book review

Book Review: David Bahsen’s Essential ‘Full-Time’

An old friend from college is part of a family that until recently owned a very large retail operation with stores throughout the Midwest. A few years ago the family sold the business for a price that could be measured in the billions.

In the past, family members would gather for an annual meeting during which the CEO, a family member himself, spoke about the macro-economy in concert with the micro-prospects for the business itself. They were at odds. His analysis of the former was generally negative, and was a reflection of the negativity that seemingly always informs economic commentary. As the great Ken Fisher points out, albeit optimistically, we’re always in the Dark Ages.

The main thing is that after talking about all the negatives infecting the business climate and the economy more broadly, the CEO would invariably pivot very optimistically to how the myriad horrors out there weren’t hurting the family company; that it was largely immune to the challenges faced by everyone else, that its future prospects were wildly sound. The yearly message was that the economy was bad, there was potential for much worse, but those problems won’t affect us.

Stories of these family meetings came to mind early in David Bahnsen’s excellent and essential new book, Full-Time: Work and the Meaning of Life. I’ve long argued (including in my book The End of Work) that work is the source of happiness, that realistically people can’t be happy without living productively, and Bahnsen shows why on an economic and spiritual level that is so crucial to the discussion. Here’s hoping many people buy Bahnsen’s book as a way of understanding themselves and their love of work better, but also as a way of seeing into a future that will more and more be shaped by passion about work precisely and paradoxically because less of it will be required of us.

For now, I’ll return to the anecdote that begins this review. It came to me based on what Bahnsen writes in the early pages of Full-Time. He recalls how his first book (The Crisis of Responsibility) surprised him given how much people he came into contact with agreed (in his words, they found his commentary about a declining embrace of responsibility as “macro-acceptable”) with him that responsibility was shrinking societally. They did because as with the CEO, they felt a growing lack of responsibility was a problem for others.  

Fast forward to the present, and Bahnsen believes this time readers likely turn on him, that they won’t agree with him in the way they did about a crisis of responsibility. That is so because Bahnsen’s aim with Full-Time is to achieve “a dramatic reframing of the role work plays in our lives,” and to most importantly “argue that work is the meaning of life.” He expects that his seemingly outre thesis will be met with a lot of pushback.

My strong sense is that Bahnsen will yet again get the opposite of pushback. While many reading this review have encountered or heard about young people bringing different values (including a desire for the allegedly feel-good notion of “work-life balance”) into the workplace, and while those same readers know well how “the only time Hollywood takes a pro-family position these days is when it means condemning careerism,” and while many at least pay lip service to the notion that “the purpose of work is to not have to do it anymore,” the bet here is that what will hopefully be a big readership for Bahnsen will broadly agree with him that “work is the meaning of life.”

While the family patriarch could as previously mentioned see storm clouds for everyone else, he yet again felt his own business immune to what would infect the others. Work is no different. No doubt we notice sloth in others, no doubt we countenance pursuit of a work-life balance in others, but as individuals more and more of us excitedly rise each day to start working. Better yet, the number of those who share Bahnsen’s embrace of work as the meaning of life will only grow. And that’s a beautiful thing.

One reason I believe as I do so deeply can be found in the remarkable wealth management business that Bahnsen himself has built. Bahnsen’s enormous success in concert with the joy he gains from growing his eponymous firm signals to us that in wealth management Bahnsen has found his calling. At the same time, the happy fact that there’s so much wealth to manage speaks to just how much others have fallen in love with work that so very much mirrors their individual passions. In which case, the bet here is that Bahnsen’s clients in particular will find that Full-Time is a reflection of their own view of work.

Work is the meaning of life, and the previous truth can be found in the happy reality that so much wealth is being created. When we can do what reinforces us, when we can do for a “job” that which showcases our unique skills and intelligence, our vocations rapidly become not what we do, but what we (in the words of actress Jennifer Lawrence) “can’t not do.”

