There is an interesting, thought provoking and slightly scary article, by Arthur C Brooks in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Dignity Deficit.“
Warning: Dr Brooks is president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, so he writes with a point of view, but what he writes should make us all, even the most progressive, think a bit and even look back in anger at the last half century.
In part Arthur Brooks is explaining how President Donald Trump got elected, but he has more and larger fish to fry and the election of Donald Trump, he suggests, is part of a larger societal problem in America, in Canada, and in Australia, New Zealand and Europe, too.
Many observers, including me, agree that it was anger, not reason, that made tens of millions of Americans vote for President Trump, and, he says, “The roots of that anger lie all the way back in the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson launched his so-called War on Poverty. Only by properly understanding the mistakes made in that war—mistakes that have deprived generations of Americans of their fundamental sense of dignity—can the country’s current leaders and political parties hope to start fixing them. And only once they properly understand the problem will they be able to craft the kind of cultural and political agenda that can heal the country’s wounds.“
He takes some time to discuss those roots and the subsequent failure of LBJ’s Great Society programme (and, of course, of Pierre Trudeau’s copycat “Just Society,” too). Even Lyndon Johnson understood that there were limits to what handouts could achieve and, writes, “in March 1965, Johnson argued that the United States should aspire to more than simply sustaining people in poverty. “This nation,” he declared, “is committed not only to human freedom but also to human dignity and decency.” R. Sargent Shriver, a key Johnson adviser on the War on Poverty, put it even more explicitly: “We’re investing in human dignity, not doles.”“
“At its core, to be treated with dignity means being considered worthy of respect,” Dr Brooks writes, and “Certain situations bring out a clear, conscious sense of our own dignity: when we receive praise or promotions at work, when we see our children succeed, when we see a volunteer effort pay off and change our neighborhood for the better. We feel a sense of dignity when our own lives produce value for ourselves and others. Put simply, to feel dignified, one must be needed by others … [but] … The War on Poverty did not fail because it did not raise the daily caloric consumption of Tom Fletcher (it did). It failed because it did nothing significant to make him and Americans like him needed and thus help them gain a sense of dignity. It also got the U.S. government into the business of treating people left behind by economic change as liabilities to manage rather than as human assets to develop … [and] … The dignity deficit that has resulted is particularly acute among working-class men, most of whom are white and live in rural and exurban parts of the United States. In his recent book Men Without Work, the political economist (and American Enterprise Institute scholar) Nicholas Eberstadt shows that the percentage of working-age men outside the labor force—that is, neither working nor seeking work—has more than tripled since 1965, rising from 3.3 percent to 11.6 percent. And men without a high school degree are more than twice as likely to be part of this “un-working” class.” The votes of that “class” is what spelled the difference between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in several states and, despite the fact that she won the popular vote propelled President Trump to the high office he holds today.
Now, we conservatives have been saying, for decades, even centuries, that a job is the very best form of social programme and, protectionists, from Sir John A to Donald Trump have crafted programmes aimed at spending taxpayers’ money to create good jobs for their fellow citizens … and their programmes and project and policies have always failed, too, in some part because they make the very industries they are trying to protect weak and vulnerable because they do not have the advantage of healthy competition to make themselves productive and competitive … but that (free(er) trade and open markets) is a topic that I have dealt with several times, but Arthur Brooks says, “Many analysts and policy experts saw Trump’s campaign as a series of sideshows and unserious proposals that, even if implemented, would not actually improve things for his working-class supporters. For example, academic research clearly shows that trade protectionism—a major theme of Trump’s campaign—is more likely to destroy jobs than create them. Yet Trump won regardless, because he was the first major-party nominee in decades who even appeared to care about the dignity of these working-class voters whose lives are falling apart.“
But, perhaps, our focus has been wrong and our cries of “jobs! Jobs!! JOBS!!!” needs to be replaced with something that speaks to working Canadians about their dignity and worth to their families, their communities and their country. Perhaps we need to develop policies so that people can actually make ends meet on some mix of minimum wage jobs and limited social assistance. In any event we need to remind people that even a low paid, menial job is “better,” in every respect than lining up for a handout … it’s better for the country, it’s better for each community, it’s better for each family and it’s better for each individual. But it is pointless and even counter-productive to try to force business, especially small business, to carry the burden alone by increasing the minimum wage to outlandish levels ~ that will fail. Businesses with automate or move, when they can. Everyone: the individual, the local community, the province and the national government needs to work together to make people needed, again.
“The single most important part of a “neededness agenda,” Dr Brooks says, “is putting more people to work. The unemployment rate is relatively low today, at around 4.7 percent, after peaking at around ten percent in 2010, in the wake of the financial crisis. But the unemployment rate can be a misleading metric, since it does not take into account people who are no longer even looking for work. A more accurate measure of how many Americans are working is the labor-force participation rate: the percentage of all working-age adults who are currently employed. That figure hit a peak of just over 67 percent in 2000 and has since fallen to around 63 percent today. The decline has been particularly pronounced among men. In 1954, 98 percent of prime-age American men (those between the ages of 25 and 54) participated in the labor force; today, that figure has fallen to 88 percent … [and] … Involuntary unemployment saps one’s sense of dignity. According to the American Enterprise Institute economist Kevin Hassett, recent data suggest that a ten percent increase in the jobless rate may raise the suicide rate among men by almost 1.5 percent. And a study published by the sociologist Cristobal Young in 2012 found that receiving unemployment insurance barely puts a dent in the unhappiness that follows the loss of a job. Feeling superfluous triggers a deep malaise that welfare benefits do not even come close to mitigating.” I think we can assume that those data apply here in Canada, too.
The first step any government, including Justin Trudeau’s can take is to take a leaf from the Hippocratic Oath and “to abstain from doing harm” (ἐπὶ δηλήσει δὲ καὶ ἀδικίῃ εἴρξειν). For Justin Trudeau that should start with cancelling his foolish carbon tax, as John Williamson opines in MacLean’s.
“Increasing the labor-force participation rate will require significant tax and regulatory reforms to encourage more firms to locate and expand their operations in the United States,” Arthur Brooks say, and I assert that the same applies in Canada. “A logical first step,” he goes on to say “would be to reform the draconian American approach to taxing corporations. On average, between federal and state policies, U.S. businesses pay a tax rate of around 39 percent. That is far above the worldwide average of 22.5 percent and even more out of alignment with the average rates paid by companies in Asia (20.1 percent) and Europe (18.9 percent). One promising, revenue-neutral plan, put forward by the economists Eric Toder and Alan Viard (the latter of the American Enterprise Institute), would cut the U.S. rate to 15 percent (in conjunction with other important structural reforms).” If the US ever gets smart and cuts its corporate tax rates Canada will need to be smarter and cut ours (which are already lower) by even more.
Dr Brooks also tackles the specifics of welfare reform and disability benefits. Canada, where this is almost entirely a provincial matter, needs to do the same.
“The truth,” Arthur Brooks says “is that not all good economic policy aligns perfectly with conservative orthodoxy. Take, for example, the challenge of helping low-wage workers earn enough to support their families. For years, conservatives have railed against increases in the minimum wage, citing evidence that such increases do not decrease poverty rates and may well destroy jobs at the bottom of the pay scale. Although well intentioned, minimum-wage policies are more likely to restrict poor Americans’ opportunities to earn a stable living than to enhance them. So governments at every level should forget about increasing minimum wages—which is where the usual conservative argument ends. But they should also experiment with reducing minimum wages to help people trapped in long-term unemployment, making these vulnerable people more attractive to hire. Governments would then supply those workers with direct wage subsidies to increase their take-home income … Such pro-work policies would help achieve the noble goal of ensuring that hard work results in sufficient rewards, without the negative consequences that accompany minimum-wage hikes.” Ditto in Canada, I am sure.
Dr Brooks concludes with a challenge to America, but it is one that Canadians, especially Canadian Conservatives, should take up: “Many elites and officials have reacted to Trump’s victory with a combination of shock, alarm, and depression,” he says “But they should see it as an opportunity for learning and reform, and they should respond with a positive policy agenda that is radically pro-work and serious about developing human capital. And they should learn to treat people at the periphery of society—from Inez to Detroit to the Rio Grande Valley—with enough respect to share with them the cultural and moral norms that can bring happiness and success in life. Doing so would be politically prudent. But much more important, it would help fulfill the moral obligation that leadership brings: to maximize the inherent dignity that all Americans are born with, remembering that we all possess a deep need to be needed.“