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Modern men are struggling—Richard Reeves on why it matters and what to do about it

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This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Richard Reeves, who is a Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution where he holds the John C. and Nancy D. Whitehead chair. He is also the director of the Future of the Middle Class Initiative.

They discuss his thought-provoking new book, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters, and What to Do About It.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Richard Reeves, who is a Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution where he holds the John C. and Nancy D. Whitehead chair, and is the director of the future of the Middle-Class Initiative. 

He’s also the author of the thought-provoking new book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters, and What to Do About It. The book, which documents the growing underperformance of boys and men in school, work, and across other socioeconomic metrics, has grabbed the centre of the public policy debate in the United States and elsewhere. I’m grateful to speak with him about the book, and why we need to refocus our efforts on boys and men. 

Richard, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book. 

RICHARD REEVES: Thank you, Sean. 

SEAN SPEER: How did you first get interested in the outcomes for boys and men? As someone interested in social mobility and cultivating a modern middle class, why pursue this topic?

RICHARD REEVES: Well, as you just indicated, my work has historically been around issues of economic inequality, social mobility, and that, of course, particularly in the U.S. context, inevitably draws you into questions of race equity because differences, particularly for outcomes for black Americans, are so stark. But as I was doing that work, I kept stumbling across gender as a factor as well, and not always at least in the expected direction. So, just kind of a number of ways in which it was boys and men who were on the sharpest end of many of the inequalities that we were looking at, and boys and men who are very often struggling.

In terms of upward mobility, for example, big differences in upward mobility. Obviously, in education, there’s now been a dramatic overtaking so that gender inequalities in education are now pretty wide at every level. And so, if you’re interested in human flourishing more broadly, but economic mobility and economic flourishing in particular, then actually the problems of boys and men became frankly unavoidable in that context.

SEAN SPEER: One of your key findings is that most American men are doing less well economically than most men were in 1979. As you put it in the book, if American men were a country, the country would be poorer than it was 40 years ago.

Yet the U.S. economy has been growing over that span. We’ve seen tremendous progress in technology. We’ve seen progress for women. Help us understand, Richard, what’s going on? How have most men failed to reap the benefits of four decades of progress?

RICHARD REEVES: Well, the first thing to point out is just underlined, as we’ve already said, Sean, which is obviously there’s been a lot of growth in that period. And also that for men at the top, there has been strong earnings growth. So, men at the top are actually earning more than men at the top were in 1979. But that’s not true for most men. So for about 60 percent of men, actually their earnings are just—of course adjusting for inflation—a little bit lower today than the bottom 60 percent of men were 40 years ago.

I think that’s for a number of reasons. One is that there’s just been a huge deindustrialization, of course, a big decline in manufacturing jobs, other traditionally male jobs and heavy industries, and so on. Obviously, increased competition from free trade, all the stuff that you and your listeners will be well aware of. Those have disproportionately really impacted the male professions and male occupations and just had a disproportionate effect on men. 

And then of course, the U.S. has a pretty, pretty thin safety net. And so, what that means is that for a lot of those men, it was really difficult to recover or to get retraining and so on. A lot of these trends have hit men in a lot of advanced economies, but it seemed to hit U.S. men particularly hard. I think that’s because a lot of those economic trends were particularly sharp here in the U.S., but also because there wasn’t as much to fall back on for a lot of those men. That created more of a downward spiral here than you would have seen in other countries.

SEAN SPEER: I’ll come back to the subject of the transition from a goods-producing economy to a knowledge economy, and the gendered consequences of that shift. But I want to stay on the topic of the differing performance of men and women. The book outlines in great detail how women have generally performed well over the same period. We’ve seen increases in labour force participation, educational attainment, income growth, etc. 

Has that happened at the expense of men? Is there something of a zero-sum dynamic across genders? Or is that the wrong way to think about these issues?

RICHARD REEVES: I think that’s mostly the wrong way to think about these issues. And that’s obviously important, empirically, to get that right, but it’s also important, I think, just politically in how you talk about this, because I think it’s too easy to look at some trends for two groups. One group doing much better. Historically, one set of lines going up on the chart, another set of lines going down in due part because the first and the second is true. But in the case of the labour market, that’s the fall into a really bad economic fallacy, which is the idea of a lump of labour or a lump of wages, right? There’s only so much work to go around, there are only so many wages to go around. 

So, by definition, if women are taking more of them, that means there’s less leftover from it. And that’s just a completely wrong way to think about the economy. There is no reason why men can’t see wage gains and employment improvements as women are doing it too. The thing that’s hit men has been a series of shocks, which we’ve already discussed, and a change in the shape of the labour market which has disproportionately affected male jobs. The difficulty for men, is men have been slow to adapt to some of those changes, partly because they haven’t had really much help to adapt to them. That’s left a lot of them just behind the curve, essentially, in terms of what’s happening. Meanwhile, women have just been rising up for some of the reasons that you just identified, and those two things are happening to coincide at the same time. But just because two things are happening at the same time doesn’t mean that one is causing the other. 

The only thing I’ll say, with a slight caveat, is that I think there’s some evidence that the particularly relatively modestly educated working-class white men in the U.S., actually may have been, because of strong unions and exclusion of women and people of colour, they may actually be able to get some rents in the labour market. So there’s some rents that they may have been able to secure, higher earnings, than they would have been able to in a more meritocratic labour market. And as they’ve seen greater competition, those rents have come off. Scott Winship, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has done some work on that. And I think that there’s probably some truth to that story. But that’s a very specific group. I think as a general proposition, it’s just false to think about this as a zero-sum game. 

SEAN SPEER: One of the book’s most fascinating insights regarding boys and men is in the educational sphere. They’re underperforming in the K-12 system, and they’re increasingly being surpassed in post-secondary education.

Again, progress for girls and women is a positive economic and social development. But if we can set that aside, what’s behind the underperformance of boys and men? Has there been a change, Richard? Or were previous generations simply beneficiaries of a system that preferred boys and men?

RICHARD REEVES: Well, I think actually that the system itself never gave a preference to boys and men. I think that society and culture gave a preference to boys and men. And so what that meant was that boys and men were encouraged to go to college. My own father, he was encouraged to go to college because he knew he’s going to have to be a breadwinner, and he went to school where, of course, the boys will be talking about which college they were going to go to if they were going to go to college. That wasn’t true for women. And so, women were actually having their educational aspirations and opportunities artificially capped by a sexist society. Once the cap came off, they not only caught up with men, but blew right past them, which no one expected by the way. 

I mean, when all the focus in the 1970s in particular was on like getting gender parity. No one said, “Well, wait, what if the lines keep going? What if we end up with more gender inequality, but just the other way around?” Like there’s no discussion of that because no one expected it, and I think the fact that it’s happened shows that in many ways the education system favours girls and women. They develop certain skills, the ability to learn, the ability to pay attention earlier, than boys do at critical moments. Obviously, the teaching profession is very female and becoming more so, which seems to have some effect on boys as well.

So ironically, the success of the women’s movement has exposed the ways in which the education system is actually structured in ways that don’t prefer boys and men, but under conditions of sexism, you couldn’t see that but I think we are now seeing that. 

SEAN SPEER: One subject that can be a bit fraught, particularly for some on the Left, is the role of marriage and family. It’s to your credit that you’re prepared to take this on, dispassionately and delicately, but directly. What role does family stability, and in particular the presence of fathers, play in your story?

RICHARD REEVES: Well, I’m glad you framed it that way because there are a number of things that get confused here, and I think in particular, the importance of fathers gets wrapped up with the centrality of marriage, and those are distinct. One of the things I really tried to do is make those distinct. Now of course, for those on the Left, it might be less. If you start with a position that fathers don’t matter at all, and marriage is a patriarchal institution, then there’s nothing to see here. But actually, for those on the Right, who do think that fathers matter, they are then inclined to say that’s why we need marriage. But marriage as an institution for attaching fathers to children is becoming obsolete. It’s in the rearview mirror.

That’s for the good reason that traditional marriage was founded on the economic dependency of women on men. That was the central goal of the women’s movement to make that less true, and it’s been spectacularly achieved in most advanced economies. That means marriage is a choice, not a necessity. And it means that the role of fathers has become a little bit more contingent, a little bit less secure, but no less important. 

And so, my view is that the way to, first of all, recognize that fathers do matter in ways that are complementary to but distinct to mothers, and therefore support fatherhood, but support fatherhood, not marriage. Now, it may well be that supporting fatherhood will lead to more marriage, I don’t know. But I do know that with 40 percent of births now taking place outside marriage in the U.S., among non-college-educated Americans, it’s more than half, 40 percent of the main breadwinners in the U.S. are women, the idea that we can sort of bring fathers back into children’s lives through marriage strikes me as just wrong and nostalgic. But on the other hand, it doesn’t mean that fathers don’t matter. 

I think we need to really put fatherhood on a pedestal, but a different kind of pedestal, and the message shouldn’t be, “You matter as a dad if you’re a breadwinner and marriage with the mum.” The message should be, “You matter as a dad, regardless of whether you’re with a mum and regardless of whether you’re a breadwinner.” If we send the old message in a world where that is less and less true, the effect of that is to bench too many of our fathers.

SEAN SPEER: Your colleagues Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins popularized the idea of a “success sequence” about a decade or so ago as a means for understanding the behaviours and characteristics associated with positive socioeconomic outcomes. 

What is the success sequence? How does it apply to your analysis? And, Richard, to what extent does it have explanatory power for the trends that you document with respect to the economic and social outcomes for boys and men?

RICHARD REEVES: Well, the success sequence was a descriptive data exercise that showed that among Americans who completed high school, who were in full-time employment, and who were married before they had children, the risks of poverty were very, very small. I think a number is like three percent of that group were in poverty, whereas anybody that didn’t do that and the more of those hurdles you didn’t clear, if you like, the greater your risk of poverty.

The important point of it is that it was just descriptive as much as prescriptive, and that much of the work in the success sequence was actually being done by full-time employment. And much of the work around marriage was simply a tale of two earners: if you’ve got two earners in the household, you’re less likely to be poor. So, a lot of it was driven by that employment effect. And actually, the way that they looked at how marriage affected it was a little bit more complex than the headlines suggested. It was really more getting around the intention. And being with the person you meant to have a child with, rather than it being an unintended pregnancy and birth with somebody who didn’t become a parent. 

So what does it tell us? I think what it tells us is that education is important. Okay, very few people disagree with that. It tells us that employment is the best way to guard against poverty. Again, not many people disagree with that. The more controversial part of it is what about family structure? And the way I interpret that is that it obviously is better economically if you’re sharing economic resources. And that’s true, and it’s even more true if you’re low income. And so I think it’s correct to worry about the growth and the number of single-earner households, particularly women-headed households as women still earn less, if you’re worried about poverty. 

But I don’t think the interpretation of that is that there’s something magical about marriage. Marriage was the expression of a desire to have children with this person and raise them together rather than the cause of it. So, there’s nothing causal. Actually one of the reasons for the big rise in non-marital births is the fall in shotgun marriages. It’s not clear that actually if we could find some policy that would actually get all these people that are getting pregnant outside of marriage and married them off through their compulsory government marriage program, that they would do any better for their kids or do any better. I think the success sequences in some hands being misused to make it actually an empirically unfounded argument for marriage.

SEAN SPEER: In a way, the most powerful idea in the book is that these economic, educational, and family conditions that we’ve been talking about have really profound consequences. It’s not just that people lose their jobs. It’s that it contributes to a whole set of pathologies, including substance abuse, criminality, suicide, poverty, and so on.

I guess my question is, why did it take us so long to notice? Things weren’t good before, say, Donald Trump became president, and yet, so many of us missed it. Why?

RICHARD REEVES: I think because so many of us weren’t paying attention to one thing, but I think at some deeper level, and when I say I mean, I include myself very much among the people that have failed in this regard to really take some of these issues seriously. I think, if we were going to be kinder to ourselves, I’d say we didn’t realize how long it would go on, maybe didn’t realize how deeply these problems were overlapping with each other, and didn’t take them seriously enough questions of identity, and purpose, and culture. 

So, if you look at the numbers, and you say, “Look on net and in the long run, free trade automation, or immigration, and they’re all good, right?”, what we didn’t pay attention to was the fact that on net and in the long-run means that somebody, somewhere right now is getting screwed. And for all the discussion of lifelong learning, place-based policy, etc., it just never delivered on that side of it. And we hoped that it would just right itself, it would correct itself, that it would come good, and it didn’t. One of the reasons it didn’t was because people got stuck, they got trapped. And because the identity shock of a lot of these changes went well beyond just the economic and social trends. There’s the stuff you can see in charts and data fields, but a lot of this speaks to problems that it’s really hard to get numbers for. 

So, now we see the rise of so-called “deaths of despair”, both in the U.S. and in Canada, from opioids, suicide, and alcohol, and those are three times higher among men than among women, and they’re particularly high in areas that were hit hardest by these economic trends. The idea that “Well, people will just move and get a new job and retrain, and so on,” like on paper that seems plausible, but in practice, you know, humans are flesh and blood and they’re strongly identified with their family, with their community, and so on. I think that sort of liberal technocrats or whatever just didn’t get that. It took things like some of the rise of populism to actually act as a wake-up call. Gender is a big part of that story, which again, it’s very uncomfortable for a lot of people in sort of technocratic circles to take seriously issues around gender, and how particularly working-class men have been hit so hard.

SEAN SPEER: I want to come to the subject of gender-based analysis in a minute. But before I get there, I just want to take up a point that you made earlier, Richard, which is that American men seem to be performing worse than men in other peer jurisdictions, including our own countries Canada and Britain. 

Obviously, that’s not to say British and Canadian boys and men aren’t facing their own challenges. But what is it about the American economy and society that seems to be producing even worse outcomes? You mentioned earlier the inadequacies of the welfare state. What else? Is it the dynamism of the market? Is it other policy choices like trade and trade assistance? Does it reflect a more general lack of solidarity? Why in short, is America a bit of an outlier on these matters?

RICHARD REEVES: Yeah so, you’ve framed it correctly that it isn’t an outlier because those trends are seen elsewhere, they’re just not as dramatic. I actually cite the work of Miles Corak who is a Canadian economist and his work shows that upward mobility rates from the bottom 10th of the income distribution are twice as high for women as they are for men. I think that those sorts of statistics give us a bit of a clue as to why the U.S. is even worse than other countries in terms of what’s happened to men. Which is, first of all, as I’ve already mentioned, I think there isn’t such a net to catch them. We don’t have active labour market policies, we don’t provide such good unemployment support, and so when you fall, you fall further and harder, potentially. But I also think it’s because whilst there has been growth and economic inequality in many countries around the world, this has been somewhat more dramatic in the U.S. What’s interesting is that being in a poor family, or poor neighbourhood, or unstable family, or low performing school, all affects boys more than girls. 

What that means is if you have a more economically unequal society, you should expect to see worse outcomes for boys and men, because it turns out that boys and men are hurt more by poverty and inequality than girls and women. Which is a very counterintuitive thought, but the evidence on this now it’s quite clear. And so, actually, the struggles of American men and boys are partly a byproduct of the growth in economic inequality in the U.S. At the same time, the fact that men are struggling in the labour market is adding to economic inequality in the U.S. So, there’s an intergenerational element to male problems in the U.S, which is partly the result of just the greater economic inequality. 

