First off, he’s running. Marco Rubio wouldn’t start echoing Trump talking points in his tweets and writing op-eds in The Atlantic if he weren’t trying to establish a foundation to launch a future presidential bid. We’re not getting rid of this guy any time soon.
Secondly, this essay isn’t as bad as I anticipated it would be. In fact, Rubio makes a lot of really good points, like this critique of corporate stock buybacks:
The conventional wisdom among corporate management and investors today is that buybacks don’t come at the expense of investment, because they return capital to shareholders to be put to better use elsewhere. This objection misses the point. When a corporation uses its profits to buy back stock, it is actively deciding that returning capital to shareholders is a better activity for business than investing in the company’s product or workforce. The tax preference for buybacks tilts the scale in this direction, creating a bias against productive investment.
We shouldn’t be surprised that an economy that encourages indefinite financialization over confidently making big bets on building the future has yielded a work life that is fractured, unstable, and low paying. To reassert the dignity of work, we need to start building an economy that invests in its workers and the things they make. Making American corporations act like the drivers of investment they once were would be a start.
That said, the point he raises isn’t some mystery we just uncovered, and this gets to the crux of the issue with Marco Rubio: he can be eloquent and thoughtful, but his votes betray that thoughtfulness. The moment he steps into the halls of congress, he’s nothing more than a GOP toady.
Rubio also raises a really good point about the inadequacy of our higher education system:
Higher education has gone from being an accelerator of opportunity, as it was after World War II, to being a main driver of economic and social inequality today. The status quo model of higher education stifles competition, encourages soaring tuition costs, traps competent potential workers in unproductive academic bureaucracies, and limits opportunities for nontraditional students, such as working parents. Families and students need a system that embraces the new ways people can learn and acquire skills without having to go the traditional four-year-college-degree track.
He even said that labor unions are a good thing (granted, there's a few paragraphs before this that are standard conflicting Rubio nonsense, but it's notable any time any Republican says something positive about unions):
Rebuilding the dignity of work means fighting for a work life that suits the needs of our workers. By recognizing the legitimate value of labor organizations and embracing creative ideas for restoring their importance in workers' lives, we can better align the interests of our economy with the dignity of workers.
If Marco Rubio was not a senator who has consistently voted to enable the economic injustices he highlights, I would say that this is overall, a pretty solid column. He raises a lot of good points about the problems we face in our economy, but his solutions miss the point that his objections raise. A lot of the issues that Rubio points out stem from the natural incentives within our capitalist system (which Republicans exacerbate every chance they get), and until we address the fundamental theoretical injustices within capitalism, the rest is just window dressing.
Take stock buybacks for example, and Rubio's correct critique that “When a corporation uses its profits to buy back stock, it is actively deciding that returning capital to shareholders is a better activity for business than investing in the company's product or workforce.”
Capitalism is defined as private ownership of the means of production for the express purpose of profit. Those owning the means of production using profits to buy back their own stock to make more personal profit is wholly rational per the natural capitalist incentives. It's the direct manifestation of why private capital owns the means of production. Stock buybacks are simply another way to squeeze profit out of the system explicitly for the owners of the system. That's why the system exists—profit for owners of the means of production.
Profit is at the heart of so many of our issues with capitalism, and it's largely due to two simple facts:
1. Profit = (Revenue – Costs).
2. Labor is almost always your biggest cost, therefore, worker pay and benefits are major obstacles to profit.
This is what Rubio misses in his section about labor unions. He predictably laments their support for Democratic politicians—as if it's a mystery why organizations who represent the interests of laborers won't support a party wholly devoted to funneling as much money to owners of capital as possible—without ever addressing the fact that capital has invested billions of dollars to weaken the powers of labor unions. He simply says that labor unions “no longer represent the interests of its workers,” without really delving into why they have become less effective at representing its workers' interests. It's because capital has invested tons of money in reducing their power, because again, your salary is an obstacle to their profit. It's that simple.
This essay is peak Marco Rubio. He has proven that when he speaks frankly, he can say some truly thoughtful things. For example, his diatribe on how 1990s rappers served as reporters is proof that he understands the injustices built into the American system far better than he typically lets on.
This is what makes Marco Rubio so frustrating. He chooses ignorance. He wrote an essay about the dignity of work without truly addressing the concerns of laborers. While he accurately highlights the problems that many of us face, his prescriptions and analysis of the cause of the problems fall incredibly short.
In fact, you don’t even need to dive into his specific arguments to demonstrate this reality. He centered his essay around “the Dignity of Work”—which is a philosophy held dear in Christian teachings—without adhering to the basic lesson in those teachings. Per Catholic Social Teaching (emphasis mine):
Work is not punishment or a necessary evil, nor is it mans means of accumulating control, power and wealth. Both of these ideas are contrary to the biblical view of work. We understand work as something intrinsically good, we are co-creators of Gods world and work is part of our contribution.
Work must be undertaken responsibly and labour treated well, this includes how we approach the work we do, what it is we do with our work and how employers treat their employees. A strong theme in Catholic Social Thought is support for trade unions and state measures to ensure concrete safeguards in place like living wages and holiday leave.
Jesus speaks a lot about work, while much of this is in parables, we shouldn’t restrict interpretations of these parables to be only spiritual ones. Jesus spent most of the years of his life learning the trade of carpentry and we shouldn’t forget this when we hear him lament about the servant who hides his talent in the ground.
Capitalism is explicitly about power and control. Our economic system is based on wealthy financial interests controlling the means of production in order to extract as much profit from our labor as possible—which means going against much of what Christianity preaches in the Dignity of Work. Americans have been brainwashed into thinking that profit is always good, when it could not be clearer that our very own paychecks are viewed as enemies of profit. This is the power imbalance that Christian theology correctly highlighted in its support for “trade unions and state measures.” Without them, owners of capital will run roughshod over labor, as modern-day America proves. Our present economic dystopia could not be possible without the votes of Republicans like Marco Rubio, and the fact that he doesn’t even try to make that connection in this piece proves the hollowness of his words.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.