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Manhattan Institute

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What We’ve Forgotten About the Importance of Work

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What We’ve Forgotten About the Importance of Work

New York Post November 5, 2018
EconomicsEmployment
OtherCulture & Society

Editor's note: The following is from the New York Post editorial board on an upcoming book by Oren Cass, The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America.

For decades, America’s economic debate has centered on “the pie,” with Republicans focused on making it bigger and Democrats on slicing it differently. The Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass warns that this leaves out something vital: How the economic pie is made.

That is, the value not of consumption, but of production — work. By itself, he notes, even rapid economic growth doesn’t guarantee a “healthy, inclusive,” self-sustaining society.

In “The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America,” due out this month, Cass argues for a different focus. And he recently outlined his case for The American Interest.

What if, he asks, “people’s ability to produce matters more than how much they consume?” What if it’s more important for people to work — to develop skills and industries, to support families and communities and to “find purpose” and derive “satisfaction from providing for themselves and helping others” — than to simply have more material goods?

This means that a healthy labor market, not mere growth, “is the central determinant of long-term prosperity” and should be “the central focus of public policy.”

The goal should be to promote, facilitate and encourage work rather than ever-greater consumption.

Welfare may feed the body, but the mind and soul still suffer. “Without work,” he notes, “self-esteem declines and a sense of helplessness increases; people become depressed.” He cites drops in marriages and a doubling of divorce rates, for instance.

“Work relationships represent a crucial source of social capital.” Communities that lack work, by contrast, “suffer maladies that degrade social capital and lead to persistent poverty. Crime and addiction increase, their participants in turn becoming ever less employable; investments in housing and communal assets decline; a downward spiral is set in motion.”

Worse, unemployment leads to dependency. It positions “illegality” as “a viable career path,” and “idleness” becomes an acceptable lifestyle.” Soon enough, the full-time worker looks “like a chump.”

If the goal is to preserve society’s long-term economic future, clearly the top priority should be promoting work. Cass offers several steps in the right direction:

  • Boost demand for workers, especially low-income ones, by lifting burdens on employers, particularly over-the-top environmental regulations that discourage investment.
  • Prepare more kids for real-world work through vocational-ed programs, apprenticeships and so on, rather than obsessing on a “college for all” goal.
  • Limit the supply of foreign workers competing for low-income jobs.
  • Relax labor and contract laws and government mandates that make it harder for employers to hire.
  • Make it cheaper to give folks jobs by trimming taxes, perhaps even subsidizing low-income positions.

Some of these are no-brainers, but many on the left and the right oppose them — a sign of how limited the US debate has grown. Plainly, our leaders need more fresh thinking like what’s coming from Cass.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Post

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