It’s Destruction, Yes — But Is It Creative?

A worker cleans an empty hall in Industry City, N.Y., where the shops have been closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, March 26, 2020. (Stephen Yang/Reuters)

“I was born one morning when the sun didn’t shine. I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine.” So sang Tennessee Ernie Ford in his recording of Merle Travis’s “Sixteen Tons,” a surprise hit in 1955.

That song is an interesting mess of elements that shouldn’t work together: Travis’s semi-autobiographic miner’s lament delivered in Ford’s smooth, classically trained baritone, the singer’s tough-guy posturing complemented by a pretty bad-ass riff played on the . . . clarinet.

Merle Travis came from coal-mining people in Kentucky; Ernest Jennings Ford was a man of the middle classes, a former radio announcer who studied singing at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. The arc of his life is a familiar one: He went away to war and came home to seek — and find — his fortune in California. “Tennessee Ernie” was one of his radio personae, a stereotypical hillbilly. (The cheerful contrivance of these personalities was part of the charm: Louis Marshall Jones became “Grandpa Jones” when he was in his twenties.) Ford lived the American Dream: If you have a decent off-road vehicle and a few jerry cans of gasoline, you can camp out at his former retreat in the Nevada wilderness, well past where the blacktop ends. He died of liver failure after a state dinner with President George H. W. Bush.

The working-man hero of “Sixteen Tons” was and is a staple of American popular culture. From Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues” to the Dropkick Murphys’ “Boys on the Docks,” the poets of the American scene have long sung of the heroic virtues of work, perseverance, and endurance. Merle Haggard’s working man liked to “drink a little beer in the tavern,” while the Dropkick Murphys’ battered hero finds peace in sobriety — and more work, summing up his program: “Wake and pray, work all day.”

Work is the original curse — “the curse of the drinking classes,” Oscar Wilde called it, inverting the proverb. That tradition is very old: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” an unhappy Adam is informed on his way out of Paradise. The workers of the world, Karl Marx informs us, are in chains.

Or maybe work is the original blessing. When asked about the secret of his success, there is a chance of about 94.6 percent that any celebrity will answer: hard work. They will forswear possession of any special talent and insist, with a great deal of pride, that they simply outwork the competition.

Will Smith: “Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic. You know, while the other guy’s sleeping? I’m working.” Louis C. K.: “I’ve learned from experience that if you work harder at it, and apply more energy and time to it, and more consistency, you get a better result. It comes from the work.” Lucille Ball and a thousand thousand other entertainers have said much the same thing. Entrepreneurs, too. Ray Kroc: “Luck is a dividend of sweat. The more you sweat, the luckier you get.” Thomas Edison (perhaps): “The reason a lot of people do not recognize opportunity is because it usually goes around wearing overalls looking like hard work.” And politicians, e.g. Margaret Thatcher: “I’ve got a woman’s ability to stick to a job and get on with it when everyone else walks off and leaves it.”

You hear less of that happy talk from coal miners. Merle Travis’s narrator in “Sixteen Tons” won nothing for his labors: “You load sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” Noel Coward insisted that “work is much more fun than fun,” but he belonged to that class of people who, in P. J. O’Rourke’s memorable formulation, are seldom seen to “lift anything heavier than money.” And lifting 16 tons of that is a labor of love.

“The lot of man is ceaseless labor,” T. S. Eliot wrote. “Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder.”

Idleness can be very enjoyable, provided three things: (1) It is voluntary; (2); it is temporary; (3) you have all the money you want.

My sometime National Review colleague Kevin Hassett, currently serving as White House economic adviser, tells Face the Nation that he expects unemployment to hit something “north of 20 percent.” This is the result of — what do we call it? Is the coronavirus epidemic a “natural disaster,” or is it a public-health crisis made far worse than it had to be by the incompetence and corruption of the government in Beijing and by imperfect policy choices in capitals from Washington to London to Stockholm? The idleness enforced by the coronavirus shutdown is not voluntary, and most of those affected need income. It will be temporary — but how temporary?

In mid March, I suggested that the federal government adopt a policy of directly subsidizing the wages of lower-income workers for the duration of the shutdown. This appealed to me as an emergency measure for several reasons: For one, having idled workers able to rely on their regular paycheck (or something close to it) for the duration of the epidemic seemed likely to be more effective than sending “stimulus” checks willy-nilly; maintaining the relationship between employer and employee would make it easier to return to normal when — if — such a thing became possible; recognizing that this mass unemployment is the result of necessary government action rather than organic economic changes and addressing that situation in a full and forthright way would help to achieve popular buy-in for what was always bound to be a controversial set of policies; and, finally, the most likely alternative is spending the same money or more in the form of unemployment benefits, which are paid to people who become unemployed — the very thing we are trying to minimize.

Should we be trying to minimize that?