The challenge here seems to be cultural, but also spiritual. In the cultural sense, Bahnsen is making a powerful case that “career ambition” does not automatically entail a “low view of family.” He’s so right here, and it’s clear why. Married people with children tend to earn more money, yet we all know people (I’ll sheepishly add that this was me for a time) who avoid marriage and children because they feel they don’t have enough money. What they miss is that the formation of a family, and the natural obligation that comes with seeing one’s spouse and kids each day unearths in us a powerful desire to work hard and smart precisely because we desire both quality and quantity time with family.

Bahnsen then spends a lot of time adding spiritual to the cultural. As he sees it, it’s “abundantly clear that God created mankind for the purpose of work.” Bahnsen focuses a lot of attention here because he’s very religious and very much a churchgoer himself, but principally because he worries “far too many churchgoers simply aren’t hearing about work as the purpose of life – as an act of worship to God, the first and ultimate worker.” Bahnsen argues that while “our meaning comes from God,” it also comes “from the work that we do – precisely because that is what God desires.”

Importantly, Bahnsen can and does see all of the above through a religious prism simply because in his rendering, God is “a worker who made us in his image.” This is especially notable because Bahnsen has an answer to Keynes, and those since Keynes who worship at the odd altar of consumption. As Bahnsen sees it, “if we already know that God made us to produce, we don’t need to spend a century wondering how best to manipulate demand in pursuit of economic growth.” He goes on to write that “human beings do not need to be told to want things.” Absolutely! Bahnsen is a supply-sider, but so easily forgotten by supply-siders not Bahnsen are Bahnsen’s reminders that “the total production of goods and services drives the total demand in an economy,” and that “before any of us can be a source of demand, we must first be a source of supply.” Basically, God made us in his image to produce, which means demand that mirrors the latter is always and everywhere taken care of so long as we’re free to produce.

Where Bahnsen perhaps pulls punches (I’ve long marveled at his ability to get along so well with some of his ideological opposites and compatriots) is in not extrapolating (at least in the book) the truth about production as the source of all demand to reveal the folly of what I’ll call post-Trump supply siders who’ve in overnight fashion discovered “excess demand” in government spending. Think the discussion of “inflation” today as supply-siders unwittingly embrace the wholly Keynesian notion that government spending increases demand. Except that it logically does not.

Bahnsen is one of the very few in the commentariat at the moment willing to say that government spending does not increase demand, and by extension he’s one of the very few to point out that there’s an ocean of difference between high prices and inflation. As a consequence, Bahnsen has been one of the very few to reject all the alarmism from the economic commentariat (including from many supply siders) that government spending is the source of what so many (including supply siders yet again) describe as inflation today. They partially tie it to government spending and deficits under President Biden, and argue that all the spending and borrowing has yet again fostered the impossibility that is “excess demand” such that prices have risen. Except that as Bahnsen once again so crucially points out, “before any of us can be a source of demand, we must first be a source of supply.” With the certain and horrid tax that is government spending, no new demand is being introduced, rather the suppliers have their demand taxed or borrowed away so that it can be placed in other hands.  

About thirty pages prior to Bahnsen’s essential discussion of man as being created to produce, he writes that “units of account represent wealth only to the extent that they can be exchanged for goods and services.” Yes (!) all over again. Money that is actually accepted in the marketplace is accepted because it’s exchangeable for roughly equal goods and services to those handed over in exchange for money in the first place. Put another way, the money in our pockets that will actually command abundant goods and services is always, always, always borne of hard work. This rates prominent mention given persistently sloppy analysis from the supply-side right that includes the impossibility that is “easy money.” Except that money that “can be exchanged for goods and services” is never easy, and suggestions that it is easy denigrate the genius of work that Bahnsen is so properly trying to place on the highest of levels.

Bahnsen’s truth about “units of account” representing wealth “only to the extent that they can be exchanged for goods and services” also rejects the post-Trump supply-side view that alleged “money printing” from the Fed (no, this is not a defense of the Fed, but it is a call for monetary sanity) is yet again driving “inflation.” Such a view runs counter to the reality that the dollar at present isn’t just exchangeable for goods and services in the U.S., but is also refereeing exchange around the world. To be clear, this is neither a defense of the Fed nor is it a defense of the U.S. Treasury’s shameful neglect of dollar-price stability since 1971, but it is a reminder to those promoting the inflation narrative of the moment that if the Fed could boost so-called “money supply” via its alleged printing press, then the dollar would no longer be the currency of choice for the producers the world over who drive all demand via their production. Human beings once again “don’t need to be told to want things,” so to pretend as so many do that the proverbial printing press enables unlimited demand care of massive increases in so-called “money supply” speaks to a sad infantilization of economics.  