I say something like this in the book: if you’re worried about economic inequality on the Left, you really need to worry about boys and men. But if you’re worried about what’s happening to boys and men and you’re on the Right, then you really need to worry about economic inequality.

SEAN SPEER: That’s fascinating. Just in parentheses, as you know, Richard, in conservative circles there’s a tendency to say that inequality is a function of market forces and that it need not be a concern of public policy. And, in fact, what you’re saying is the transmission of the consequences of inequality ought to indeed be an area of concern for policymakers, even if as a normative matter inequality itself doesn’t necessarily concern you that much. 

I mentioned earlier gender-based analysis. Let me set this question up. It’ll be familiar to some of our Canadian listeners. In Canada, especially under the Trudeau government, we’ve seen a real commitment to gender-based analysis, what’s now called GBA+. It’s reflected in the analysis of individual policy measures, as well as the federal budget.

I don’t know any policy analysts who’d say that it’s a bad development. But it seems to me that there is a risk that gender-based analysis becomes a synonym for analyzing the impact of policy on women. Part of that, of course, is a redress for a policymaking process that for a long time neglected women. But there’s something counterintuitive that at the precise moment we’re seeing progress on this type of policy discourse, it’s arguably men, not women, who require greater attention. 

Just to give you an example, the Trudeau government has for arguably good reasons chosen to impose more stringent regulations on the development of new oil and gas projects. Listeners may agree or disagree based on climate policy, but it seems to me that there’s been little analysis of the gender effects in terms of the impact on employment. 

I guess, Richard, that’s a long way of saying, how do we ensure that we extend the tools of gender-based analysis to both men and women and that we consider the differentiated effects of different policy choices? 

RICHARD REEVES: Well, yeah, thank you for sharing some of that. I didn’t actually know all of that, so it’s helpful. I think that as you say, no policy analyst is going to be against the idea of gender-based analysis, because we always want more data. And in particular, we want to look at the heterogeneity of impact, we want to look at who’s been hurt and helped by this. Who are the different groups? We should be disaggregating the impact and seeing if knowing more stuff is a good thing. It’s great.

But I also agree that, I can give you an example of how this actually come through was activated during the COVID years, but of course, once you’ve got in place those gender-based analyses it really is necessary then to look at it both ways. If you discover, “Well, here’s something’s going that way. That’s interesting. That’s huge. That seems to be really affecting men and boys more than women and girls and vice versa,” and then I think you need to be symmetrical. 

In the U.S. we have a gender policy council now in the White House, but it only considers gender inequalities that run against women and girls, which I think is both wrong empirically and also a massive missed political opportunity, by the way. That’s a discussion for politics not for policy. But, interestingly, the result of the work by and large of women’s groups to actually have more of this data has sometimes allowed us to see gender inequalities when they run the other way. 

So, a global nonprofit, for example, has done an incredibly good job of getting gender-disaggregated health data. That became the main source of information that led us to realize that men were much more likely to die from COVID than women. And not because of different case levels, not because of pre-existing conditions, but they just were more likely to die at a 50 percent higher death rate among men conditional on infection across the world. 

But it’s interesting to watch this organization go through some sort of quite interesting sort of contortions, because it was founded for women, and then actually it becomes, it’s pumping out this data showing that men are dying. And even when I use their data to write about it, I could sense that they weren’t as enthusiastic. I’ll be using better data or they should have been, in my view, that’s a great example of what you’re talking about, which is this tension. 

To be fair, until incredibly recently, the cause of gender equality has been synonymous with the cause of women and girls, and just you have to go back, I think, 30-40 years maybe, and that was a basic proposition that was true. It is no longer true in every area of society, but it’s really hard to update your priors. Of course, you have all these institutions that are based on those priors, and you have a political culture in which even raising the problems of boys and men can be seen as a risky proposition, which means the only people that raise it are the crazies, which mean that people can say anybody who talks about this issue is crazy. So, we’ve really neatly closed the circle there on the issue.

