The Once and Future Worker
by Oren Cass. Encounter Books. 2018, 272 pages

Over the last two years, the overwhelming focus on the pandemic has obscured many other issues. It is easy to overlook the growing dissatisfaction with the economic status quo which existed prior to Covid.

Explanations for why there has been a populist revolt generally revolve around issues of immigration and cultural change, with debates over economic policy playing a supporting role.

Clearly, politics is changing. On issues like trade or government spending, the leftward shift by the Republican Party under Trump and the Conservative Party under Johnson has helped attract new voters in lower socio-economic groups.

Elsewhere, even though socialists and social democrats should be happy with the new mood in favour of greater state intervention, their electoral appeal is limited by the cult-like obsession with issues of race and gender, and so political coalitions are gradually being remade without any major shifts in policy taking place.

When it comes to explaining what has gone wrong in this area over recent decades, one book that really stands out is The Once and Future Worker by Oren Cass.

Cass’s influence in American policy circles has grown in recent years (Yuval Levin wrote that the book stands “in the very top ranks of sustained efforts to make some policy sense of the political realities of our era”) as the old “country club” element in Republican politics withers away, and he now runs his own think tank.

His central thesis is that both the Republicans and the Democrats are at fault for what Cass calls their “economic piety” – an approach which places too much emphasis on achieving growth in GDP as a means of enlarging (and then redistributing) the economic pie.

Politicians have emphasised the desires of the consumer over the interests of the producer, including when it comes to issues like immigration or trade policy, and their policies have necessitated the development of an ever-more expansive welfare state.

To counteract this, Cass puts forward a “Working Hypothesis,” which states “that a labour 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.”

Much of the book is devoted to explaining the difficulties which the current policies have created. As a direct result of government decisions when it comes to environmental policies and the minimum wage, it is now more expensive to employ low-skilled workers.

Those same workers find themselves competing against large numbers of low-wage workers from other countries, and the decline of America’s once-powerful trade unions and their increasing focus on liberal political causes  have left workers badly disadvantaged.

Cass reminds his readers that the symptoms of this serious condition were evident long before the Great Recession, as wages for less-skilled workers had stagnated to the point where a man with only a high school degree could no longer support a family.

In this environment, huge numbers of able-bodied citizens dropped out of the workforce and came to rely on government assistance. The baleful consequences of this extended far beyond the realm of employment.

Readers familiar with the literature in this area will recognise some of the key works which the author cites.

Charles Murray’s Coming Apart showed how the white working class was transformed between 1960-2010, with labour participation rates, marriage rates and religious participation rates all plummeting; while Angus Deaton and Anne Case’s Deaths from Despair and the Future of Capitalism highlighted the rapid increase in fatalities from alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide in recent years.

Virtually everyone acknowledges the problem, but the consensus around “economic piety” means that the Left has neglected production and focused too much on redistribution, often by way of an expanded welfare state.

Cass rejects the view that this is beneficial, and points to statistics showing how social spending has exploded in recent decades.

Since President Lyndon Johnson launched his Great Society initiative in the 1960s, the safety net has grown to the point where the US government spends US$20,000 annually for every person living in poverty, all to little avail.

Cass also takes aim at the increasingly-fashionable viewpoint that the way to fix this is by introducing a Universal Basic Income, lamenting that we “have reached a point where the rich think paying everyone else to go away represents compassionate thinking.”

In place of economic piety, Cass proposes a system he calls “productive pluralism” and lays out a proposal for what this would involve.

“Rather than taxing low-wage work to cut other tax rates and expand entitlements, we can do the reverse: we can provide a subsidy for low-wage work, funded with higher tax rates and reduced transfer payments,” he writes.

“Instead of organised labour piling burdens atop the ones that federal regulators already place on employment relationships, we can repurpose unions to help workers and employers optimise workplace conditions.

“We can expand the demand for more of the work that more Americans can actually do if we place the concerns of the industrial economy on an equal footing with those of, say, environmentalists. We can prepare Americans to work more productively if we shift some attention and resources from the college track to other tracks down which most people actually travel.”

In each area, Cass describes the steps which would need to be taken.

Wage subsidies paid by the government, for example, would help those on low incomes without leading to a reduction in the demand for labour – which is often the effect of minimum wage hikes.

Whereas the current emphasis on increasing GDP requires large scale unskilled immigration, Cass insists that we need to improve labour-market outcomes for low-wage workers, which would probably mean a reduced inflow.

Education policy is particularly important to Cass, as politicians (particularly left-leaning ones) suggest that more spending in this area and a “college for all” strategy will ameliorate much of what is wrong with the current socio-economic system.

As Cass explains, this has failed the broad swathe of workers who have not acquired college qualifications and probably never will. His remedy involves a renewed focus on educational tracking with increased vocational opportunities from the mid-teens on, and to bring this about he calls for a large reallocation of financial resources towards apprenticeships and other such programs. 

Clearly, the author does not believe that poverty can be eradicated entirely, and he proposes ideas for how to improve social supports while also strengthening the mediating institutions which have been so weakened in recent times.

Cass praises Catholic charities which operate on the ground and make the necessary careful judgements about individual needs when supplying assistance to the underprivileged, while helping them to make the right steps to achieve independence. 

The influence of Catholic social teaching is shown elsewhere in Cass’s work, as when he quotes Pope John Paul II’s words in describing how associations of workers as essential “not only in negotiating contracts, but also as ‘places’ where workers can express themselves.”

Cass’s views are far from dominant within the American Right, but they are growing in influence, and his allies such as the Catholic Senator Marco Rubio are increasingly adopting similar positions focusing on the importance of dignified work.

This is important, as this is ultimately an American book, focused on the American context.

The same can be said of important books by Yuval Levin, Charles Murray, Robert Putnam and many others, and it is unfortunate that the sort of detailed social and economic analysis which these authors provide is not to be seen in political debates in Europe and elsewhere.

The Once and Future Worker has universal implications, however, in that it charts a viable course for those who accept that the current economic and social system is untenable while also recognising that the socialist alternative is undesirable, and usually involves steps which would ignore the real root causes and exacerbate social ills.

Too many people have neglected the importance of fulfilling and gainful work to human flourishing. Oren Cass’s book is a wake-up call, and should be a blueprint for reform in the coming years.

James Bradshaw works for an international consulting firm based in Dublin, and has a background in journalism and public policy. Outside of work, he writes for a number of publications, on topics including...