Oren Cass joins Brian Anderson to discuss labor unions, past and present, and to offer an alternative model for organized labor. This 10 Blocks episode is the third based on City Journal’s special issue, The Shape of Work to Come. The discussion draws on Oren's essay, 'More Perfect Unions.[
It isn’t crazy to think labor groups should focus on delivering benefits to workers instead of campaign contributions to politicians. Or to suggest employees in the modern economy have more to gain from collaboration with their bosses than from conflict. If Democrats and Republicans want robust civil society, competitive markets, widely shared prosperity, and a stronger safety net, they have more than enough reason to give organized labor—in a new form—a fresh look.
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. Organized labor is neither inherently partisan nor inherently counterproductive economically.
If the least productive workers can just disappear, policymakers achieve 'success' by dismissing the challenge that deserves greatest attention. Instead, our conception of 'productivity growth' must impose accountability for labor-market exits, recognize the value of keeping low-productivity workers connected to the job market, and have an explicit goal of ensuring that those workers are included in progress. This is doubly true because productivity measures do not fully capture the value of a job, which offers substantial non-economic benefits to many workers and may also be the best avenue for them to gain new skills and thereby increase their productivity over time. A high-productivity job requires a highly productive worker. A future filled with such jobs will materialize only if today’s less productive workers become able to do them.
Are employers who choose to offer even more flexibility than the law requires therefore undercutting women even further? And how should gender discrimination be policed if federal employment policies are a cause of disparities in pay and promotion and the employers offering women the most generous options are the worst offenders? The especially committed social engineer might decide to tackle this challenge by attempting to force women's life choices to conform to men's, or vice versa. Good luck. Sweden has even tried paying couples to use equal amounts of leave, to little effect.
Levin is at his best when making the secular case for social conservatism--describing how 'expressive individualism,? in coming to dominate American culture, has eviscerated many of society's critical institutions, and what an alternative built on relational obligations and 'morally meaningful communities? might look like. While declaring it 'rather obvious . . . that cultural and economic factors are inseparable,? Levin views 'family breakdown, cultural dysfunction, and the polarization of norms? to be the primary culprits impairing opportunity. His formula of subsidiarity, however, makes an awkward fit for this challenge.
President Obama's policies for tackling climate change would impose heavy costs borne disproportionately by lower-income U.S. households. His Clean Power Plan (CPP) and proposal for a $10.25-per-barrel oil tax are the equivalent of a $25?$30-per-ton carbon tax, which would cost America's poorest families tens of billions of dollars per year.
Ensuring that even those with very low human capital enter and remain in the workforce offers one of the highest leverage points for breaking the cycle of social decay. A job provides not just a wage, but also structure, skills and social engagement. It gets someone onto the first rung of the economic ladder, which is the first step to climbing any higher. New policies should aim for this outcome -- making work pay, not paying regardless of work.
America's 'lower class,? for lack of a better term, is undergoing an unprecedented social collapse that threatens to destabilize core American principles. The data on marriage, parenting, employment, civic engagement, and basic values show a widening and sometimes accelerating gap between classes. This form of inequality is far more consequential than income inequality because strong families and communities, unlike high incomes, are the cornerstones of a free and fair society.
The official unemployment rate instead makes each dropout from the labor force as great a success as a new hire and depicts a 'recovery? that never occurred. Only if held directly to the job growth rate, or to an unemployment rate that back-dates labor force participation to the end of the recession, will policymakers focus on the economic growth and job creation that the economy still needs. The unemployment rate today is nearly 10 percent; what are we doing about it?