As President-elect Biden’s team prepares a plan to get the country back on our feet from COVID’s debilitating blow, he and his team will be considering a raft of economic proposals. But how should they assess which proposals to prioritize?
We need a new lens through which to analyze economic ideas. For too long, media and politicians have trumpeted stock market indices, GDP figures, trade deficits, and other macroeconomic indicators to portray the economic health of our nation. As wealth and inequality have soared to obscene levels in society, there is increasing public understanding that the Dow and quarterly corporate earnings reports aren’t the best measures of economic vibrancy. Yet there is less consensus on what economic indicators we should instead be heeding, a need that will grow in importance as we emerge from COVID.
Certainly, median wages and unemployment figures give policymakers better and more helpful indicators. But the President-elect and his team would be well-advised to focus on one statistic in particular to guide policy formulation in the months ahead: How many non-college individuals will gain jobs during this recovery?
Over two-thirds of Americans above the age of 25 do not have a college degree. In other words, they have been the heart of our workforce. And those without college degrees have suffered most from recent decades of neoliberal fetishization with globalization, unregulated open markets, and corporate-friendly free trade. Greater corporate monopolization combined with a concentrated war on unionization has deprived many of these workers of their liberty.
The non-college workforce took a big hit during the great recession of 2008 and never fully recovered. Then COVID struck. Fifty-six percent of non-college grads held a job prior to COVID; that number fell precipitously and is now only hovering at 51 percent. At the current trajectory, the heart of our workforce is unlikely to ever fully recover to pre-’08 levels, much less pre-COVID levels.
Consider what has been going on in the lives of non-college individuals who have lost jobs in recent years. Those who’ve been fortunate enough to maintain employment have seen a decrease in their wages over the past 40 years (after adjusting for inflation). Many have given up looking for a job (and are therefore not even recognized in some employment statistics). And for others, the so-called “diseases of despair”—drug overdoses, alcoholism, suicide—with their especially acute impact on the non-college population are grievously cutting lives short. While the pain has been spread across all demographic groups, Black lives have suffered disproportionately given the racial disparity in the non-college population.
In his thought-provoking new book, Tyranny of Merit, Michael J. Sandel writes that policy elites from both parties, with their “technocratic faith in markets,” have produced outcomes that generate hubris among the “winners” of the inequality divide, while fermenting humiliation and resentment among the “losers.” By telling the losers that “their inadequate education is to blame for their troubles, meritocrats moralize success and failure and unwittingly promote credentialism—an insidious prejudice against those who have not been to college,” Sandel writes.
In short, college-educated policy professionals have been flunking our nation.
To be clear, I’m making a case for less policy focus on people like me. I was fortunate to go to Harvard, get a law degree, and ultimately work as campaign manager to Bernie Sanders. Those of us with advanced degrees will continue to do just fine on the whole, and probably even better, once the non-college population starts thriving again.
Traveling all over the country with Bernie, I saw him make heroic efforts to win back understandably cynical and politically disillusioned working-class voters with a moral, humane, and bold populist agenda. In 2016, Trump helped the GOP win the votes of those who have been left behind. Biden was able to win back some of those votes in 2020. Therefore, now is the time to show the working class that a Democratic agenda can deliver real change.
Democrats would be letting the heart of the workforce down if we tell them we’re merely expanding a tax credit here or there. That’s not going to fundamentally change their lives in the bold ways that are required. Rather, we need to think big: make vocational and community colleges free, cancel debt, raise the minimum wage to a living wage, expand government-sponsored health-care coverage, create affordable housing, invest in building green infrastructure, accelerate decarceration, foster new small business ownership, among other actions.
The COVID response provides a major opportunity to create structural long-term solutions to our broken and unjust economic system. The important work that will be vital to COVID recovery can and should create many jobs here at home. Producing vials, distributing syringes, making sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment, outfitting schools and public places with safe (and green) spaces, building new health-care delivery centers in needed areas—all this should be led by the government while providing jobs with good wages and benefits. We must utilize the Defense Production Act—something Trump hesitated to do—in order to put the federal government in the role of prioritizing our production needs and mobilizing industry to do it.
The non-college workforce has been told for too long that jobs are gone and aren’t coming back. We need to be sending a very different message now. To look at our ailing and dysfunctional health-care system, the state of our public education system, crumbling infrastructure, outsourced supply chains, inadequate child care and home care, and so on is to understand that there is plenty of important and valuable work for the government to take the lead in creating. It may not be the kind of work that drives Wall Street profits or market rallies, but it is the work that can fulfill an individual’s pride in having a purpose-driven life. And President-elect Biden fundamentally understands that people want to hold jobs and feel respect for the dignity of their work.
During the 2020 primary, I remember then-candidate Biden telling a Teamsters forum in Iowa that “we treat people where I come from and the neighborhoods I come from with high school degrees…we treat you all like dummies if you didn’t go to college. We treat people in this country like they’re stupid.”
Elaborating further on his own sense of how we devalue labor, Biden said at a campaign stop in October, “If every investment banker in New York went on strike, nothing would much change in America. If every plumber decided to stop working, every electrician, the country comes to a halt.” Biden has said, “Respect first and foremost is treating you for what you are worth, what you do, the value add.”
He’s right. More than policy proposals, Democrats must meaningfully show that they respect labor. It should start at the top. The Biden Administration should think about placing individuals throughout the Administration who may not have college degrees, come directly from the working class, and who may have real-world experience being on the receiving end of government policies. We need more individuals in government who know what it’s like to fill out government applications, navigate food assistance, file for unemployment insurance, fight for Section 8 housing, get rejected from an SBA loan, etc. The Administration should see individuals with this background as a key asset to prevent bubble thinking from the “experienced” advanced degree set.
Democrats have a critical opportunity to re-instill faith in the public that government works. We can accomplish that arduous project by looking at every policy proposal through the lens of whether it improves the lives of the non-college workforce. It will be up to the President and his congressional allies, not greed-driven multinational corporations, to lead the way if we’re going to be a country that works for working people.