Anytime a person with a kid in their life has asked for my holy grail toy (and as Wirecutter’s former editor of baby and kid coverage, and a person generally known to be opinionated, I’ve had this happen to me somewhat often), I’ve had one answer: Magna-Tiles. Alongside Lego, I’m convinced that these colorful plastic shapes with magnetized edges offer just about the longest arc of playability across childhood.
Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at AEI and is the author of the book Men Without Work, in which he chronicles the story of the growing group of prime-age men who are neither trying to find work nor in training or education. Eberstadt’s work challenges some of the underlying assumptions populist narratives of the last six years have relied upon, and paints a picture of how this group in many ways is the canary in the coal mine for the existential crisis faced by the West.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. The podcast features interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future.Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.
Welcome to High Noon, where we talk about controversial subjects with interesting people. My guest today is Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt. He holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at AEI. He just released a new edition of his book for Labor Day here, appropriately releasing for Labor Day his book “Men Without Work,” in which he factors in the last six years and the effect of the pandemic and shutdowns on this increasing sector of our society that simply is not showing up for work, any type of work in any capacity.
I wanted to start out by reading something that you put in this new introduction to your book, which is, “Today, in 2022, American men suffer Depression-era employment rates, even though they inhabit the wealthiest and most productive society ever known.” Then you say, “After the pandemic, we have gone from men without work,” this category of people that you’ve been studying, “to work without men,” by which you mean that there are millions of open job positions after the pandemic, increasingly chasing fewer and fewer workers. Who are these prime-age men who are just simply absent from working life, and what are they doing instead? What do their lives look like?
Well, it’s a trend that’s been underway for over half a century now. It began in the ’60s, and it had been underway for two generations when I wrote the first volume of “Men Without Work.” Now this second edition, six years later, we see that, unfortunately, the trend has only continued. We’ve got seven million prime-age men, 25 to 54 years old, who are out of the job market altogether, neither working nor looking for work.
As you’d imagine, when you’re talking about seven million people, you’ve got some of everybody in this large group. They tend to be disproportionately of lower educational attainment, but about 40% of them have some college and maybe almost a fifth have college degrees. They’re disproportionately native born. Foreign-born men of every ethnicity and almost every educational attainment are more likely than their counterparts to be in the labor force or at work.
This men-without-work problem, unfortunately, has been only building decade after decade. As you rightly said, we’ve got late-Depression-level work rates for prime-age men in America right now. That, unfortunately, didn’t only begin during the pandemic. If we look at the entire 21st century, if we average out the work rates for prime-age men, it’s a little bit lower than it was in 1940, when the national unemployment rate was almost 15%.
Yeah. Actually, the longevity of this problem… Well, let’s start here, actually. When does this really… I know you start with the statistics that we use in 1940. When does this section of society become something that is consistent and not just a factor of, for example, a depression or a really bad recession. When did this start just becoming a part of American life?
Well, back in the Depression, the presumption was that if you possibly could and you were a guy of working age, you’d get a job. The presumption was that if you were neither working nor looking for work in the civilian population, non-institutionalized, you weren’t in jail or in the military or something, there’s a very good reason that you weren’t there, that you were disabled, incapacitated, some big problem.
For the first two decades after World War II, the proportion of prime-age guys neither working nor looking for work was negligible, maybe three out of 100 in this group. It was not until the 1960s that this post-war stasis started noticeably to change, and it has been a remarkably steady flight from work for America’s prime-age man. We all know that things like economic and structural change make a big difference in the workplace and demand for labor and all of that. Really, the uncanny thing about this flight from work is that it’s almost a straight line.
Yeah, I think that’s what I find so fascinating about your book and about this subject. We had this huge debate, obviously, and shift, especially on the right, in how we think about these kinds of issues during 2015 and 2016, when Donald Trump was running for president, and really highlighting the deindustrialization, the exodus of manufacturing jobs. We’ve been connecting the deaths of despair and this disconnection from civil society largely to economic factors.
Here you are saying this really started in the 1960s, and there’s actually been relatively little impact on the number of these men who are just not… They’re not in education. They’re not attempting to build a different credential. They’re not looking for work. They’re just not interacting with the workforce. To me, this is something that really should make us question our, I guess, post-2016 political structure and how we think about politics.
