One of the most acute pieces of media criticism came courtesy of The Simpsons several years ago: On vacation, Homer is delighted to find that his hotel offers complimentary copies of USA Today—“the newspaper that tells me everything is going to be Ooooo-K.” That’s a pretty fair assessment of USA Today. But it could apply equally to conservative publications and pundits singularly devoted to insisting that our economy and society are just fine the way they are.
Call them the hunky-dory cons.
National Review is, of course, the emblematic example. Witness the magazine’s response to the viral success of Oliver Anthony’s log-cabin cri de coer against “Rich Men North of Richmond.” In the song, the country singer tells of how he has “been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day / Overtime hours for bullshit pay / So I can sit out here and waste my life away / Drag back home and drown my troubles away.”
Cheer up, NR executive editor Mark Antonio Wright scolded Anthony in a column Monday: “My brother in Christ, you live in the United States of America in 2023 — if you’re a fit, able-bodied man, and you’re working ‘overtime hours for bullshit pay,’ you need to find a new job.” Wright added:
There’s plenty of them out there — jobs that don’t require a college degree, that offer good pay (especially in this tight labor market) and great benefits, especially if you’re willing to get your hands dirty by doing things like joining the Navy, turning wrenches, fixing pumps, laying pipe, or a hundred other jobs through which American men can still make a great living.
I’m not, in full disclosure, a fan of Anthony’s ballad. I’m not a country guy, to begin with, and I found myself raising a skeptical eyebrow over the verse about fat people on welfare, which struck me as a little too on-the-nose and a little too Newt Gingrich circa 1995-96. But if we’re arguing about the political-economic insights of country songs, there is no denying that Anthony is right on balance, while Wright is in the wrong.
Wright might sincerely believe, based on anecdotal impressions, that there are plenty of well-paying jobs just out there for the taking, provided downscale Americans weren’t so lazy. But real wages for the bottom half of American workers have been stagnant for the better part of two generations. And Anthony is right to complain of “workin’ all day” for little reward: Since 1979, the dawn of the neoliberal era, American workers’ productivity has jumped by 65 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute, while their hourly pay has crawled up 17 percent.
Moreover, as I note in my new book, Tyranny, Inc. (published today!), American workers on the bottom of rungs of the labor market suffer from pervasive wage and scheduling precarity. Its symptoms include the fact that nearly half of Americans would struggle to come up with $400 in cash to pay for exigencies, while one in ten would struggle to come up with the funds at all, according to the Federal Reserve. Plus, nearly half of fast-food workers—and a quarter of adjunct teachers—have to rely on welfare to make ends meet.
But the hunky-dory cons aren’t interested in statistics of this kind, only shiny abstractions and feel-good certainties from a bygone age. Hence, the Washington Free Beacon’s review of Tyranny, Inc., by the arch-hunky-dory con Samuel Gregg. In my book, I tell the story, among others, of Alicia Fleming, a Massachusetts restaurant worker who found herself unable to care for her newborn or pay her bills, owing to just-in-time scheduling by her employer.
Her employer would inform Fleming of her schedule days before she was supposed to show up for shifts that sometimes ran well into the early-morning hours. The unpredictability and short notice made finding childcare impossible. As Vox reported, “as a single parent without close family nearby,” she “was often scrambling to find childcare. When she wasn’t able to do so on short notice, she’d have to miss a shift.” That, in turn, caused her income to fluctuate: “It felt like all the time, I would think about the money I could make [if I could make the shifts] , and what that could do for us, and then be really intent on trying to find somebody for child care.”
Gregg reduces this fact pattern to a single sentence: “Suddenly she found herself having to work several shifts to cater for her family’s life necessities.” And then adds, in classic hunky-dory con style: “Only those with hearts of stone would not sympathize with these circumstances. But particular cases of distress do not constitute proof of systematic injustices pervading the American economy.”
There are two problems. The first is that Gregg, in his haste to insist that all is hunky-dory, misread the facts of the Fleming case. Her crisis wasn’t that she had to work several shifts to pay for necessities—it was that she couldn’t pick up enough hours given the unpredictability of her schedule and her childcare needs. This misreading of the facts is especially unfortunate in a review that faults yours truly for favoring “vehemence” over facts.
The second problem is that all is emphatically not hunky-dory. Fleming’s wasn’t an isolated case of distress, but, indeed, a symptom of a wider problem. Service-sector employers’ attempt to shift all the costs associated with periods of low demand onto labor means that a third of workers in the industry get less than a week’s notice of their schedules, making chaos in their lives. Workers subjected to such scheduling practices, a 2019 University of California study by scholars Daniel Schneider and Kristen Harknett found, “sleep poorly, suffer psychologically, and are generally unhappy”—sociology-speak for “wast[ing] my life away / Drag back home and drown my troubles away.”
Gregg, in what he no doubt considered a devastating coup de grace, closed his review by noting in passing that “the woman [Fleming] eventually found a better, less-stressful administrative position 18 months after her baby’s birth.” Indeed, she did. Yet that long time span belies the myth of worker mobility that underpins Gregg’s critique.
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As I note in the book, Fleming had to stay put for 18 months, because there was no other choice that wouldn’t have jeopardized her family’s income and basic well-being. Those 18 months are considered the most crucial phase in the development of babies. And the children of workers subjected to precarious scheduling are “much more likely to exhibit anxiety, guilt or sadness than children of parents with stable schedules, according to survey results from 4,300 workers with children 15 and younger,” according to a New York Times summary of other research by Schneider and Harknett.
The causal dots aren’t hard to connect: “Parents with irregular schedules had less money and time for family meals, playing with children, or helping them with their homework. The biggest way parents’ work schedules affected their children? Those with unpredictable schedules were more likely to feel stressed, irritable, or depressed.”
Determined not to admit any systemic faults with our current economic arrangements, hunky-dory cons end up committing that most grave of conservative sins: presentism, the view that everything we have now is more or less optimal and correct and without the need for reform. But, my dear brothers in Christ, you don’t, in fact, have to defend everything about the economy in 2023, with its spiking suicides and deaths of despair. Hunky-dory conservatism might please the right’s donor class, but it alienates the millions who detect only scarce traces of reality in its rosy picture of the world.