This Week in ‘Ask a Philosopher’: Is the ‘American Dream' Dead?

This episode is a little different than the type of conversation you normally have on the show. 

Last year, Mark spoke with Oded Galor about his book The Journey of Humanity, a long-run take on why humanity changed so little for so long, and then all of sudden changed tremendously, mostly for the better. 

It’s a fascinating idea, but of course nobody actually experiences that long-run journey, or compares their daily life to distant ancestors. People typically think on the much shorter timescale of a lifetime, maybe a generation or two. 

At that scale, for many people in America today, it can seem like much of life has gotten worse, and are continuing to do so. 

Put another way: it looks like the American Dream is dead.

But is that true? What does it mean for a dream to die, anyway? And if it is dead, is there a way to revive it? 

These sound like questions for a philosopher. 

Someone who has thought about this a great deal is Josh Preiss. He’s a philosopher, Professor at Minnesota State University, and author of Just Work For All: The American Dream in the 21st Century. 

On this episode, Mark talks with Josh about the ideas behind what we call ‘The American Dream,’ and looks at the reality behind its decline: what’s gotten worse for who, and what’s needed to make things better. 

Learn more about and purchase Josh Preiss’s book.

Watch Josh’s talk at the Rhodes Center.

Find more information about all our episodes, including transcripts, on our website. 


MARK BLYTH: From the Rhodes Center for International Finance and Economics at Brown University, this is the Rhodes Center Podcast. And I'm the director of the Rhodes Center and your host, Mark Blyth. This episode is a little different from the type of conversation we normally have. Our guest is not an economist or some kind of policy wonk or somebody who's written a cool book about finance. He's a philosopher.

On our final episode last year, I spoke with my economics colleague, here at Brown University, Oded Galor, about his book The Journey to Humanity. It's a long-run take on why humanity changed so little for so long and then, all of a sudden, changed tremendously-- mostly for the better. But of course, nobody actually experiences that long-run journey or compares their daily life to distant ancestors. We typically think on much shorter time scales. And for many people living in America today, it can seem, like over that short or timescale of a generation or two, many parts of life have gotten worse. It can also seem like the trend is only accelerating. Put another way, the much-vaunted American dream is dead.

But is that true? What does it mean for a dream to die, anyway? And if it's dead, is there a resurrection?

Someone who has thought about this a great deal is Josh Preiss. He's our philosopher. He's a professor at Minnesota State University and author of the great book Just Work for All-- the American Dream in the 21st Century.

On this episode, I talk with Josh about the ideas behind what we call "the American dream" and look at the reality behind its decline-- what's gotten worse, for whom, and what's needed to make it better. Key to his thinking is something Josh describes as "just work." Here's my conversation with Josh.

Hello, Josh.


MARK BLYTH: Now, you've got this book called Just Work for All-- the American Dream in the 21st Century. And you make two contrasts in the book, and I want to unpack these things.

The first one is, where we are now-- a winner-takes-all society. The second one is where we have been in the past-- at least partially-- and where you would like us to go, which is towards a Smithian, well-ordered society. And there's two conceptions of justice that caught through this. One is the notion of life being a kind of a race from a common starting line, and at least the race is fair. That's one way of thinking about it. And then there's the one that you prefer, which is the idea of just work.

So we've got four things to go through. We have winner-takes-all; Smithian, well-ordered; fair race; just work. Let's work through the arc. Let's start off with, why do we live in a winners-take-all society.

JOSHUA PREISS: Right. So in the book, I use a "winner-take-all society" to capture a number of trends. So the "winner-take-all" term, of course, is taken from work by Robert Frank and others which describe winner-take-all or superstar markets. Now, these are markets where small differences in talent or luck or willingness to work hard or social networks can lead to giant differences in reward, welfare-- however, you want to measure how well-off you're doing.

But I don't just talk about winner-take-all or superstar markets in this kind of narrow or technical sense. I use the term as an umbrella term to discuss a wide range of trends, sometimes captured by labor-market polarization, sometimes captured in increased reliance on global value chains, and so on. But the quick way of describing this is that you have increasingly societies which, the fruits of economic growth are slower and the gains from the fruits of that economic growth are more concentrated among a relatively small percentage of the population. So a winner-take-all society is a society that looks, broadly speaking, like that.

