An e-mail about last week's PBS NewsHour story that drew from our work on the State Department's Summer Work Travel (SWT) program posed a big question: "What do you think about the idea that was put forward that U.S. students don't work as hard as their foreign counterparts?"
Many Americans are down on the work ethic of American kids. As one of them told me for our report: "They don't want to work weekends. They want to take a lot of days off. They're always on their cell phone, always want to e-mail and chat. You have to get them to understand that work time is not social time."
There is clearly some truth to the complaints about American workers. But such complaints often rationalize a cop-out by employers who find SWT too lucrative to pass up — with its tax breaks, free recruiting, and free trips from sponsoring agencies, not to mention the college-age motivated workforce that thinks the U.S. minimum wage is just peachy.
The problem is part of what has been called "the abdication of the elites". That phenomenon involves the rejection of the notion that our country is a grand civic enterprise that requires common concern for the common good over the long haul. SWT has brought us a depressing example of that abdication.
Summer jobs are a vital part of a young person's education and civic formation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knows that. In 1969 she worked two jobs in Alaska that have now been taken over by SWT. She worked at a fish processing plant and at a lodge near Mount McKinley. Biographer Roger Morris said that summer gave her "a new air of self-sufficiency".
Despite record levels of youth unemployment, Secretary Clinton's agency continues to promote a program that attracts young workers from around the world who will accept low pay and often lousy working conditions for a chance to come to the United States.
Why do we let this happen? For part of the reason, read Mancur Olson's classic The Rise and Decline of Nations, which journalist James Fallows summarized this way: "Year by year … special-interest groups inevitably take bite after tiny bite out of the total national wealth. They do so through tax breaks, special appropriations, what we now call legislative 'earmarks', and other favors that are all easier to initiate than to cut off. No single nibble is that dramatic or burdensome, but over the decades they threaten to convert any stable democracy into a big, inefficient, favor-ridden state."
The fault, dear email correspondent, lies not just in our youth, but in ourselves.