It almost makes me think about the… There was an essay that Kevin Williamson at National Review got huge blowback for, and sometimes I think in some ways fairly, in some ways unfairly, people taking quotes out of context, but one of the things he was essentially asserting is, “This is a choice. This isn’t due to these larger economic factors. There’s something else going on here, and it’s not going to be solved by a new style of industrial politics or by tariffs.”
I guess the question I want to pose to you, considering all that, is, if the jobs in Detroit, Michigan, came back, the factory jobs in Detroit, Michigan, magically we snap our fingers, they are restored to the levels that they were at in 1953, is this country capable of fielding a workforce that can show up at 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning, work a full day, do job training and pass a drug test, and actually engage in those kinds of factory jobs the way they could in 1953?
It’s a profound question that you ask, Inez, and I can give you a partial answer to it because we’ve had a natural experiment over the past several years that provides, I think, some insight into this. In the first edition of “Men Without Work” back in 2016, one line of objection or criticism was more or less, “Eberstadt, you moron, you don’t understand. There aren’t any jobs out there.” It’s harder to make that argument today, as we both know. We’re in the middle of an unprecedented peacetime labor shortage.
There are over 11 million unfilled jobs in the United States, and they’re not all for computer coders and hedge fund managers. As you were intimating, there are millions and millions of jobs available for people whose skills are basically to show up on time regularly and sober. Yet, despite all of the bargaining power that job applicants have right now during this Great Resignation that we’re in, these men, and also now women, who are on the sidelines of the economy aren’t being drawn back in.
What I would say, what I think about this, is that economic systems are pretty good, especially market systems, are pretty good at solving economic or market problems, but I think what we may face in the manpower situation of the moment is something that isn’t entirely an economic problem, isn’t a question of wages not rising rapidly enough or opportunities seeming sufficiently attractive. One of the things which we’ve, unfortunately, noticed over recent decades is that once men fall out of the workforce for some period of time, even if they are in their 20s or 30s, it’s hard to get them back in. That’s not true for people who are unemployed. They’re still in the labor force. They’re out of a job but looking for one. It seems to be very difficult to get male long-termers back into the workforce.
That is not true for women. That has not been as true for women. We’ve got this fantastic existence proof in our society that people can drop out of the labor force for years and years and go back and be productive, because they’re called mothers.
What I’m saying is that I think we have a sociological problem that we have to confront with the men, in particular, who have dropped out of the workforce and whose circumstances or viewpoint or particulars have changed in such a way as to be less interested or less capable of returning to paid work.
First of all, what are these men doing all day? The more difficult question is how… It seems to me to be, if not a cultural problem, even a psychological problem of how to motivate people. Part of that story has to be they’re paying their bills somehow. I’m not saying they’re living like kings, obviously, but that they are finding a way to feed and clothe and entertain themselves. What are they doing?
Well, one way we know about what they’re doing is by what some of these men tell us they’re doing. The U.S. government collects these annual surveys on time use. Mainly, they do this to figure out when people are going to work and how long people are working for and things like that. They ask all adults, not just people who are jobholders.
We have this picture of people who are pretty disconnected from society, and maybe even from families, totally disconnected from work, who are living in screens. Other data tell us that half of these men report that they’re taking some sort of pain medication every day. It’s almost as if this is sort of a training class for deaths of despair. It’s a picture of a certain type of misery, I think, and also clearly a tableau of an enormous amount of wasted human potential.
Who’s paying for this? Well, again, if we look at government numbers, it looks like it’s friends and family, meaning girlfriends, other family members, and Uncle Sam. Disability insurance programs pay some benefits for more than half of these unworking men, it seems. Disability benefits do not provide a princely income, let’s be clear about that, but they do allow for an alternative to life in the working world, which is exactly the opposite of the original, and I think quite noble, intention of disability programs, which is to provide for people who couldn’t take care of themselves, couldn’t work.
Yeah. There’s this instinct to almost be contemptuous of this. Maybe it’s a female instinct of being contemptuous of men who aren’t applying themselves, I think even more so than the opposite sex dynamic there.
The more that I read in your book and thought about this and thought about how these men are living their lives, it struck me that they’re confronting a lot of the same problems that are making all of us go nuts. There’s this overwhelming sense that the West has lost its meaning or its purpose or its ethos, and that maybe some people are responding to it by becoming careerists and pouring themselves into their work, but some others are responding to that alienation, that disconnection, by just not having any motivation at all to go out and bust their hump at work. For what? As you say in your book, they are largely unmarried. They mostly don’t have children, at least children they take care of in the home or that they have any relationship with. They don’t have a stable family structure. Somebody is paying for their lifestyle, obviously. They’re not attached to churches. It starts to look very much, actually, like the problems that I think a lot of people who are going to work and are participating in society, at least in a more public way, are still confronting.