MARK BLYTH: So that's where we are, undoubtedly. There's plenty of work that can explain how we got there. And what you do, and one of the virtues of the book, is you don't basically try and say, no, it's really this. There's no pant, monocausal determinism. There's lots of things going on, from skilled bias, technical change, to the weakening power of unions, to globalization. Let's not pick. We had 40 years of things bashing away at things, and this is where we ended up.

Now, your point of contrast is very interesting. It's what you call a "Smithian, well-ordered society." In the sense that you're part of that academic tradition that tries to recover Smith as being somewhat not so much on the left or the right but more concerned with questions of economic justice and fairness than he's really been given a fair shake by many people. Is that fair?

JOSHUA PREISS: Yeah. I mean, you could call it "issues of justice or fairness," and that would certainly be accurate. But sometimes that evokes a kind of, like, justice is just some sort of x-distributive principle. And a Smithian well-ordered society is not meant to be an ideally just society. It rather captures a set of things that Smith was very much concerned with-- namely, that hard work is well rewarded. Right?

One of the central justifications, for Smith, of markets is economic growth, an ability to meet our wants and needs more efficiently and effectively, is relational-- our ability to relate to those we interact with. And we can think of it in a national perspective-- our fellow citizens-- in a certain sort of way, to not look at them with fear and deference, to feel like your contributions are recognized, the dignity of your labor is recognized.

Now, that relational justice has a distributive component. One of the ways in which one can fail to feel as though their contribution is recognized is if they're getting a smaller and smaller share of the fruits of economic growth. So it's not a story that says inequality is, by definition, good or bad, but certain sorts of economic inequalities can be not only corrosive to justice-- unfair-- but also make us worse people. And that's one of the things I highlight in the book, as well, that certain sorts of winner-take-all trends can impact the rest of our character and virtues in certain sorts of ways.

So, in the book itself, I use these two models to then talk about trends-- and a lot of wealthy democracies focus on the United States-- from a broadly Smithian, egalitarian, postwar-economy rapid-growth-- in a variety of different senses of the term-- the fruits of economic growth, certainly not equally distributed-- far from it-- but nonetheless, people have a realistic, reasonable, and well-founded hope that if they work hard they might have a better life for themselves, their children might have a better life than they had--

And this is a positive-feedback loop, then, because the more you get positive encouragement for your hard work, the more likely you are to be hardworking, and so on, and so forth. So you have this sort of political economy, and that's a reality that, I think, increasingly seems foreign.

MARK BLYTH: This begins to fall apart, some 40 years ago, as many, many people have noted. And then, since then, there's been a series of institutional, legal, and technological turns which have turned us into a very different-- let's say, to use Reeves's term, the kind of dream-hoarder society where those that have the advantage hoard the advantage, and the ability of others to play that game is no longer there. Is that what you mean by the notion of a fair race-- everyone gets a chance? Most colloquially, equality of opportunity, as you would say in the political parlance, really isn't justifiable in a philosophical sense in a winner-takes-all society.

JOSHUA PREISS: I wouldn't use the term "isn't justifiable." So--

MARK BLYTH: "Isn't possible"?

JOSHUA PREISS: Well, yes, it's the winner-take-all society-- I think the phrase I use in the book militates against the politics of fair race. But just to take a step back for a second and look at the concepts-- so you have these trends-- focus on the United States, but the United States is not on their own situation, here-- in the world of what they're dealing, with these trends from a Smithian, well-ordered society to a winner-take-all society. Then, in part for methodological reasons, in part for biographical reasons, I focus on the United States. And so it helps to focus on a context, and that context in the United States. And the term I look at is "the American dream."

The American dream is really at least two fundamental and distinct principles of justice, both of which are widely shared by American citizens. So let's take these two different principles, then, and give a quick definition. So "fair race," here, then, is just the idea that a society is just to the extent that positions of power, privilege-- things that people want-- the competition, if you will, is fair. Right? So you have something like a level playing field. It doesn't say anything about the distribution of wealth, welfare, whatever. It simply says that, whatever that inequality is, everybody should have a fair shot.