Infantilization is apt, mainly because Bahsen worries about the “the infantilization of so many young men” that can be found in lower labor-force participation within the 16-24 demographic. He sees falling labor-force participation as a “disaster,” but the feeling here is that he could perhaps be persuaded otherwise? My optimistic take on a negative number isn’t meant to denigrate work as much as it’s to say that in a world in which the nature of work is changing for the better all of the time, it’s perhaps not surprising that some might not feel the pull of work as quickly.

To make this case, I’ll address Bahnsen’s lament (his emphasis) that “the work rate for prime-aged men this last decade is lower than it was during the Great Depression.” But doesn’t that make sense? It reminds me of a memory expressed by Blackstone senior managing director David Thayer about his time as a military officer in war-torn Bosnia. Newspapers were reporting 75% unemployment, but as Thayer observed, everywhere he looked people were working feverishly. Seriously, what choice did they have? Bosnia’s economy was in desperate shape. It’s said about the Great Depression that unemployment reached as high as 25 percent, but the counter-argument is that when an economy is weak, everyone is working. They simply have no choice, and applied to the 1930s, official rates of employment almost certainly didn’t reflect reality.

Applied to young men, the not-so-insightful view here is that times of prosperity certainly afford delayed entry into the workplace, but the more bullish truth is that prosperity itself is the beautiful market signal that the nature of work is changing rapidly, and because it is the range of ways that specialized individuals can showcase their talents is exploding. Bahnsen would seem to agree, which explains my guess that he could be persuaded about a silver-lining to the near-term unattractiveness of infantilized men. As he puts it, “the division of labor whereby we bring our unique and specialized gifts to various projects has enabled incredible human flourishing.” Yes!

Importantly, and very excitingly, we’re just getting started with the labor division. As is, we well know what the introduction of machines powered by fossil fuels has meant to productivity, so what happens when machines that can think all day every day proliferate? The view here is that it means humans will soon enough be specializing – and in the process discovering remarkable new skills they never knew they had – in ways that will render the present rather primitive by comparison.

It brings up a question I found myself wanting to ask Bahnsen while reading his excellent book: did the work of two centuries ago imbue life with as much meaning as work does today? About the question, this is decidedly not me denigrating what some view as menial, mindless work. I find disdain within the scholarly crowd for “non-essential” work that so sickeningly revealed itself during the Covid-19 lockdowns the height of distasteful. How dare they? Everyone’s work is essential to them.

At the same time, it’s surely not lost on Bahnsen that less than two centuries ago work had a binary quality to it whereby odds were 50/50 that if you were alive, your work had something to do with farming. My take on the latter is no wonder starvation was so rampant! I’m not sure I would have survived the limited work options in an economic era so bereft of machines, labor division, and rather crucially, global labor division. When work was all about survival, and the vast majority of it was directed at the mere creation of food, it’s hard not to ask if a message of work as life that both author and reviewer presently embrace might have achieved the pushback that I believe Bahnsen won’t get today.

About these questions, readers can rest assured that they’re a roundabout way of getting back to low labor participation among men. Bear with me. For now, it’s hard to argue with Bahnsen’s lament about how a work-life balance “mentality has become systemic.” Yes, what nonsense. But what renders it nonsensical arguably makes it bullish. Our productivity today can’t be measured, but as evidenced by the proliferation of wealth managers here and around the world, and Bahnsen’s creation of his own $5 billion+ wealth management firm in his short life, productivity per individual has skyrocketed such that we can think about things now that we couldn’t think about in the past. Think about it.

