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A Sweater Vest and a Blue Collar

Rickonomics.

Jan 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 18 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Manchester, N.H.
As Rick Santorum moved from Iowa to New Hampshire, his particular brand of populism came into sharper focus. Having secured a base of social conservatives in Iowa, he was looking to add blue-collar voters to his coalition. 

To woo them, Santorum made the elimination of all taxes on manufacturing the centerpiece of his New Hampshire campaign. He placed it at the fulcrum of a narrative about America making the transition to a knowledge-based economy while still providing economic mobility for the non-college-educated. 

At an event in Salem just before the primary, for example, he talked about the class divide:

What we’ve seen in this country, unfortunately, is a knowledge-based economy—which is certainly where our country is and is going—but it’s a knowledge-based economy that is just rewarding and giving opportunities to some over others. And in this case it’s white-collar workers and the college-educated versus the rest of society. Among the college-educated, even now, the unemployment rate is about 4.3 or 4.4 percent. Whereas among non-college-educated, it’s in the double-digits. .  .  . You see that differentiation but you don’t hear anybody in this political environment talking about it. I’m the only candidate out there on either side other than the president. And when he talks about it, he talks about it in terms of “the 99 and the 1.” He talks about it so as to divide America.

Santorum is most definitely not preaching divisiveness. His argument is that knowledge-based, white-collar jobs generate tremendous wealth, while government policies—taxes, regulations, OSHA, the NLRB, EPA strictures, foolish energy policies, and a hostile legal climate—have disproportionately damaged the manufacturing sector. And it is this crucial sector that transforms knowledge-based innovations into actual goods—and then channels wealth throughout the rest of society.

“Manufacturing is a highly value-added process,” he explains. “And it has a huge multiplier effect within the community from a wealth standpoint. If you look at the average job in America today, it pays about $56,000 a year. The average manufacturing job pays $77,000. So there is a difference. There is that ability to rise if we can revitalize the manufacturing sector of the economy.”

Santorum readily admits that America won’t be competitive in all sectors of manufacturing. “We’re not competing with Vietnam or Myanmar or Thailand for the low-wage, high-labor-content jobs,” Santorum says. “Those jobs, there may be niches where we can compete there, but by and large that’s not the area we’re going to get back. .  .  . [W]here we can be competitive on a broader scale are skilled jobs that pay more money, that have a lot more automation involved in the process. And so it takes skills to run the computerized equipment that’s necessary to make these products. .  .  . That’s the area that can expand.”

The second half of Santorum’s blue-collar pitch is a rallying cry for traditional, small-town values—which he ties to his economic arguments. “If we don’t have strong families, you can’t really have a strong economy over the long-term,” he says. “Why? Because poverty rates go way up when marriages break down. Whether it’s through divorce or out-of-wedlock births. You have much higher rates of poverty and economic stress.”

Santorum is fond of telling audiences about a 2009 Brookings study by Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill which found that you need do only three things to avoid poverty in America: Graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and get married before you have a baby. Americans who check off those three boxes have only a 2 percent chance of falling into poverty. (The work of Haskins and Sawhill is closely related to a proposition advanced by William Galston some years before. Galston showed that there was only an 8 percent chance of poverty if you graduate from high school, get married before you have a baby, and do not have a baby before age 20. Galston often quipped that in America, if you can just hit those marks, then the rest of life essentially takes care of itself.)

Practically speaking, in getting people to check off the items on that list it helps to have guiding moral precepts. And while he didn’t trumpet social conservatism here in New Hampshire, he was willing to talk about morality out loud. “Faith has played an integral role in that in America,” he said. “To pull that away and say ‘faith, religion, really has to be put out into a private affair’ removes a vitally important aspect of American society that allows us to be free. Because faith instills virtue, and virtue allows for freedom. The less virtuous we are as a society, the more laws.”

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