Then you have a conception-- also very, very present in American public philosophy, and in what people care about-- in some ways, I think, more present particularly in social scientific data-- there, throughout the history of American politics, political philosophy-- important thinkers from Abe Lincoln to Martin Luther King and so on-- something I call "just work." I struggled to come up with exactly the term I wanted for "just work," actually. And three years after starting this project, I'm still not completely satisfied with the term.

But what I'm getting at here is this broadly-- you could think of it as Smithian idea, in the sense that a just-work society is a relationally-just society. And this means, among other things, that the dignity of work is respected. It's a society where people are generally able to exchange hard work for a middle-class life. And middle-class life, in this case, is a fundamentally normative conception. It's also concerned, to a certain extent, what your ability to relate to your fellow citizens as equal, is to not have a context in which your welfare is subject to the whim and will of your fellow citizens. That's a fundamental republican-- as we would say in political philosophy-- concept. It's as American as apple pie-- although, like a lot of things, not necessarily as egalitarianly applied, early on.

So you have those two different conceptions.

MARK BLYTH: So, armed with those two different conceptions, let's take them for a walk. And the first place I want to take them is something you said in the book, and you also said in the talk today, which is that, when you try and have the logic of a fair race, in what is an increasingly winners-takes-all society, you basically have a much more zero-sum conception of justice, in a sense, and intriguingly-- this also said this already-- which is, you end up with worse people. Now, a part of Smith that people forget-- not just the Theory of Moral Sentiments, but also the Wealth of Nations-- was this idea that, at the end of the day, you want to be a good person-- that the whole point of all this economic activity-- yes, it's economic "growth," we would call it, these days-- but the purpose of that is so we can become better people.

So let's start there. If you try and pretend you can have a fair race in a winners-take-all society, we all end up being horrible people. Walk me through that.

JOSHUA PREISS: So how does a winner-take-all society make us worse people? How does it undermine fair race? So, take it from the fair-race side. So you say, justice just is a level playing field. Right?

From a certain perspective, a winner-take-all society doesn't really tell you anything about whether or not fair race is being satisfied. Right? You could have a society where the fruits of economic growth are highly concentrated but, if the competition for achieving those fruits-- achieving positions of power or privilege-- if the competition was fair, if everybody got there because they rose to their talents to take that part of the Truslow Adams, nothing unjust about that, from a fair-race perspective. Right?

But what I argue is two things. One, there's more to justice than fair race. But also, two, that fair race-- even if you think fair race is just all that justice is, a level playing field, a meritocratic society-- the economics of WTA militates against the politics of fair race.

You mentioned Reeves. It encourages opportunity hoarding. Right? If you have a Smithian, well-ordered society, where hard, honest work is liberally rewarded, where people have a reasonable hope that if they work hard they and their kids will have a better life, you have a society which encourages people to compete and to get ahead, according to fastidious labor. That's what Smith has in mind. Right? This is part of the moral core of Smith-- the elevation of the working poor, but also this idea that you have, markets are better than feudalism and mercantilism because they better recognize the contributions of these workers.

If you have a Smithian, well-ordered society, there's not quite as much pressure to opportunity-hoard, to use Reeve's language. Right? Because a better life for my child doesn't depend upon me rigging the game in their favor.

MARK BLYTH: You don't need legacy appointments at certain colleges. You don't need internships with the right firms because you bank there. Those sorts of things which are the real levers of opportunity, which run counter to our ideas of the American dream, are very much operative in the winner-takes-all society. So you really just can't run that race.

JOSHUA PREISS: Well, right, you can't run it, but there's also a sense, now-- a theorist of justice, a fair-race proponent, could tell you all sorts of reasons why those might be injustices. Right? They could come back and say, well, yeah, obviously, you haven't gotten a level playing field yet.


JOSHUA PREISS: You know, and if you take it a particular way-- I might say, a particularly unhelpful way-- you might say, well, justice is meritocracy. We don't have a meritocracy, so I don't have much to say about justice or injustice right now, because we're just so far from a level playing field.

