Building a Society Where Even The Average Can Thrive

Ask one hundred progressives what their main complaint is with the establishment Democratic Party and you’ll get one hundred different answers. But you will likely hear the word “neoliberal” tossed around, even though the exact definition of the term varies from person to person: sometimes it’s interventionist foreign policy, sometimes it’s closeness to Wall Street and the financial sector, sometimes it’s a matter of campaign finance. But what you’ll most commonly hear is frustration at how many Democrats allow market forces to control what progressives feel should be government guarantees.

More moderate Democrats grow frustrated with this: they note that they have always supported social liberalism, expansions of the welfare safety net, family leave programs, student debt reduction, and so on. But the key difference between a progressive Democrat and a centrist on economics is that while the centrist advocates for targeted welfare in certain circumstances or for the poorest citizens, the progressive advocates for universal guarantees of human rights. Where moderates push for means-tested help with insurance premiums and Medicaid expansion, progressives push for universal single-payer healthcare; where moderates advocate for a reduction of student debt for the poor, progressives want universal free college, and so on.

But universal guarantees aren’t just about income and eliminating welfare donut holes that erode solidarity between the middle class and the poor. They’re about how society is oriented entirely. That’s partly the point of David Freedman’s excellent piece in the Atlantic called The War on Stupid People. In it, Freedman points out that in our cultural rush to eliminate prejudice of all forms, we have allowed ourselves free rein to openly mock, deride and ensure negative outcomes for the less intelligent–even though the evidence increasingly shows that high intelligence doesn’t necessarily correlate with strong job performance.

There are overt ways in which we do this as a society (for instance, the increasing practice of using SAT scores in hiring), but the subtle ways are even bigger and more damaging.

One of the more frustrating shibboleths of conventional wisdom is that economic success depends on a high-quality education–preferably in a STEM field. Center-left policymakers advocate constantly for expansion of access to higher education. But, of course, higher education is no guarantee of future success. It can be a pathway for some who have the aptitude for it, but more progressive European nations have long acknowledged that it’s not a good fit for many people who can often make more money as skilled trades workers than they could via a traditional college-to-corporate career path. While “tracking” educational systems in this way can lead to reinforced class divisions, the sad reality is that many European nations now have greater economic and class mobility than does the United States–a fact that our focus on a single educational track for all students isn’t helping to allay.

Policymakers are well aware that many less skilled jobs are being eliminated by automation and offshoring, while acknowledging that there’s little one can do about the latter and even less about the former. Thus the mad rush to push everyone into creative class “information” jobs that are thought to better be able to withstand the economic onslaught, and the insistence on trade deals that double down on absurdly stringent copyright laws so that industrialized nations can protect their new “information economies” from piracy.

But there are, of course, two problems with this. The first is that the not even information jobs will be safe from the ravages of an automated and globalized world: China and India will produce the plurality of college graduates by 2020 (mostly in STEM fields), even as increasingly sophisticated efficiency software and big data solutions eliminate large numbers of jobs from middle management to radiologists to stockbrokers.

The second and most important is that not everyone can become information sector workers with college degrees–and they shouldn’t have to in order to be guaranteed dignity and security in our economy. One of the most infuriating aspects of our record inequality is that the country has more than enough wealth to take care of all of our citizens. It’s just that the wealth is unfairly distributed on a scale that most people fail to comprehend. Talk about inequality and most people think of poor urban neighborhoods or rural trailer parks compared to nice upscale McMansions. But that’s not where the biggest inequality truly lies. The biggest inequality is between those in the top tenth of one percent of incomes, and just about everyone else.

And that “everyone else” includes people of below average intelligence in precarious jobs that used to guarantee a middle-class lifestyle. They deserve economic answers, too, that don’t involve market-based non-solutions like retraining programs and adult education. To paraphrase one lawmaker recently, a 55-year-old coal worker today is not going to be the solar engineer of tomorrow. Society needs a real economic solution for that worker.

That’s why there’s such a big push today in many quarters for a universal basic income. It wouldn’t be a panacea and there are many potential objections to it, but the attraction of it is that it’s a universal guarantee of dignity and support that isn’t reliant on intelligence or education level. Universal healthcare, education and other guarantees are in the same vein.

As society becomes increasingly unfair to all but a small segment of smart, well-educated people–and not even they are guaranteed economic safety, either!–we need to engineer our economy to be fruitful and fair even to those of average and below-average capabilities and means.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.