from work is not repurposed into helping out around the home, such as doing housework, cooking, and other tasks of home maintenance. In fact, they devote significantly less time to such home chores than unemployed men—less, too, than women with jobs. NILF men also spend much less time helping to care for other household members than working women—less time, as well, than unemployed men.
Apart from work, by far the biggest difference between the daily schedules of NILF men and everyone else comes in what the ATUS calls “socializing, relaxing, and leisure,” a category that encompasses a range of activities, from listening to music to visiting a museum to attending a party. On average, prime-age NILF men spend almost seven and a half hours a day in such diversions—over four hours a day more than working women, nearly four hours a day more than working men, and over an hour more than jobless men looking for work.
NILF turns out to be a catch-all category that merges two very different populations. One of them is adult students, out of the labor force for training to improve their job prospects upon return. The other is a group British parlance calls “NEET”—an acronym for “neither employed nor in education or training.” The NEETs are in effect complete labor force dropouts. And in contemporary America, the overwhelming majority of prime-age male NILFs are NEETs: in the years 2015-19, according to Census Bureau data, fewer than one in six NILFs was an adult student. In the lead-up to the COVID pandemic, this meant one in 10 prime-age men was neither working, nor looking for work, nor seeking the skills that might help them return to the workforce.
If we disaggregate prime-age NILFs into NEETs and adult students, two strikingly different ways of life are revealed.
On the one hand, adult students reportedly spend an average of nearly six hours a day on their education or training—and since those averages include weekends and holidays, these men are committing over 2,100 hours a year to their schooling. The converse of such motivation is an unusually low involvement in “socializing, relaxing, and leisure”—distinctly less than for working men, though not as little as for prime-age working women, a notoriously “leisure-poor” population.
On the other hand, self-identified prime-age NEET men spend about seven and a half hours a day in “leisure activities.” That works out to about 2,700 hours a year—almost 1,600 hours a year more than working women, nearly 1,400 hours a year more than working men, and remarkably enough, over 450 hours a year more than unemployed men.
The deeper patterns:
The overwhelming majority of this “leisure” is screen time: television, internet, DVDs, and all the rest. NEET men reported an average of over five hours a day in front of screens—nearly 1,900 hours a year, almost equivalent to the time commitment of a full-time job. ATUS does not ask specifically about video games; if it did, even more NEET screen time commitment would almost certainly be recorded.
To go by the time-use surveys, prime-age men without work who are not looking for jobs and not engaged in training spend almost three times as many hours in front of screens as working women and well over twice as many as working men. Strikingly, they also report over 300 hours more screen time per year than their unemployed counterparts—men likewise jobless but who want to get back to work. And the reality is even more disturbing than these time-use numbers can convey on their own. According to a 2017 study by Alan Krueger, almost half of NILF men reported taking some form of pain medication every day. The fraction for NEET men would likely be higher still. The rhythms of life for a great many of the prime-age men in America currently disengaged with the world of work is defined not simply by days and nights sitting in front of screens—but sitting in front of screens while numbed or stoned.
I’ve long opposed the Universal Basic Income for a great many reasons. First and foremost: Helping everyone regardless of need is an absurd way to allocate finite charitable resources. Eberstadt and Abramsky add another potent objection to the list: the UBI encourages the recipients to fritter away their own lives.
There would seem to be no shortage of anomie, alienation, or even despair in the daily lives of men entirely free from work in America today. Why, then, would we not expect a UBI—which would surely result in a detachment of more men from paid employment—to result in even more of the same?
Paternalistic? Indeed. But as I’ve argued before, the very fact that an adult fails to support himself suggests that he is a poor judge of his own interests – and donors are right and prudent to impose conditions on their assistance. I call this “Ward Paternalism”:
Let’s call this “Ward Paternalism” – paternalism limited to people who are dependents of the government. For example, rather than give welfare recipients cash to spend, a Ward Paternalist might give them food stamps instead. Why? To nudge them into buying groceries instead of alcohol.
Key point: Under Ward Paternalism, anyone who doesn’t want to be nudged can simply decline to become dependent on the government. You can spend your own money your own way, no questions asked. If, however, you ask taxpayers for help, the help comes with strings attached to encourage you to get your life in order. He who pays the piper, calls the tune – and why shouldn’t the tune be, “Get your life in order”?
Or in slogan form: If an independent adult can fairly protest, “It’s my money and I’ll do what I want with it,” why can’t taxpayers just as fairly protest, “It’s our money and you’ll use it as we think best”?