“A brilliant book. And among the most important I've ever read.”
― J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy
“No one has better articulated the conservative argument for why work matters . . .”
― Mitt Romney
“The essential policy book for our time . . . A must-read.”
― Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs
“. . . an unflinching indictment of the mistakes that Washington has made for a generation . . .”
― Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL)
“. . . welcome common ground for policy debates across partisan and ideological lines . . .”
― William A. Galston, Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution
As seen in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Financial Times, Times of London, Bloomberg, The Atlantic, Politico, City Journal, National Review, The American Interest, New York Post, Washington Free Beacon, Salon, The Baffler, The Week, Project Syndicate, and more. The WORLD Magazine Book of the Year for Understanding America.
Working-class voters tried to send a message in 2016, and they are still trying to send it. The crucial question is whether America’s leaders will listen and respond. One way to start doing that is to read Oren Cass’s absolutely brilliant new book, “The Once and Future Worker.” The first part of the book is about how we in the educated class have screwed up labor markets in ways that devalued work and made it harder for people in the working class to find a satisfying job. . . . “What if people’s ability to produce matters more than how much they can consume?” Cass asks. The bulk of his book is a series of ideas for how we can reform labor markets.
Mr. Cass, 35, has spent most of his life among that technocratic elite. He started as a junior consultant at Bain & Company out of Williams College. A few years later he took a six-month leave to work on Mitt Romney’s 2008 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Afterward, Mr. Cass enrolled in Harvard Law School to deepen his understanding of public policy. “Law school is a lot of fun if you’re not there to be a lawyer,” he quips. He worked for the next Romney operation in 2011 between his second and third years at Harvard, and ended up with so much in his portfolio that at the end of the summer “they sort of said, well, you have to stay.” He became domestic-policy director while still in law school.
Returning to Bain after the election, Mr. Cass started writing on environmental and labor policy for National Review. His work caught the attention of the Manhattan Institute, which hired him as a senior fellow in 2015. His new book, “The Once and Future Worker,” grew out of responses to Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory.
Many public-policy experts, Mr. Cass said, saw the defeat of both party establishments as a marketing issue: “Maybe we haven’t done a good enough job explaining how great everything is.” Mr. Cass disagrees. Can working-class Americans “buy more cheap stuff? Absolutely. And do we now transfer more money to them, so they can buy even more cheap stuff? Yes,” he says. “But their ability to participate meaningfully in the labor market, and to become self-sufficient supporters of families has eroded badly.”
This dilemma is apparent in the vigorous intra-conservative debate over a new book, “The Once and Future Worker,” written by the former Mitt Romney domestic policy director Oren Cass. In certain ways the book is an extension of the reform-conservative project, an argument for policies that support “a foundation of productive work” as the basis for healthy communities and flourishing families and robust civic life. But Cass is more dramatic in his criticism of Western policymaking since the 1970s, more skeptical of globalization’s benefits to Western workers, and more dire in his diagnosis of the real socioeconomic condition of the working class. . . .
In a sense the debate reproduces the larger argument about whether a post-Trump conservative politics should seek to learn something from his ascent or simply aim to repudiate him — with Cass offering a reform conservatism that effectively bids against Trump for populist support, and his critics warning that he’s conceding way too much to Trumpist demagogy.
But the argument over Cass’s book also raises a larger question that both right and left are wrestling with in our age of populist discontent: Namely, is the West’s post-1980 economic performance a hard-won achievement and pretty much the best we could have done, or is there another economic path available, populist or social democratic or something else entirely, that doesn’t just lead back to stagnation?
Free trade, too, has come at a cost. “What if China sends $50 billion worth of electronics to the United States and we send $50 billion worth of U.S. Treasury bonds back to China?” asks a new book, The Once and Future Worker. Its author, Oren Cass, has one of the sharpest policy minds in this new vanguard. His pedigree is surprising. In 2012, the year he graduated from Harvard Law School, he was a top policy adviser for Mitt Romney at age 29. He now writes for the Manhattan Institute. “The issue that came up after the 2012 campaign was, What does conservative antipoverty policy look like?” Cass says. . . .
Cass’s book, timed for publication the week after the midterms, could either be the battle orders for a second Trump term or a to-do list for a successor stamped in the same mold. There is no mistaking the Trump-inflected themes of nationalism, populism and criticism of free trade. Cass, an alum of Bain & Co.–the progenitor of Romney’s Bain Capital–now wants “to combat the unfair trade practices of nations like China,” which threaten “to reduce opportunities for workers, lower the trajectory of their productivity and diminish the nation’s real prosperity.” He also goes after globalization. Currently “we free employers from the constraints of using the existing domestic workforce,” he writes, “offering them instead an option of using much cheaper foreign workers overseas or bringing the cheaper workers here.” Sanders and Bannon would agree.