Why does this problem of meaning in the West really start to happen in the 1960s? Again and again, on not just this particular front but all these other issues that I’ve been exploring with folks on this podcast, whether that’s family formation or problems with psychology, all this stuff, it all seems to draw a line back to right around 1965. What is it about the 1960s that seems to have cut the heart out of the West?
I think you’ve put your finger on something. In the social sciences and policy community, people are endlessly talking about lessons learned, but they very, very seldom talk about lessons forgotten. I think part of what we’re talking about today very much has to do with lessons forgotten.
If you are trained in the social sciences or economics nowadays, you have lost the language and you have lost the words for describing things that were perfectly obvious to a man and woman in the street in Victorian England a century and a half ago, and that is the difference between poverty and misery, or between what they would’ve called vice and poverty. Low income was not necessarily a cause of vice or poverty, and high living standards was not necessarily a cure for vice and misery.
We’ve never been as prosperous as a society as we are today. We are rolling in money. If we divided up all the national wealth, despite the little dip that we’ve been having this year, and divided it evenly, every notional family of four would have well over a million and a half dollars. That’s not what we’re lacking. What we are lacking is the internal gyroscopes to give our life meaning with the time that we have.
We traced this back to the 1960s, and a lot of things began. At least, we could see a lot of things beginning in the 1960s that are early chapters in the book that we’re now living in. One, of course, was the beginning of the revolution in the family, the revolutionary disintegration of the former family structure in the U.S. Another was the beginning of the rise of the social welfare state, not the Roosevelt state but the anti-poverty state, from the War on Poverty in the ’60s. We also saw the beginning of the crime explosion then. All of these factors I think ended up having tremendous corrosion on the order that we took for granted until then.
We’re not supposed to talk in value terms, at least in many parts of polite society these days, but it is apparent, it is manifestly apparent, it’s screaming out at us, the evidence of our senses, that people who are not connected to work or to their families or to their faiths or to their communities are not engaged in leisure. They’re not boning up on their Schopenhauer. As I say, they’re, in so many case, in trainer courses for deaths of despair. We’ve had this simultaneous explosion of wealth and explosion of misery in our society that can’t be explained unless we take a look at morals, values, and personal ethos.
Yeah, this is reminding me of the UBI debate. I recall at some point somebody asked Nancy Pelosi, “What are people going to do with their time if they don’t have to go out and get a job for a basic standard of living?” She said, “Well, that’s the wonderful thing. They’re going to write poetry.” It seems obvious whichever… I’ve heard some convincing arguments for and against UBI in terms of rejiggering the welfare state, but that is the point where I tune out and roll my eyes at the UBI debate, this assertion that if we free people from the constraint of having to earn a living, that there’s going to be this flourishing of wonderful art and community and all these things that we sometimes don’t have time for because we work a lot.
It seems obvious just from observation that what’s more likely to happen is people fall into despair. As you say, they don’t use their leisure time for leisure. They use it to degrade themselves, to get on drugs, to stare at screens all day, to consume material passively, and not to actually do this great renaissance of art and music and all the things that we wish we had time for, theoretically, if we weren’t working.
I wanted to ask you, I guess, the most difficult question. It’s not really, probably, an answerable one, but perhaps you can guide us to the start of how we should start thinking about an answer. There’s this notion, especially on the right, online it goes by the trad community, and the word ‘return’ spelled with the Roman V instead of a U, and it strikes me that that’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible.
You talked about the gyroscope inside that was pointing us, almost in an un-self-aware way, in a particular direction. How do we rebuild gyroscopes in people who don’t have them and have never had them? Here I’m speaking of myself as well as the NEETs, most modern people who did not grow up with this default un-self-aware, to a certain extent, setting. It’s not clear to me that you can will that into being purely because you see the negative consequences of so many people not having it. How do we punch through to the other side, or is there any hope of punching through to the other side, of this modern lack of meaning?
Oh, I think there’s plenty of help. I think that, actually, if we take history as our guide, we’ve got some reason for cautious optimism. Especially if we take American history as a guide, we see that ours is a history that has been defined and marked by successive Great Awakenings. Nobody knew they were coming when they were about to burst forth. Part of the particular characteristics of the American experience has been a succession of religious awakenings, of moral revitalizations of our society, that were not government driven. They came spontaneously from the bottom. My much better half, Mary Eberstadt, says she’d settle for a small awakening at the moment, and I take her point.