Many progressives have held up Denmark as a counterexample. (Denmark is a very popular counterexample for progressives: It is a happy, healthy, well-governed country with high taxes and a relatively large welfare state, a useful if limited datum to bring into conversation with conservatives who sometimes talk as though it were impossible for such a thing to exist.) Denmark’s strategy was to put its economy into a kind of hibernation for the duration of quarantine measures, with the national government subsidizing up to 90 percent of the wages of workers who might otherwise have been laid off, while offering struggling firms direct assistance to meet other costs while their usual revenue streams are dammed up by artificial but necessary barriers to doing business. The United States has spent trillions on stimulus and other measures, and the unemployment rate still is expected to hit Great Depression levels. Denmark’s unemployment rate at last measure was about one-third the U.S. rate. Denmark, too, has spent a ton of money, but if unemployment is our metric, then there is a lot to say for the Danish model, at least with the evidence that we have at hand right now. The usual caveats — the United States is not much like Denmark — apply here.

There are two ways of looking at this. One would be to embrace the Schumpeterian “creative destruction” with which we are faced: There is a new reality, no amount of wishful thinking will change that, and the genuinely humanitarian approach would be to let businesses and industries adjust — through failure — as quickly as they can to this new reality, while providing support for the unemployed and newly incomeless through the ordinary instruments of social welfare, from unemployment benefits to food stamps. A second view would be that we have adopted an unprecedented set of emergency measures in the face of a genuine national and worldwide crisis, that there is a big difference between businesses that have been shut down by government order and buggy-whip makers on the eve of the automotive revolution, and that what our economy is faced with is not “creative destruction” but destruction pure and simple.

There are millions of Americans who want and need to work but cannot find it. We need them to work, too, not because of some abstraction called “the economy” but because of the millions and millions of real-world daily tasks and exchanges that we talk about when we talk about “the economy.” It is important that people get paychecks, but it also is important that the work be done — jobs are a means, not an end. The point of hauling up those 16 tons of coal wasn’t to produce a paycheck for miners — it was to produce energy from coal, for heat and power and for all the things that come from heat and power.

Unemployment north of 20 percent is going to be very hard on the unemployed. But it is going to be hard on everybody else, too. That’s the paradox of capitalism, the vicious cutthroat arrangement by which we learn how best to serve one another, in which we talk about competition as though we were hyenas fighting over the last scraps of a wildebeest but act like people who are working together to provide for ourselves and one another. Adam Smith did not write a book about marketing, management, or entrepreneurship — he wrote A Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Words About Words

A correspondent asks: Why isn’t there an adjective form of integrity, in the word’s sense meaning good character?

There are two common adjectives related to integrity: One is integral and the other is integrated. Neither of these is normally used to describe someone having a good character, though integrated is sometimes used to describe a positive aspect of someone’s character or personality. Carl Jung wrote of the desirability of having an integrated personality, and in the Catholic world one sometimes hears about priests or seminarians having an integrated vocation or, alas, a poorly integrated vocation, commonly in respect to celibacy. Integral touches on the edges here, too: Certain New Age cranks used to speak of integral psychology and still speak of integral theory and integral yoga.

Integral is attractive to cranks because it sounds science-y, like macrobiotic or homeopathic, two great big flashing neon signs advertising quackery. Larry Niven wrote a science-fiction novel called The Integral Trees, which, if I remember correctly, was about a race of aliens who lived in gigantic trees floating in space rather than on a planet as such.

What we have here is a noun that has evolved from its literal sense of intact or whole when applied to physical characteristics into a metaphorical sense of upright or correct when applied to someone’s character. The word has in fact shifted back and forth over the years, and not only in English. The Latin in tangere, meaning untouched, is the root, and the Latin adjective integer meant both whole in the physical sense and upright in the moral sense. So, we do have an adjective, just not in English.

The melding of the physical and the moral senses of similar words remains pretty common in English, as in the dusty (and maybe even now offensive in many circles) characterization of a young woman “with her virtue intact.”

Rampant Prescriptivism

Another correspondent asks: In what way is a preexisting condition different from an existing condition, or a pre-order from an order?

Preexisting, I’ll grant you. And it is related to one of the great nonsense phrases of our time: “insuring against preexisting conditions,” which is like placing a bet on last year’s World Series.

Preorder may be a little irritating, but I think it serves a legitimate function, describing a situation in which you can order something before it is available for delivery (see below!) or ordering something in a way that is otherwise out of turn, for example preordering a dessert soufflé in a restaurant that needs extra time to prepare it, as diners sometimes are asked to do, or preordering an airplane meal rather than ordering from the . . . dare I write stewardess? . . . on the plane. I think the pre does some useful work there.

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In Closing

Wednesday is the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima. As Franciscan Media puts it, during that famous visitation “Mary asked the children to pray the rosary for world peace, for the end of World War I, for sinners, and for the conversion of Russia.” I think it is almost safe to say that World War I has come to an end. Maybe not. If it is the case, as some historians say, that the two world wars were in effect one big war with a long intermission, if the Cold War was in effect a continuation of World War II with the victors fighting for postwar dominance, if, as David Frum argues, the Cold War never really ended . . . . History is very short, looked at the right way, and the work of prayer is never done.

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