Without going into the nuances of different parts of the book, there's a way in which that can be not good politics, even for poorer people, because it can also be dismissive of the efforts of those who have comparatively less opportunity, if you're saying that nothing is the product of our responsible choices. But more compellingly, if you want to think about, again, one of the many ways in which-- I argue, anyway, and I think there's a lot of social science to back me up, here-- a lot of-- not to mention history of philosophy-- one of the ways in which a winner-take-all society makes us worse people is that, even if we think that fair race is that, we might mouth the words of "fair race" but we're not going to live the policies of fair race, because our kids-- we don't want our kids to be left behind.

MARK BLYTH: Right. We want the advantage. If there's an advantage to be had, and we know it's unfairly distributed, then we want to be on the right side of the distribution.

JOSHUA PREISS: You have to do it. You don't have-- in a way, you feel like you kind of-- being a responsible parent means opportunity hoarding.

MARK BLYTH: Right. So the classic one is, and there's so many upper-middle-class American parents who firmly believe in public school and send all their kids to private school.



JOSHUA PREISS: Right. And Reeves' point, too-- a lot of interesting things going on there-- I mean, I do have some questions as to whether focusing on the upper middle class is exactly the right focus in a winner-take-all society. But more fundamentally, the problem-- I think the problem is-- one of the reasons why a winner-take-all society-- why people who are concerned with fair race need to also be concerned with just work, even if they don't think justice has anything to do with just-work-type stuff, is that fair race is not going to happen over time without more-equal distribution of the fruits of labor or without something like a rising tide comparatively lifting most of the boats--

MARK BLYTH: Or at least you have to work hard to make sure the track isn't elevated for some people. That actually requires work.

JOSHUA PREISS: Right, exactly. And you have to be concerned of how the losers in a winner-take-all society do. Even if you don't think there's any injustice at all with someone who doesn't have a lot of talents or who isn't willing to work hard getting paid a shitty wage, because they had a fair shot. Even if you think that, that's just what justice is. Justice is a meritocracy.


JOSHUA PREISS: Even if you think that, a society that's WTA is not going to be a fair race for society very long.

MARK BLYTH: So there's a parallel, here, to contemporary thinking about markets, which was, when the first wave of inequality literature, with people like Atkinson and laterally Piketty came out, there was kind of the discovery of the brute fact of income and wealth inequality and has gone farther than we thought. And we start to worry about the drivers of this.

And so much of it went, on one hand, technological change and, the other hand, the collapse of labor power. Then it becomes R over G. And they're probably all right. OK? Then we got kind of second wave, particularly in the US, which has to do with antitrust-- which has to do with monopoly rents, and so on, and concentration of firms, et cetera, which also makes a lot of sense.

Now, there's an analog I want to make, here, to what you're saying, between these two states of the world, that essentially you've got one that's very low-concentration, with high mobility, and then you've got one with very high concentration, with low mobility. And the rewards all go to the top-- by definition, winner-takes-all. And it seems to me, if you follow the logic of markets, whenever you basically bust up cartels and get rid of these things, for a while you have much more like the sort of deconcentrated. But the whole point, to quote Peter Thiel, the whole point of being a capitalist is to be a monopolist.


MARK BLYTH: Right? So every one of these sectors, if you let them consolidate by the opposition, et cetera, we'll just become concentrated, rent-seeking entities. And you need then an external authority to come in and bust it up-- trust-busting, right? Now, that's just within markets. You're talking about, this has been an analog process in society as a whole.

So what's the thing that comes in and disrupts that, that stops the winner-takes-all? Because if it's the state, the people who are winner-take-all generally run the state as well.


MARK BLYTH: So how do we get out of this trap?

JOSHUA PREISS: OK. So one thing I want to say about the setup of the question, I guess, is, I'm not 100% sure-- so, one way of pointing to one source of a winner-take-all might be increasing concentrations of power within the marketplace, where people don't compete in markets. They compete for--

MARK BLYTH: For market share.

JOSHUA PREISS: --markets, right? Yeah. So they compete to control the market. And when they control it, they do right. I mean, it's, I guess, a kind of an empirical, political question as to whether the most effective route is to have people who control markets and business but then have really strong countervailing power from labor who counters that, or if you want to have governments go in-- or somebody-- go in and break up and then create more like Smith's model.


