Editors’ note: This is a translated version of a review of Oren Cass’s book, The Once and Future Worker, by Emmanuel Todd that appeared in the French publication Books in April 2019. It has been translated and published here with permission.
Members of the French upper class, who generally read nothing in the American press except the New York Times and the Washington Post, tend to see Donald Trump as the most visible representative of a deplorable “populist” wave. They take him for the voice of a contemptible, uneducated portion of the population that smokes, drinks, and pollutes the atmosphere with its exhaust fumes. Against them stand the openminded and civilized middle class.
Of course, this is a false conception of things. It was enough to examine the Trump vote in 2016 to observe that most white American college graduates voted for him (not those who went on to postgraduate studies, especially if they went to the best universities, impregnable citadels of intellectual conformism, also known as Clintonism). The truth is that Trump’s election showed that his new proposals on economic, immigration, and environmental policy had already resonated, including among a segment of elites.
The opposition between what are called “populist” movements and movements of so-called “elites” has long been complicated by a major paradox: the “elites” express, in elegant and apparently moderate terms, absurd ideas that are characterized, in reality, by extreme violence. The discourse of globalization is nothing but—forgive the expression—shit in a silk stocking. Among its propagandists, we find well-bred persons who boast of every imaginable university credential, but who say awful things and condemn a significant part of the population to social exclusion. In the opposing camp, we find improbable personalities, such as Trump, who certainly utter obscenities, but obscenities that are in fact much more reasonable and moderate in their economic, social, and demographic implications.
Oren Cass’s book, The Once and Future Worker, might be helpful in closing this gap. It is a remarkable intellectual articulation of “populism,” a kind of manifesto of a polite Trumpist, if you will, one relieved of excessive language and so rendered amazingly convincing. The proof is the very favorable review by the columnist David Brooks in the very anti-Trump New York Times. His column suggests that this book is one of those rare works capable of affecting a change in attitude among its less dogmatic readers: it convinces through its moderation, its open-mindedness, and its willingness to negotiate ideas.
Cass begins by stating a thesis to which a specialist on societal dynamics like me cannot remain insensitive: he argues that no political program whose objective is the nation’s durable prosperity can be focused on purely economic questions. His critique of GDP and the rate of growth (which are not ends in themselves) is interesting because it avoids the usual pitfalls of anti-growth discourse. To be prosperous, Cass explains, a society must ensure that families and local communities fare well. And that is possible only if one gives people the means to earn their living through their work. Thus, economics is in the service of a higher goal: a general and more or less widely shared prosperity, which, in the end, benefits the economy itself, thanks to the effect of virtuous retroaction: “Policies that target growth without concern for the economy’s longer-term trajectory, or for the well-being of the society within which that economy operates, will tend to erode the capacity for growth,” Cass notes. For example, to import cheap products to the detriment of national production, or to favor massive immigration of under-paid manpower to the detriment of local manpower, may well add a few points to the GDP. But this may not be a winning calculation in the end: “Even if gains exceed the costs initially, what happens if the losses undermine stable families, decimate entire communities, foster government dependence, and perhaps contribute to skyrocketing substance abuse and suicide rates?” he asks.
How can a labor market create decent lives for everyone? Cass questions all of globalization’s principles. He prudently avoids using the term “protectionism,” except once or twice, with reservations. But protectionism is in fact what is at stake. He arrives at some radical proposals. He recognizes that taxes on imports, in the context of fluctuating exchange currencies, are complicated to implement, and that their effectiveness is a matter of debate. On the other hand, if a large American company, such as Tesla, decides to move its production to China, why not prevent it from importing the cars it then manufactures to the United States? To those who object that this would amount to declaring a trade war on China and exposing oneself to retaliatory measures, Cass replies that this war has already started, whether one likes it or not—it’s just that it’s been prosecuted by only one of the two sides. Numerous countries, particularly China, have long been practicing a form of ferocious protectionism (by favoring their national enterprises through discriminatory subsidies and regulations). If needed, Cass observes, the United States does possess a formidable lever where the Chinese ruling class is concerned: it could prevent their children from pursuing studies at American universities.
