How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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 students with choices, and as if a non-college pathway would be chosen only by those “deemed less able.” Deemed by whom, and less able at what? Such obtuseness is common in discussions of education policy. It shuts down debate and forecloses any reform on behalf of those for whom the system isn’t working.
Similarly, Galbraith provides a caricature of my position on unions. In The Once and Future Worker, I argue that “organized labor is neither inherently partisan nor inherently counterproductive economically. In theory, an arrangement by which workers ‘bargain collectively’ and offer ‘mutual aid,’ as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) establishes is their right, can be a neutral or even positive part of a flourishing market economy.” The NLRA, adopted in the 1930s, is no longer conducive to those ends—something that workers themselves believe. Union activists locate the decline of private-sector unions in nefarious corporate behavior, but, as I relate in the book:
Workers don’t like unions much these days. In a landmark 1994 survey of more than twenty-four hundred nonmanagement workers, Harvard professor Richard Freeman and University of Wisconsin professor Joel Rogers primed respondents with various questions couched to make organizing seem attractive and then asked those not in a union already whether they’d vote for one if offered the chance. Only 32 percent said yes. . . . [G]iven choice of representation either by an organization that “management cooperated with in discussing issues, but had no power to make decisions” or by one “that had more power, but management opposed,” 63 percent of workers preferred cooperation and just 22 percent an adversarial stance. These results held even among active union members.
Galbraith offers no actual argument in favor of unions, beyond the unsubstantiated assertion that “American workers are hurting . . . because they have lost their bargaining power.” Rather, he seems to regard any discussion of their dysfunction as improper by its very nature. Thus he describes my vision as one of “union-free factories.”
I do not propose the elimination of unions. Again, from the book: “A union whose members are satisfied can continue to represent them, and an organizer who believes an NLRA union would win majority support in a workplace should be free to pursue such a campaign. But other options should be available too.” My aim is to revitalize organized labor, in forms that will appeal to workers and operate constructively within a modern economy. I envision the creation of what I call “co-ops.” These could “establish relationships with workers and provide benefits to them outside the employment context”; “build collaborative relationships with management”; “partner with employers to improve the job readiness of new hires and offer job training for all workers”; “provide a market-based alternative to the government’s employment regulation”; and serve as “mediating institutions that help to strengthen civil society for poorer and less-educated Americans.”
One could make any number of arguments against the feasibility or desirability of this idea. Galbraith doesn’t try. He gestures vaguely toward the importance of “growing and strengthening unions,” thereby perfectly illustrating the counterproductive dynamic that the book laments:
Democrats prize union bosses’ Midas-like ability to transform the dollars and energy of a bipartisan workforce into homogenous left-wing support. Thus their response to plummeting union membership isn’t to promote substantive reform that might make organizing more attractive to workers but instead to push for procedural changes to help unions bring more workers into the existing system and ensure that donations keep flowing. Republicans seem content to frustrate such efforts and watch the system continue to wither. What a missed opportunity.
Take one more example, which purportedly completes my vision of a new Jim Crow South. The Once and Future Worker criticizes the United States’ federally administered safety net, which now transfers more than $1 trillion annually to low-income households without making any noticeable progress in reducing the nation’s poverty rate. (“The average poverty rate for 2000–2015 was no different than it was for 1985–2000, and actually higher than it was in 1970–85.”) The book does not propose cutting this spending, but it does argue that a portion of it should be redirected toward subsidizing wages and the rest passed to states via a “Flex Fund.” How would this fund work?
States would have genuine and complete flexibility over resource allocation as opposed to the faux flexibility of applying for waiver after waiver or delivering the federal Section 8 housing-voucher program “however you want.” States happy with the existing funding allocations and program structures could continue to apply the funding as they do today. But states with better ideas—even radically different ones—would be free to pursue them. They could further subdivide funding to local governments, channel funds to private charities, or both. Only by pushing control down to the level where locally accountable entities are working directly with those in need can the safety net support those who cannot work, move those who can work toward self-sufficiency, and maintain an income gap between the two.
Galbraith characterizes this as a “slush fund” and a “scam” and suggests that states will “slash their benefits” and “chase their poor to other states.” Yet his own proposal, a “job guarantee for citizens and legal residents, federally funded and administered by local authorities and nonprofits,” finds sudden promise in local actors deploying funds disbursed from Washington on behalf of the disadvantaged.
The common thread in Galbraith’s various criticisms is a fetish for the sclerotic institutions of labor, education, and welfare that have yielded, alongside a half century of appalling results, overwhelming political and financial support for the status quo. Perhaps having marinated in that style of politics for too long, Galbraith cannot help but perceive the present as ideal and thus any alternative as regressive—leading inexorably toward, in his words, “a fixed social hierarchy of boss and worker, with tracked education, decentralized and degraded social services, low taxes, and union-free factories.” From there, it is but a short leap to equate the outcome of my proposed reforms to “the Jim Crow South.”
I have no idea what he means by “a fixed social hierarchy” and I don’t call for tax cuts. As for labor, education, and social-service structure, on all three counts my reforms would allow for models in the United States more akin to those in northern Europe, where Galbraith’s preferred unions do not exist (though my “co-ops” do), the education systems often track even more aggressively than I propose to, and states each operate their own safety nets within a common market, the EU, that allows free movement of people. Even in a faculty lounge, calling that the Jim Crow South may not elicit the high-fives that Galbraith hopes for.
It’s true, I’m a defender of public schools, New Deal labor law, and the Kennedy-Johnson civil rights program. The thought that Oren Cass proposes to replace these with 1960s Swedish-style social democracy escaped me. In the Swedish model, three trade unions represented up to 86 percent of the workforce, egalitarian wage scales were set nationally, government spending was until very recently over half of GDP, and there is cradle-to-grave social welfare at the national level.
What Cass calls “co-ops” are actually company unions, illegal here and under international law. Real cooperatives do exist; their key attribute is that the employees own the firm. Tracking of course means less choice, not more; a “fixed social hierarchy” in this country, given our history, means whites on top, people of color below. Cass writes of education for ordinary people in terms of “a better chance of economic success,” but some of us believe in education, for everyone, for its own sake. Of course the idea that social policy should be returned to the states so they can “experiment” is a scam; the result is always a race to the bottom—carefully organized by national conservative organizations.
My review focused not so much on these policy questions but on the larger, factitious framing of Cass’s book, which is of the working economy as a problem of the “labor market”—a framing that is fundamental to his approach. I hope that other readers of the review will notice this point. My attempt is to break a misconceived mental habit that Cass shares with many others. That habit is the underpinning of the policy differences between us, to which Cass calls attention.
As for the closing sneer at “the faculty lounge,” I teach at a policy school in a state university; it may surprise Cass to learn that we don’t have one.