Reihan Salam is a writer, journalist, and Schwarz Fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy institute. His writing appears regularly in The National Review, Forbes.com, The Daily Beast, Slate, and other publications. His article "The Death of Macho," concerning the disruptive effects of the recession on men across the globe, appeared in Foreign Policy in 2009. He is the co-author, with Ross Douthat, of "Grand New Party: How Conservatives Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream" (Doubleday, 2008).
Question: What is the economic problem with men?
Reihan Salam: Yeah, I mean there is so many different ways to approach the problem with men. One is when you’re looking at labor force participation, if you’re looking at prime age males. You have a lot of folks who don’t have college educations who have basically seen the labor market, you know their labor market position deteriorate very, very fast and the reaction has been to withdraw from the conventional world of work. Now you know what’s the problem with that? Well the big problem is when you’re not attached to the labor force you also start losing your connection to a lot of these basic bourgeois norms and habits that are part of life as a citizen in a free society and then you’re more inclined to engage in pathological behaviors. You’re more inclined to kind of have these masculine impulses to provide and what have you kind of corrode and manifest themselves in these really ugly forms, so that I think is what I think is the biggest and most pressing problem that is particular pressing of the context of an economic downturn like the one we’re going through.
Question: Why do you believe this labor situation will be permanent?
Reihan Salam: Well I think that there are lots of big structural changes that have happened in the economy and they’ve been going on for decades, but now they’re accelerating by virtue of this downturn as happens in any downturn and you know in broadest sense it’s this idea that you’re moving from a world that relies on brawn to one that relies increasingly on brainpower, but beyond that it’s also a world that relies on certain kinds of social intelligence, on being able to kind of construct networks that can be of value to you. That can enhance your resilience in a rapidly changing economy and again, if you basically rely on your strength in order to earn you an income in a way that’s not terribly specialized in a way that requires you take direction, but not necessarily even have to take it very well. That’s just gone and it’s not only gone in the United States. It’s gone in societies like China and increasingly India, societies that we think of as you know nipping at our heels, but this kind of large scale dislocation is taking place almost everywhere and the societies in which it’s not taking place are being badly left behind in a lot of other important respects. I think of Iran as a really good example of this is a society in which men retain this kind of very dominant position, but at the cost of economic stagnation.
Question: What problems could the surge in dislocated men cause?
Reihan Salam: Well I think on the global scale it’s more interesting because it’s a lot sharper. If you look at China for example where you have this large population of surplus males you’re talking about tens of millions of people who could theoretically contribute to chaotic violence, to networked violence, gang violence, etcetera if they don’t find some way of being stable, productive, contributing members of the broader society and I think that Iran similarly is a society in which the kind of taste for male dominance is such that it will lead to entrenched poverty for long periods of time. You see this across much of the world. It’s interesting the extent which female literacy predicts whether or not a society is going to experience and economic takeoff. There is almost… There is such a tight correlation between these two things it’s quite remarkable. Similarly, when you look at domestic violence within a society and how strongly that correlates with how externally aggressive that society is or the level of political instability that society experiences, it’s pretty interesting. And again, men tend to be the perpetrators of domestic violence. When you’re looking at the United States you have this different set of issues that we are already dealing with and are trying to contain through the instrument of the welfare state, so when we talk about prime-age males who are participating in the labor force, we’re talking about guys who are on disability benefits. We’re talking about guys who are incarcerated a lot of the time, and the social consequences of that are unfortunately pretty obvious in inner-city neighborhoods across the country and pretty dire.
And you have this issue… You know you see now in the African-American community, but it’s something that is becoming much broader in which women who have higher rates of educational obtainment have a very hard time finding spouses and again this complicates pretty much everything. It complicates the patterns of childrearing. It complicates whether or not children have two biological parents in the home and the **** consequences of that relate to educational obtainment for the next generation, so I think that it really is part and parcel of a lot of kind of big tangles of pathology that we’re dealing with, not only in inner cities, not only with this or that minority community, but increasingly across the entire American population.
Recorded on November 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen