Go to college or you’re sunk?

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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Clarifying sentence from Clive Crook:

When prosperous liberals vote their values, not their interests, that’s enlightened. When poor conservatives do it, it’s dumb.

P.S.: Talking Points Memo has a good short report on the resistance of Santorum voters to the “go-to-college-or-you’re-sunk” world they perceive Obama as creating: “I think [Santorum’s] saying, ‘Do you think that that’s the only way you can be a successful person? To go to college?’” These concerns don’t seem to be about money (“interests”). Bubbling not-far from the surface is the realization that a world in which economic success depends rigorously on skill and smarts is much less pleasant than the one we’re used to–a world where the successful not only have more money but also a claim that they’re better. (They have the smarts and skills, after all.) No amount of prosperity, voters reasonably conclude, can outweigh that loss of social equality. …

What’s amazing is that Obama and his allies haven’t recognized this concern and figured out a way to honor and defuse it.  “That’s the global economy,” says Obamaphile Jon Alter on Twitter.** Fatalism of that sort would go down easier if Obama and his allies (and half the GOP elite, including Newt Gingrich and Jeb Bush) weren’t ready to import global workers to further drive down the wages of the unskilled Americans, just in case a tight labor market might allow a few of them to make it into the middle. The enlightened Dem reformers at Obama & Co. sometimes*** seem all too comfortable striving for a world in which the educated get the middle class jobs, immigrants take the low-skilled jobs and unskilled Americans are zeros (though they get health care).  Voters, foolishly, resist.

Extra Credit: Bill Clinton: “Make work pay!” Jon Alter: ” No skills=poverty.”  Discuss …

Update: Trying to summarize the difference between Alter’s view and mine, I tweeted: “Do we make unskilled work pay enuf or assume unskilled work won’t pay enuf + try 2 give everyone skills?” Crook responded: “Why not some of both?” The answer, I think, is 1) of course you do some of both, but 2) which strategy you’re relying on makes a difference in terms of policy and, more important, culture.

If you pursue a Clintonian “make work pay” strategy you will exhort people to work at the best job they can get and keep at it, even if it requires few skills. You will end long-term cash welfare for the able-bodied and instead try to build a system of work-based benefits (and livable public spaces) to guarantee that even an unskilled couple making at or near the minimum wage can live decently above the poverty line.**** A tight labor market (and resulting higher wages) at the bottom will be a priority–not only more low-skilled jobs (in manufacturing and elsewhere) but fewer low-wage immigrant competitors for the unskilled jobs (e.g. janitors) that aren’t or can’t be outsourced to Asia and Latin America. That means E-verify and keeping the Latino lobby honest when it comes to controlling future illegal entrants.

But if you’ve given up on the idea that low-wage work can lead to a dignified life, you won’t care that much about unskilled immigration–the jobs immigrants and guest workers take are not only are jobs “Americans won’t do” but jobs Americans shouldn’t want to do, because they’re sub-poverty Third World jobs. You’ll focus on educating all unskilled Americans (never mind that this is something our school system is quite bad at). If Americans don’t do well in this training system, despite being given ample access, you’ve effectively told them they are more or less losers. What to do with them? The temptation will be just to subsidize them–let them go on disability, give them “trade adjustment assistance,” relax the work requirements on welfare, etc. They just can’t make it in the global economy. In the interest of fighting economic poverty and money inequality, you will already have sacrificed social equality–either by looking down your nose at the Americans who (despite all the schooling) wind up doing unskilled work or at the immigrants doing unskilled work while unskilled Americans go on a dole (and lose the respect that used to come with any kind of work).

I’m exaggerating here, but you get the idea. The second, everybody-gets-skills approach must be very tempting for Obama: It finesses the immigration issue. It pleases business leaders, who need skilled and semi-skilled workers and love low wages for the unskilled. Its dole-friendly aspect satisfies liberals who were never happy with the Clintonian emphasize on “work” rather than “unmet needs.”

I’m worried it’s the course Obama is pursuing. I’m not worried that the voters will like it.


**  — Santorum’s anti-college remarks were “a good way to wreck the middle class,” Alter tweeted in response to the TPM report. (Is it fair to quote someone’s tweets? It’s more than fair! Twitter taps into the id. Self-censors don’t have time to do their job, and they’re inhibited by the realization that nobody would want to read tweets if they did.)

***– Obama’s celebration of manufacturing has the potential to cure this problem, if he can extract himself from the argument he’s started over whether it makes sense to single out one sector for tax subsidy. (Can’t he just cheerlead–and clear away unnecessary regulatory obstacles? [Like the N.L.R.B.?-ed Shhh.])

****–For a description of the benefits available to workers (“work support”) see Haskins or Sawhill. Here’s Haskins:

The work support system is a series of federal programs that provide cash and in-kind benefits to working families. The major work support programs are child care, Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), food stamps, the child tax credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and housing. This system provides around $80 billion in annual benefits to working families

Add “Obamacare” to the list. … You can get some of these benefits if you don’t work–e.g. SCHIP and, in practice, food stamps. The key point is that if you don’t work they aren’t enough to live on. If you do work, however, they are in theory enough to lift you and your family out of degrading poverty. …

Mickey Kaus