The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, by Oren Cass, Encounter Books, 272 pages, $25.99
Every policy proposal is, in a direct sense, an attempt to solve a problem. Poverty, ignorance, hunger, sickness, danger, pollution—in the realm of politics, to name a problem is to call for a solution, to demand that action be taken by someone or something, which always turns out to be the government.
In his new book, The Once and Future Worker, Oren Cass, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute and a former policy adviser on Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, offers a slew of policy proposals, from loosening environmental regulations to reshaping collective bargaining to overhauling the process by which the federal government funds state-based poverty programs to creating new wage subsidies for low-income workers. Each of these ideas is an attempt to address a little problem, all of which add up to a much bigger problem.
Cass starts from what he has dubbed 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." His primary target is "economic piety"—the prevailing notion that the organizing aspiration of politics and policy should be to promote economic growth above all. He describes his book as an attempt to reorient American politics around promoting work and the interests of workers, especially less educated workers in manufacturing jobs.
But Cass' description understates his own ambitions, for he is actually trying to solve something much bigger: the problem of purpose. "Most of the activities and achievements that give life purpose and meaning are, whether in the economic sphere or not, fundamentally acts of production," he writes. His ultimate aim, then, is to restore—or provide—a sense of meaning to American life, particularly to factory workers who lack advanced education.
The goal is noble, ambitious, and impossible. Cass, the policy wonk and campaign adviser, wants to solve this big problem the same way he wants to solve all the little problems: by carefully pulling the levers of public policy. It reflects a profound and fundamental misunderstanding of what politics can do and what it is for.
The Once and Future Worker falls into a growing niche of books examining or attempting to address working-class malaise and the widening political and economic divide between largely rural voters who lack advanced degrees and college-educated urban voters. The genre's icons are writers such as Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, and Charles Murray, whose book Coming Apart Cass cites to establish the brutal conditions of the American working class.
Too many, in this telling, are not married, not working, not happy, not productive. Because politicians focused on growing the economy rather than creating "a labor market in which the nation's diverse array of families and communities could support themselves," low-skilled workers have suffered. The mistake was to treat people as consumers rather than as workers. "What we have been left with," Cass writes, "is a society teetering atop eroded foundations, lacking structural integrity, and heading toward collapse." Indeed, the white working class is literally dying as a result.
In this worldview, the signal statistics—the numbers that tell you everything you need to know—come from Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton. In a 2017 Brookings report, the pair found an increase in drug, alcohol, and suicide deaths among middle-aged white Americans. The lives of whites with a high school diploma or less were growing shorter, even as life spans were increasing for other demographic cohorts. This, they suggested, was a result of declining economic opportunity for less educated workers and the sense that they were worse off than previous generations.
Here was a problem seemingly created in a lab to provoke a response by ambitious technocrats and public intellectuals. It had everything: the tragic deaths of ordinary Americans to move hearts (and headlines), easily digested statistics generated by impeccably credentialed academic economists, and the imprimatur of Washington's most august think tank. Case and Deaton dubbed these shortened lives "deaths of despair," a phrase Cass, like many other writers, repeats in his book.
To state the problem is to call for a solution. Cass wants to end working-class despair.
The book presents a full spectrum of policy solutions, each designed to address a specific sub-problem for American workers.
He calls for reforming the public education system to allow for student "tracking." The current system, he argues, has gone all-in on college or bust, and so has produced a lot of college graduates—and a lot of busts. He proposes allowing for a variety of educational paths, including vocational training and apprenticeships that would make students more valuable to employers by offering on-the-job training. He suggests reducing onerous environmental regulations that increase the cost of opening new facilities or building new infrastructure projects, in hopes of creating more demand for low-skilled labor. He wants to let unions negotiate agreements with employers that would negate burdensome workplace mandates, in hopes of making the relationship between labor and management more productive and less adversarial.
Cass makes a strong case against America's array of overlapping and ineffective anti-poverty programs, from food stamps and welfare to Medicaid. In its current form, he argues, this incoherently designed network of programs pays people to remain poor, effectively imposing a high tax rate on work by narrowing the income gap between collecting government benefits and pursuing low-wage employment. Instead of eliminating anti-poverty spending, he proposes making it more flexible and locally accountable, giving states the power to determine how anti-poverty dollars are spent through a system he calls a "flex fund." States could decide which initiatives worked best and allocate accordingly.
These aren't radical policies, for the most part, and while they may not represent the very best solutions to the problems Cass identifies, they are generally good ideas. A politician who advocated them could appeal both to moderate, good-government reformers and to those who want to limit the reach and scope of government. American politics would be better off if these sorts of proposals were in broader circulation.
Yet there is something small about these ideas, something insufficient to the problem presented. Only a certain sort of person—say, a think tank wonk and campaign policy adviser—could propose eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency's new source review requirements as part of a package of fixes to generational despondency.
That doesn't make Cass' proposals worthless. At minimum, they would improve the economic policy discourse. But then, given the current occupant of the White House, so would nearly any substantive discussion of economic policy.
Donald Trump is not the subject of The Once and Future Worker, and he is mentioned only occasionally. But his presence looms on nearly every page. Cass is not a Trumpist: He sometimes criticizes the president, and he even attacks the administration's tariffs. Yet this book often reads as an attempt to articulate a more consistent and coherent form of Trumpism—to illustrate what a conventional, cogent economic policy agenda might look like if Trump had one.
Photo Credit: Encounter Books