The question of immigration is posed with an acuity that can be unsettling. I confess feeling overwhelmed on this point. I was accustomed to considering Australian immigration policy as appalling, and of all immigration policies based on education level as intrinsically perverse and offensive to the logic of human rights (which, in fact, they are). At the same time, as Cass shows with great lucidity, the entry of very low-wage immigrants into the American labor market, or any labor market, only exerts a downward pressure on lower-wage workers. All employers favor it, but the effects are horrible for its first victims—the workers. Therefore, there is nothing scandalous about addressing immigration controls. One might oppose such measures, but Cass invites us to assess the human consequences of such opposition. He does this in his usual peaceful, measured, conciliatory tone. On the other hand, to welcome more educated immigrants is to introduce competition with the children of the middle classes; such selective immigration involves an implicit egalitarian factor, representing real generosity on the part of a welcoming middle class.
We find the same civilized originality when Cass takes up the problem of environmental regulations. Where air quality is concerned, regulations have undeniably been very effective (one breathes almost as well in New York City as in the national parks). But for American industry, which is required to spend a lot of money to conform to regulations, the tradeoff is not so wonderful. Cass views these rules as largely based on biased criteria: in order to justify them, a monetary value has been assigned to air quality. But this value has been greatly overestimated. In particular, it has not taken into account certain collateral damage: the closing of factories and the destruction of stable, well-paying jobs for the most disadvantaged. These jobs might have contributed more to the good health of blue-collar Americans—avoiding unemployment, instability, alcoholism, and suicide—than the reduction of particulate matter. Cass’s point is not to call for a reversal of existing environmental regulations; he wishes only that it not be extended, since the environmental benefits would be marginal compared with the social costs.
Overall, The Once and Future Worker favors the rehabilitation of manufacturing, since “it remains among the most productive economic activities for less-skilled workers.” Jean Fourastié understood this in his analysis of France’s Trentes Glorieuses (the three postwar decades of economic expansion): gains in the real standard of living are linked to gains in productivity, and gains in productivity happen in manufacturing. In a world without manufacturing, based uniquely on the tertiary economy, one sees neither gains in productivity nor increases in purchasing power. As Cass reminds us in a felicitous formulation: “Everyone can’t just serve each other coffee.” The production of tangible, exportable goods remains indispensable.
Support for industry has another inestimable virtue: it favors the least qualified workers, since industrial jobs are the only kind that make it possible for them to earn a living in a dignified way. This touches on a fundamental point: we must accept the fact that not everyone is destined for advanced studies—for becoming an executive, a chemist, or a software developer. Yet the current “elitist” discourse claims the contrary: it holds that the population must adjust to the economy, that it must make itself over in order to become more qualified—or die. Of course, the economy should adjust to the active population as it exists. Cass’s proposal for subsidizing the lowest wages establishes itself as a synthesis of Republican concerns (work incentives) and Democratic concerns (financial aid through taxes).
Though a man of synthesis, Cass’s pedigree remains unequivocal: he was part of Mitt Romney’s campaign team and is a member of a conservative think tank, the Manhattan Institute. He makes very good use of the subliminal rhetoric of white American conservatism: family, states’ rights, and local communities over big government. For those, like me, who remember the time when it was the Communist Party that showed interest in the proletariat, it is troubling to find oneself in a world where it is now American Republicans, such as Cass, who worry about workers. How is it that he proves to be infinitely more humane than a contemporary French socialist?
Perhaps, in order to feel solidarity with other people concerning questions of real life, we need to be penetrated, at least unconsciously, by the idea that we belong to the same community. Transnational discourse is rather nice, and at certain historical moments like this nationalist fever, can serve as a good corrective. But it has a dark side: it amounts to denying solidarity with the people who live in the same country as you do and speak the same language.
This is what Donald Trump has understood. He has expressed it in a shocking way, but his analysis is right. We could benefit in France from billionaires who share, if not his outrageous language, then certainly his good sense and social conscience. Is this just a pious wish? No doubt. French wealth and capital, alas, are not sufficiently autonomous, in relation to the state, compared with Trump’s independence of mind. The upper bureaucracy’s control of banks and many large French corporations prevents the development of moral good sense among billionaires. We are a little like Putin’s Russia—minus the patriotism of Russian economic elites.