SEAN SPEER: Well, it only reinforces why your book is so important. I want to come back to the subject of the economy and the structural changes that you described earlier. The 20th-century goods-producing economy was an economy in which if you had a strong back, a good work ethic, and common sense, you could carve out a middle-class life. You only need to go back a couple of generations, and that’s the story of my family. The knowledge economy or the service economy, however one describes it, has changed that somewhat. The real currency in the marketplace is cognitive abilities, and what you might even describe as social capital. 

Do you want to talk a bit about how this transformation has diminished some of the comparative advantages that men used to bring to the market? And perhaps more importantly, assuming that this kind of labour market that skews in favour of services and knowledge is going to have some staying power, what do we need to do to help boys and men compete and ultimately sustain lives that bring a degree of financial security and dignity? 

RICHARD REEVES: Well, I think you’ve answered part of the question already, frankly, because it’s obviously true that like a strong back and so on, the physical advantages that men have, mattered much less than the labour market today, no question. I think it’s also true that that’s going to continue to be the case. So, then in this new world now, and you’ve mentioned cognitive skills, actually, a lot of social scientists will talk about non-cognitive skills, I think you also alluded to, which is the sort of relational skills, so-called soft skills, etc., which are more important. I don’t know the numbers, but I remember looking at a study that looked at how many times during the working day do you communicate with somebody, and what happened over time. And it has gone from sort of three times a day to now I’m sure to most people, it feels like 4000 times a day. But it’s just like the number of interactions that are required but much more social, much more relational.

Then the question becomes like, what does that mean for men? Well, if on average, women have more of those skills than men, that means on average, that it’s an economy that’s currently somewhat more beneficial to them, having had an economy that some are beneficial the other way around. 

But I don’t think that message is too fatalistic about it. Number one, these are not hardwired. So, although there are some differences between men and women based in biology, it’s crazy to deny that, actually, there’s just huge, huge room for men to develop those skills. There are many, many, many more men who can flourish in those service sector jobs that currently are doing so, right? When we have so few men and things like education, health care, social care, counseling, etc. Even if we don’t think that under conditions of ideal equality that it will be 50 percent, it’s gonna be more than 10 percent. And so, these distributions of personality differences between men and women overlap a lot more than the occupations currently do. So, there’s a lot of room. There will then still be plenty of jobs left over, which maybe are more attractive to or suited to men.

It is interesting, I just had this conversation with one of my colleagues, younger more liberal, mostly women at the Brookings Institution. We were talking about jobs where they were quite happy for men to keep doing the majority. So construction, yeah, they were like, “Yeah, you can have that.” Deep sea fishing, “Yeah, I don’t care about that,” firefighting. And now it’s not to say that we shouldn’t want women doing that. Actually, in flying fighter planes, they’re like, “Fine, you’re gonna have that.” That’s fine,” right? And maybe some of the oil jobs that we’re just talking about today, “Yeah, fracking. Yeah, you can have that.” And that’s okay, and actually, I thought, “What a great moment where we can start to say like, “Okay, we just know some of these jobs are going to remain more male-oriented. That’s okay.” So, I think with really concerted efforts to help men get into those jobs, including some skills, then I think we can do a lot more than we currently are. I’m worried that this framing that it’s now a female-friendly economy can start to sound a bit too fatalistic. We’ve got a long way to go before I’m going to worry that men have somehow at biological disadvantage.

SEAN SPEER: Just on this subject, there’s a growing argument on the Left and Right that the decline in goods-producing part of the economy—I’m thinking, for instance of manufacturing—wasn’t merely a function of market forces. It was also a consequence of policy choices, including, for instance, more liberalized trade, and tax and regulatory preferences for intangible parts of the economy. If you follow that logic, then ostensibly the government could and even should reverse some of those policy choices and instead actively cultivate more opportunities in parts of the economy where boys and men, particularly those without post-secondary credentials, could find something resembling middle-class opportunity. 

