Is America Ready for a ‘Good Jobs for Men’ Plan?

Steelworkers return to work at U.S. Steel Granite City Works in Granite City, Ill., after a two-year idle, May 24, 2018. (Lawrence Bryant/Reuters)
The gender politics of ‘industrial policy’ could prove toxic.

Marco Rubio is all in for “industrial policy”: In a speech Tuesday, he said the government should identify “specific industrial sectors” that make important products and/or create good jobs and “spur[] investment in them.” He highlighted the potential for such a policy to counter the rise of China, and as for the industries he’d ultimately like to help, he mentioned rare-earth-mineral mining, aerospace, rail, electronics, telecommunications, and agricultural machinery.

His critics have launched a number of attacks, centering largely on the notion that the government should not be picking winners and losers in the economy. Indeed, even someone greatly worried about China might not see government intervention in the domestic economy as the best defense, and even someone who supports government policies to “make work pay” might balk at helping preferred industries rather than boosting the incomes of low-income workers directly.

But as this idea continues to gain a foothold in the conservative policy discussion, we should pay attention to another dimension of it as well: the gender politics, which could prove incredibly toxic if they are not handled deftly. Because industrial policy generally focuses on manufacturing, it’s likely to provide good jobs disproportionately for men. Just about any jobs plan will affect one gender somewhat more than the other, so this might not be a big deal — unless, of course, the policy’s backers treat the sex imbalance as an actual selling point, in which case it could stoke a fiery backlash among women of all political stripes.

Well, as it happens, some of the populist energy on the Right today flows from the notion that wages for men, specifically less educated men, have grown at a dismal pace these past few decades. Not only is this a problem in itself, the narrative goes, but other social ills flow from it. Tucker Carlson probably said it most memorably in a viral rant last year:

Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them. Maybe they should want to marry them, but they don’t. Over big populations, this causes a drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births, and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow — more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation.

Crucially, Rubio himself echoed this sex-conscious concern while making his case for industrial policy:

When dignified work, particularly for men, goes away, so goes the backbone of our culture. Our communities become blighted and wither away. Families collapse, and fewer people get married. Our nation’s soul ruptures.

[Emphasis mine.]

Now, it’s simply true that many women prize breadwinning in their marriage partners, and that the erosion of income inequality between the sexes has made marriage less attractive for some. I’ve written about this phenomenon myself.

But it’s one thing to recognize this as a valid sociological observation, and quite another for this fact to inform a public policy of protecting and investing in high-paying jobs for men. If the jobs eventually provided by an “industrial policy” in fact disproportionately go to males, and the guy spearheading that policy is on the record saying he’s worried about good jobs “particularly for men” because “fewer people get married” without such jobs, it will sure look like the government is nudging women to marry guys they otherwise wouldn’t want, while avoiding giving support to the sectors of the economy where women themselves tend to work. That is a pretty offensive thing for the government to do, and you don’t have to be a feminist to think so.

And importantly, while men have lost relative status to women thanks to globalization and women’s own advances, men still outearn women in absolute terms. When Stateline looked at 2,700 places in the U.S. with more than 10,000 people in them, it found only eight where women earned more. Men outearn women across the education and income distributions, too: Men with any given level of education tend to outearn women with that same level of education, and the tenth percentile (or what have you) of the male income distribution is higher than the tenth percentile of the female distribution. Men also have far higher labor-force participation.

To be clear, you don’t have to see this remaining inequality as a problem in itself. I don’t. Men and women are different, and there’s no reason we should expect them to work the same jobs for the same number of hours and make the same tradeoffs between work and family. The gender wage gap is overwhelmingly driven by the fact they don’t.

But still, why would the government deliberately boost the employment prospects of the sex that’s already ahead in the job market? I don’t think America’s women will be amused.

If Rubio eventually succeeds here, comments like the one he made Tuesday could even buttress legal challenges, depending on exactly what the final policy looks like and how liberal the Supreme Court is feeling. Again, we could have a policy that disproportionately provides jobs to men, and a senator pushing the policy who has arguably hinted that that’s part of the point. I ain’t no fancy constitutional lawyer, but that doesn’t look good given the limits the Court has placed on sex discrimination by governments going back half a century or so.

One can make the case for boosting an industry without reference to sex. The dynamics of China’s rise are complicated and troubling, and it’s certainly true that the manufacturing sector has had a rough couple of decades. Promoters of “industrial policy” should probably focus on those talking points and leave the “particularly for men” lines on the cutting-room floor.

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