It was only in the 1930s that productivity brought about the 5 ½ day work-week, but as this review is being typed, the four-day workweek rushes into view. A bad sign? No. And the reason why is that productive people are happy people. They’re engaged. The speculation here is that as three and four-day workweeks take on “normal” qualities, that they will in concert with people working more than ever. Indeed, if we can produce exponentially more wealth in 3-4 days than individuals used to be able to produce in six days, the latter will exist as a loud signal that work as we know it tessellates with our abilities a great deal more than it has in the past. In other words, we’ll be working even when we’re not working. Because we want to.

The deeply held view here is that enormous leaps in wealth won’t lead to less work, but in reality more than ever as work mirrors our passions. Which is a bullish way of looking at work-life balance. Of course it’s nonsense, but as with the crisis of responsibility, the bet here is that more people would agree with Bahnsen now that it’s nonsense than they would have in the 1800s if such an absurd notion had been able to gain currency. The problem in the 1800s is that it couldn’t have. Work then was something we had to do, as opposed to something we couldn’t not do.

Back to young men, for good or bad they’ll be able to enter the workforce later and later if they choose simply because their ability to prosper (and prosper quickly) will soar in concert with the growing mechanization of production and thought. Young men will enter the labor force because more and more of them will feel as Bahnsen himself does about work: they can’t not do it. Evidence supporting this claim can be found in the follow-on to Bahnsen’s critique of work-life balance yearnings, in which he notes that “this aim is foreign to the history of human experience,” and that it’s “something unrecognizable to my own Generation X.” Sure, but not so fast! Bahnsen’s first adult job was in entertainment, so no doubt he remembers the movies of the early 1990s (think Slacker, Singles, Reality Bites to name three) that chronicled the unhappy, slothful, dead-end-job aimlessness of GenX-ers that included disdain for the careerists. By the late 1990s they were striking it rich in finance and technology. Every generation in a country like ours appears entitled and lazy at first, only for reality to set in. And it’s a happy one.

To which Bahnsen himself would no doubt say not so fast back. It can be found in Full-Time’s early chapters, when he points out that contra all my Pollyannish optimism, “individual happiness” has deteriorated, that “levels of self-declared depression” have “skyrocketed,” that “thirty-seven million American adults regularly take an antidepressant medication.” These are indications of a society that grows unhappier by the day, not happier. It’s all a fair point, but the optimistic reply (or question) here is are Americans much less happy, or are Americans more analyzed than ever, and because they’re more analyzed than ever, are they more medicated than ever? In thinking about the question, an increasingly productive society that provides sustenance for all kinds of work unsurprisingly provides sustenance to those whose passion in life is finding out what’s wrong with people. That’s my take.

As for the quotation of the great Charles Murray, and his assertion that in the 1950s Americans used to brag about “the American way of life,” it’s hard to imagine Americans were actually as happy then. Again, another question I’d like to ask Bahnsen. I say this because while Hollywood hasn’t always depicted American culture in laudatory ways, Hollywood is a reflection of life as we know it too. In which case, stop and think about how fathers used to be depicted. In particular, think the 1979 classic The Great Santini. What’s notable about it is how many men (including my father) felt the book and movie depicted their lives. In 2024, it’s a safe bet that people would still love the movie while not understanding the cruelty of Bull Meacham. This has bigger meaning, and I think the bigger meaning is that fathers used to be a lot meaner because they had to be (life was much more uncertain), but also because work for them at jobs they didn’t necessarily like as much was a must, as opposed to something they couldn’t get enough of.

Along the lines of the above, Bahnsen himself very sadly lost his father when he was just 21. He describes Dr. Gregory Lyle Bahnsen as his hero and best friend. In a review thick with speculation, I’ll wager Gregory Bahnsen didn’t enjoy with his father the beautiful relationship he had with his son. And I think some of this is rooted in the brilliance of Bahnsen’s work-as-life message. Exactly because Bahnsen’s message about work and life will happily resonate, family life is getting better and better in the process. At risk of being repetitive, I hope this excellent, thought-provoking book wins a wide readership. If so, readers will see much more of themselves in David Bahnsen’s wonderful, and oh-so-true thesis, than he imagines they will.

Republished from RealClear Markets


  • John Tamny

    John Tamny is a popular speaker and author in the U.S. and around the world. His speech topics include "Government Barriers to Economic Growth," "Why Washington and Wall Street are Better Off Living Apart," and more.

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