“The American dream is about the opportunity to earn happiness and the government has a responsibility to facilitate that,” the new populist version of Marco Rubio writes in an essay titled “America Needs to Restore Dignity of Work.” And really, what better place to make the case for the working man’s dignity than the pages of The Atlantic?
“Here was once a path to a stable and prosperous life in America that has since closed off,” Rubio goes on to explain. “It was a well-traveled path for many Americans: Graduate from high school and get a job, typically with a local manufacturer or one of the service industries associated with it, and earn enough to support a family.”
This is a well-worn populist tale, taken up by politicians in both parties. But is this really the American Dream? Does Rubio expect his children to toil at an entry-level job on a factory floor or work on a wait-staff for decades to attain a good pension? I imagine not. In fact, I imagine most parents with menial jobs during the 1970s—the decade Rubio seems to be romanticizing—had more extravagant plans for their children.
Fact is, politicians who get sentimental about lunch pails and union shops are talking about your kids—or at least the kids of people who aren’t reading The Atlantic.
As it happens, my story is similar to Rubio’s. My parents were also refugees from a Communist nation. I was also born in the early 1970s, and grew up in a community where many families “earned their happiness” running businesses without college educations. Perhaps Rubio’s memory is better than mine, because I recall the ’70s as a crime-ridden decade of stagnant economics, state bankruptcies, crushing energy prices, and retirement-destroying inflation. The era was so bad people wrote gushy odes to life in the 1950s.
Who knows? Perhaps in some communal ways, the 1970s were more comfortable, stable, and decent. But notwithstanding all the genuine problems we face, social and economic, by almost every quantifiable measure we are better off today.
Even if it weren’t the case, top-down economies have never proved to have the foresight to steer an economy in a way that best fosters growth, much less “dignity.” A big part of the post-’70s economic boom was contingent on policies freeing people from this kind of overbearing technocratic thinking. As another iteration of Rubio once explained, “big government — more often than not — is an impediment to the guy who is striving,” not the answer.
For one thing, what constitutes a dignified job? If Rubio’s parents (and mine) would have been happy with a lifetime in a state-run factory job with a guaranteed livable wage, health care, and pension, they would have stayed put. (And what a stable life that would have been!) But Americans find dignity—and prosperity—in all types of work. Some find self-respect as lawmakers who capriciously adopt every new political trend. Others find it in working with their hands. Still others find dignity in crunching numbers. Anyone who’s watched the show “Dirty Jobs” understands that workers are often the ones who instill menial labor with dignity, not the other way around.
Meanwhile, to make his case, Rubio causally drops a number of highly debatable contentions. For example, he argues that outside Silicon Valley, industrial innovation is virtually nonexistent. Simply because we don’t see game-changing inventions—like, say, the light bulb or the cotton gin—doesn’t mean that we aren’t experiencing innovation all around us. You might not be able to build a factory in Ohio around advances in genomics, nanotechnology, medicine, or agriculture, but they are real. Someone born in 1970s, as we were, should be looking at his cell phone in awe.
In fact, the very innovations Rubio says do not exist are what cause the problem he is lamenting. The senator argues that “constantly scrambling to keep up with the ever-shifting forces of globalization and automation is not the American dream. Applying these ex post facto fixes to a misaligned economy is not an attempt at a solution, but a justification. We’ve done better before, and we can do better now.”
None of this makes any sense. A “justification” for what? The economy isn’t a sentient moral being that can be reasoned with. How is it misaligned? There is no static configuration for the economy—in fact, if it isn’t organically reinventing itself all the time, it’s probably stagnating. And Americans have always kept up with globalization and automation. This is why millions of people have been migrating from rural areas to urban and suburban areas since the first industrial revolution.
Now, Rubio claims that these aren’t jobs he’s talking about but some fulfilling, yet unidentified, work that is yet to exist. He never explains how government is supposed enact this project—other than tweaking some tax breaks to corporations who are investing profits in ways that Rubio deems imprudent. (Because if anyone understands how to run a profitable, debt-free operation, it’s a lifelong politician.)
Rubio wants us to incentivize corporations to invest capital in more factories and such, whether it makes sense or not, rather than increasing the wealth of shareholders (who reinvest those profits in the economy). These kinds of populist efforts usually end with government bailing out corporations that are more concerned with appeasing the moral sensibilities of politicians rather than remaining competitive in the marketplace.
None of this is to argue that, for example, college is for everyone. That we shouldn’t look down on technical-skill certifications. That we should try to incentivize people to start businesses. Or even that the tax structure works. The idea that most Americans today are worse off than their parents were, however, is a myth that is constantly being plied by politicians eager to exaggerate and exploit suffering for political gain.
Of course, capitalism features displacement, and people suffer. That’s not new to this decade or this century. Rather than looking for ways to ease that transition, populists from Donald Trump (whom Rubio is trying to emulate) to Bernie Sanders promise to preserve those unproductive and antiquated jobs.
Now, I realize no politician will ever tell his constituents, “Hey, some people get hurt through creative destruction, but it’s totally worth it!” But that doesn’t make it any less true.