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Worked Over

Making sense of the right’s belated interest in labor’s plight

Beginning with the Reagan ascendancy, and then on through the great globalizing heyday of Newt Gingrich and Bill “Third Way” Clinton, so-called conservatives have spewed radical economic policies that would have driven Edmund Burke into apoplectic fits. Their policy trifecta marked an unalloyed victory for corporate plutocrats: market fundamentalism, financial deregulation, and globalization of capital and labor flows. These breakthroughs all came at a heavy cost to American workers—particularly in the manufacturing sector, as massive losses of jobs and income helped to seal the long-term collapse of private sector unions and the social safety net.

Meanwhile, the putative liberal heirs of the New Deal haven’t done much better by industrial workers. Neoliberals eagerly helped ship traditional bastions of domestic production off to developing countries while crowing that the rightful home of high-end “knowledge work,” digital innovation, and global finance just happened to be the United States. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of identity liberalism papered over such economic betrayals—as when, during the 2016 Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton nonsensically told Bernie Sanders that dismantling the banking oligarchy wouldn’t do anything to roll back sexism and racism.

Oren Cass’s The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America is a curious but timely appraisal of the past forty-odd years of worker-hostile economic policy, coming from a conservative policy wonk clearly put off by the brackish Hobbesian precepts of globalized capitalism in the twenty-first century. Along the way, Cass offers a fresh policy vision that puts the well-being of production workers at the center of analysis, proposing a series of “trade-offs” among free marketeers, liberal statists, socialists, and border-crazed nationalists. Inevitably, Cass’s prescriptions offer much to like and much to loathe for all persuasions—including Trump supporters who don’t like Trump himself and feel misunderstood. And as that rare tract refusing to cater to any pre-existing major-party or industry-lobbying agenda, it should be placed firmly on the table for serious discussion.

Sounding more like Bernie Sanders than Milton Friedman, Cass, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, argues that economic policymakers have deliberately rigged the productive economy in America to create a systemic trade-off to benefit the forces of global capital: over the past four decades, they have sacrificed the well-being of too many workers to a trade regime based on expanding national GDP and consumer purchasing power, both measured in the aggregate. On these circumscribed terms, they have succeeded wildly: national GDP and the consumer price index have done very well, thank you, since 1975. Per capita measures have not been quite so sunny. Since the mid-twentieth century, leading economists have supported “the ascent of consumers and [given priority] to their interests at the expense of producers.” Both major political parties have signed off on this consensus, with the GOP resentfully agreeing to support the system’s losers with neo-Keynesian social safety net programs, and Democrats acceding to the private sector’s ever escalating demands for deregulation without which GDP would not grow at a fast enough clip. Cass has a great term for the effects of all this on our politics and culture: economic piety, in which all values are reduced to quantifiable metrics while those less tangible but more important—worker well-being and happiness—slip through the cracks.

Cass’s prescriptions offer much to like and much to loathe for all persuasions.

Cass wants to invert this state of affairs by making the cultivation of productive labor markets central to economic policy, envisioning a set of measures for economic performance that no longer treat a “job” as just another thing to consume or to view abstractly from on high as a factor in GDP growth. “Work matters,” he proclaims, and he argues that the foundation for sustainable prosperity should be strong families and communities who can provide for themselves, help one another, and pass along their working knowledge and civic values to the coming generations.

The key to Cass’s policy vision is what he calls productive pluralism, “the economic and social conditions in which people of diverse abilities, priorities, and geographies, pursuing varied life paths” can thrive. In this adjunct to the progressive focus on “income inequality,” which addresses lost work or inadequate wages through income-redistribution programs, or neoliberal insistence that workers should simply leave their home communities for service jobs in affluent, mainly big-city labor markets, Cass stakes his claims on something resembling class—although he can’t quite bring himself to call it that.

Restoring productive capacity, Cass argues, will require time, dramatic policy reforms, and a cultural rescue of productive work from the margins to which our financialist wizards have consigned it. He cautions as well that you can’t scale up entire sectors of the economy willy-nilly. “Where poor investments—or no investments—are made at one point, negative effects ripple outward for years,” he observes, and it will likewise take years to accumulate productive knowledge and experience, develop supply chains and aligned educational priorities to “start over from behind those who moved more steadily forward.”

None of this is to say that Cass disavows capitalism or economic growth. His policy prescriptions are a stew of deregulation, small-g government, Polanyi-esque embedded markets, government subsidies, severely limited immigration, and targeted trade protections. The question is whether Cass’s recipe is spoiled if any one ingredient is removed, and debate over this book will surely involve accepting or rejecting elements of the whole.

