John Drescher

Walmart veteran says Congress needs more former cashiers

Duke professor Nicholas Carnes.
Duke professor Nicholas Carnes. Duke Photography

Nick Carnes has hung drywall, cashiered at Walmart, made Cinnabon cinnamon rolls, operated a motorized pallet jack and, at the opening of a new grocery store, worn a Tony the Tiger head and costume.

His favorite job of that era was at the Jumpin’ Catfish restaurant in Olathe, Kansas, where hush puppies and creamy coleslaw are served under the fixed gaze of mounted birds, fish and deer. Among other things, Carnes, then a high school student, bused tables and washed dishes for three years.

“I learned how to work hard, how to work fast,” Carnes, now 31 years old and an assistant professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, told me this week. “To this day, when I’m working at my desk, I still think there’s no excuse for goofing around on Facebook. That voice is still in my head. There’s always more work to do. There’s always something I could be doing to make sure (my students) have a better experience.”

Carnes grew up in Kansas, received a degree from the University of Tulsa and earned a doctorate from Princeton, where he found few students who’d worked construction, in a warehouse or at a call center. He’s been registered as a Republican and Democrat and is now unaffiliated.

Carnes says what you do for a living deeply influences how you view the decisions that come out of local, state and the federal government. Even in this information economy, Carnes says 51 percent of Americans have blue-collar jobs, which he defines as manual labor or service industry jobs.

Yet when Americans go to the polls, they rarely get the chance to vote for candidates who have spent most of their careers in blue-collar (he also calls them working-class) jobs.

When it comes to voting for president, as North Carolina voters will do Tuesday, “The only choice is to vote for someone who has spent almost (his or her) entire life doing white-collar work and is a millionaire.”

In his 2013 book, “White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making,” Carnes studied the professional backgrounds of city council members, state legislators and members of Congress, and found them to be overwhelmingly white collar.

Of the 783 members of Congress who served during the period from 1999 to 2008, only 13 had spent more than a quarter of their prior career doing blue-collar jobs.

Carnes said that influences how members of Congress vote on “Main Street economic issues” such as tax rates, corporate regulation, the minimum wage, and health-care and unemployment benefits.

His research shows that elected officials often draw on their own experiences in drafting laws. White-collar politicians tend to be more pro-business; blue-collar politicians tend to be more pro-worker.

“Across cities and states, when working-class Americans are absent from our legislatures, tax policies are more favorable to businesses, social safety net programs are stingier, protections for workers are weaker and economic inequality is significantly worse,” Carnes has written.

“Government by the upper class promotes government for the upper class – and makes life harder for the classes of Americans who can least afford it.”

Carnes says voters don’t necessarily want to be governed by the wealthy but usually don’t have a choice. He’s working on a new book, “The Cash Ceiling,” about how to get more working-class people elected, including identifying and training blue-collar workers to run for office.

In the meantime, Carnes continues to draw on the blue-collar jobs he’s held. At home, he makes a mean cinnamon roll frosting. He didn’t enjoy working for a home renovator years ago – but those old skills came in handy recently when he hung some siding.