Democrats and the End of Work

Much as I agree with much of what former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has to say in his op-ed in the Washington Post:

Since the New Deal, Democrats have thrived when championing ideas moored in the belief that rights come with responsibilities and that benefits are earned through work. If we fail to return to that agenda ahead of the 2020 election, we risk squandering a rare opportunity. Fortunately, we now have a chance to shift the narrative.

Amid all the talk about programs designed to redistribute America’s wealth, the phrase most glaringly absent from the 2020 campaign to this point is “inclusive growth.” With former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick entering the race last week and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg emerging as another late entrant, we can begin to have an ideas primary in earnest. We’re stronger as a party when we debate substantive proposals for how to expand prosperity and opportunity. But to meet the far left’s big ideas, traditional liberals need to show up with bold ideas of their own.

Admittedly, I’ve been critical of those trying to the steer the Democratic Party further to the left. I think Medicare-for-all is a pipe dream, though I support efforts to expand coverage and control costs. And much as I agree that concentrated power is a threat to American prosperity, I believe a universal basic income runs counter to America’s deep-seated belief that people should earn their living by working hard and playing by the rules. As power and money have flowed away from the working and middle classes — a change driven as much by technology and globalization as by a rigged system — government has too frequently turned the other cheek. Since we have consensus on the nature of the problem, the question then is how to level the playing field.

Traditional liberals need to begin offering their own bold ideas for three principle reasons. The first and most important centers on history. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, Bill Clinton’s New Covenant, and Barack Obama’s belief that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America. There’s the United States of America,” all appealed to voters by tapping into the nation’s firmly established belief that people should earn their prosperity through hard work. Social Security and Medicare aren’t handouts; they’re financed by what workers pay through a payroll tax. The GI Bill and AmeriCorps both offer tuition assistance in return for national service. The earned-income tax credit is designed to boost families working their way out of poverty.

By tying benefits to work, the programs that remain the central pillars of the Democratic Party’s legacy stand apart from the agenda the far left has embraced in this campaign. Our most sweeping successes fighting poverty have emerged when we’ve offered the American people a core bargain: If you work through the course of your life, the government will help you climb into the middle class. When our party has nominated candidates banging the drum for redistribution — such as George McGovern or Walter Mondale — we’ve lost. Hopefully, bids from Bloomberg and Patrick will serve as a wake-up call.

I have some points of disagreement as well. First, he’s overstating the degree to which present benefits are actually based on work. Presently, there are funding shortfalls in a number of Social Security and Medicare trust funds. The shortest, most simplified version of that is that 98% of outlays are based on work while 2% aren’t. Unless action is taken by Congress the percentage of outlays that aren’t based on work will only increase.

Second, you can’t have a benefits system based on work without controlling immigration unless you’re willing to exclude illegal immigrants from benefits. We do not do that at present, at least not really. Not only is that going to become increasingly difficult politically as the percentage of illegal immigrants in the population increases, that illegal immigrants are not subject to the taxes that support the benefits is both one of their attractions and a strain on the system. Simply put, a political party may support controlling immigration and a work-based benefits system or tolerating illegal immigration and a benefits system not based on work and remain coherent but it can’t support tolerating illegal immigration and a work-based benefits system and remain coherent which is about where the Democrats are right now. I don’t think any country including the United States can afford to tolerate illegal immigration while maintaining an expansive, inclusive benefits system but that’s a topic for a different post.

Is that incoherence the price of keeping the caucus together? I think it may be.

Note, too, that he’s ignoring Lyndon Johnson and Medicaid. Medicaid isn’t based on work and, since Medicaid outlays are just about the same as Medicare outlays, about $600 billion dollars a year, that’s a pretty significant omission.

Most importantly I think he’s missing something more basic. If you do not believe that most Americans will be able to find work that would also allow them to pay for the benefits you want to convey, abandoning work-based benefits programs makes sense. I do not know whether they think that all jobs will be exported to China, be performed by illegal immigrants, taken by robots or all of the above but that certainly seems to be the future that’s being envisioned.