The reality of facts on the ground creates new facts, and a moral awakening or response to existing realities is something that we should certainly be open to. It’s also true that the brute experiences of the life course can change people’s perspective on things. Whether it’s actually getting a job, whether it’s becoming a parent, there’s so many big points in the life course that can change one’s perspective on things.
Yeah, I think we are in the middle of a fifth Great Awakening. I think that Great Awakening is just not connected to Christianity. I think that’s largely what our quasi-religious woke folks are really experiencing.
We’re talking about these maladies that I think are not limited to this NEET class of men, but you say in your book that the NEETs are not “violently threatening civil order.” They’re instead, as you said, cooping up at home. They’re courting deaths of despair. Is this going to blunt the push for society to actually confront some of these problems?
You say, at the same time, we’re wealthier than we ever had been. It seems like a smaller percentage of people working has produced so much wealth that they can, essentially, afford to pay off a larger and larger class of people who are suffering from deaths of despair, dropping out of the workforce. Do you worry that this kind of arrangement can go on functionally… nothing goes on forever, but that it can functionally go on for a very long time?
Because of the obscene productivity of a certain sector of the economy, we just want to be left alone by the people who aren’t… I can see that attitude very strongly in Silicon Valley. That’s why I think UBI is so popular in Silicon Valley. It’s like, “Let’s just write a check. That’ll clear our conscience in terms of this other entire part of our society. We can all go back to our lives making tons and tons of money.”
Well, the UBI siren, as you indicated, and I completely agree with you about this, it’s a false solution. It’s a false solution for a democratic society. It’s a false solution for economic malady. It’d be a very convenient way of funding a vehicle so that the little people would be quiet, go back to their television screens and Percocets; but we’ve seen what happens with people who are disconnected from the workforce of working age now and not involved in the raising of kids and stuff, and it’s not pretty. I don’t think we should want to buy more of it, no matter how expensive or inexpensive that is.
We have seen over the past generation, I think, some very troubling big trends in society that comport with this notion of a new misery. It’s not just the men who are dropping out of the workforce and the increasing dependence upon government support as an alternative to income. It’s not just the decline of the family. All of these are in it.
From the time that the Berlin Wall fell until the eve of the pandemic, the inflation-adjusted net worth of the bottom half of American homes didn’t budge. This is a 30-year period in which American wealth soared, and the bottom half of the United States in terms of net worth was no better off than they had been 30 years earlier. Manifestly, there is something in our economic formula that is not working well for a lot of our country. The economic escalator has broken down. Given that big reality, I don’t think it’s at all surprising that we should see the populist discontent that has risen up in the United States over, let’s say, the last decade. More wealth for the wealth-holders and less work for the workers is an almost classical framing of an invitation to a populist uprising.
What neither political party at the moment really has, from what I can tell, from what I can see, is an answer to the question of how do you rebuild the escalator for prosperity and success in the United States. Generally speaking, the left has got, generally speaking, an answer that we’ll redistribute our way out of it, but redistributed resources aren’t spent the same way as self-earned resources and they don’t make you feel the same way as self-earned resources. Some on the right think about miracle of the market. I’m all for miracle of the market myself, don’t get me wrong about this, but I think we have to do something more than that. We have to do something more than that if we’re going to successfully get people back into the updrafts of a dynamic, improving economy. Work-first principle would be a very good start on some of this. It wouldn’t get us all the way, but it would be a good start.
There’s a little bit of tension then. Are you talking about that this populist uprising… You’re saying that folks are having a harder and harder time getting on an escalator to success, and I think that’s very true. I focus a lot on, for example, education policies, and the way that we heavily subsidize university and then folks end up with debt. It is a difficult… It’s getting harder and harder to get that first step on the rung and actually start to climb up the economic ladder.
At the same time, you’re saying that this particular category of men, you don’t see any change in the flat line. You said it’s basically a straight line going up from the 1960s, and actually hasn’t changed with that 30-year break that you were talking about where the top half or the top 10% has broken off so far from the bottom half economically. You’re saying these are almost parallel phenomena then, that a populist discontent is rising from, essentially, the working class, and then we have this whole other class of people who might be called the non-working class. How does all of that interact, I guess, would be my question.
