The Once and Future Worker by Oren Cass will be of interest to CPAs on at least three important fronts. First, in running CPA firms, a deep understanding of employees, any company’s most important asset, is essential. Second, helping guide clients as their trusted advisor increasingly involves labor and management issues. Third, the section on sustainability points the way for CPA firms to play an energetic role in this emerging field. As the distinguished former NYSSCPA president, J. Michael Kirkland, has said to this reviewer, “We should own this space.”
The salient section of the book is a discussion of the “respect gap” in how employers view workers. The gap between work and idleness has narrowed in the popular view; idleness has lost its shame, while the virtue of work has diminished in the eyes of many. This, Cass suggests, is costly to society.
The other aspect of the “respect gap” is the distorted view of the status of various jobs:
Waiters, truck drivers, retail clerks, plumbers, secretaries, and others all spend their days helping the people around them and filling roles crucial to the community. They do hard, unglamorous work for limited pay to support themselves and their families. Why shouldn’t they be eager to share this information with their conversation partners? Surely their replies would compare favorably with those of the derivatives trader, white-collar defense lawyer, premium-alcohol social media manager, or professor of comparative literature. If blue-collar replies instead are cause of embarrassment, or an invitation to the listener to feel superior, then something is amiss.
For a discussion of sustainability, Cass goes back to the United Nations’ definition: sustainable development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Cass then explains further:
While sustainability is generally associated with environmentalism, the issues it raises are not only, or even primarily, ones of natural and ecological resources. What matters is the vitality of the endowments that allow society to replicate and expend its prosperity, year after year, generation after generation. If economic growth fails to nourish the endowments on which it relies, it is not sustainable. This does not make GDP growth inherently incompatible with social health and thus unsustainable; to the contrary, the two goods can be mutually reinforcing. But whether the relationship between them is negative or positive depends on the manner in which growth is pursued.
Here we have two political issues where left and right might come to agreement—the respect for work (higher wages and reduced idleness should have broad appeal) and a sustainability policy that balances the present and the future needs of Americans. This fits into Cass’s harsh assessment of universal basic income (UBI), which has attracted so many policy experts. UBI focuses on the well-being of people as consumers, but not the well-being that comes from having a job and doing it well.
Cass challenges many assumptions and beliefs and so is disruptive in the sense first enunciated by Clayton Christensen. His views will prove useful to executives responsible for their enterprises and, with a little bit of luck, to lawmakers who will find common ground in the common sense that fills this book.