College students – actually their anxious parents, more often – sometimes write to ask what the jobs of the future will look like. What skills and disciplines should workers-to-be master to succeed in the 21st-century economy?
My answer used to involve programming, data analysis, creativity, empathy. Basically, skills that are complementary to rising automation and that will help workers invent new products or support those who do.
Today, my answer must change. In light of the regulatory vision being laid out by President-elect Donald Trump and his advisers, I’d recommend college students bone up on hustling and swindling instead.
Mammas, make sure your babies grow up to be con men.
One of the many underappreciated legacies of the Obama administration has been its widespread implementation of pro-consumer policies. Under the outgoing president’s leadership, multiple executive branch departments and independent agencies have enacted laws, rules and regulations designed to protect regular Americans from, well, the Donald Trumps of the world.
By which I mean big companies and moneyed interests eager to fleece unsophisticated or shallow-pocketed borrowers, investors, consumers, workers and small-potatoes entrepreneurs.
To the untrained ear, Trump’s campaign rhetoric suggested he might be on board with Obama’s mission.
Trump spoke frequently of how the system was “rigged” against the little guy, and how – because no one knows the system better than Trump – he alone could un-rig it. But now that he’s heading into office, Trump has flanked himself with a fleet of anti-regulation, anti-consumer subordinates who appear hellbent on dismantling the Obama administration’s hard-won pro-little-guy protections.
With a Cabinet likely worth tens of billions of dollars, Trump is assembling a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich. And the policies his team wants to enact won’t line only their leader’s pockets – to the contrary, if they succeed, they'll enrich enterprising mugs, pugs and thugs throughout the land, too.
Almost immediately after the election, a Trump transition team member declared the president-elect’s intention to scrap the Obama administration’s new “fiduciary duty” rule. This rule, set to take effect in April, would require retirement investment advisers to act in the best interests of their clients. The finance industry hates the rule and would rather preserve its ability to sell products that are, by definition, not in the best interest of little-old-lady clients.
Trump and his economic advisers have likewise committed to repealing Dodd-Frank, the post-crisis financial reform legislation.
This would, among other things, vaporize the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. While most consumers may not be familiar with the CFPB, they can thank it for going after predatory lenders, forced arbitration clauses, illegal debt-collection schemes and banks that incentivize employees to open up fake accounts in clients’ names.
Its sole purpose is to make sure the deck isn’t stacked in favor of chicaners and cheats.
The Obama administration also made high-profile changes to higher-education policy to protect consumers. It increased accountability at low-performing for-profit institutions, for example, by making access to federal student aid contingent on student outcomes. The Federal Trade Commission likewise sued DeVry University for alleged deceptive advertising, and the CFPB and the Securities and Exchange Commission have brought actions against now-closed ITT Tech for alleged predatory lending and fraud, respectively.
While Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, does not appear to have taken a public position as yet on higher-ed regulation and enforcement actions, the industry itself is getting pumped about plumping up again. Stock prices for publicly traded for-profit colleges soared following the surprise election result. Plus the fraud case against Trump’s own nonaccredited, defunct pseudo-”university,” recently settled to the tune of $25 million, would suggest that Trump himself may not be terribly sympathetic to the concerns of students who don’t feel they got their money’s worth.
With or without substantive legal changes, there are plenty of other snake-oil-based industries that we should expect to thrive under the new administration.
The profitable fake-news business, for instance.
Or the dodgy multi-level marketing schemes that some likely members of the new administration have profited from – and thus look unlikely to police.
With no one watching the till, it’s hard to advise the next generation of workers to invest time and energy in trying to be productive members of society. Inventing the next iPhone or Google will be hard; legalized grifting is much easier. Even before taking the oath of office, Trump is reshaping the economy in his own image: an economy of con men.