Cass’s pro-worker policy includes wage subsidies, a standard conservative alternative to raising the minimum wage. Under one proposal the subsidy would act differently, by diverting tax giveaways enjoyed now by the wealthy–for instance, slashing further the mortgage-interest deduction–and sending that money down the economic stream, supplementing the paychecks of families while also reinforcing their work ethic. This could potentially address the problem tucked away in the unemployment numbers–that too many of the able-bodied have drifted out of the job market. The problem of “labor-force participation” is a subject for conservatives like Charles Murray and J.D. Vance. What’s striking in Cass’s argument is its unapologetic Robin Hoodism. He dispenses with homilies about morally educating the poor and instead vows to target the rich, “taking tax revenue drawn from higher earners and inserting it directly into the paychecks of lower earners.”
Cass is less inhibited than most because he’s a free agent.
About the Book
The American worker is in crisis. Wages have stagnated for more than a generation. Reliance on welfare programs has surged. Life expectancy is falling as substance abuse and obesity rates climb.
These woes are not the inevitable result of irresistible global and technological forces. They are the direct consequence of a decades-long economic consensus that prioritized increasing consumption―regardless of the costs to American workers, their families, and their communities. Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency focused attention on the depth of the nation’s challenges, yet while everyone agrees something must change, the Left’s insistence on still more government spending and the Right’s faith in still more economic growth are recipes for repeating the mistakes of the past.
In this groundbreaking re-evaluation of American society, economics, and public policy, Oren Cass challenges our basic assumptions about what prosperity means and where it comes from to reveal how we lost our way. The good news is that we can still turn things around―if the nation’s proverbial elites are willing to put the American worker’s interests first.
Which is more important, pristine air quality, or well-paying jobs that support families? Unfettered access to the cheapest labor in the world, or renewed investment in the employment of Americans? Smoothing the path through college for the best students, or ensuring that every student acquires the skills to succeed in the modern economy? Cutting taxes, expanding the safety net, or adding money to low-wage paychecks?
The renewal of work in America demands new answers to these questions. If we reinforce their vital role, workers supporting strong families and communities can provide the foundation for a thriving, self-sufficient society that offers opportunity to all.
Brad Wilcox, Wall Street Journal: "For too long, the American working class was ignored in politics and public policy. All that changed in 2016. The election served notice that the working class, especially working-class men, felt overlooked, alienated and angry and were desperate enough to try anything—even Donald Trump. Two powerful books now tell us why."
Yuval Levin, National Review: "Cass’s book stands . . . in the very top ranks of sustained efforts to make some policy sense of the political realities of our era. It offers a vision of the sort of direction the American right should have taken in recent years if it were actually responsive to the challenges and pressures the country now confronts."
Jason Furman, GoodReads: "A thoughtful, provocative, carefully argued book that made me change my mind on some issues that I thought I’d thought about quite a lot, which is about the best a book can do."
Catherine Tumber, The Baffler: "As that rare tract refusing to cater to any pre-existing major-party or industry-lobbying agenda, it should be placed firmly on the table for serious discussion."
Dani Rodrik, Project Syndicate: "How we balance these [economic] forces with the needs of communities will shape not only our economic fortunes, but also our social and political environment. As Cass and Rajan show, it is a problem that economists should no longer ignore."
Marvin Olasky, WORLD (2018 Book of the Year): "In this political environment The Once and Future Worker’s analysis is particularly important. Cass points out that even a low-paying job develops experience at coming to work on time, developing skills, and entering into a social network that often leads to more opportunities."
Charles Fain Lehman, Washington Free Beacon: "[Cass] calls this the 'working hypothesis: that a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy.' There is a lot of explanatory power in this simple idea."
Sam Hammond, Salon: "Taken together, the arguments in The Once and Future Worker present a coherent critique of hyper-globalization paired with a strategy for re-empowering the working class."
Jeff Spross, The Week: "This is a 180-degree turn from the orthodoxy that's ruled economic thinking — especially conservative economic thinking — for decades."
Steve Levine, Axios: "[Cass] is asking the right questions and proposing what is probably needed — an upside-down change to economic policy."