The Democratic primary season is now in full flow, with over a dozen hopefuls vying to go head to head against President Trump. The discussions have been frenetic, entertaining and, at times, illuminating.
Clear detail on economic proposals has been missing though; leading contenders like Senator Kamala Harris and former Congressman Beto O’ Rourke, prefer talking about values, and slip quickly into vague generalities when discussing economic matters. The clear exception to this principle is Pete Buttigieg. Buttigeig, who goes by the moniker “Mayor Pete”, is unusual in many ways being only 37, having served in Afghanistan, and being currently the mayor in South Bend, Indiana, an industrial town of around 100,000 people.
Whilst some argue his youth is a disadvantage, the experience of being a Mayor of a Rust Belt town has meant he has thought more deeply about the effects of automation and globalisation than, for example, Harris (a former prosecutor) or O’ Rourke (who represented a Texas border town).
During his tenure as Mayor, Buttigieg made a concerted effort to refurbish derelict properties to make the city more attractive. He also made the city centre a greener and less polluted area, with the aim of encouraging private investment. South Bend’s seemingly inexorable decline stopped, with it becoming a tech hub and unemployment halving.
Buttigieg has also considered the macro picture, arguing for the need for the US to invest in artificial intelligence and green technology, to avoid China becoming the global leader in the industries of the future. Rather than harking back to the past, he accepts that the current job market is more disparate and that the process has to be managed, for example by making benefits portable, examining Universal Basic Income, and the need for identity and support groups outside of work.
This last point is missed by many commentators; historically, people’s jobs have been a huge part of their identity and purpose. What effect does a more transient, fluid labour market have on this? The Mayor’s answer is an untraditional Democratic one, to put more emphasis on an individual’s place in the community and, where appropriate, faith.
Buttigieg will likely not win the Democratic nomination, but the fact that he is there putting his economic arguments is good for the party. As much as the Democrats should fight President Trump on values, they also need to convince blue collar workers that the modern economy can work for them.