Dumbo’s Dilemma

OK, let’s talk about Dumbo. Remember? The little elephant with the big ears?

A helpful circus mouse (Disney, remember?) points out that if he opened up his giant ears he could fly and thus become a big star. Dumbo, being no dummy, disagrees, until the mouse says he’s got a magic feather. If Dumbo would just hold the magic feather in his trunk, open up his wings and jump off the high-dive platform, he would fly.

Weeks, months go by. Convinced that the magic feather is what keeps him afloat, Dumbo continues to fly. One fine day, flying along at cruising altitude, a strong wind whisks the feather out of his trunk. Horrified, Dumbo drops like a stone. The mouse, hitching a ride in his hat, screams at Dumbo that the feather was a trick, a ruse, a lie! He could fly without the feather!

Thanks to Wikipedia for refreshing my memory about Dumbo.  I needed that because I’m going to lean on the little guy pretty hard today.

What first caught my attention was this line, from a column by Michael Lind: “Politicians should tell working Americans what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.”[1] As a former campaign manager, I can tell you that is not the way it looks to the candidate in the middle of a race.

Michael Lind or, more likely, the headline writers at the New York Times, asks in his column (see it here): “Can you have a good life if you don’t have a good job?”

good-jobs-4The answer is Yes. First, he needs to do a little defining of terms. Second, he wants to answer the question positively: Yes, you can have a good life even if you don’t have a good job. I’m right with him so far.

But then, third, he begins to talk about who needs to do what to resolve this dilemma in our contemporary world of politics. To my mind, that is where the wheels come off of Lind’s argument. He wants candidates to tell voters what they need to hear. You don’t win elections that way.  You forfeit elections that way.

Good jobs and the good life

Let’s get a little clarity on the key terms. By “good jobs,” Lind means “jobs with solid wages, regular hours, and, perhaps, generous employer-provided benefits.” If you wanted to talk a little more expansively about what “good job” ought to mean—and ordinarily, I do—you would want a lot more than that. But Lind is right that in the current climate, when people use the expression “good jobs,” they mean something like wages, hours, and benefits.

“Good life,” is, as you would expect, a little trickier, but here is what Lind means: “access to the basic goods and services that define a decent life in a modern society.” [2]

Now the point of Lind’s article is perilously like the crucial moment in the story of Dumbo, the elephant who can fly if he thinks he can fly. If he thinks it is the feather that enables him to fly, he has to have that feather. Let me explain. I’m going to be pushing Lind on who is going to deliver the mouse’s line, but I really like his description of the situation.

The “how to fly” team

To begin with, there is a “how to fly” team. Lind describes a consensus among “bipartisan experts” as one component of that team. The other, as you will see in the quote below, is legislators. (Not candidates, please note.) By “legislators,” Lind means to point to the people who are actually defining and funding programs.

Bipartisan experts tend to agree that the decline in employer-provided benefits and the rise of unconventional work arrangements are trends that should be accommodated, by reforms including new portable benefits and expanded income maintenance programs, like tax credits for low-income workers.

For several decades, this consensus has been reflected in what legislators have actually been doing. Slowly, incrementally, Americans have been moving away from a system in which a good job with a generous employer was the key to having a good life to a new system in which even people with low-wage jobs can have access to the basic goods and services that define a decent life in a modern society.

So this sounds pretty good, right? The old sources of “good jobs” are decaying, but slowly, legislators are moving to “a new system in which even people with low-wage jobs” can have good lives. So what does that actually look like? What programs are we talking about.

Here are four.

One piece of the new system includes the earned-income tax credit, a means-tested wage subsidy that has enjoyed bipartisan support since its creation in 1975.

And then there are new kinds of jobs.

Another example is provided by jobs in the health care and social assistance sector. These jobs are projected to grow much more rapidly than the average for all occupations, increasing by 38 percent between 2012 and 2024 and accounting for 3.8 of the 9.3 million new service sector jobs.

And besides that.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — enacted into law in 2010 sought to ensure that all Americans without employer-provided health insurance had access to affordable health insurance, through either Medicaid, state-regulated exchanges or a federal exchange.

