“Despite three years of robust economic growth, millions are unable to find dignified work; they feel forgotten and left behind. We are left with a society with which no one is happy.” This is Senator Marco Rubio’s assessment of our current socioeconomic situation as a nation—and it’s bleak. Rubio believes that most Americans today have lost sight of the American Dream. They are struggling to find dignified work; a direct result of a modern economic system that no longer serves its people. Rubio contends that many Americans feel alienated by our current economic system, as evidently reflected by rising suicide rates, declining birth and marriage rates, and the opioid epidemic.
This unhappy society was the subject of a speech that Rubio gave earlier this month at the Catholic University of America. There can be no doubt, based on the content and tenor of his speech, that Rubio certainly fears for the fate of our nation and its people; it’s clear in his earnest presentation of the issues as he sees them. His love of country shines through, as does his fear of it succumbing to the evils of socialism and the excesses of capitalism. His diagnosis of, and subsequent prescription for, the problems we face as a nation simply miss the mark. Rubio manages to fear-monger more than problem solve.
Rubio’s new economic plan, which he calls “Common-Good Capitalism,” hearkens back to simpler times; a golden age of American history when families could thrive on the income of a factory worker and live comfortably in the same house for 50 years. Our economic landscape is vastly different now and, to Rubio, this shift is the cause of widespread unhappiness; a crisis of purpose among the American people. Rubio wants to place the blame on someone or something and, in his new plan, he blames globalization.
The senator wants to help the American people find dignity in work again by keeping old jobs and tamping down insidious “globalist” forces. In turn, Americans will again be within reach of the American Dream of the 1950s. The problem is, no one wants that dream anymore: “We have condemned the next generation of Americans to be the first to enter adulthood worse off than their parents.” Whether younger generations will be able to live in a house as large as their parents’ or rely on the same income from the same job for years is not the question that Rubio should be focused on answering. Generations coming of age today are abandoning the American Dream of their parents and replacing it with a dream of flexibility and self-reliance. The American Dream is evolving, not dying. Senator Marco Rubio should focus his policy-making efforts on encouraging that change by embracing innovation, not insulating the American people from it.
In the unveiling of his new policy, Common-Good Capitalism, Rubio references at length a famous encyclical, Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”), written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. This encyclical had a profound and lasting impact on Catholic social teaching. Written at the beginning of the Second Industrial Revolution, when most factory workers still had very few rights and were severely exploited, this document called for fair wages and reasonable working conditions. Pope Leo fought for the rights of workers during an era in which child labor laws were just appearing on the scene in Europe and were barely enforced in America. In nineteenth century Europe, it was common for a child as young as eight to work 14 hour shifts at the blanket factory. Needless to say, times have changed. Our fight for dignity in work looks quite different now, in modern America.
When Pope Leo wrote this encyclical in the 1890s, he was advocating a different kind of dignity than that of which Republicans traditionally speak—dignity from work. Now, Rubio pushes forth the idea that we have the right to dignity of and from our work. Republicans typically say dignity is inherent in work itself; not just the income you earn but also the dignity in pride that comes with contributing to society. Democrats see dignity as dependent on the quality of the job and argue that work is only as dignified as the wages, protections and benefits workers get from it. Rubio has now managed to combine the worst aspects of both major party talking points—the populist notion that free-market, free-trade capitalism has made us unhappy and purpose-less. Because of globalization, we no longer have the opportunity for dignified work—though unemployment numbers indicate otherwise—and therefore no longer want to marry, have children, or go to church.
The senator evidently believes that the 130-year-old document, written in an era of economic, social, and political upheaval, still holds the answers to our problems today. In his new policy plan, Rubio echoes Pope Leo’s belief that workers and businesses should not be competitors fighting with each other for their share of limited resources. He thinks that this competition is making people miserable. That conclusion is debatable. It assumes there is someone or something to blame for the psychological state of humanity under a liberal democratic, capitalist system (a state of humanity which has, arguably, never been better). It also fails to acknowledge how much our working world has changed in 130 years.
This America of “dignified work” was the America that Rubio’s parents came to in 1956—a place in which it was possible for poorly educated immigrants like them to find dignified work (a bartender and a maid, respectively), purchase a house, raise a family, and leave all four of their children better off than themselves. This is what Rubio refers to as the “American Dream” in his essay for the Atlantic, published last year. He harnesses this nostalgia for a bygone era in his new policy. This “MAGA” mentality has become a talking point for most major party politicians today; that sepia-toned vision of the 1950s, when all one had to do to live comfortably was graduate from high school, skip college, and work a local manufacturing job or guaranteed corporate job for life. He depicts a time when we didn’t have to worry about the “globalists” interfering in our lives.