Yeah. No, that’s a very good question. I’m not sure I can give you a complete answer to that. I can tell you that the storyline of the flight from work over the past, now getting on 60 years, has had different stages to it. There was a very important crime and punishment stage to it in the ’80s, ’90s, and maybe even the 2000s, with the explosive growth of ex-con population, overwhelmingly men, in the United States. That’s an invisible portion of the story. We have the opioid epidemic and the growth in deaths of despair starting in the ’90s and going forward, unfortunately, to today. The different characteristics of this flight, the coloration of it, have been different over time.
As far as I can tell, and our public opinion polling isn’t too helpful with this because most of the public opinion polling asks about your ethnicity and age and gender and almost never asks about your employment status, but as far as I can tell from other stuff, the men without work, at home on couches, are not terribly politically active. They’re inert in other areas of the community. It looks like they aren’t big voters. They’re not the ones who are going to lead the political changes.
That’s not necessarily true, though, of their family members, friends, people in their communities. I think that people in communities who have seen some of the blight that has been associated with the new misery have been quite active, have been voting. We’re more likely to see people who are aware of this from their communities and their own lives be politically active.
One of the unfortunate things about the increasing stratification of life in the United States is I think that fewer and fewer political representatives, fewer of our political figures, actually know firsthand from their own families or from their own friendship communities the realities of this situation. They can read about it but are much more likely to be surprised by it, just because they’re personally out of touch with it.
Yeah. This is really reminding me of, for example, Tim Carney’s work about what the political makeup of, for example, even within the GOP primary in 2015 and 2016, and how people split off the anti-establishment between Cruz and Trump based on various factors. It also solves a problem that seems to be perpetually perplexing David Brooks about how people with boats can consider themselves part of the populist revolution. They’re just seeing it happen in their friends and family and in their social networks. While some of these folks are politically disconnected as well as disconnected from everything else, their friends and family are, essentially, angry on their behalf.
Let’s wrap up with the sex factor here. You’re focusing on men. You do say that this phenomenon is bleeding over into women as well, the phenomenon of not working, not parenting. The stay-at-home scrolling life is bleeding over into women as well. How much of this…
Family seems to be such a huge motivating factor in some of the stats that you lay out here. I think, and correct me, because I’m trying to do it from recall and I’ll probably get it wrong, but that men with a high school degree but no higher degree, or maybe even without a high school degree, are as likely to be working as men with a college degree if they’re married, for example. How is this? It seems like it would perpetuate an ever-negative cycle.
Women are not attracted to men who live like this, for the most part. It goes against very basic female biology. On the flip side, especially if these guys are just zoning out watching porn or whatever, that they probably are just exiting the mating market as well as all of these other things. How does pairing off, how does marriage, how does sex factor into, essentially, the dynamics of this NEET class?
Well, as you rightly indicate, it’s a two-way street. It’s not all unidirectional. It’s a very complicated dynamic. At the end of the day, family structure is a pretty good predictor for whether a guy is going to be in the workforce or not, no matter what his ethnicity or his age or his education. Likewise, as I think I mentioned, having kids at home is a pretty good predictor as to your level of attachment to the workforce.
The question about what’s happened with women in this modern period is also really important. Up until about the year 2000, you could have said that the story… Women have always worked; it’s just that they didn’t get paid for it until after World War II or something, something like that. The story of women entering the workforce was just a continuing wave, not displacing men but supplementing men in this workforce. Since about the year 2000, a few years earlier, let’s say the beginning of the 21st century, the labor force participation for women and the labor force participation for men have been going down in lockstep together. Something has happened for both men and women in the workforce and in the economy and society. This has happened at the same time, by the way, that fertility rates in the United States have been declining.
What we are seeing now is the rise of a new segment of femininity in modern America, which is the prime-age woman who is not in the workforce and does not have children at home. This group has been rising rapidly in numbers, although, obviously, from a very low initial threshold. Especially for those sisters among them who are not currently married, the time-use data are showing, I think, warning signs of a men-without-work syndrome. Not much time at all spent on, you might call civil society. Not much time spent on help for others. A lot of time spent in front of screens. I think it is probably too soon for me to be declarative about this, but I think there are reasons to say that this phenomenon bears watching.
Yeah. That’s so sad to hear because it’s such a departure from the role of women, particularly in American society, as the beating heart of civil society. Once, I recently was just looking at… Because there was, of course, there were these cataclysms of dragging down every statue of every American hero, so I was focused on the statues in small towns that I would drive through or visit or whatever, and it struck me that on the bottom of almost every single one of them is erected by a women’s group of the town, almost every single one of the public works.
