The central problem of our time is the stagnation of middle-class wages, the disintegration of working-class communities and the ensuing fragmentation of American society.
I am not appalled that the Republican tax bill cuts the corporate tax rate to 21 percent. Some of my liberal friends treat this as a moral horror and trot out all sorts of awful distributional tables to prove it. But the fact is that Barack Obama repeatedly proposed cutting it to 28 percent and the average European corporate rate has now fallen to 18.4 percent.
All around the globe, cutting the corporate rate has become the conventional way to attract business and spur investment. It’s not some plutocratic conspiracy.
I am appalled that Republicans didn’t seek to balance this tax bill with an equal effort to help the people who actually got them elected. The central problem of our time is the stagnation of middle-class wages, the disintegration of working-class communities and the ensuing fragmentation of American society.
Our political leadership has shown an amazing ability to look the other way. George W. Bush fought a war on terror. Obama devoted his presidency to expanding health insurance. Donald Trump is all talk and no policy.
It doesn’t have to be this way. While Republican politicians are myopically besotted with pleasing their donor class, a new generation of conservative policy wonks has been coming up with dozens of ways to help the workers and the middle class.
For example, Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute has been touting a broad workers’ agenda: expand the earned-income tax credit for childless adults, cut payroll taxes, create fleets of buses so that struggling workers can commute to booming commercial centers, reduce the length of unemployment spells by giving jobless workers a modest cash bonus when they get a new job, streamline licensing requirements.
Currently about a third of all American jobs require a license, and these requirements to get them make no sense. The average emergency medical technician trains for 33 days, but the average cosmetologist has to spend 372 days in training for a license. This separates people from work.
Yuval Levin’s journal, National Affairs, has become a foundry of ideas to enhance social mobility, covering a range of topics:
Labor Force Participation: Eli Lehrer, president of the free-market think tank R Street Institute, and Catherine Moyer, a human-resources strategist, point out that while men drop out of the labor force at alarming rates, most of the fast-growing job sectors are dominated by women, like nurses, elementary school teachers and, yes, statisticians. They propose grants and other programs to induce men to get over cultural stereotypes and apply for these jobs.
They also point out that if you prevent employers from checking credit scores as part of the job application process, you can significantly boost workforce levels in poor credit areas.
Ex-Offender Policies: Economics professor Robert Cherry touts municipalities that delay asking about job applicants’ criminal records until the final stages of the hiring process. In one Minneapolis study, only 6 percent of the ex-offenders were hired when they had to announce their criminal record up front. When a new application form without that requirement was used, Minneapolis hired 60 percent of those with records.
Mobility Vouchers: A great mobility divide has opened up in America. Since 2010, those with college degrees have increasingly been moving across state lines to get jobs. Those with a high school education or less have seen their mobility rates decline. Lehrer and Lori Sanders, a policy analyst at the R Street Institute, recommend mobility grants, so the unemployed can move to where the jobs are. Migration zones would use federal and state tax credits to fund apprenticeship programs to ease the way for newcomers.
Career Pathways: In 2008, 90 percent of high school seniors said they were going to college. By 2013, only 32 percent of people in their mid-20s had a four-year degree. The “College for All” movement is misconceived, argue Robert Schwartz and Nancy Hoffman of the Pathways to Prosperity Network. The better approach is career and technical education, CTEs. These can be schools that begin at the high school level and blend into the community college level and provide training for specific jobs without forcing students to complete a full four-year college course load.
Union Reform: Writing in City Journal, Oren Cass, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute, argues that worker co-ops, of the kind found in Sweden and Denmark, are better suited to today’s flexible labor markets than old-fashioned unions. These would be worker-controlled and worker-funded organizations that would train workers, represent workers and look after worker interests far beyond any individual workplace. They wouldn’t be compulsory, but they would be civic organizations providing support to workers in all aspects of their professional lives.
Right now, Republican politicians have shown astonishingly little interest in these and other ideas, except Sens. Marco Rubio, Mike Lee and Tim Scott; Rep. Kevin Yoder; and a few others. And I confess, I don’t expect the GOP to be hurt by the decision to stiff its own voters. The historical pattern is clear: The less Republicans do for workers, the more alienated the workers become and the more they vote Republican.
But doing something to address the biggest problem of the age, which is wrecking thousands of communities and millions of lives, would be good for the country. That used to be the sort of thing politicians were interested in.