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A Future That Works

Debating Labor in America

Workers on an assembly line in Franklin Park, Illinois, January 2019. Tim Aeppel / Reuters

James Galbraith’s bizarre critique of my book, The Once and Future Worker, fails to achieve the basic task of a book review: telling readers what is in the book. Instead, he assembles misleading descriptions of my core proposals into what he must think a quite clever conclusion, that the “historical precedent for the type of society Cass envisions” is “the Jim Crow South.” That is absurd. His unreflective commitment to long-broken institutions has deprived him of the ability to engage productively in debates over reform.

Take education. The Once and Future Worker argues that the United States’ single-minded obsession with “college for all” has been misguided, especially for the majority of young people who do not earn a degree. Instead, I argue, the United States should place “the onus on our schools to meet students where they are and help them prepare for success with the academic outcomes toward which they are headed.” I acknowledge forthrightly the concern that “a career track will be disproportionately populated by students from disadvantaged backgrounds.” But, I write,

This is a description of society and an implicit condemnation of the current system, not a plausible criticism of tracking. After all, students best suited to a career track are precisely those least well served by its absence and experiencing the worst outcomes today. A tracked system could offer them a better chance at economic success, increasing in turn the odds that their own kids land on the college track a generation later. It will speed social progress and improve countless lives along the way. 

“Critically,” I note, although “the school would provide a recommendation, the choice would be the family’s. No high-pressure test dictates the future; no institutional discrimination tramples on the judgment of those”—the student’s parents—“who know the student best.”

Galbraith reads this argument as a call to “begin funneling students deemed less able into vocational training,” as if “funneling students” is an apt description of my proposal to provide

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