Listen to the victims of the Free Market
LAST week, I talked about why market liberalism is, despite its upsets , the right program for America. Today I'm going to talk about why American elites are doing such a bad job of selling it, and why I think people in both parties are revolting so strongly against their influence. Any government policy creates winners and losers; that is simply unavoidable. That's why I am always leery of articles about policy that consist of saying "This person has been helped" or "This person has been hurt." Even the Soviet economy worked well -- for the commissars. But you cannot run a nation of 300 million people by competitive anecdote.
Market liberalism is no exception to this problem. The dynamic forces of creative destruction make many people better off, especially the descendants who will inherit the collective fruits of generations of American ingenuity. It also makes some people indisputably and permanently worse off, as previously stable and profitable careers are made obsolete. Those people are not going to accept that they'll just have to lean into the strike zone and take one for the team, no matter how logically elegant your arguments.That said, the arguments for market liberalism are bound to sound a lot less convincing when they invariably issue from the folks who aren't expected to take one for the team -- who are, in fact, being made better off, thanks to skills that are prized by the global market and thanks to trade, automation and immigration that have put more goods and services within their reach. It's not so easy to remedy that problem, since academic economists and policy analysts are among the knowledge workers who have benefited greatly from liberalization. On the other hand, those people could stop being so tone deaf in the way that they talk about these things, and so blithely sure that what is good for them is, always and everywhere, good for everyone else.
To see what I mean, let's look at something that elites consistently fail to talk about in any meaningful way: good jobs. Oh, we talk around those things. We talk about trade and immigration, if forced, though we do not of course do any listening on the same topic. We talk about inequality, and paid leave. We talk about education. Politicians make ritual obeisances toward the necessity of decent work, promising that some policy, laughably inadequate to the task, will provide thousands of good jobs doing something we want to do for completely different reasons, like reducing carbon emissions.
But neither party has any meaningful pol- icy to foster good work -- by which I mean work that offers opportunity, stability, respect and enough money to raise a family. The closest either party comes is the $15-an-hour minimum wage, a policy with the slight drawback that it may throw a lot of people out of work.
Instead of asking how we have ended up with an economy that offers stability and reward only to the holders of a college diploma, and how we might change that, elites of both parties focus on the things they want for themselves. Republicans offer tax cuts and deregulation, as if everyone in America were going to become an entrepreneur. Democrats offer free college tuition and paid maternity leave, as if these things were a great benefit to people who don't have the ability, preparation or inclination to sit through four years of college, and as a result, can't find a decent job from which to take their leave.
While there are a lot of things on the parties' agendas that primarily benefit the educated, there are very few that primarily benefit people who aren't like us. The implicit assumption of elites in both parties is that the solution for the rest of the country is to become more like us, either through education or entrepreneurship. Rarely does anyone discuss how we might build an economy that works for people who aren't like us and don't want to turn into us.
And the giant hole at the center of this discussion we aren't having is work. We talk a lot about how to palliate the effects of a labor market that no longer offers many rewards to the less educated. We act as if jobs inevitably grow, like weeds, in the fertile soil of capitalism. Or worse, as if they were a sort of optional intermediary step in the important business of distributing money and fringe benefits. Given how central work is to the lives of the elite, how fearful we are of losing our own careers, this belief is somewhat inexplicable. It's also politically suicidal, as the current moment now shows us.