This narrative tends to take a more sinister form than Rubio’s for many who espouse it, as Jonah Goldberg describes in his book Suicide of the West:
The pull of the tribe is inscribed on every human heart…Romanticism, the feeling that the world we live in is not right, that it is…out of balance, oppressive, exploitative… Our natural wiring drives us to the belief that someone must be responsible.
These “evil string pullers” take many different forms, depending on the narrative being pushed. Today, on the Right side of the aisle, our problems are blamed on the globalists and the cultural Marxists. While invoking the teachings of Pope Francis, Rubio nevertheless plays into the hands of the populist MAGA crowd throughout his speech. He opens by calling out the media and political elites, implying that the elite-controlled system is behind America’s decaying societal framework. He admits that he is recently reformed to populist talking points, after seeing how unhappy the people are who ended up voting for Donald trump. He now blames all the countless cultural and societal changes on string pullers like China and various elites. In many ways, Rubio’s new Common-Good Capitalism sounds like something Donald Trump would push for in his protectionist “America First” policies.
It might benefit Rubio to remember that America would be much worse off today if it had clung to the closed, protectionist economy of the 1950s and 1960s. It should also be noted that, in this “ideal” economy of the 1950s, there was a permanent underclass created by segregation in the South. The oppression of an entire people—black Americans—made it possible for many others to have those steady factory incomes, pensions, and nice houses. This is simply no longer the American Dream today and there may not be an evil string puller to blame for it.
The hearkening back to the days when one could work a stable but unfulfilling job at the factory—usually consisting of some type of backbreaking labor—is an odd theme we see play out across the aisle now. The fact remains that, in the 1950s and 1960s, most Americans lived in smaller houses, ate worse food, worked more hours, and died, on average, seven years earlier than today. Why do politicians like Rubio insist on viewing the past through rose-colored glasses?
In the late nineteenth century, the quickly changing world of the Second Industrial Revolution led to very similar societal fears that Rubio and other politicians tap into today. These fears centered around the loss of freedom and autonomy of the individual. Many workers, accustomed to working for themselves—perhaps laboring in the fields or sewing at home—were now having to adjust to the monotonous life of the factory worker. Factory workers engaged in incredibly boring, repetitive tasks. Films like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times ridiculed this new working environment while simultaneously capturing the anxieties of the time. The days of traditional agrarian work were gone, replaced by the human robot.
This factory work was laborious and not particularly dignified. As industries continued to innovate, new technology eventually allowed workers to outsource these mundane tasks to machines instead. Data indicate that technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed, over the past 140 years. According to findings from a study commissioned by Deloitte a few years ago, hard, dangerous, and dull jobs have declined dramatically, showing clearly that technology has cost jobs. But the question of whether or not these were really jobs we would want to cling to as a society is certainly a relevant one.
Technology directly substitutes human muscle power and, in so doing, raises productivity and shrinks employment. Technological progress has also helped to dramatically reduce the prices of essentials such as food and household goods. That shift left more money for Americans to spend on leisure, and, in turn, creates new demand and new jobs. If most Americans today had the option of guaranteed work, I doubt they would choose to toil away for 14 hours in a factory. Even if it guaranteed an income, there would be little dignity associated with that work. There is nothing inherently dignified about work that exists only because of government protectionism. As Henry David Thoreau remarked in his 1863 essay, “Life without Principle”:
Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.
Rubio’s proposed solutions embedded within his plan for Common-Good Capitalism won’t bring back the golden age of post-war boom and family values. It will stifle our ability to adapt to change. Younger generations of workers acknowledge that some work can be drudgery, some jobs unfulfilling, and most employment opportunities no longer guarantee income for life. The new American workforce has adapted accordingly.
While there is certainly an argument to be made that many jobs today lack intrinsic meaning and perhaps don’t fulfill our core desires as humans in constant pursuit of happiness, I’m not sure any job ever did. What we do have available to us now is the opportunity to shift our focus—we may not need to view work as the be-all and end-all of our existence, thanks to technology. Many people now realize they cannot rely on corporations to remain faithful to them. Millennials are known as the job-hopping generation for that reason; they are the most likely generation to switch jobs. Six in ten millennials are consistently open to new job opportunities. Most Americans now value flexibility over stability in a job. Self-employment continues to be a rising trend in the American workforce. Addressing this dramatic change should be a priority for policy makers, more so than focusing on traditional job models. A 2018 Fresh Books report on self-employment shows that millions of Americans are constantly leaving traditional work behind in favor of self-employment.
