Review: 'The Once and Future Worker' by Oren Cass

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November 4, 2018

How do we make sure everyone has enough? This is a simple question, but answering it has long vexed policymakers. In general, we all desire to live in a society where the poor are cared for, where families do not go unfed, and where a rising tide lifts all economic boats. But how do we get there?

In The Once and Future Worker, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Oren Cass argues that for decades, politicians on both sides of the aisle have tried to solve this problem in the same way. Namely, they have aimed to maximize Americans' ability to consume: to buy more, more cheaply, and more often.

The way to do this is, it is generally agreed, by maximizing aggregate wealth, and then redistributing it so that everyone has adequate purchasing power. Republicans are a little more focused on maximizing the size of the economic "pie" with tax cuts, while Democrats favor redistributive programs to divvy it up. But both sides share this fundamental framework.

This approach refers to certain policy conclusions, which have been popular with the establishment wing of both parties for decades. Unencumbered free trade may kill some jobs, but it cuts prices more. The same can be said for the unretarded flow of people across borders, regardless of skill level or assimilation. And the Keynesian program of low taxes and high spending keeps Americans' pockets overflowing.

The trick of this model is that it is agnostic as to how Americans acquire the wealth that they subsequently spend. So, for example, it is not an issue if more and more working-age men drop off the labor force, because surging transfer payments can push down the "real" poverty rate—transfer income replaces labor income. Nor is it an issue if the marriage rate falls and out-of-wedlock births soar, because the wage benefits of marriage can be replaced (again, primarily by transfer payments). What matters is that people have wealth, not where it comes from.

This arrangement has worked well to maximize the variables it prioritizes: In real GDP terms, Americans are better off than we were 70 years ago. But along numerous other axes, we are doing much worse. Millennials are expected to be on average worse off than their parents, reversing the steady intergenerational trend. Majorities of Americans have been consistently dissatisfied with government and the direction of society for years. Further political upheaval looks set to rock the country even as the stock market surges.

Cass's fundamental argument is that this apparent mismatch between certain economic indicators and the country's general state is a function of the decision to be agnostic as to the source of our wealth, and specifically to deemphasize work. He calls this the "working hypothesis: that a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy."

There is a lot of explanatory power in this simple idea. Although untangling causation is notoriously tricky, employment is strongly associated with a whole host of positive life outcomes, and unemployment—or dropping out of the labor force altogether—with negative ones.

This betrays a more fundamental truth: People and communities are happier and healthier when they/their members play an active role in creating better lives, and the way that that role has been played for centuries has been through work. The consumption approach may generate more wealth, but it makes Americans passive consumers of that wealth, conduits for government funds rather than substantive political agents responsible for their own futures.

What is needed, Cass contends, is a reemphasis on the importance of where wealth comes from, a return to work. He is not the only public intellectual making this argument: Brookings Institution senior fellow Isabel Sawhill, for example, has her own recent book on the topic. What sets Cass's program apart, however, is a specific focus on helping the two-thirds of Americans who lack a college degree, including the quarter of Americans whose highest educational attainment is a high school diploma. We don't need factory workers to become programmers—we need to help make sure that factory workers can still feed a family.

To this end, the majority of The Once and Future Worker is occupied with a bevy of policy proposals. Some of these are doctrinaire conservative: Put a halt on ever-expanding environmental standards to help restore manufacturing jobs, or clamp down on low-skilled immigration to boost wages. Others are more exotic, although perhaps of the bent of a Trumpier philosophy: Cass offers one of the few public defenses of equalizing America's balance of trade. And then there are the far out ideas, unlikely to see implementation but important for the conversation: implementing Danish-style labor co-ops or a federal "wage subsidy"to shore up families' earnings without distortive minimum wage laws.

The merits of these proposals are ultimately up to the discerning reader to weigh. Cass seems intent on including something for everyone to like, which means inevitably that there is something for everyone to hate. But the total purpose of the package is less important than the goal that directs them—the core idea that a man or woman with a high school education should be able to feed his or her family.

There is something about this goal that conjures up a vision of the 1950s family: pop with the job, mom at home with the kids, and a single income enough to support all of them. Some critics will doubtless decry this as nostalgia, with all the connotations that now attach. But these objections distract from the fundamental transformation in political economy that the consumption-oriented approach has wrought.

Breadwinner politics—political economy which emphasizes the family as the fundamental unit of society and so orders itself around breadwinner employment as the fundamental goal of the marketplace—has effects that reverberate out through the rest of society. Where families get stronger, institutions get stronger. There is greater equality of opportunity—every individual community is better equipped to take care of itself.

If Cass's history is right—and it probably is—we have been working for decades to convert breadwinner politics into a kind of mass politics, which reconceptualizes the fundamental unit of political economy as the consumer and orders the market thusly. And when we do that, we make a nation of consumers: a nation that has no institutional check on its destructive habits, because it has no need to understand itself as responsible for making or doing anything.

It is not obvious if changes in trade policy or environmental regulation can transform how we think about political economy. But Cass is also right that the consumptive model is likely a key part of our dissatisfaction as a country. As such, The Once and Future Worker is a vital text for those interested in undoing it.

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