At his most Trump-like, Cass argues that expanding productive capacity to increase industrial jobs and wages involves sealing U.S. borders to both unfair trade competition and unskilled “illegal immigrants.” His first grievance can be dispensed with in one word: China, with its subsidized industries, currency rigging, patent theft, tariff-like arrangements, purchase of U.S. stocks, bonds, and real estate rather than American goods, and other well-known maneuvers that led to the loss of roughly two million U.S. manufacturing jobs between 1999 and 2011 alone. Finding this state of affairs intolerable, Cass argues that it is hardly an “exercise in pointless nostalgia” to fight for American manufacturing by countering each of these practices. Unbalanced trade with China may drive down consumer prices, but manufacturing matters: there’s a world of difference in the long run between making computer chips and potato chips. The former leads to fruitful spillovers in research ecosystems and supply chains, the latter does not. Adopting a “production lens” over a consumerist one leads to long-term economic development and growth in decently compensated jobs.

Cass’s views on immigration policy are more complex, and should not, he says, be decried as “racist.” Employers contend that low-skilled immigrants fill jobs that natives are unwilling to do, but Cass argues that the effect of their presence in today’s high numbers is not so much to “steal jobs” but to suppress wages. If their large influence in the labor market were limited, he writes, employers would be forced to respond with market adjustments such as offering higher wages, training programs, and better working conditions that attract both native workers and undocumented immigrants. To cushion the blow, Cass calls for a path to citizenship for those who have put down roots in U.S. communities, with more recent arrivals facing expulsion. Such measures may be brutal, particularly as they apply to political refugees from violent regimes, but they are intended to breach our current policy impasse in which employers have the upper hand, and displaced or precarious workers in the manufacturing sector are encouraged to vent a whole array of hostile-to-toxic sentiments scapegoating their foreign-born competitors. The larger long-term aim, Cass writes in a passage that sounds altogether startling coming from a conservative policy wonk, is to empower workers: “We speak colloquially of workers needing jobs and of employers providing them,” he writes, “but workers are really the labor market’s producers and the employers its customers.”

Cass stakes his claims on something resembling class—although he can’t quite bring himself to call it that.

Two other touchy positions for the liberal-left concern labor unions and environmental protections, and Cass’s premises for both arguments are similar. With federal workplace protections and social safety net programs now in place, he asks, “what’s left to bargain over?” With air and water quality much improved, why not remove code restrictions to allow productive industrial work to expand?

Here’s a grim reminder that Cass’s sympathies for workers only extend so far. Indeed, as he revisits many pet talking points of the deregulatory right, we’re face-to-face with a full-on laissez-faire dreamscape, steeped in myopic disregard for the asymmetric power of large employers. Today’s unions are “a relic of the Great Depression,” Cass tells us, which now do nothing more than act as a political arm of the national Democratic Party. They impose unnecessary, federally supervised burdens on employers, from OSHA’s precise handrail measurements to mandatory time-and-a-half overtime pay, that hamstring employer efforts to meet the shifting demands of today’s global market and thus employ more workers. That union membership has plummeted over the past thirty years, he claims, reflects workers’ rejection of unions. Cass often astutely anticipates possible objections from his critics, but here he is silent about the GOP’s running war with unions, including patrician state-level “right-to-work” workarounds that are designed to derail unionizing efforts.

In at least one respect, though, Cass steps away from his hardcore anti-union brethren. He calls not for doing away with unions altogether, but doing a sort of end run around them, rather like so-called school choice: altering the 1935 National Labor Relations Act to allow for alternative modes of worker representation modeled mostly on European social democratic arrangements. In Cass’s vision of a revised labor policy, nonprofit labor co-ops would administer employee benefit programs, such as unemployment and health insurance, and training partnerships, with funding from membership dues, employers, nonprofits, and government streams. As nonprofits, these co-ops would be barred from making political donations except through PACs, thus decoupling organized labor from national party politics. Labor councils formed primarily at the local level would be privy to business decision-making and empowered to negotiate shop floor terms.

“Some of these hypothetical arrangements will undoubtedly prove impractical,” Cass admits, “while many more alternatives not yet conceived will emerge if employers and workers have the freedom to innovate outside the NLRA’s confines.” True enough. But none of these ideas—some intriguing—secure labor power, and they rest on a historically unfounded corporatist ideal of tension-free, Tweety Bird harmony. That may indeed be the reason why they formed the foundation of a recent David Brooks column professing to interpret for New York Times readers “what the working class is still trying to tell us.”