JOSHUA PREISS: The value of just work doesn't necessarily tell us which of those directions we want to go, in and of itself. That could be an empirical question that I can have a view about, but I don't stake a particular claim on, in this book. But one thing I do stake a claim on, here, is the need for something like a broad, working-class coalition. Right?

So the reason why I talk about just work-- one of the political advantages of just work versus fair race is this distinctly less-zero sum quality. Now, just work-- there might be some losers in a transition to a more-just society, but in a way I'm arguing, there's a broad collection of people who would be better served in a just-work society. And so my answer, in this particular text, is, we need to identify the problem-- or some of the sources of the problem. We need to be clear-- but not clear to the point of overly analytically precise-- about why it's a problem but then have a principle that has public currency that's not particularly controversial, and then have a politics or a policy that follows from that.

And so the answer to that, first and foremost, is workers understanding their relatively shared situation. Now, anytime you have a hopeful book written in this kind of way, you can immediately sound naive. You raised the question in a certain sort of way. I raise certain concerns about how winner-take-all society-- immediately you might say, who's going to bring these workers together? How are they going to do?

But first relevant question is that something needs to be done in order to protect these things. One of the next lines of my research is talking more about what business can and should do and why they might have an interest in something like a more just-work society after all.

MARK BLYTH: So, picking up on that one, in terms of business, to name it on that side-- so let's imagine that you've got a sort of top 20% control 80% of the assets, put it in distribution, more or less, what we've got. And within the top 20%, there's other inequalities that you can go on. And it's the 1% or it's the 0.1% or whatever it is-- ultimately, autonomous people who basically control assets that generate income, and that generates wealth over time. That's basically it. Versus everybody else who, in a sense, doesn't have that.

Now, part of the Smithian project is based upon-- given when it was written-- the notion that not just is the economy national, that conceptions of citizenship matter. And perhaps-- I just want your thoughts on this-- does a winner-takes-all economy, which basically benefits, if you will, a 10% which is far less locally rooted, who have been called, for good or ill, "global cosmopolitans," do they have to recognize with their fellow citizens? Or in a sense, can they opt out of that? And if they opt out of it, is it possible for them to live in their global version of their well-ordered society, while everyone else has to live in the residual, which is the winner-takes-all that they generate?

JOSHUA PREISS: That's a good question. There's at least two different layers to that question that I might want to come back on. When you're doing a theory of relational justice, one of the questions you have to answer-- or one of the questions that's often, actually, probably more accurately, not answered but lurking, is, who counts as a subject in the relational justice? Right? Who are the "we" that we need to be able to relate to?

Part of the reason why I focus on the American dream, in this case-- it provides a more concrete answer to that. You have to have people you relate to. And there's a sense in which it doesn't make sense to just say that it's a relational justice and what I'm talking about is all of humanity or all of moral agency.

So there is a kind of sense in which it is justice for people in a society. Now, you can say, like, why those societies? In part, because I think people really do care about them. A lot of what we're seeing negatively, rising of left- and right-wing populism, declining support for liberal and democratic institutions-- what you're not seeing is a bunch of people responding to winner-take-all trends and saying, well, let's all just be global cosmopolitan elites. Because people are really upset about it, justifiably so. They don't feel like the world is as it should be for them.

And when they're making that a sense of how it should be-- or not, right? --they're thinking about who to relate to. And they're not relating to or thinking like, yes, but think of how much more stuff I have and how much longer I live than people 300 years ago. You know, so what am I complaining about? The arc of humanity is a virtue-- whatever.

These things matter. I'm not going to say that they're the only thing that matters. And I'm not going to say that national boundaries are not, in some sense, morally arbitrary, and all sorts of other things. But from a motivational perspective, people care about these sorts of parts of the compact, if you will.

But I do think there is a growing sense-- you get the fair amount of books, in, like, management literature. And I can't speak too freely about that. But we're just, like, look-- one of the existential crisis facing this good thing we've got going with liberal capitalism is climate change, obviously. Another one is something like winner-take-all trends.

