Oren Cass: “The Once and Future Worker”; Isabel Sawhill: “The Forgotten Americans”

Oren Cass | 2018
Posted in: Growth and Sustainability Working Class Experiences
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Classify these two wonderful books under Braver Angel’s category of finding common ground between the left and the right.   They both describe the current plight of the working class in America and offer recommendations on how to alleviate their plight.   One is by Isabel Sawhill, a liberal economist at the Brookings Institute, and the other by the economist Oren Cass, at the Manhattan Institute.   I discuss them together, since I’m struck by how them come up with many similar solutions, even though they start from opposing sides of the political spectrum.

Both of them emphasize work–that is, helping the working class improve their current economic status, EVEN IF they remain working class. Not surprisingly, both authors endorse modernized training programs for today’s workforce: at the secondary school level (including apprenticeships) and post-secondary level (vocational schools not offering a college degree). The authors describe (often pilot) programs of these sort at the state and local level–mostly in red states, though Sawhill also mentions a couple of healthcare vocational training in blue states. According to Cass, this change would be revenue neutral, because our education budgets are unfairly allocated towards college preparation (about 85%) even though only about 30-40% of the population completes a college degree, depending on what age group you look at.

Though a liberal, Sawhill appreciates capitalism. In fact, she argues that business leaders are lately adopting a perspective that is too short term for their companies’ good. She does not support a guaranteed income for those who don’t work, but, like Cass, has her own version of a minimum wage that is largely government-supported (e.g., some version of the earned income tax credit), rather than being covered by the employer. She devotes a chapter to discussing the limits of a growth approach, favored by conservatives (i.e., making the pie bigger) and a chapter discussing the limits of redistribution, favored by liberals (i.e., dividing the pie more equally). But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t see value in both approaches; she does, but neither of them are her main emphasis.

Perhaps the most liberal proposal she offers is to modify the inheritance tax to raise revenues from the very wealthy. She doesn’t appear sympathetic to the tax proposals offered by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders (e.g., a wealth tax), but she would like to repeal Trump’s tax bill and raise rates on the wealthiest to some extent.

Cass, for his part, has some proposals that might appear conservative at first blush, such as ways to rein in regulations, but the proposals are nuanced and selective.  He points out that many of the countries liberals admire, such as Denmark, Canada, etc. have much less government regulation than we do.  Thus, when Obama was looking for “shovel-ready” government projects to kickstart the economy during the 2009 recession, he had trouble finding any.  Government projects require a multiple-year approval process in the US, longer than in other countries we admire.

Cass also has proposals for making the U.S. trade more competitive, especially with China, but he eschews tariffs.   He also advocates for worker co-ops in place of unions, modeled after the European Ghent system. 

Both books are very well-written.  Cass’ book may be a little too technical for some readers.