Of course, women play this role in churches as well. They tend to be… Women, especially women who had older kids or who didn’t have children, but who were married, they were the ones doing all the other things, all the societal things, the block parties, the church potluck, the raising of the town statues, the organizing of contests and stuff. This is very much quintessentially American women’s contribution to society. It’s a really sad and depressing trajectory to think about women not using their time in that way and also not working.
Well, let’s say it’s just… Let’s say, at the moment, it’s a yellow light, not a red light, but it bears watching.
Okay. Well, we’ll continue to watch it. Maybe you will have to come out with a new edition of this book where you talk about work without women. Thank you so much for joining High Noon today.
This is Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt. His book is “Men Without Work.” We have a new edition of it with a very long introduction dealing with all of the things we’ve been talking about here in terms of what has happened in the last six years since the pandemic and the shutdowns that has affected this group very much. I really highly recommend this book. You can go and get it now. It’s available since Labor Day. Thank you so much, Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt, for joining High Noon.
Inez, it was a pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Just before we sign out here, I just wanted to remind everybody that we have two other podcasts that I want to recommend to you from the Independent Women’s Forum. The first is She Thinks, which is a daily download on policy and news of the day with some very great guests. That’s hosted by Beverly Hallberg over at IWF.
We also have At The Bar, which is myself and my colleague Jennifer Braceras, who runs our Independent Women’s Law Center. We talk about topics at the intersection of law, politics, and culture, so things like major Supreme Court cases. We’ve been talking about these Title IX regs that just wrapped up. The comment period for them just wrapped up. The definition of sex under law. We’re talking about those kinds of topics, and I hope you’ll tune in there.
Then, finally, as always, thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum, and you can send comments and questions to [email protected] Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or a review on Apple Podcasts, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org. Be brave. We’ll see you next time on High Noon.
In most modern homes, any adjustable shelves or cabinets have metal shelf pins set inside conveniently spaced holes. Before the accouterments of modern life, like easily replicated metal parts, you may have found a sawtooth shelf doing the same job with just wood.
The system comprises three parts: a series of “sawteeth” running up and down the front and back edge of a cabinet, a cleat to sit between the teeth, and a shelf with notched corners that can then be set down on the cleats on either side.
While not as convenient as running a drill through a shelf pin jig, this method has a certain charm and sturdiness that isn’t present in more modern methods of making adjustable shelves. We can see this being particularly useful for restoration projects of homes from the 19th Century or earlier where you want some of those aforementioned accouterments without things looking too anachronistic.
Payment processors hostile to freedom of expression hate me for this one weird trick!!
About four years ago, my PayPal account was unceremoniously thrown into a van and disappeared to a black site. All I got to commemorate my account’s suspension was a riddle of an email claiming my account was “permanently limited” due to some unspecified “excessive risk.” I had no idea what PayPal was talking about, as I had used the account for more than 14 years without issue. Given the timing, though, I suspected it had something to do with my involvement in a certain group named after a certain slavery abolitionist.
I was reminded of this recently because PayPal has been up to some bullshit, selectively banning politically unpopular accounts for what seems like made-up reasons, and “infamous” sex realist Colin Wright is only one of their latest victims.
Singal-Minded is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
While PayPal is technically a private company that can work with basically whoever it wants for whatever reason, its centralized role as an online payment processor makes this a weirdly potent free speech fight. So I figure it might be useful for me to tell the story of how I sent in commandos (read: deployed my obsessive love of drawn-out conflict involving legalese) to rescue my account.
I called, emailed, and waited on hold, but never got a straight answer from PayPal’s customer service drones. They endlessly repeated that I had violated PayPal’s acceptable use policy as if it were some mantra. If I asked for any detail whatsoever, their response had the tone of a schoolteacher frustrated at having to explain repeatedly to the same kid that crayons should not be shoved up one’s nose. I knew what I did to get my account deleted, apparently. If I wanted to hear it from them, I’d need a court order.
I took inventory of my options.
Here is what I did not have: money in the account, any serious reliance on it, or any wisp of nostalgia for the 14 years we shared.
Here is what I did have: too much free time and a whole heap of pettiness to propel things forward.