And so I think there is this recognition, and there needs to be-- particularly in normative theories of business ethics, there could be much more work done to explore a theory of management and theory of leadership that's more consistent with that.

MARK BLYTH: So, getting towards the end of our chat, I'm tempted to go more into the world we inhabit. But I do want to stay in a different side of this, as well, because I don't often have a philosopher to talk to. So, at the same time as your book came out, two other books came out-- Albena Azmanova's book on precarity, and then Elizabeth Anderson's work on basically, [LAUGH] your employer is fundamentally tying you in chains in a way you would never allow from the state. So I'm just wondering how you relate-- how would you position your work, in between-- because it strikes me, you're taking the kind of mainstream, inequality position.

Azmanova says, I'm buying that but I don't think it's really important. What matters is how people feel secure. And you can be insecure now, due to technology and other things that didn't happen in Smith's time, to be sure-- just-in-time contracting-- all the rest of it. Right? And then you've got Anderson saying, well, if you stop and take a breath, you'd never allow the federal government to control when you go for a pee, but your employer can do this and can do mandatory drug testing and tell you moral counseling and all this other stuff. We've encroached more and more into that sphere as well.

So should I add all these things together and think that the ability to not just practice the American dream but to basically be the American subject is super constrained? Or do you see more possibility than sort of just adding all these things together?

JOSHUA PREISS: Yeah. That's a good point. First of all, it's worth noting I admire both of those people's work. Elizabeth Anderson is the one I'm most familiar with. She was actually just our Andreas lecturer at MSU, just this past spring. And her work is really influential in mine.

But I think she raises-- to be a relational egalitarian, one of the things is, again, not necessarily being told how to pee, when to pee, how to do whatever. She's borrowing from a long tradition in republican political philosophy, a tradition which says that, in order to be a free person, we need to, in some sense, not be subject to our fellow citizens. So-- free citizenship, right? And classically, this was, for a small percentage of the population, one of the republican projects is to extend that to a larger share of the population-- or, hopefully, the whole population. One other way to be a free-- becoming a free person is not to be subject to the whims and wishes and will of another person.

But this is also, in a different way, captured by what wouldn't invoke republican political philosophy at all but a lot of the dignity-of-labor literature work, including work by Martin Luther King-- one of the ways in which to respect the dignity of work-- a fundamental way is to simply pay it decently. But another way is to have workers who can look at their bosses in a certain sort of way. So you look at their fellow citizens, they can be recognized for their contribution, but also to not just be taking orders, in a certain sort of way, to not be a perpetual class of order-takers. Right.

And it's a mistake to think of that as fundamentally saying, it's OK to have dominators, as long as we competed for the dominators and I lost, so then I should just take orders. And of course, people have to take orders at work.

But as far as the choosing or not choosing, can you mash it all together? One thing to look at least these three strands is to see that there's ways in which they do overlap. Sometimes the same policies, let's just say, that make people less insecure also increase their bargaining power or their ability to say no and also enable them to get a larger share of the fruits of economic growth. Right? So there's a way in which it can capture all of these normative concerns. Certainly, fair race doesn't capture it at all. Even economic inequality, if you just focus it on, what are your wages, it misses all these things, too. But a jobs guarantee can go a long way to satisfying all of those. And that's one of the reasons why that's one of the central-- one of my first best, I guess you would say, policy proposals.

So one of the things that I do argue is that, in order to combat these issues, in order to make society comparatively just, in a just-work perspective, to combat winner-take-all trends, there's a kind of recognition, right-- but part of the reason why I try and build around the idea of just work, and the reason why I actually interrogate recent work in the social sciences about, people actually care about, is, it seems to be a value that is widely shared across racial, economic, gender lines-- party lines. Right? This is a principle that has widespread--

MARK BLYTH: Very few people believe in injust work.

JOSHUA PREISS: Right, right, and not just because of the term "just" as a normative label, but the things that "just work" captures-- this idea that hard work should lead to a middle-class life and that one of the ways in which an economic society can be well ordered or can be disordered is if lots of people work hard and are still perpetually insecure, they can't keep up, and so on, and so forth.

