Mitch Daniels: This Book Has a Vital Message for Our Times

From a Washington Post column by Mitch Daniels headlined “This book has a vital message, and method, for our times”:

I recently noticed the reissuance of a book from whose original version I had learned a lot, so I obtained and devoured the update. Nicholas Eberstadt, perhaps our finest modern demographer, first published “Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis” in 2016, and just recently its “post-pandemic edition.” The book is valuable first for its substance, but its mode and method might have just as much to teach.

Eberstadt depicts in deeply documented fashion the “invisible crisis” that is the “decimation” of the adult male workforce in America. By his calculation, some 10 million American men of prime working age are neither working nor looking for work. This “continuing calamity” is first of all a national economic albatross. He states flatly, “The United States cannot prosper unless its prime age males do.”

The social damage might be even worse. What someone has termed the “New Misery” comprises a set of pathologies ranging from drug abuse to gambling addiction to the simple moral squalor of chronic idleness. AWOL working-age men watch almost six hours of television per day. They are far less likely to read newspapers, participate in volunteer activities or attend religious services than their female or working male counterparts. Eberstadt sums up their condition as “infantilization.”

Working in higher education, one knows that the situation is not improving. The decades-long retreat of men from higher-ed has, like the adult nonworker phenomenon, been largely ignored until lately. But as the college-going percentage has dropped to 63 percent, and the share of men in the nation’s universities dipped close to 40 percent, alarm bells have belatedly rung in both professional and general audience publications.

So the issue Eberstadt analyzes is critical, and the book is a significant contribution. But what might deserve equal attention is the form in which the author has chosen to present his findings and arguments. The new edition commits the last 10 percent or so of its pages to “Dissenting Points of View.” Two other eminent scholars are given the floor to critique Eberstadt’s analysis and conclusions, which they do powerfully but graciously.

Henry Olsen, a Post columnist, asserts that Eberstadt assigns too much weight to the lure of entitlement programs and too little to deindustrialization and other structural changes in the economy. He also notes the neglect of other possible causative factors, such as the shrinkage of military service where young men previously learned skills and discipline conducive to productive adult life.

Jared Bernstein challenges the book’s claim that the decline in male workforce participation is linear, finding a more cyclical pattern. While concurring that the disability insurance program now suffers from rampant abuse, he concludes that Eberstadt exaggerates its role in creating the crisis.

The book wraps up with a few words of rebuttal from the author, presented as thoughtfully and politely as the dissenters expressed their criticisms. The reader, or at least this one, learned more from the give and take than he would have in its absence. He might have thought of these counterarguments on his own, but the odds are against it.

The contrast with most of today’s public debates is instructive. First, the author decided to reexamine his original position to see whether the pandemic had produced evidence of refutation or altered circumstances. As a comment attributed to economist John Maynard Keynes is sometimes quoted, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

The invitation to others to challenge the work is a welcome departure from today’s more common approach, even in scientific debates, of vitriolic certainty. In purely political clashes, that posture is merely repellent. But in the pursuit of knowledge, it is dangerous and unacceptable.

Depressing examples abound, but the vilification of the thousands of scientists who suggested in 2020 that pandemic lockdown policies might prove to be net negative is as clear as any. They were right; their assailants were wrong. But even if the Great Barrington Declaration signers had turned out to be in error, the condemnation they incurred was profoundly anti-intellectual and anti-scientific.

Knowledge advances through the clash of ideas; the contrarian is often the herald of a new insight; labels such as “settled” and “consensus” are the cudgels of fundamentalists.

One man who never declined to work, Albert Einstein, wrote letters to scientific peers urging them to conduct experiments that might disprove his theories. He saw the imperative need for the critical input of others. When he sensed that his Entwurf equations were errant, he said, “I do not believe I am able to find the mistake myself, for in this matter my mind is too set in a deep rut.” When other physicists denounced his General Theory, he didn’t dismiss them by saying, “I represent science.” Instead he replied, “I enjoy controversies.”

We need not enjoy controversies to understand how essential they are to finding truth and expanding human understanding. Nicholas Eberstadt’s book and its dissenting guests have furnished a model worthy of wide emulation. And not just in works of scholarship.

Mitch Daniels, a Post contributing columnist, is president emeritus of Purdue University and a former governor of Indiana.

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