Arbitration is nothing more than privatized dispute resolution. Because the contours of arbitration can be whatever the parties agree to, it’s always been popular in dealing with international commercial disputes. Compared to traditional courts, arbitration proceedings have no problem with straddling international borders, and arbitration judges can be heavily specialized (for instance, there’s probably one guy whose entire life is dedicated to nothing but disputes over flowers shipped from Kenya).
For consumers, I suspect that much of the power “arbitration” seems to confer on corporations lies in its opacity. Real courts have public trials and published opinions and dramatic film depictions. Arbitration — by design — happens behind closed doors in boring confidential proceedings. So the only information we get comes to us piecemeal, but it indicates consumers and workers win between 1% to 6% of the time. These are grim statistics for anyone seeking vindication, but there are some potential issues with the methodology. Because initiating arbitration is cheaper and easier than a lawsuit, it’s quite possible — even likely — that some arbitration cases go forward that otherwise would be unlikely to make their way into a courtroom, which may skew the numbers. At the same time, because arbitrators generally have to be approved by both sides, they may be biased to rule in favor of frequent fliers (such as big companies) just to help their chances at getting picked again in the future.
Companies don’t help make this process seem any less intimidating, because why would they? PayPal’s User Agreement is a ridiculous 60 pages in length! They know no normal person is going to read all that, especially for something as disposable as a free service.
Of course, I am no normal person. I am a lawyer. And yet, the only advantage that superpower provided me was the confidence to actually crack open the user agreement. Once I found the relevant section, PayPal’s language came across as surprisingly plain — no JD required. You can decide for yourself by reading along.
According to the user agreement, the first step on my path to potential redemption was to send PayPal a Notice of Dispute. I had to fill out a form. This is what it looks like in its entirety:
Simple. All I wrote was something along the lines of “PayPal suspended my account and I have no idea why. I’d like it back, please.” I printed a copy, mailed it via Certified Mail, and waited. PayPal says that if you can’t resolve whatever problem you have within 45 days (back when I did it, it was only 30 days), then you can escalate to the next level. I double-checked the tracking number to make sure that PayPal’s legal department received my dispute notice. I was even magnanimous enough to call them to give them a heads-up, but the customer service reps had no idea who to transfer me to, and I gave up after getting bounced around a bunch. It was just radio silence from PayPal, overall.
So then I moved to step two, which is demanding arbitration. Maybe the most important thing to say is that for most disputes, PAYPAL WILL COVER THE COST OF ARBITRATION:
PayPal isn’t alone here as Etsy has basically the same provision, as does Amazon Pay and many others. (Notably, neither Square nor Stripe offer to cover arbitration costs, and Stripe even requires the loser of the dispute to pay the winner’s entire legal expenses. Also notable: Twitter does not require arbitration.) Companies offer to cover the costs of arbitration to avoid having a (real) court strike down the entire agreement as “unconscionable” — essentially saying that the terms are so lopsided that no reasonable consumer would ever have actually agreed to them, AGREE button notwithstanding. My empty PayPal account was definitely worth less than ten thousand big ones, so I had nothing to lose. I filled out the Demand for Arbitration form from the American Arbitration Association (AAA) — again, not a particularly arduous process — and sent it on its merry Certified Mail way on January 4, 2019. Then I waited again.
On January 11, 2019, AAA received my demand letter:
Seven days later, I got this email:
Date: Fri, Jan 18, 2019, 5:08 PM
Subject: Your PayPal Account Access Has Been Restored
Dear Yassine Meskhout,
Thank you for contacting PayPal regarding the recent limitation of your PayPal account.
We have further reviewed your case and determined that your account is currently not in violation of our Acceptable Use Policy. As such, the limitation on your account has been lifted.
We sincerely appreciate your business and offer our apologies for any inconvenience this disruption in service may have caused.
I wasn’t there, so I can only speculate about what transpired. My guess is the bozos at PayPal HQ’s mailroom threw my first letter into a pile somewhere. It wasn’t until I took the unprecedented step of *gasp* following the exact process laid out in their user agreement and demanding arbitration that they got their legal department’s ass into gear. By the terms of their own agreement, PayPal was on the hook to cover the costs of arbitration entirely on their own, and there’s just no way that would have been a worthwhile financial decision when all I was asking for was my pitiful account back. The same thing happened to DoorDash in 2019 and to Amazon in 2021 on a much bigger scale, where they both capitulated after getting swamped by thousands of coordinated arbitration demands.