So the last chapter has a number of different policy reforms-- avenues for reform. Right? One way of answering this question, what to be good next is to say, I'm the guy who proposes Reform A. So I'm the Reform A guy. You know, or I'm the person who says, this is the truth. Sort of like have the same, like, this is the cause of inequality-- the primary one. This is the primary way to do that.

I propose a number of different possible avenues of reform, but the key here is, one, you don't need to adopt all of these at once. In fact, they can counterindicate each other. But what is most relevant is that they can all be the source of a political coalition engineered around that one, fundamental, concrete reform. And that's a lot easier to motivate, politically, than a political coalition around just work. Although writing about these principles, I think, is important. Clarifying these principles are important. Talking about why these are coming about is important.

But the reason why I don't pick a preferred policy but also want to very clearly articulate policy-- sometimes, in political theory, there can be, like, I did all this historical work and then what comes next-- I have three pages at the end of the book where I-- oh, and you might maybe just do something like-- I don't know-- labor unions should be stronger, or something like that. And those can be amazing books. Right? But the reason I want to say a little bit more about that is because it says a little bit more about how these individual-- any of these reforms, they don't depend on each other, each one is a plausible political coalition behind a reform that will contextually make society comparatively just.

MARK BLYTH: And then, collectively, that will push it more in that direction.

JOSHUA PREISS: Right. Yeah, exactly. So any one of these things would be a step forward, any one of these things is feasible, if we think of the problem in terms of something like just work.

MARK BLYTH: OK, so I'm going to leave you with this. You referenced the Jetsons, early in the book, because George Jetson is complaining one day about having to work a whole two hours--

JOSHUA PREISS: Yeah, yeah.

MARK BLYTH: --because of this imaginary of the future--

JOSHUA PREISS: The sweatshop that he's--

MARK BLYTH: The sweatshop, yeah. You know, this is the good side of robots, rather than the bad side, et cetera. But there's another one that I might suggest would fit well in the book, which is Bewitched. Because-- I don't know if you remember-- one of the constant subplots of Bewitched and many other American sitcoms of that kind of golden-age period was the boss coming to dinner.


MARK BLYTH: And now, here's your winner-takes-all comparison. It would never happen.


MARK BLYTH: Nobody even knows who the boss is.

JOSHUA PREISS: Yeah. Well, they don't even work for the same firm, right? Oh, what is that-- oh, gosh. I'd have to look it the reference. But they-- Case and Deaton cite the Economist. And I can't remember-- but most workers aren't even invited to the holiday party anymore.


JOSHUA PREISS: They don't work for the same firm--

MARK BLYTH: They're all subcontracted.

JOSHUA PREISS: Yeah, they're all subcontracted--

MARK BLYTH: Yeah, yeah.

JOSHUA PREISS: --they have no connection, no relationship to whatever. And people don't like that. I mean, sometimes they do like it.

MARK BLYTH: But that's one of the things you can build around.

JOSHUA PREISS: Right. I mean, sometimes they do actually very much like it, in the sense that they like the flexibility of the work or whatever. There's all sorts of reasons why this has happened that aren't just, like, some powerful capitalist twitching their, you know, monocle and getting control or whatever. There's some positives that go into these trends.

But one negative is, people lose pride of place in the firm, as well. And they lose that sense that they could do better-- and not do better in the sense that they might have a more level playing field but do better in the sense that if, they worked hard, they'll--

MARK BLYTH: They will be recognized. That says a lot.

JOSHUA PREISS: Yeah, and they'll be recognized-- thank you for your contributions to the firm. You know, and so on and so forth. Yeah.

MARK BLYTH: All right, let's leave it there. Thanks a lot, Josh.

JOSHUA PREISS: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks, Mark.

MARK BLYTH: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Kate Dario. I'm Mark Blyth. You can listen to more conversations like this by subscribing to the Rhodes Center Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts. We'll be back soon with another episode of the Rhodes Center Podcast. Thanks.

About the Podcast

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The Rhodes Center Podcast with Mark Blyth
A podcast from the Rhodes Center, hosted by political economist Mark Blyth.

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Mark Blyth

Host, Rhodes Center Podcast