A Brief Reply to Oren Cass

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Oren Cass, executive director of American Compass, has an essay in the New York Times that I encourage you to read. It is an argument that many overweight the importance of economic outcomes in assessing overall well-being.

The essay is often confused. Mr. Cass gives short shrift to the human misery caused by a weak economy while also arguing that the economic recovery of the past several months is unimportant. It presents a zero-sum conflict between material abundance and the virus that doesn’t exist in reality. (“How much of that technology would you trade to erase the coronavirus?” And: “Consider whether new apps on your smartphone compensate for the loss of control.”) Cass sometimes makes obvious points that are widely agreed upon, presenting them as if they are novel: Yes, increases in material well-being do “say little about relationships.”

Cass criticizes my new book, The American Dream Is Not Dead: (But Populism Could Kill It), which you can check out here. In the book, I argue (correctly) that quality of life for typical workers and households has been increasing over the past several decades. In an attempt to demonstrate that I am overvaluing the importance of economic outcomes in overall well-being, Cass writes:

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By “Dr. Strain’s standards, the past few months were the greatest in human history to be alive. The pandemic has allowed more time than ever to enjoy air-conditioning and color televisions, computers and phones. One can joy ride for hours streaming podcasts.”

This is, of course, absurd. Those of us who think that economic outcomes are of first-order importance to overall well-being and who (correctly) view the past several decades as largely a story of upward economic progress for typical workers and households are not being inconsistent in any way by also viewing the past several months as a human, social — and, indeed, economic — disaster. In response to this vile invention, I have two words for Mr. Cass: Try harder.

There is much to admire about Cass’s larger project, and there are goals he and I share. The need to advance economic opportunity to the working class is important, and Cass has done the political Right and the policy community as a whole a service by increasing attention on these challenges and potential solutions. I share elements of Cass’s social conservatism — his concern that family and community do not receive the attention they deserve. Along with literally every economist I know, I agree with Cass that economic growth is at times in tension with other social goals, and that often times non-economic goals should take priority.

But during the worst economic downturn in a century, with depression-level unemployment and severe private income loss, the impact a growing economy and the opportunities it creates have on well-being is clearly on display.

Michael R. Strain — Michael R. Strain is the director of economic-policy studies and the Arthur F. Burns Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute.

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