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Hullabaloo


Monday, August 28, 2017

 

A more perfect populism

by Tom Sullivan

Jobs. Everybody thinks they are important. Nobody does enough to create better-paying ones. Problem is, we built a system in which people work to support the economy more than the economy supports us. Employers don't pay enough, the middle class is shrinking, and we're self-medicating with opioids. Even with unemployment at its lowest in 16 years, CBS reports, 8 out of 10 Americans are living paycheck to paycheck:

"Living paycheck to paycheck is the new way of life for U.S. workers," he said. "It's not just one salary range. It's pretty much across the board, and it's trending in the wrong direction."

A year ago, about 75 percent of U.S. workers said they were living from payday to payday, a number that has grown to 78 percent this year. The study, conducted by Harris Poll, surveyed nearly 2,400 hiring and human resource managers and 3,500 adult employees who worked full-time in May and June.
A Pew survey finds Americans would rather have more stable income than more income. And maybe a little more to save for retirement.
About 40 percent of adults with a high school degree or less said they are scrambling to keep afloat, or more than twice the number of Americans with at least a college degree, according to the Federal Reserve. CareerBuilder found that about half of workers who earn less than $50,000 per year are always living paycheck-to-paycheck, compared with 28 percent of those earning between $50,000 to $100,000.
There's the problem statement. Now, who has solutions?

Democrats have rolled out a nifty slogan, "A Better Deal: better jobs, better wages and a better future." Is there anything behind it? That is still to be determined.

Conor Friedersdorf has been looking at what a more worker-friendly populism might look like. He cites as a jumping-off point a recent formulation by Damon Linker:
What would a more populist Democratic Party look like? It would embed its bold proposals for cradle-to-grave universal health care, free college tuition at public universities, and ambitious infrastructure projects in a galvanizing story of American citizenship and patriotism, sacrifice and civic duty.
That narrative was choked out over decades by "greed is good" and Randism. It is needed again. And free college? Fine. But for Friedersdorf the proposal is not populist enough. He puts his finger on something that vaguely bothered me about Bernie Sanders' emphasis on free college tuition that I never quite identified :
But I also know America is overwhelmingly led by people with college degrees and white collar backgrounds––people who overvalue their own path to success and rig the system against others who’d thrive under a different approach. To them I say, a four-year degree shouldn’t be the only way for a young person to achieve the American dream.

Our elites are too often blind to the value of education that is received away from college, whether through apprenticeships or vocational schools or on-the-job training. They don’t always understand that there are lots of blue-collar jobs that are more fulfilling, better paying, and more in demand than lots of white-collar jobs. And they are blind to the wisdom in cultural enclaves where a young person is not considered “culturally competent” until knowing how to perform CPR, help a stranger change a flat, or work alongside people from different social classes without taking offense when their etiquette is different than the etiquette at UCLA or Berkeley.
Friedersdorf (if I am reading him right) doesn't want all our focus and expenditure directed at colleges and universities, but on support that is more diverse and more broadly inclusive:
But I want to invest as heavily in ambitious, hard-working young people who appreciate that carpenters, day-care workers, sous chefs, masseuses, and plumbers do jobs every bit as important as accountants, marketers, lawyers, and IT staff, and who’ve concluded they can best flourish and contribute to society with an education they acquire outside of college. I don’t want anyone getting a four-year degree just because that’s the only way to receive government help, or because folks with college degrees have rigged the system so that having a credential like theirs is the only way to get ahead in America.

I want to stop robbing people of their comparative advantage.
He wants "to eliminate obstacles like professional-licensing requirements that amount to no more than credentialism," and to move away from a business culture that demands a bachelor’s degree for jobs "that shouldn’t require one." I have at least one friend with decades of experience who today is locked out of getting another professional job in her field because she lacks that golden-ticket degree employers require before they will even talk to her. It's not right.

Here is a similar story, a single mom working two jobs and barely scraping together $25,000 per year:
Before the recession, Millikan earned $30,000 a year with full benefits as a property manager at a call center. It was the highest pay she ever had. The company moved to another the state, and she's struggled ever since. She says it has been years since she's had a full-time job, despite sending out endless resumes and earning a college degree in education in 2014 to improve her prospects. She's repeatedly been told she's overqualified for low-wage jobs in retail and not qualified enough for coveted positions in business and tech.

To get by, Millikan has become an expert at cost-cutting. Almost everything in her modest apartment is from a thrift store, garage sale or charity. The only thing she buys new for her son is underwear. He's been asking for a remote-controlled monster truck lately, a toy that's out of her price range. She hasn't been able to find a used one at Goodwill. "I don't ever think I'll get to the middle class," Millikan said in an interview, choking back tears. "I can just about guarantee I won't."
So Millikan earned her degree. At 39, free college won't help her.

For years, these stories have been met by "we're doing what we can" promises from politicians and "that's just the way it is" shrugs from the business community, especially its libertarian-leaning members. Maybe it's just me, but my reaction to "that's just the the way it is" has always been, well then there's something wrong with the way it is.

Maybe Friedersdorf means this and maybe he doesn't, but his critique of Bernie Sanders' free tuition proposal suggests that it acquiesces to a status quo that says a college degree is the "you must be this tall to ride" barrier to accessing the American Dream. The culture that says so it is elitist in nature and noninclusive in practice. An America that works for everyone won't be achieved by feeding that system but by breaking it and by changing the culture.

In "The War on Stupid People," David Freedman argued that our fascination with high intelligence and high achievement leaves behind those who by nature or economic circumstance never grow tall enough to ride. He notes ironically that British sociologist Michael Young coined the term meritocracy in 1958 in writing a dystopian satire. Freedman might agree with Friedersdorf on the elitist cast to our present economy:
We must stop glorifying intelligence and treating our society as a playground for the smart minority. We should instead begin shaping our economy, our schools, even our culture with an eye to the abilities and needs of the majority, and to the full range of human capacity.
If struggling Americans feel left behind, it is because they have been. So there is something aspirational in both Friedersdorf's and Linker's visions that leans towards realization of a more diverse social equality (rather than to the false promise to restore an America that never was). They both insist on more civics education as essential to a program that, in Linker's mind:
... would speak proudly and without shame about the public aspects of our lives — and of how the self-indulgent and self-centered cynicism of our politics has led too many of us to forget, and too many of our public officials to denigrate, what we owe to one another as fellow citizens, as well as what the government does to make our freedom (as individuals but also as communities) possible.
At this point, that feels like a tough lift. But it is a sensibility that is not entirely forgotten:

It shouldn't take a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey or sharing a foxhole to bring our latent sense of community to the surface again. Take care of each other out there.

* * * * * * * *

Request a copy of For The Win, my county-level election mechanics primer, at tom.bluecentury at gmail.