11 comments… add one
  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    OT, but an interesting editorial from WSJ about outsourcing that makes many of the arguments made here — that outsourcing low value manufacturing cannot be ring fenced, it leads to outsourcing of high value design and the destruction of the ecosystem for future high value production.

    What raises my eyebrow is it appeared in the staunchly pro-free trade WSJ.

    The prevailing mood sure is changing — even if people don’t agreed on the policy response.

  • Greyshambler Link

    Work is largely who we are, conveys many benefits beyond money.
    He also didn’t mention ADC, which gave the nation millions of well fed, Healthy young adults without fathers, faith, or morality. I wouldn’t expand on that mistake.
    If the only jobs Americans can find are shining shoes, we’ll have the shiniest Chinese made shoes on the planet, but if government doesn’t take motivation away, they will do better than that.

  • Yes, eliminating AFDC (Aid to Families With Dependent Children) was one of the signature reforms of the Clinton era. The progressive wing of the party has been chafing over that ever since.

  • Greyshambler Link

    And this is not all new, I remember reading speculation fifty years ago that productivity increases would lead to a twenty hour work week.
    It may be they made the same mistake as most Leftists, that human nature can be shaped by an altruistic government.

  • steve Link

    While Medicaid is not based upon work, most Medicaid pts do work.

    Then you need to remember the demographics of Medicaid. The largest number of people on Medicaid are disabled (about half of Medicaid is spent on them), then you have children, then the elderly (long term care) then everyone else, a fairly small group. Guess what? We dont spend that much on everyone else. So where is all that money we are spending on illegal immigrants for Medicaid?


  • My point remains that Medicaid is not based on work.

    I’m not recommending that Medicaid be abolished–just pointing out that Rahm’s claim is incorrect. A big chunk of our benefits system is not related to work.

    And I never claimed that Medicaid spent a lot of money on illegal immigrants. To the best of my knowledge all that Medicaid spends on illegals is about $2 billion/year on emergency care and whatever Medicaid is spent on CHIP. Separate CHIP programs are another benefit not related to work.

  • Andy Link

    Off topic, but I ran across this on market-based health care. I haven’t heard of it before and haven’t looked into it further, but it seems like an interesting experiment, but one that probably doesn’t scale well. The webpage is weird, there’s a transcript for most of the podcast if you scroll down a bit for those who want to read instead of listen.

  • Andy Link

    Back on topic.

    I just don’t see any coherent vision anymore beyond wanting to expand government benefits to friendly constituents and denying benefits to unfriendly ones. That goes for both parties.

    Centrist Democrats like Rahm seem to come the closest to a coherent framework, but I think that faction is too weak to actually get legislation passed in a political environment where ideology trumps the practicalities and elected politicians fear becoming heretics more than just about anything.

  • steve Link

    Andy- I am privileged to have some inside information on the Oklahoma Surgicenter that libertarians love so much. It is bit of a scam*, but not entirely. The prices they advertise are about what we charge on our public website, and they are truly inclusive, unlike the Oklahoma place. Does it scale? They pretty much just take healthy patients so I guess it could scale for that population, but as I hope everyone here knows by now, most of our spending for medical care is on chronic disease and major illnesses.

    * Here’s a clue. Their docs make very good money. My immediate superior and very good friend who is as conservative as it gets just laughs when people bring up this place.


  • TarsTarkas Link

    Uncontrolled illegal immigration has the same effect on a nation that drinking too much water has on cells (Water intoxication or hyponatremia). When too much water enters the cell due to sodium depletion, the cell wall ruptures and the cell dies. When a nation fails to control its borders and is flooded by too many illegals (or refugees), that nation’s infrastructure and society can no longer cope with too many people chasing too few resources and it collapses. We’ve not seen such a scenario in our lifetime, in fact I can’t recall any good examples occurring since Medieval times, but the promotion of it in Europe and this country (especially by politically cynical faux bleeding hearts) is worrisome.

  • I don’t think our situation is quite that bad at least not yet. I do think that the large number of immigrants is putting stress on our society that is emerging in all sorts of different ways.

Leave a Comment