This essay is part of our collection on common good economics. Read related pieces here.
Even amid the pro-market conservative tradition can be found a hearty strain of “two cheers for capitalism”—recognizing that the institution of the market, which promises and delivers innovation, growth, and “creative destruction,” can be a victim of its own success and consume the very social structures that gave birth to it.
With The Once and Future Worker, Oren Cass stands thoroughly in that tradition, offering a robust re-envisioning of conservative labor market policy. Responding to what he cutely calls “economic piety”—the belief that GDP per capita defines a country’s well-being, and the role of society is to ensure the economic “pie” grows sufficiently to allow each individual to consume satisfactorily—Cass offers a competing hypothesis. His book has sparked no small amount of controversy within the center-right, but his focus on measured value in something more than nicer cars or bigger houses deserves to be taken seriously.
What would he have us pursue? “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.” We need a “productive pluralism,” allowing people of widely varying means, interests, talents, and priorities to “form self-sufficient families and become contributors to their communities.” Those contributions can include, but should not be limited to, work that is counted in our GDP, but could also include volunteering, serving, caring, parenting—in short, having people rely on you.
Cass did not write The Once and Future Worker to put fetters on capitalism, but to retrain its energies in a more sustainable direction. His goal throughout the book is to give families more choices than the current search for ever-higher GDP. If economic efficiency is our ultimate goal, nudging development patterns, family structures, and our political system toward the forms that most increase output might make sense.
But, as Cass argues, if well-being is measured by considerations in addition to economic ones, a GDP-based measurement of how our society is doing might not only be insufficient now, but also more costly over the long term. The definition of success in our public policy (and cultural) efforts should certainly include some economic measures, but not at the expense of the health of community and family life.
Consider this line, striking in the way it subverts the dominant paradigm: “If, historically, two-parent families could support themselves with only one parent working outside the home, then something is wrong with ‘growth’ that imposes a de facto need for two incomes.”
Cass expertly fillets a Center for American Progress report that advocates universal child care not on the grounds of parent satisfaction or child health but for the sake of an “additional 5 million women in the labor force and $500 billion in increased GDP.’” This economic essentialism sees parents as cogs in a national system, pushing them toward career choices they may prefer less than spending time at home in the name of boosting “efficiency.” Resetting our expectations for consumption is as much a cultural battle as a political one, but it will require intentional effort on both fronts. If we value family and community life, we need a labor policy that is explicitly intended to provide sufficient work to sustain them.
Policy Proposals Connecting Theory with Reality
After a hard-hitting introduction, the book slowly builds to a crescendo via some quick stops in related domestic policy fields. One chapter stands out as less convincing than the rest: the section on environmental regulations. Cass wants to prevent those who would take his logic—which sees some values as too important to be left to an economically “efficient” market—and apply it to climate policy. It’s a valiant effort, but one doesn’t have to be a committed environmentalist to see that the parallels are begging to be drawn.
Otherwise, each chapter, often drawn from a policy essay originally published in National Review or National Affairs, cries out for politicians to champion it. His push to rethink unions as worker-controlled co-ops is a creative attempt to rethink the workplace as a “nexus of community” that also encourages skills-building activities. He encourages us to learn from Europe in creating more intentional and promising post-high school paths that don’t require college.
His realistic assessment of the doom-and-gloom proclamations about automation remind us that work isn’t going anywhere any time soon. You won’t soon forget his example critiquing the abstracted-from-reality Silicon Valley mindset that sees school buses as being ripe for automation. They might well be . . . if that didn’t entail “locking twenty kids in a self-driving vehicle for half an hour, with no adult supervision.”
Cass saves the idea for which he’s become best known until the next-to-last chapter. It’s worth the wait. Cass suggests replacing the current Earned Income Tax Credit (along with some related safety net programs) with a direct wage subsidy, which would be paid to workers by the government to “top off” their current wage. In lieu of a minimum wage, the government would set a “target wage” of, say, $12 an hour. If an employee received $9 an hour from his employer, the government would step up to fill in that $3 an hour gap.
Admittedly, switching from a credit to a direct subsidy carries with it a whole host of potential side effects, and economic theory suggests the exact benefit to the worker will depend on the relative elasticities of low-wage labor demanded and supplied. A pilot project would probably be the best way to test Cass’s big idea. But even on the level of a thought experiment, this emphasis on production—of rewarding work not just with high social praise but actual monetary investment—illustrates how Cass’s proposed shift in focus has profound ramifications for how we view the social compact between government, businesses, and the workers they employ.
This same focus on production, rather than consumption, undergirds his fierce and compelling attack on a Universal Basic Income. Such a policy, he argues, would put the state in the undisputed role of provider and hollow out any sense of interdependence between individuals, families, and communities. We already have a crop of citizens who receive money for not working, Cass says. We call them “trust fund bab[ies]. The term is not synonymous with ‘kind, well-adjusted, productive member of society.’”
Cass does not shy from diving into the details of, say, how the Environmental Protection Administration calculates the “value of a statistical life,” which might seem like the kind of technocratic debate that only a former Bain & Company management consultant like Cass could love. But he illustrates an important point: even in an age of populism and governance by tweet, conservative policymakers need to be able to engage technocrats on their own terms. Argument from first principles is necessary, but it is not sufficient to put conservative policy ideas into practice, and Cass is as skilled as any in drawing a line connecting theory and practice.
What Makes Life Worthwhile
Critics sympathetic to libertarianism might argue that Cass ignores the importance of productivity growth in solving these fundamental problems, reasoning that a fast enough growth rate in total factor productivity will lift all boats. But while productivity growth might be a kind of silver bullet from a long-run perspective, the short-run damage to small towns and human lives calls out for a more meaningful response than just redistributing the economic spoils of New York, Washington, and San Francisco. As Cass writes, “Economic growth and rising material living standards are laudable goals, but they by no means guarantee the health of a labor market that will meet society’s long-term needs.”
People need to feel needed. The hollowness at the heart of American—Western?—society can’t be satiated with shinier toys and tastier brunches. An overemphasis on production could, of course, be as fatal as an overemphasis on consumption, and certainly the realm of the meritocrats gives enough cause to worry on this score. But as a matter of policy—as a means of not just sustaining our fellow citizen in times of want but of helping him feel needed and essential in his family and community life—Cass’s redefinition of “efficiency” to include not just its economic sense but some measure of social stability and human flourishing is welcome. Frankly, it’s past due as a tenet of mainstream conservativism.
It is a measure of how engrained “economic piety” is in our discourse that Cass’s approach will be found radical by many. Cass owes a debt to Irving Kristol, Yuval Levin, and other conservatives who have stressed that truly sustainable growth entails an emphasis on measuring our society’s progress in something more than economic indicators. But the most succinct antecedent for his work might be best found in someone very much outside what is thought of as the conservative tradition, then-Senator Robert F. Kennedy:
Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task. It is to confront the poverty of satisfaction—purpose and dignity—that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product . . . measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.
The Once and Future Worker deserves to be widely read and read in full. But, as a thumbnail sketch, that quote will do nicely.