by Christopher Caldwell
A week ago, President Obama touted a newly published report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) that showed the country had lost 247,000 jobs in July. It seemed an odd thing to boast about, but you have to consider the context. The economy was losing jobs at three times that clip when Obama took office in January. So it is possible that the U.S. is emerging from the most frightening economic downturn since the Depression. It won't be the same country when it does.
One thing that seems bound to change is the relationship between the sexes. Since the recession began in December 2007, the vast majority of the lost jobs have belonged to men. About half are in the heavily male domains of construction and manufacturing. At one point last winter, there were four men being laid off for every woman. The male unemployment rate is 9.8%, the female rate 7.5%. What constitutes "women's work" today? Well, health care, for one; 81% of the workers are female. According to the report Obama cited, 20,000 health care jobs were gained in July, while 76,000 construction jobs and 52,000 manufacturing positions were lost.
A job is a claim on a certain amount of society's resources and esteem. As men lose that claim, they lose the instruments by which they have traditionally controlled society. A lot of people see that as fitting punishment. There weren't any women among the high-profile malefactors in last fall's financial meltdown. Maleness has become a synonym for insufficient attentiveness to risk. Journalists have lately been having a field day with a study by two Cambridge University professors, J.M. Coates and J. Herbert, who sampled the testosterone levels of London traders and found they positively correlated with high profit trading days. Of course, nobody harped on this research back when housing prices were doubling and people were using their home-equity credit lines to buy third cars. But to paraphrase Richard Nixon's comment about Keynesians, we are all feminists now.
In Foreign Policy this summer, journalist Reihan Salam predicted that the "macho men's club called finance capitalism" would not survive the present economic ordeal. Provocatively -- but correctly -- he claimed that this male order rests on foundations considerably older than Ronald Reagan's supply-side revolution. The economic system that FDR shored up was a male one. The New Deal focused on infrastructure at a time when there were not a lot of lady dam builders around. (Salam might also have mentioned the GI Bill, the most effective instrument ever devised for giving a leg up to males in universities and workplaces.) Salam sees Obama's $787 billion stimulus package as a break with the New Deal. It spends relatively little on infrastructure and relatively much on female-friendly sectors like health care and education. Not to mention aid to state and local governments, where 3 in 5 employees are women.
Although clichés about the "vulnerability" of women in the economy have been disproved by hard BLS data, we want to believe them. When women lose jobs, the victims are women. when men lose jobs, the victims are, um, women, because they have to make up for that lost male income. The scale of male job losses was evident even when the stimulus bill was passed. That did not stop incoming Congressman Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, from warning Obama that "gender imbalance in occupations related to physical infrastructure development means that the direct job creation will benefit mostly men."
Men still make up 53% of the workforce, and the percentage of society's work they do is considerably higher, owing to women's shorter hours and more frequent sabbaticals for child-rearing. In prosperous times, women may yearn for more time at home. But economic realities have a way of washing away these yearnings. One such reality is the recession.
Another is that women receive 58% of the bachelor's degrees in the U.S., along with half the professional degrees.
Should we expect men to cede some control over an economy that they have so thoroughly messed up? No. We have no examples of that ever having happened. What we have plenty of examples of -- you can see variants of it all over the developing world -- is economies in which women do all the arduous work while men sit around smoking and pontificating in coffeehouses and barbershops. For decades, policymakers have been attentive to the flaws of a patriarchal, middle-class, single-earner, nuclear-family-oriented model of family economics -- and their attention remains fixed on it. Whether or not that model dominated American society as much as its critics claimed, it is now being left behind. Maybe there is a humane model that can replace it. It hasn't been found yet.
Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard