by Jon Sanders
Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies, John Locke Foundation
Sometimes we know the answer but dislike its implications so much we try to avoid it to find the easier way around it — and usually fail. Such as the best way to lose weight. We know it’s “eat less and exercise,” but that’s difficult because it requires personal discipline.
“Bloom County” illustrated the problem all too well. Opus seeks to hire Milo as his dieting coach. Milo tells him, “Fine. Let’s try eating less and exercise.”
Opus rejects that coaching strongly, saying “For goodness’ sake, I am a typically overweight American, and I’d like a diet which allows me to remain a lazy pig, thank you.”
Personal discipline isn’t just healthy for physical outcomes, however. John Hood writes in a recent Carolina Journal column of how “Personal choices shape economic outcomes.” A snippet:
What is now often called the “Success Sequence” — finishing high school, working full-time, and delaying childbirth until marriage — is strongly correlated with positive outcomes, both for adults and for their children.
Among Millennials who have followed the Success Sequence in their lives so far, only 3 percent have incomes below the poverty line. For Millennials satisfying none of these conditions, the poverty rate is 53 percent. The remaining Millennials lie in between these two poles. After adjusting for a variety of other factors, the link between personal choices and economic outcomes remains. Even for those who grew up in poor households, for instance, only 9 percent are poor as adults if they have followed the Success Sequence.
Basically, school, work, marriage, then kids is the “eat less and exercise” of upward economic mobility and avoiding poverty.
Getting and keeping a job requires personal discipline, too. I’ve written about the importance of “soft skills” in finding employment. Soft skills are an important though overlooked part of human capital. They include:
They are things that job-training charities such as StepUp Ministry, Jobs for Life, and STRIVE stress in helping their clients become productive. Their clients are those who have made poor life choices but are trying to reverse course, including recovering drug addicts, people with conviction records, unwed mothers, and deadbeat dads.
As a frustrated employer who placed a sign in her restaurant window seeking workers with “common sense” explained to The Wall Street Journal, “I can teach somebody how to slice and dice onions. I can teach somebody how to cook a soup. But it’s hard to teach someone normal manners, or what you consider work ethic.”
One last thing that helps make someone employable: already having held a job. That tells future employers you have what it takes to be worth employing.
That fact has public-policy implications, too. We shouldn’t frustrate aspiring job seekers by imposing policies that have negative consequences (intended or not), such as hiking the minimum wage, requiring an occupational license without a clear need for one, and automatically disqualifying people for licenses for a conviction record.