Jason Furman's Reviews > The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America

The Once and Future Worker by Oren Cass
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it was amazing
bookshelves: nonfiction, economics, policy

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. Cass agrees with many progressives on the problem (the lack of work for less-skilled workers), proposes some solutions that are not just the standard trickle-down, laissez faire ideas like wage subsidies, but also finds new arguments for a number of old conservative ideas like less environmental regulation. Overall a refreshing take on center right economic policy.

I strongly agree with Cass on the definition of the problem. Cass rejects the Panglossian views of some the people who like to deny the increased economic dysfunctions we are facing. Cass goes through a familiar recitation of the standard data on the slowdown of median income growth, the reduction in absolute mobility, and rising mortality rates. (Cass never uses the word “inequality” but in talking about the gap between mean and median incomes he is talking about the same topic.) The novelty was hearing this from the Manhattan Institute which I associated with the Scott Winship perspective that all these data were flawed and everything was much better than it appeared.

Cass goes one step further, rejecting the emphasis on growth and instead establishing a “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.” I am sympathetic, in many ways being excluded from the workforce is much worse than income inequality, creating a downward spiral of exclusion for people and communities. But I also think Cass goes too far given the strong correlation between growth and median/bottom income and broader positive effects, many of them documented in, among other places, Ben Friedman’s Moral Consequences of Economic Growth.

This orientation sets him apart from both the “welfarism” that dominates economics by focusing on incomes and income distribution not the jobs and broader meaning Cass focuses on. It also separates him from supply siders and their relentless focus on economic growth over everything else. Some of this makes sense but, again, I think Cass understates the degree to which more money—especially for families with children—improves long-run outcomes in areas like health, education, crime and the labor market.

The second part of Cass’s book focuses on policy issues and in almost every case he evaluates them based on their impact of the employment prospects of less-skilled men. This leads him to be more supportive of manufacturing and less supportive of free trade and immigration than your typical center right conservative or, for that matter, myself.

In other places, it leads him to familiar arguments—like the need for less environmental regulation, a shift from cost-benefit analysis to a regulatory budget, and a lexicographic focus on less-skilled employment over environmental protection. Some of his arguments on the misapplication of cost-benefit analysis ring true but in my view the solution is better cost-benefit analysis not less of it. And he does not acknowledge the ambiguous relationship between environmental protection and employment (e.g., does requiring scrubbers create jobs retrofitting power plants or cost them?)

Cass’s discussion of unions is a mostly one-sided case against them but is followed by a thoughtful set of ideas on alternative work relationships that have much in common with Richard Freeman and what many on the left are thinking about, only in Cass’s case these would be in lieu of standard work protections.

The leading “big idea” in the book is Phelps-style wage subsidies for low wage work, an idea that I think deserves serious consideration although I would pilot it first since it is relatively untested and lends itself to fraud (people and employers can agree to report higher hours worked and thus record lower wages and collect a bigger subsidy).

Finally, the third part of Cass’s book is in many ways the most interesting, covering cultural and community issues that many progressives shy away from, including what Cass perceives as the increased denigration of more blue collar jobs and what this means for images and support for this work.

In the end, I disagree with many of Cass’s recommendations but I’m glad he is in what is mostly the right debate to be having about our economic future.
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Reading Progress

October 31, 2018 – Started Reading
October 31, 2018 – Finished Reading
November 2, 2018 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Bill (new)

Bill A+ review my friend. I’m grateful for your clarity and the time you took to write it!

Sheree Cusack This is a fantastic review, there has been a lot of thought into this and the time taken to produce it is respected. I would like to know why you disagreed with many of his recommendations and which ones you think had merit.

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