What do you think of those arguments, Richard? Is that a practical idea? Is that something that governments ought to be pursuing? 

RICHARD REEVES: I think yes and no. So yes, to part of your question, no to another. We should clearly have a playing field that is level in terms of taxation. To the extent there’s any evidence that the tangibles are being taxed more heavily than intangibles, then that strikes me, just from an economic efficiency point of view, as bad news. There are ongoing debates about this that I’m not qualified to adjudicate. But I will just say, as a principle, it feels to me like we should be being neutral about that. But I don’t think that principle of neutrality means that I think we should be subsidizing manufacturing either, or turning our back on free trade by and large, because I do still believe that on net and in the long run, that free trade is better for our society. What we need to take more seriously is the ways in which the costs that might be falling disproportionately are more salient. 

So, for example, China coming into the World Trade Organization probably sliced up about 3 million U.S. manufacturing jobs, but actually also made goods much cheaper. So, on net, you can say, “Okay, so you’re a U.S. person, you’re getting much cheaper goods in Walmart from China. And sure, some people lost their jobs.” But if you’re one of the people who lost your job, well, that’s not such a great trade. And by the way, even if you’re buying a bunch of stuff more cheaply, and so, you’ve taken another job, a less well-paid job, a lower status job. Let’s say on net, even you as an individual are better off, maybe better off psychologically. But are you better off as a human being? As economists, I just don’t think we’ve taken those questions of identity seriously enough, as I mentioned earlier. 

So, as a general proposition, I think the failure has been to, and I think it’s the broader point, the failure has been to deal with the byproducts of some of these changes rather than to engage in the changes altogether. I think that’s really where the failure is. So, we go back to when we’ve done NAFTA. Is the World Trade Organization a bad idea? Do we need a more defensive trade policy? As a general proposition, my answer to that is still no. But I think we got the politics of the distributional consequences really badly wrong. And now, of course, we’re in danger of overcorrecting the other way.

SEAN SPEER: Let me end with a personal question. Listeners will discern that you’re not American. In fact, before coming to Washington, you worked as a senior adviser to the Liberal Democratic Party in Britain. As a former adviser to a Canadian prime minister who now spends a lot of time United States, I’m curious about that transition. What was it like establishing your credentials and credibility in the American marketplace of ideas, especially given the common perception that Americans are less inclined to comparative analysis?

RICHARD REEVES: Well, actually the transition into and out of government is one that’s probably harder than anything else, right? Because you are in government, you just, I don’t know, become like an avatar of yourself. It’s just ridiculous, insane kind of work and also you kind of get your eyes opened to the ways in which political decisions are actually made as opposed to the way people outside think that they’re made and that’s very useful to know of course. And that politicians are human beings just like the rest of us, with some of the same frailties. 

But the transition over here to the U.S. has actually been quite good for me because I’ve largely focused on U.S. issues, albeit drawing off my U.K. experience. I agree there’s an insularity to a lot of U.S. policymaking. But that means that actually bringing some of that knowledge from another country is quite useful. What I’ve been struck by is how the structure of many of the arguments and difficulties are very similar in different places, even if the specifics of the policy are different. What that means I think is sometimes, you know, I’ll risk saying that sometimes a degree of ignorance of the details of the policy and of the decades of argument that have gone on around it can be useful in terms of just keeping your eye on the ball as to what’s going on here. 

Like, “What is the EITC for again?” is actually not a bad question to ask when other people are just dug in on whether to have a secondary EITC. Or, “Is that taper in the wrong place?” Or, “Wait, wait, wait. What was that for again? Is it doing what it’s supposed to do?” There’s a kind of value in ignorance here, but that could be a post hoc justification for not knowing as much as I should. 

SEAN SPEER: Well, those observations have a high degree of modesty, and proof of that is the extraordinary book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters and What to Do About It. Richard Reeves from the Brookings Institution, thank you so much for joining us today at Hub Dialogues.

RICHARD REEVES: Thank you for that great conversation, Sean. 

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