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Ideas for improving the lot of American workers (open minds requested)

A new book sounds at times like the stuff of a Democratic caucus, at others like grist for a GOP one. Either way, it sure makes you think. 

This op-ed appeared in the Star Tribune on January 7, 2019.

Most everyone has heard about leaving your anger at the door. For the discussion that follows about a new book by Oren Cass, “The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America,” you may want to leave ideology behind, too.

A senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, Cass writes from the right. But his ideas about the right things to do to more equitably serve working people are causing many open-minded conservatives to review how they approach several major policy issues.

Then again, I trust the book is having the same effect on many open-minded progressives.

More than at any time in a long while, national attention is on great numbers of Americans — not just those of color — who don’t fit well in the economic and social scheme of things. Hard questions about economic mobility are being asked. At the very same time, great numbers of other Americans are rolling in economic and social riches, comparatively and often absolutely speaking.

It’s in this uneven and scattered light that Cass redefines what is meant by prosperity itself. As an alternative to a “GDP-based definition of prosperity,” he proposes “productive pluralism,” by which he means “economic and social conditions in which people of diverse abilities, priorities, geographies, pursuing varied life paths, can provide for self-sufficient families and become contributors to their communities.”

What needs changing to make this more encompassing orientation possible? Or, as Cass puts it, what kinds of trade-offs are required to “place the renewal of work and family, sustained by a healthy labor market, at the center of public policy”?

Answer: the complicated kind of trade-offs, some of which offend the sensibilities of conservatives, with other trade-offs offending the sensibilities of progressives (and any number of citizens in-between).

What exactly is Cass talking about? “Repurposing” unions so they optimize workplace conditions instead of exacerbating regulatory burdens emanating from Washington. Putting the “concerns of the industrial economy on an equal footing with those of environmentalists.” Shifting a measure of education attention and spending from college tracks to those “most people travel.” Recognizing that while importing products and workers can benefit consumers, it can harm workers.

And, not least, subsidizing low wages.

“If we give workers standing,” Cass argues, “if we make their productive employment an economic imperative instead of inconvenience, the labor market can reach a healthy equilibrium.”

Some of the above sounds like the stuff of a DFL precinct caucus; some, grist for a Republican one. But Cass argues unorthodoxy of this sort is essential if the large goal, in fact, is giving workers true standing.

Problems confronting the “working class,” or “blue collar workers,” or the “bottom half,” or “forgotten Americans,” or men and women who feel “stuck” have been resistant to conventional remedies for decades. Welfare reforms haven’t alleviated such problems and won’t. Disability checks haven’t and won’t. Conventional training programs routinely disappoint. And GDP growth, no matter how big, will continue skipping over many Americans even as it lifts many others.

Agreed, the possibility of Republican-endorsed, federally funded wage subsidies is the high-stakes, domestic equivalent of Nixon shaking hands with Mao. And Democratic-endorsed efforts to treat industry and the environment equally is hard to conceive outside of West Virginia. Sledding and shedding will be exceedingly tough.

Oren Cass’ central contribution is getting people from different political, economic and social vantage points to say to themselves something like:

“There’s a lot about this book I really like. And while there are other parts I hardly like at all and have opposed all my life, I must admit Cass makes a decent case for them within the frame of the bigger picture he’s painting. Moreover, I realize many public policies, for years, haven’t sufficiently served great numbers of people who have been hurting. How can it not be a civically and intellectually good thing for policymakers and other opinionated citizens to give the book open-minded hearings?”

Lest one fear (or hope), I’m not drifting left. But more than any book I’ve read in a long time, “The Once and Future Worker” is causing me and others to ponder some things anew. It’s that strong.

Mitch Pearlstein is senior fellow and founder of Center of the American Experiment. His newest book, “Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees,” will be released in April.

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