Oren Cass’s The Once and Future Worker is the boldest, most challenging, and most refreshing book of political economy I have read in a long time. In preparing for this review, I considered describing it as a book of policy, economics, or even sociology, but none of these quite fit, nor do the book justice. It is being debated in those discrete arenas (as it should be), but at its core it is a book that makes judgments about both how markets, government, individuals, and communities relate (and should relate) to one another, and the way in which those relations shape society.
What is that core judgment? That productive work is central to the long-term vitality of a society, and that policies which promote other goods at the cost of work undermine the institutions that are necessary for a thriving society.
As he puts it, “the durable growth that produces long-term prosperity is the emergent property of a virtuous cycle in which people who are able to support their families and communities improve their own productivity and raise a subsequent generation to accomplish even more.” And this virtuous cycle will only turn if it is built on “a foundation of productive work through which people find purpose and satisfaction in providing for themselves and helping others.”
Cass’s book is a full-throated defence of the good of work and how the ability to be a productive member of society is key not just to an individual’s livelihood (even apart from the money it brings), but to social livelihood. It’s not just a defence but also a positive vision for how policy can encourage and promote good work. His book is fresh, well argued, timely, and, even when the reader is left with questions, largely persuasive.
Cass’s book is the most productive thing to have emerged out of the spasms of populism south of the border. Its singular focus on the importance of productive work is a welcome reorientation of our policy compasses and, frankly, is the type of book that, if its proposals were adopted by some creative and communicative politician, could also provide a welcome realignment of America electoral politics.
The book is particularly interesting, and refreshing, because Cass confidently expresses his argument as a political judgment rather than a statement of scientific fact beyond debate. His book is an extended case that the benefits Americans have come to expect—overall economic growth, cheap consumer goods, a pristine environment, employment regulation, and an extremely generous welfare state—came as a result of policy choices. These choices, he argues, came at the cost of “a labor market in which the nation’s diverse array of families and communities could support themselves.” He’s not arguing against the benefits—I can’t find any textual evidence that he is advocating for a recession, poisoning the Potomac, or $8 loaves of bread. Rather, he argues that, in prioritizing these things to the level it has, America has made the “wrong trade-off, based on incorrect judgments about policies’ true costs and benefits and a poor understanding of what we were undermining.”
How to Avoid a Social Dust Bowl
The obsession with growing the economy without caring for the quality of the social conditions—the soil—necessary for economic growth, argues Cass, has created a social equivalent of the dust bowls that plagued North America in 1930s. America, says Cass, is filled with disintegrating communities, woeful labour-force participation, increased difficulty in raising a family, public-education institutions that ignore the needs of the majority, and an increasing reliance on the state for one’s livelihood.
The proper response, he notes, is not to make the same mistake made by farmers who over-rely on fertilizers without attending to the organic material of their fields. We should not double down on artificial treatments that make up for the poverty of the soil. (He’s no fan of a UBI, for instance.) Rather, we should pay attention to the complex plurality of social factors that will enhance the economic soil. “If economic growth fails to nourish the endowments on which it relies, it is not sustainable,” he says. And growth, he argues, relies on “social endowments” that arise out of healthy families, communities, education, and other institutions. The challenge is that “unlike economic endowments, social endowments have proven themselves highly vulnerable to depletion from—among other things—consumption-oriented policies.” Like soil, they require constant tending:
It is the healthy society that produces the requisite human and social capital from which true economic prosperity emerges—and toward which policy should orient itself. Conversely, when opportunity declines, a downward spiral is set in motion, in which the next generation, beginning from a worse point, can likely offer even less to the one that follows. When ways of life vanish or towns crumble or industries flee overseas, they are not easily replaced. When self-sufficiency gives way to dependence, cultural norms shatter. Families that fail to form leave both adults and children adrift. It should not be shocking if, under these conditions, growth stalls.
Productive pluralism fosters the opposite dynamic. It prioritizes outcomes that nourish and replenish social endowments, supporting the formation of strong families and the vibrancy of strong communities. This is not a coincidence; it means that people understand prosperity, and measure their own lives, in terms of the contributions they make to the continued social health.
And the primary way people make, or enable, these contributions is through work.
A quick aside: I think Cass’s emphasis on productive pluralism insulates him against the criticisms that some—and here I’m thinking of the critiques of modern work made by, say, David Graeber (which I find simultaneously helpful and highly annoying)—have made about an overemphasis on employment as such and a downplaying of work as productive activity that takes place in a plurality of settings.
It remains true, however, that employment is still the primary way that Americans put bread on the table. Cass’s interest is in examining how policy choices have harmed the labour market, and in reshaping these policies to promote work that can sustain American families. The range of policies he goes after in his pursuit of this goal is impressive: taxes, workplace regulations, environmental policy, international trade, education, industrial relations, immigration, and social policy. In each case he has unique and (usually) persuasive proposals for how America can adjust its policies in ways that prioritize work.
Telling It Like it Is: A Labour Party Manifesto?
The book is a great example of a populist agenda that might actually work for the populace rather than stoke envy and fan grievances while leaving the status quo intact and American institutions burned to the ground.