And furthermore.

Here again, many Democrats and Republicans agree that the answer [to the reduction in families who save for retirement] is to detach retirement security from particular employers, though it should still depend on how much you work. A number of states have considered creating state-sponsored retirement savings plans for private sector workers without employer-provided retirement savings plans. California, Illinois, Oregon and Massachusetts have already established such programs.

If we just relied on that, Lind says, we could fly. Look ma. No feather!

Problem One: No feather

There are two problems we have to deal with for this Dumbo scenario to work. The first is that voters are stuck on the magic feather. Here’s what they mean, according to Lind.

The kind of jobs voters want exist in:

“a world in which one or a few lifetime jobs in a paternalistic company that provided benefits during your working life and a pension after your retirement.”

good-job-1That’s the feather. That’s how you know you are flying. And I think a “magic feather” is a really good symbol for this effect because this kind of a world is not something that individual workers can do or groups of workers can do. It is not something a candidate supported by the workers can do. It’s “magic” and the symbol of the magic is the feather.


What voters see when they look at the future is this:

“…individuals struggle to survive by piecing together “gigs” and “tasks” with a bewildering variety of federal, state and local social programs may strike many workers as a dystopian nightmare. The price of increased flexibility may be increased stress.”

In short, they don’t see anything like a feather. So the voters decide that they can’t fly after all and they fall. We fall.

Problem Two: No mouse

So now we go back to the story, the part where the mouse confesses that the whole “magic feather thing” was a fraud and that Dumbo doesn’t need it. He can fly in a new way. [3] What Lind wants if for someone—“politicians,” he says, to step up and play the part of the mouse. He wants them to tell voters during the campaign that all that stuff about “good jobs” was just a fraudulent feather; that they really can fly without it. I don’t see that happening.

So we actually can fly and everyone is allowed to say that except candidates for office.

Donald Trump “proposes to protect American workers from competition with illegal immigrants, the offshoring of jobs by United States-based corporations and harmful practices by trading partners like China.”

Hillary Clinton “promises ‘the biggest investment in good-paying jobs since World War II’ by means of a mixture of tough trade negotiations, investment in domestic manufacturing, infrastructure investment, research and development, regulatory relief for small business, debt-free higher education and a tax credit to subsidize apprenticeships.”

It is clear that Lind is counting on the mouse. “Politicians should tell working Americans what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.” It is also clear that neither of the two major candidates is going to say, in the middle of a campaign, that we don’t need that old magic feather.

Rousing conclusion

So here we are. We are Dumbo. We think it was the feather that enabled us to fly. That’s the good life/good jobs illusion. But a team of policy wonks and legislators—bipartisan groups, both of them—have devised a way for us to fly without the feather. We can live the good life now with “bad jobs,” or what we used to think of as bad jobs.

good-job-5All we need now is the mouse. But politicians, people who are actually running for office and who tell voters “what they need to hear,” lose . And not only do they lose, but they also take a lot of other candidates down with them, candidates much further down the ballot.

So this isn’t really cowardice, which is what Lind seems to think. It is responsible leadership. They have good reasons for not telling voters the bad news and the good news. The bad news is that the whole “feather thing” is gone and isn’t coming back. The good news is that we don’t need it any more.

But we do need that mouse.

[1]New America is a think tank and civic enterprise committed to renewing American politics, prosperity, and purpose in the Digital Age. We generate big ideas, bridge the gap between technology and policy, and curate broad public conversation.
[2] I I think that I, personally, would prefer to talk of “a good life” as a life that combines personal wholeness, meaningful social interaction, and life in a polity characterized by justice, at least, and by trust and solidarity at most.
[3] The “new way” for Dumbo is, from an aerodynamic standpoint, exactly the same as the old way. He has these enormous ears and he can use them to fly. But aerodynamics isn’t everything. Dumbo can fly because he thinks he can fly and the feather is the outward symbol of that ability. So the “new way” is flying without believing it is the feather that is doing it.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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