Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

For the last several years, some of the world's leading thinkers have fretted over robots and artificial intelligence, with one particular worry — whether jobs across the U.S. and the rest of the advanced economies are going to be wiped out.

The big picture: As of now, no one truly knows what will happen, but everyone agrees on one point — that something is substantially broken when it comes to work. Most Americans have not received a real wage increase in decades, one-third of working-age people are not part of the labor force at all, and the education system seems divorced from the future economy.

So fraught has the subject become that radical solutions are now getting mainstream attention.

What's happening: President Trump won the 2016 election in large part by repositioning the Republican Party as the defender of rank-and-file workers in down-on-its-luck communities in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trump had captured the zeitgeist that almost no one else could see.

But the evidence for a building problem was hiding in plain sight in the form of blighted cities, communities and states. The problem of future work had been outlined, too: In 2013, two young researchers at the Oxford University published a thundering study forecasting that 47% of future U.S. jobs could be automated in the coming decades. More recently, studies by McKinsey have said that a massive reskilling of workers can avoid that outcome. But other studies said that, while that may be right, there is no solution on the horizon for flat wages.

Now Oren Cass, Mitt Romney's former domestic policy adviser and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argues that the problem is so profound that it will only be solved by essentially throwing out the long-standing economic policies of both parties.

His new book, "The Once and Future Worker," rejects the usual explanations — that the problem is robots and automation. Rather, he says, public policy has pushed many workers away from physical labor, to which most are suited, and meanwhile taken whacks at the industrial economy, including extraction industries, that might employ these workers.

Cass told me that the entire economic system should be reordered away from a worship of greater GDP and toward wage growth, higher participation of workers in the labor force and a higher savings rate. The focus of policy should not be on supporting college for everyone, but on skills education. "What we want for society is more than just a larger economic pie," he says.

  • Evidence that the system has failed, he argues, is that, although GDP has tripled since 1975 and spending on lower-income families has quadrupled, poverty has risen and wages have been flat.
  • As a remedy, Cass, like Trump, takes a gigantic step away from decades of orthodoxy, urging an abandonment of both Great Society anti-poverty programs and supply-side tax cuts, arguing that both have resulted in the swath of Americans left behind.
  • Public policy ought to attend primarily not to the health of companies nor the support of poor people, but specifically to workers — building a system in which people of all abilities can obtain a productive job. He calls this "productive pluralism."

The bottom line: The problems and the solutions that Cass proposes are neither Republican nor Democratic. The strength of the book is in striking a much-needed challenge to business as usual. But Cass is conspicuously attempting to give an intellectual foundation to Trump's off-the-cuff policymaking and to influence White House policy and 2020 candidates. In that sense, his book is a political screed. But he is asking the right questions and proposing what is probably needed — an upside-down change to economic policy.

Go deeper

Hurricane Zeta makes landfall in Mexico ahead of expected arrival in U.S.

Hurricane Zeta's forecast path. Photo: National Hurricane Center

Hurricane Zeta made landfall on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula as a Category 1 storm late Monday packing maximum sustained winds of 80 mph, per the National Hurricane Center.

The state of play: Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) declared a state of emergency Monday as Zeta strengthened into a hurricane earlier Monday.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Politics: The swing states where the pandemic is raging — Pence no longer expected to attend Barrett confirmation vote after COVID exposure.
  2. Health: 13 states set single-day case records last week
  3. Business: Where stimulus is needed most.
  4. Education: The dangerous instability of school re-openings.
  5. States: Nearly two dozen Minnesota COVID cases traced to 3 Trump campaign events
  6. World: Unrest in Italy as restrictions grow across Europe.
  7. Media: Fox News president and several hosts advised to quarantine.
Updated 1 hour ago - World

In photos: Unrest in Italy as coronavirus restrictions grow across Europe

An anti-government demonstration against the economic consequences of the new measures in Turin, Italy, where luxury stores were "ransacked," on Oct. 26, the Guardian reports. Photo: Diego Puletto/Getty Images

Protests in Italy against fresh COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that came into effect Monday descended into violence in Milan and and Turin, where police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators, per the Guardian.

The big picture: The protests in Italian cities still reeling from the first lockdown mark some of the biggest resistance against measures seen yet as restrictions return across Europe, which is facing a second coronavirus wave. From Denmark to Romania, this is what's been happening, in photos.