Renewing America: A Paradigm Proposal

The U.S. needs to adapt an economic agenda of mobility that frees up obstacles to work and education and also empower local institutions to provide solutions to the complex array of welfare problems.

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There is a certain feeling of angst that comes with being a senior. The endless array of a college application, the stress of balancing friends, family, and academics, and the expectations of college are utterly unique. For me, past behaviors were inadequate to work through the stress, angst, and hope of senior year; maturation was required to adjust to new experiences. This maturation meant I had to abandon the way I used to orient my life, which was primarily toward achieving good grades and focusing on cultivating my relationships.

I forward that, as I had to adjust my paradigm for new experiences, the U.S. needs to adapt its public policy to our changing society. For the most part, the U.S. has continued to expand its bureaucracy, welfare programs, and subsidies in reaction to the increased fracturing of society. Socially, we have grown apart as individuals and community bonds are weak, so in reaction government policies have attempted to unify the country on a national scale under a powerful central government. Instead of maintaining this trend, the U.S. needs to counter the adverse effects of a fractured society by enacting more local, personal, and dynamic policies. It would do this by empowering mediating institutions—institutions closest to the individual, such as civic groups, churches, nonprofits, and businesses—to find specific, local solutions.

To demonstrate how this paradigm of decentralization would work, I will apply it to our economic policy and address three major economic trends that are fracturing American society by hollowing out the middle class.

Firstly, the advent of globalization has resulted in a disappearance of low-level and middle-skill workers in the U.S. as it becomes cheaper to transport jobs overseas.

Secondly, as the modern economy becomes computerized, a broad range of workers from the middle class are seeing their jobs hollowed. This automation will eliminate middle class jobs, primarily in manufacturing, since those jobs are economically practical to replace with computers. Only two types of work would remain due to being impractical to automate: low-level jobs that require humans such as barbers, janitors, or health aides, and jobs that require a high skill set such as managers, doctors, teachers, or lawyers.

MIT economist David Autor calls the bifurcation between low and high-level work caused by automation and outsourcing “job polarization.” Duke Economist Nir Jaimovich explains that polarization may be why the middle class jobs lost during the 2000 and 2008 recessions have not returned during the recoveries.

The third trend is consumerism. In the consolidated world of post-war America, people thought of themselves primarily as producers and were concerned with stable, high-quality work. Today, however, people consider themselves consumers and are concerned with high-quality but cheap goods and services. The market reacts to this pressure by adhering to the concerns of consumers at the expense of workers. The result of this trend is job insecurity, which is seen in an average employee tenure of under five years. Jobs become less stable and workers are more uncertain as companies comply with the demands of consumers.

In short, the effects of these broad trends are a hollowing of the middle class into the rich and the poor. This effect is seen in stagnant poverty rates, as the poor cannot obtain the skills required in today’s economy; a report released by the Pew Charitable Trust notes that 70 percent of children born in a lower income bracket will remain there. Moreover, these trends have left those who lost jobs due to recessions or automation and globalization uncertain and worried about their economic prospects. This uncertainty and the government’s indifference to it was a significant factor in Trump’s victory in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.

A decentralization paradigm would address these trends by modernizing government policies to increase economic mobility and make workers’ rights more personal. To tackle economic mobility, a decentralization program would lift the bottlenecks of education and certification by providing more pathways to obtain them.

Under a decentralization paradigm, education would improve by making learning more customizable instead of increasing government subsidies. At the grade school level, this involves experimenting in charter schools, school vouchers, and homeschooling. In higher education, this means unbundling the college curriculum to provide standalone courses, sequences, and job training. Moreover, it means allowing certification from a variety of venues, from union halls to the Internet. This type of education would not destroy standards, but make it easier to obtain them by providing opportunity through a variety of institutions. In short, instead of funneling students down one path, institutions closer to the individual would provide a variety of paths to the same destination and let students choose their way. This approach would lift the barrier to high-level jobs by making it easier to obtain an education.

To improve certification, a decentralization paradigm would lift the unreasonable regulations on licensing and authorization. Strict government regulations on a variety of professional jobs, ranging from barbers to taxi drivers, create barriers to entry for those in poverty seeking professional-skills based work. Lifting these requirements would create new avenues for work and skills training, which is already being realized through Uber and AirBnb, companies that allow a host of people to participate in services that would normally require months of certification.

This decentralization paradigm would address workers’ rights by advocating for greater personalization. For instance, workers would pick and choose from a menu of desired employee benefits. These benefits could range from personalized retirement savings accounts to tuition reimbursement.

Consider health insurance, a decentralization paradigm would allow employers to drop coverage and instead increase employee salaries, who could use the pay to purchase, or not purchase, insurance. Private insurers would then offer a variety of plans and benefits specific to the community. This process would move away from mandates toward increased options.

The government also plays a positive role in decentralization. In welfare, the government would funnel resources from one-size-fits-all benefit programs to more bottom-up programs that empower mediating institutions of society. One instance of a mediating institution is the Charitable Choice program, which allows local, faith-based organizations to apply for government funding in welfare. These local institutions have the community-based knowledge of the local poor that the federal government does not, allowing them to configure programs specific to the poor and integrate them into the community. The government can also funnel resources to state governments in the form of block grants, which give state and local government money to use at their discretion.

Decentralization, first and foremost, is an admission that the federal government is limited in its solutions and a belief that individuals and communities can generate solutions to their specific situation. It solves problems by allowing communities to experiment and find what works. The emphasis on middle organizations acknowledges the sheer diversity of our society and seeks to restructure policies to be attuned with the particular needs of each individual, family, and community.

While this restructuring is essential to adapting to our diffuse society, it is not sufficient. Our problems are not only economic and administrative but also social and cultural. The task at hand then is to apply this paradigm to cultural issues that create sustainable, virtuous communities.