Self-employment is not a new phenomenon. In 1860, nearly 80 percent of the American workforce was self-employed. In 1900, just 50 percent of American workers were self-employed. By 1977, that number had fallen to just 7 percent, as giant firms began to control the economic landscape. Now, Americans are redefining the American Dream again, this time for the twenty-first century. Millennials are the generation of self-reliance; by realizing that traditional jobs will simply not give them the freedom to chart their own futures, they have turned to working for themselves—whenever and however they want. Most freelancers prioritize lifestyle over earnings. Self-employed freelancers are so passionate about the lifestyle that independent work affords them that about half say they wouldn’t take a 9-to-5 job no matter how much money they were offered.
As automation continues to impact our workforce, it will allow us, as a society, to optimize our lives. We can spend more time doing what we enjoy, and less time in the mundane world of work. Marco Rubio, in his push for Common-Good Conservatism, is joining the ranks of other American conservatives who seem obsessed with preserving certain types of industries that are on a slow and steady decline, like manufacturing. Resuscitating these inefficient sectors and keeping them on government-mandated life support cannot guarantee long-term dignity for workers. Public policy makers should acknowledge that economies change over time and so does the nature of work and, in turn, the workforce. Attempts to romanticize these industries are misguided.
“So what will we do,” Rubio asks, “to reclaim the kind of country we want America to be?”:
Deciding what government should do about it must be the core question of our national politics. The old ways simply will not do. The notion that, left unguided, the market will solve our problems will not restore a balance between the obligations and rights of the private sector and working Americans.
And, in a sense, Rubio is right—just not in the way he thinks. Americans’ priorities have changed and the way we work has changed; old solutions cannot be applied to new problems. The “dignity of work” is both a recognition of how hard it is to achieve the American Dream, and the reward for getting there. Rubio believes we are no longer reaping the rewards from our hard work. He is wrong—these rewards just look different now, and Rubio is attempting to navigate this new economic landscape using an outdated guidebook. The American Dream of the 1950s is not the American Dream of 2019.
Perhaps the better prescription for our problems is not nostalgia for the past but an acceptance of the present. Instead of focusing policy efforts on keeping traditional jobs in the United States, we should concentrate on making work less central and less essential for all Americans. Embrace flexibility, encourage workers to look outside of work for their happiness, fulfillment, and ultimately their dignity. Instead of attempting to halt the “global forces” that have supposedly made life harder for working Americans, policymakers should allow workers to reap the benefits of automation and help those actually in need.
An argument can certainly be made that the government could and should do more to help those experiencing poverty and the struggling working class. This shouldn’t mean curtailing big business ventures. It could start instead with introducing policies like a universal basic income, or U.B.I., a fixed income that every adult, rich or poor, working or unemployed, automatically receives from government. It is true that the demand for less advanced skills easily replaced by technology is declining but the rise of online platforms and marketplaces is also changing the way people work and the terms under which they work. Individual contributors only need an internet connection now to market their skills and sell their work. This change in work was unprecedented in the 1950s.
Rubio’s policy of Common-Good Capitalism proposes active intervention in the economy to advance the common good, rooted in the belief that the cultural and societal changes of the past 20–50 years have been mostly bad for the American people. Stifling innovation to promote the common good would ultimately do more harm than good, primarily since coming to an actual agreement of what constitutes the “common good” is enough of a challenge for philosophers, let alone the government. Encouraging more innovation, testing out new policies to help the impoverished and under-served in our population: these are the best ways to adapt to our changing economic landscape.
Perhaps Rubio’s heart is in the right place; his misdirected policies are just for a different era. As Jonah Goldberg contends, “I do not think our problems are policy problems. The crisis that besets our civilization is fundamentally psychological. Specifically, we are shot through with ingratitude for the Miracle.”
Maggie Selner is a Texan, University of Dallas alum, tech professional, and history buff who enjoys writing on the intersection of history and politics. You can follow her on Twitter @MaggieSelner
Featured pic by Gage Skidmore (Flickr)