Lance is a neighbor who has become a friend in the last year. When I first got to know Lance, then a married father of three, he had been working at a fast-food chain restaurant for awhile. When he wasn’t working from about 4 pm to midnight, his wife, who worked at a different fast-food chain restaurant, worked from about 4 am to noon. As a manager, Lance made $9.75 an hour, but combined with his wife’s full-time income, it still wasn’t enough to cover their expenses. They soon found themselves behind on rent.
I wrote about Lance’s predicament in an essay published last August. A few days after that essay was published, Lance and his wife packed their three kids into their one car to take Lance to work. As I described in a follow-up piece, on the way, a teen driver veered across the median and crashed into Lance’s car. No one was seriously hurt, but they had to go to the hospital. When Lance called his manager to inform her that he wouldn’t be able to come into work, she told him that if he didn’t show up, he would be fired. A few days later, she told him he could keep the job, but he would get a demotion. (She says he had a history of tardy attendance; Lance says it was only a few times, and that was because their car had broken down.)
It wasn’t the first time that Lance has, in his words, been “screwed” at work. As I documented in my first essay, Lance, only 25, has experienced a history of cut-throat dealings in the workplace. There was the time, as a temporary worker, that he wasn’t hired by the company because he took two weeks off due to an injury he suffered in the workplace. There was the time his wife’s general manager told her that because she didn’t have complete schedule flexibility—she couldn’t work when her husband worked because someone had to watch their three kids—it could count against her being promoted to a managerial position. There was also the time he was lured into a landscaping job by the promise of a $510 salary a week. But then his landscaping boss gave him daylong routes that spanned from Dayton to Cincinnati and a crappy truck that often broke down. When Lance’s paychecks were well short of the $510 a week, the boss told him that the pay came with a big asterisk: you had to finish your routes. But, as Lance explained to me, that was nearly impossible, given the condition of his truck and the length of his routes.
“I get paid nothing to do everything,” Lance concluded about his work as a fast-food manager. “I come home every day mentally, physically exhausted from the amount of work I’ve put in, and my checks are pocket change basically. I personally don’t think it’s fair.”
I thought about Lance again as I read Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic. I found myself asking: what does the conservative vision that Levin proposes have to say about Lance and his family? What might help them?
In Levin’s account, Lance needs the help of mediating institutions. Levin identifies two big pitfalls that afflict the contemporary Left and Right: “over-centralization and hyperindividualism.” Between those two extremes, he says, are the much neglected yet essential mediating institutions, defined as “the institutions and relationships that stand between the isolated individual and the national state.” Those institutions begin in the family and spread outwards to other institutions like schools and religious communities and the marketplace. In other words, people aren’t lone bootstrappers, so we should stop treating them as if they were. In that sense, hyperindividualism fails. But the help they need, Levin argues, is best able to come from institutions “near at hand,” not a far-away centralized bureaucracy.
What Lance also needs is more skills. “[L]ower-skilled workers in our country will not often have a comparative advantage in producing goods that can be traded,” he writes. “That is not something we can change. We can, however, change the skill level of our population, and we can also try to channel unskilled labor from manufacturing and production toward services that cannot be so readily outsourced.”
Levin points to the work of economist David Autor to bolster his case that big structural changes have left many low-skilled and middle-skilled American workers disadvantaged. Autor suggests that because machines are becoming better at doing routine tasks that humans have done, we are witnessing “job polarization.” On one end, there is “knowledge work” for highly educated professionals that can’t be shipped to other countries. On the other end, there is “interactive manual” work that also can’t be done remotely: among these, Levin notes, are “Cooks, barbers, janitors, security guards, home health aides,” and others. The idea is that the jobs that America will have in the coming years will definitely belong in these two categories, while “middle-skill and middle-pay jobs” (like accountants and factory workers) will be scarcer because they can be automated, shipped overseas, or both.
We must empower mediating institutions.
But the interactive manual category includes many professions that get paid very little, like cooks and home health aides. Should we care about a living wage for them? Or, even though they are a vital part of the new economy, are those jobs supposed to be just a stepping-stone to more skilled work? Considering the emphasis he places on acquiring skills, Levin seems to think the latter.
Moreover, he contends that liberals who argue for “the resurgence of powerful labor unions” and “stringent reregulation of the labor market” (i.e., stronger protections for ordinary employees) are trafficking in the politics of “nostalgia,” which is supposed to be a bad thing: a pining for the lost age of “consolidation” when labor unions enjoyed greater power. Those days are over, he asserts. It’s tempting “to blame avaricious employers and business owners for the increased insecurity of workers,” he notes. However, “the story is not nearly so simple.” Employees want good wages and benefits, he points out, but those employees are also consumers who want low prices. After consolidation, the American economy and public both became consumerist, and now we prefer low prices over living wages, iPhones over unions. These consumerist trends, Levin says, are “functions of the diffusion of American life…and which at this point seems essentially irreversible.”
In other words, consumerism won, it’s diffusion’s fault—and nobody can do anything about it.
Aside from relaxing licensing requirements for barbers and manicurists and other select professions, Levin seems mostly content to leave the low-wage workplace as is—a place from which people are supposed to ascend into the stable middle class. His focus is on empowering people to get more skills. In order to generate the incredible mobility climbing that ladder means, Levin believes that we should focus less on the astonishing wealth of the top 1 percent, and focus more on increasing “opportunity” and mobility for the poorest Americans. To do this, he says, “We must revitalize the institutions that will enable Americans to thrive.” In other words, we must empower mediating institutions.
With Lance’s story in the back of my mind, I found myself thinking: yes, and what about the mediating institution of employers? What about employers who pay poverty wages and therefore shepherd people into government dependence?
Employers are mediating institutions, too. But what if they are often failing poor and working-class families? In my next post, I’ll explore how, as I see it, Lance’s story indicates that hyperindividualism is hijacking the low-skills workplace—and why conservatives should care.