As for environmental regulations, Cass’s bid to remove some code requirements that prevent industrial facilities from expanding is a sensible enough proposal, even for someone like me, who wrote a book about rebuilding a low-carbon productive economy on the ashes of so-called postindustrial cities.  But his unflinching support for fossil fuel energy and love affair with fracking is exasperatingly irresponsible. You won’t find either “global warming” or “climate change” in the book’s index. And in a recent National Affairs essay, Cass argues, indefensibly, that anthropogenic climate change, with its long timescale enabling gradual adaptation, is just one among “many worrying problems.” Other challenges, such as pandemics, are swift, with massive and immediate population loss—and therefore, he suggests, just as pressing. Among the difficulties with this line of thinking is that population loss is hardly the only danger posed by climate change. Wars over depleted or poisoned resources, food scarcity, and, yes, health pandemics are also likely outcomes. And workers, along with everyone else, will be victims of these consequences if carbon emissions are not severely curbed.

Three more ideas, however, merit careful, and less skeptical consideration. One is Cass’s proposal to replace the federal minimum wage with a more flexible program that includes wage subsidies for workers whose employers cannot compete in the global labor market with the poverty-level wages paid in developing countries. This income support would be paid for, in part, by another reform that streamlines the delivery of safety net payments by consolidating them in one federal program, which Cass calls a Flex Fund. Simplified, the idea is to reduce state and federal bureaucracy while leaving their baseline funding levels intact and to make the bewildering tangle of payments and benefits easier for employers and recipients alike. The Flex Fund plan also gives states and localities, with a better sense of ground conditions, more discretion in distributing the funds. But with greater flexibility comes greater potential for abuse: a single clearinghouse for social welfare payouts could also open the way to little fiefdoms of corruption and local prejudice, to which the increasingly conservative judiciary might well turn a blind eye. But in its broader outlines, it’s a compelling redistributionist proposal and one that bolsters incentives to work, unlike, Cass claims, the notion of a Universal Basic Income.

Americans wedded to false notions of meritocracy and education-driven upward mobility will find this proposal jarring.

Finally, Cass’s ideal of productive pluralism calls for reconstructing our standard public high school curriculum, namely doing away with the goal of “college for all” that began after World War II with the GI Bill. In its place, Cass advocates a vocational tracking system for those students who are not academically inclined. After decades of educational reform, ongoing teacher training, and school-choice boondoggles, Cass finds that only a fifth of high school students successfully make it through the high school-college-career path. The vast majority of high school educated workers are left floundering socially and financially without appropriate skills for today’s labor market—or else chronically underemployed and saddled with debilitating debt for college diplomas they don’t need to make a living. Vocational tracking is the approach taken by most of the developed world, Cass observes, where between 40 percent and 70 percent of secondary school students are in vocational and technical education programs.

Americans wedded to false notions of meritocracy and education-driven upward mobility will find this proposal jarring. But that won’t be the case for those who know all too well that the American class system affords too few viable exit points, apart from the short-lived interregnum of widely dispersed postwar prosperity enjoyed mainly by white people. Cass’s proposal at least provides a clear path of opportunity for those trapped in the mythology of upward mobility by preparing them to acquire material means to support themselves, their families, and their communities. Along with this shift in educational policy, Cass argues for restoring cultural respect for productive labor—the dignity of work and the social value it supports—rather than dismissing it as a meaningless gateway to greater levels of consumption.

Cass’s policy vision, for all its virtues and flaws, depends heavily on the good will and generosity of the private sector. It’s therefore all the more analytically frustrating that he’s so eager to let the country’s corporate oligarchy off the hook for the “worrying problem” of climate change. Even if the threat of irreversible climate change doesn’t rise to a first-order moral imperative, to Cass’s way of thinking, it certainly presents a “business opportunity.” If we’re going to go through all this trouble to rearrange economic policy and labor markets for the benefit of production workers, why not go one step further and alter what we produce to keep pace with global competitors in low-carbon innovation in China and Europe? In his National Affairs essay, Cass complains that the rhetoric of climate urgency supports a “government-led green agenda,” as though such an agenda would somehow stifle the cooperative goodwill of our business establishment as otherwise practiced in, say, negotiating with workers. Such conflicted sanguinity largely gives away the game. If business cannot share power in something as vital as a proposed Green New Deal, conservative support for industrial workers becomes just another Gingrichian chimera, leaving now and future blue collar “families and communities” in peril along with the rest of us.