All this makes their “upon further review” epiphany bullshit even funnier. After wiping away the tears of laughter I did… nothing. I waited still, content to see where else this would go. From AAA’s perspective, they still had a live dispute on their docket and PayPal and I were getting primed to duke it out.
On January 22, 2019, I had a few missed calls from the same phone number. The next day, a senior member of PayPal’s legal team emailed me directly to say:
I am reaching out to you because it is my understanding your AAA demand has been resolved. Additionally, you should have received an email from PayPal last Friday, January 18, 2019, informing you the limitation on your PayPal account ending **** had been lifted and you now have complete access. We kindly request you contact AAA and withdraw your AAA demand.
What a refreshing change in tone! I had no reason to be chivalrous, so I indulged in some pettiness, asking for PayPal to cover $16.99 in miscellaneous shipping and printing costs:
Maybe I could’ve asked for more, but that didn’t interest me. I was content to know that even an amount as insignificant as $16.99 would be enough of a pain in the ass for PayPal’s corporate apparatus to approve. They never explained why my account was suspended, but I did at least get it back, got reimbursed for shipping, and lived happily ever after.
Fast-forward to the future. It is June 2022 and I am in Denver for the Heterodox Academy conference. I ran into Colin Wright, who had just a few days prior tweeted about having his PayPal and Etsy accounts suspended with no explanation provided. PayPal’s messaging has barely changed over the years: Their customer service representatives still try to bloviate and bluff with talk of “legal subpoena,” and they conveniently say nothing about the dispute resolution process actually contained within their own user agreement. Having been through that same rigamarole, I explained my experience and offered to assist in getting his accounts reinstated. He gave me his contact information and a few days later, I emailed him a detailed guide (with links and everything) with the steps he needed to take.
Colin has brought up the issue publicly multiple times since then (writing about it in Quillette and the New York Post for example), but he never responded to my email until I reached out to him for comment on this piece. He did share correspondence with me where prominent free speech attorneys told him, in an apparent contradiction to my claims, that he had no viable legal recourse to getting his account reinstated. I had transmogrified into a gadfly in his mentions, heavily implying Colin was intentionally choosing not to solve the problem, but I was off-base with my insinuation. Colin was bombarded with countless random people (besides just me) offering their one weird trick to solve the problem, and he had no reason to believe any of them knew something that experienced advocates did not. Colin has now initiated dispute resolution with PayPal using the steps I gave him, and I’m intensely curious to see how it will play out.
I want to make it perfectly clear that I do not see arbitration as a panacea. My experience with challenging PayPal worked out well for me (as it did one other time with a different corporation), but this is an n of one that may not be representative. It’s perfectly possible that my own experience was a total fluke. It’s perfectly possible that the entire arbitration process is a sham, as some studies suggest, meant to serve only as a fig leaf to shield companies from accountability. FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), the gold standard organization for defending freedom of expression, recently issued a statement on this topic where they specifically decry the lack of due process provided to users. I reached out to them and asked whether they considered arbitration resolution in their analysis, and what specific proposals they would suggest to improve due process, but they never responded to me.
I personally have mixed opinions about arbitration (“it’s complicated,” as a wise man once said), but the strongest criticism for me is its lack of transparency. Unless an enterprising researcher catches a lucky break, only the company defending against the claim knows how many times arbitration cases were initiated by their consumers and the outcome of each. Everyone else is left in the dark, and this serves only to further reinforce corporations’ power in this arena. In researching this topic and speaking to numerous people who work in arbitration-related fields, I could not identify any obvious structural reason why arbitration resolution could not be reliably used more often by spurned consumers seeking redress. The best explanation I can muster for the dearth of action in this arena is that the process looks too intimidating and the stakes are far too small for most people to bother.
This is all the more encouraging. I agree that capricious punishments by service providers is a threat to freedom of expression, but we have a pathway toward salvation. The current regime is entirely predicated on the (correct) assumption that almost nobody will bother challenging the system, but we can prove otherwise. I was apparently one of the only people on Earth crazy enough to read the terms of service and follow the instructions, but I hope that my example showcases how accessible the process is.
Now go forth, my children, let a thousand arbitration demand flowers bloom. And please, for the love of Allah, tell us how it goes.
Yassine Meskhout is a contributing writer at Singal-Minded. You can read more about him here. Questions? Gripping tales of siccing the hounds of war against those who deployed them? Email him at email@example.com or me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The image of the author being a bad bitch and fearlessly taking on a powerful financial conglomerate was created with the help of Stable Diffusion.
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