What's Tony Thinking

Core Issues of 2016 Haven’t Gone Away


Granted the pictures of gun-toting protesters demanding governors lift pandemic restrictions are off-putting (to say the least) and granting that an increasingly desperate Donald Trump is crassly fanning those flames for political advantage, I wonder if the outpouring of condemnation of this protest has forgotten what seemed to be a lesson of the 2016 election?

Namely, that a lot of people in America are economically and socially insecure, desperate and frightened. We read Hillbilly Elegy. We have listened to Nick Kristof recounting stories of his Oregon hometown now compiled in his book, Tightrope. We pondered the reports of Arlie Hochschild from Louisiana, Strangers in the Own Land. Like Kristof we may have our own stories of small towns that have dried up, jobs that went away and families broken by addiction. Or we may know people whose culture and values make much of progressive America seem to them a foreign land.

While I and others were bemoaning these protests, Michael Sandel called attention to the issues of 2016 that haven’t gone away. Here’s Sandel:

“In recent decades, governing elites have done little to make life better for the nearly two-thirds of Americans who do not have a college degree. And they have failed to confront what should be one of the central questions of our politics: How can we ensure that Americans who do not inhabit the privileged ranks of the professional classes find dignified work that enables them to support a family, contribute to their community and win social esteem?

“As economic activity has shifted from making things to managing money, as society has lavished outsize rewards on hedge fund managers and Wall Street bankers, the esteem accorded to traditional work has become fragile and uncertain. At a time when finance has claimed a greater share of corporate profits, many who labor in the real economy, producing useful goods and services, have not only endured stagnant wages and uncertain job prospects; they have also come to feel that society accords less respect to the kind of work they do.”

My own sample of this part of the world comes largely from Wallowa County in northeastern Oregon, where my family has roots and we have a family cabin. With the exception of established ranchers (a relatively small number) most of the people there string together 2 or 3 jobs to make it. The pandemic is going to further jeopardize income and security in small towns like Elgin, Wallowa and Joseph, Oregon that were already on the bubble. It’s a world vastly different from Seattle or Portland. These are not people, who by and large, can work from home. Showing up at a job site and using their bodies to do the work is how it happens.

In this COVID-19 crisis many, including Sandel here, have drawn attention to who the “essential workers” really are. They are people who work with their hands, who put their bodies on the line and who don’t make much money or get much honor for the work they do.

“Many of the essential workers during this crisis are performing jobs that do not require college degrees; they are truckers, warehouse workers, delivery workers, police officers, firefighters, utility maintenance workers, sanitation workers, supermarket cashiers, stock clerks, nurse assistants, hospital orderlies and home care providers. They lack the luxury of working from the safety of their homes and holding meetings on Zoom. They, along with the doctors and nurses caring for the afflicted in overcrowded hospitals, are the ones who are putting their health at risk so the rest of us can seek refuge from contagion. Beyond thanking them for their service, we should reconfigure our economy and society to accord such workers the compensation and recognition that reflects the true value of their contributions — not only in an emergency but in our everyday lives.

“Such a reconfiguration involves more than familiar debates about how generous or austere the welfare state should be. It requires deliberating as democratic citizens about what constitutes a contribution to the common good, and how such contributions should be rewarded — without assuming that markets can decide these questions on their own.”

Sandel goes on to highlight some tough policy proposals (e.g. dropping the payroll tax, imposing tax on financial transactions like stock sales) that would address the persisting 2016 issues and “ensure that Americans who do not inhabit the privileged ranks of the professional classes find dignified work that enables them to support a family, contribute to their community and win social esteem?”

Bottom line: the protestors can be written off as cranks and nuts, the President can be condemned for his cynical manipulations, but the issues of meaningful work, jobs that can support a family, and rural and small-town community health and viability remain. The issues, that is to say, of 2016 haven’t gone away.

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