What is particularly notable about the populism Cass offers is not just that he’s interested in the population that makes up the bulk of the electorate. Rather, he clearly understands that that population is far from a homogenous mass. For instance, in his chapter on education, he says that “society must choose between proceeding with a charade [that everyone is suited for university] and acknowledging honestly the limitations it faces” and then build an education system which acknowledges that people have different aptitudes, abilities, and circumstances. In saying this, he’s telling us what everyone who’s been to school knows. This type of frank speech—telling it like it is—does the populace the honour of avoiding the false flattery that so much of our political discourse heaps on them. Policies that are shaped with this more realistic understanding are less likely to lead to the disappointment and decline in trust—and the resentment that inevitably comes with it—that occurs when policies that promise too much fail to deliver again and again. This paragraph is a nice summation of his approach writ large:
To make progress, society will need to embrace a less ambitious definition of opportunity. The goal should be to ensure that every person, no matter her starting circumstances, can find a vocation that allows her to support a family, live in a community where she can build a good life. . . . When we say that we want everyone’s opportunity to be “equal” we should abandon the conceit that this could mean an equality of life chances and focus instead on eliminating any public impediments that deprive people of opportunities they might otherwise pursue.
A similar thread is at play throughout the book, including chapters more prone to controversy—on immigration and the environment, for instance. I have issues with his reading and proposals on some of these fronts (on which below), but it is refreshing to read an author so clear-eyed on the need for trade-offs and so singularly focused on making trades in favour of working-class Americans, even if it means wealthier, more powerful Americans have to sacrifice a few things they hold dear.
That focus is so singular, in fact, that one could be forgiven for finishing the book and thinking that Cass was tasked with writing a platform for a Labour party. Send Donnie, Bernie, and their minions to the curb, America: this is the type of political disruption you need.
A Balanced Social Soil
But if the goal is to craft a broad policy agenda aimed at addressing the anxieties that are fuelling the cyclone of crazy, we’ll need more levels of nuance and a broader political theory to account for all of the spheres of productivity that make up our social endowment.
The book is laudable in its recognition of the fact that productivity is, well, the product of a plurality of factors, but the reader is still left with a question about how one might make judgements on trade-offs that occur among the various spheres that contribute to productive pluralism. Take families, for instance. Cass notes that families are fundamental to productive pluralism, but what happens when a choice for family means a choice against work, or vice versa? How would policy address those situations? There are some policy analysts in Canada who clearly favour work over family, but there are also many who note that American policy (and institutions like trade unions) has not always reflected this priority. Some policies will need to recognize that families, as families (as opposed to the producers of workers, or receivers of paycheques), need to thrive, and that sometimes that will mean creating policies that put the family ahead of work. On what basis should policy-makers make those judgments?
The book doesn’t say. And that’s a loss. You might ask the same question for other areas of policy where there are real goods competing, and that present hard questions even to those who value work highly. I think environmental goods pose a particular challenge here. Cass’s case studies on the environment are persuasive, but I’m less convinced they’re as helpful on major, transnational, and potentially catastrophic environmental matters like global warming. I’m not faulting Cass for not writing that book (he can’t write a book about everything), but I do want to note that there is more work to be done on productive pluralism, and that this book alone could lead to an overemphasis on work. I understand that we’re a long way from that, but it’s a critical question, and I’d love to know how Cass would respond to it.
The importance of a broader political theory is underscored by the fact that changing our approach to policy on work is but one part of a larger effort at cultural change. To his great credit, Cass notes the limitations of policy and, in his chapter on the social wages of work, compellingly argues that “the esteem one receives from a given trade is a form of compensation” (as I have noted elsewhere). He shows how not just policy-makers but also educators, filmmakers, television producers, and others play a role in shaping the American view of work. In light of Adam Smith’s insight that “honour makes a great part of the reward of all honourable professions,” he notes that the compensations of honour have diminished and that they should rise. This is one example of Cass’s recognition that, though government policy can go a long way, there are deeper things at work shaping the culture of a place.
This raises a key question: How, in our democratic society, would we get to a point where any of this might happen? What, in particular, would motivate anyone to sign up for his program, which asks people to work hard and to sacrifice, and would increase the costs of unemployment? What would cause a politician to sign up to run for such a cause? Cass notes that culture sometimes “responds to actual ideas. . . . Ideas can reverse countervailing trends, alter fundamental beliefs, and instill new obligations. Societies, communities, and even individuals can achieve strong and intentional changes in culture if they grapple effectively with why and how to do so” (emphasis added).
Though government policy can go a long way, there are deeper things at work shaping the culture of a place.
Cass’s book is a masterclass in grappling with the ideas that form the how. Where it is not as strong is in its ideas for the why. If the only case we have for the hard work and sacrifice that is concomitant with his program is procedural, my concern is that the likely response from certain blocks of voters to this is a justifiable “I was told there would be more.” The arguments in favour of work are there, but unless you operate on a deeper plane, I’m not sure you can counteract the deep cultural trends that cause many to either commit themselves to a frenetic, even idolatrous, view of work, or expect to be fed without working (both of which are two aspects of the old vice of sloth). I’m not even sure that the current trend of work as self-actualization is enough to bring about a broad coalition of people to vote for this program. Sloth is real, and not easily unseated. There has got to be more!
It’s probably not fair to criticize a wonk for not being a philosopher, and heaven knows that those making the case for the why are more often guilty of not providing any ideas at all as to the how (my problem with Graeber especially). And yes, there are many, religious and otherwise, who are trying to make the case for why one should work at all, let alone work at things that are hard. But my read is that unless we include a substantive, rather than simply procedural, conversation about the nature of work, we’re not likely to see the change we need, whether in institutions like the business corporation or the union, in the culture, or in our economic policy. But I could be wrong: sometimes culture is downstream from politics.
But these are the criticisms of a greedy reader who, like a spoiled dinner guest, can only moan about not having more on the table. If you’re looking for green shoots of life in the no-man’s land of American public life, you should immediately buy this excellent book. If more of this creative, frank, and innovative thinking can emerge out of the paroxysms in American politics, then perhaps Americans could go to work with a lighter, more hopeful heart.