Job Guarantee Winning More Fans on the Left and Right

Yves here. The Job Guarantee is getting out of the MMT ghetto. The title of this post at Alternet was Red and Blue Voters Alike Could Rally Around This Radical Job Growth Idea. One of the problems with the Job Guarantee is that its proponents are too intellectually honest and have settled upon a clear, descriptive name. The Job Guarantee would benefit from a bit more clever phrasemaking.

By Liz Posner, a managing editor at AlterNet. Her work has appeared on, Bust, Bustle, Refinery29, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @elizpos. Originally published at Alternet

Economists warn we are on the brink of another economic bust. Considering the Great Recession doubled the American unemployment rate from 5 percent to 10 percent in two years, now is the time to prepare for this looming employment crisis with meaningful policy.

Some on the left fiddle with the idea of a universal basic income, or free college tuition that could prepare more Americans for high-skill labor jobs, while the right desperately calls for restoring the good old days of U.S. manufacturing and coal jobs. But there’s a simpler solution that could cast a security blanket over the most vulnerable Americans whose employment prospects will be even bleaker in a time of economic crisis.

Eric Levitz, writing for New York Magazine, surfaced an old idea with the potential to bring together progressives, centrist Dems and even some conservatives: a federal jobs guarantee bill that would give government-funded work to the unemployed. As Levitz explains, the federal jobs guarantee has a history of support from liberals throughout the past century, from Huey Long to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and most recently, Kirsten Gillibrand. There are various ideas of what this legislation could offer; the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities has proposed a version that would guarantee its participants a minimum annual wage of $24,600 plus benefits, and an average expected wage of $32,500—a figure at least three times the highest proposed universal basic income.

The authors of the paper told the Nation their plan, “would especially benefit marginalized and stigmatized workers that face structural barriers in the private sector.” Several other countries have already implemented jobs guarantee policies. Argentina reduced its unemployment rate by two-thirds after implementing its version in 2002. India’s vast National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is the largest job safety blanket in the world, giving at least 100 days of work to every household, and has received praise since its initiation in 2005. And in 2017, South Korea’s president promised to add 810,000 federal jobs through a similar program.

The U.S. actually already has a version of a federal jobs guarantee—it’s called Americorps, and it’s focused on providing vital services to struggling communities by employing regular citizens as laborers. To an extent, Americorps has been filling the void of a formal federal jobs guarantee for over 50 years. With the formation of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) in 1965, the organization has quietly employed more than 75,000 people each year. The umbrella organization Americorps, which received federal funding, now includes the Boys and Girls Club, Habitat for Humanity, Teach for America and many others, and over a million Americans have participated in the program since its inception. Those volunteers receive either a modest living stipend or a full salary, depending on the corps they join, and they undertake vital tasks to develop housing, preserve parks, educate children, and provide health services to the poor. It’s crucial work in sectors that are understaffed—one only need note the scarcity of nurses and teachers across the country to understand how badly we need more of them.

Americorps sprung from its older sister, the New Deal, a vast national employment package ushered into practice by Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to severe unemployment during the Great Depression. The Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration and projects formed during the New Deal helped reduce the unemployment rate from 16.9 percent to 9.9 percent in 1936. In recent history, civil service and work programs like Americorps have shielded some Americans from unemployment.

As a millennial who harbored safely in college during the Great Recession and worried about finding a job in a competitive market after graduation, I chose the security of Americorps rather than risk the private sector. I’m not alone: According to Business Insider, Americorps applications tripled in 2009. Teach for America applications rose 35 percent in 2008, then another 40 percent in 2009. Unfortunately, many of those applicants were turned away due to the constraints of federal funding. The Center for American Progress explains how a fully fledged Americorps could have come to the aid of even more Americans after the 2007 recession if its funding had not been neglected (and could have boosted the economy in the process):

“In the aftermath of the Great Recession, this policy would have responded decisively by supporting a peak of 475,000 temporary national service positions at a time when about 4.6 million people were long-term unemployed. If this automatic policy had been in place from fiscal years 2000 to 2014, it would have cost an average of $2.6 billion per year—enabling 1.87 million Americans to serve their country for a year during tough economic times and delivering a return on investment of $3.93 in benefits to society for every dollar spent based on an economic study of national service.”

Despite a rebounding economy and shrinking unemployment rate, there is still interest in government-funded service and work programs. In 2011, technically a post-Recession year, Business Insider wrote: “AmeriCorps currently receives more than 530,000 applications for just over 80,000 spots, a 15 percent acceptance rate. Teach for America, which employs recent grads for two-year terms in inner-city schools, is even tighter, with 47,000 college grads vying for a mere 4,600 positions.”

If so many people are interested in civil service work that the programs are highly competitive, why not dedicate more government funds to employing more people in meaningful work?

Community service is not sexy, so an expansion of Americorps as a possible rally-around point for Democratic candidates is not nearly as exciting as the possibility of free college tuition. But the plethora of benefits suggests Americorps service can be a model to show how a federal jobs guarantee could work in the U.S. and even garner support across party lines. Like so many participants, Americorps introduced me to a geographic and cultural slice of the country I’d never been exposed to before and helped make me a more well-rounded American. Participating in Americorps is considered as patriotic as being in the military. What better way to invest in one’s country than by advocating for more people to help rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure, preserve its ecological treasures or repair damage caused by natural disasters? That’s something everyone can get behind.

As New York Magazine explains, the notion of a federal jobs guarantee is both radical and logical. But there is reason to believe that the public could support it: as the magazine writes, “the idea that the government has a responsibility to provide opportunities for gainful employment to all its constituents is thoroughly bipartisan.” Americans just disagree on how that responsibility should be upheld. A federal jobs guarantee avoids the traps that normally frighten conservatives away from welfare-based policies; it’s not a handout of money, but a guarantee of opportunity. The Center for American Progress even has a proposal for a federal jobs guarantee that focuses on providing jobs to non-college graduates, a demographic that has increasingly populated the Republican Party over the past decades. Conservative politicians would do well to consider it.

If centrist Democratic candidates are too nervous to advocate for guaranteed federally funded jobs for the unemployed, throwing their support behind revamping and expanding Americorps would be less controversial. If Bernie Sanders could make socialist-born proposals like free college tuition en vogue again, Democrats vying for office in 2020 can certainly make service (or at least, meaningful government work) sexy again.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    I’m not convinced that a Jobs Guarantee is the cure-all many think. Not least because if it does go mainstream, it will easily be framed in a negative way by conservatives.

    Work relief schemes long predate even the 20th Century. If you wander anywhere in the west of Ireland you’ll find numerous small harbours and roads to nowhere that were built as part of ‘famine relief’ in the 1850’s. Because the Victorians decided that giving free food or money was immoral, they insisted that half starving people worked for their food. Many died just from the effort of going to where the relief works were organised. The result was what would now be described as malinvestment – pointless works designed to make the donors feel they were only giving to the ‘deserving’. Those who were too sick to work of course just died. These schemes didn’t last long as they were seen as wasteful and demeaning.

    The nature of work today is very different from during the Great Depression. You can’t just give a bunch of men pickaxes and tell them to build a dam or a road. Construction work needs trained people, with safety certificates, a range of skills, insurance cover and soon. Its a career, its not suitable for filling in peoples time. And even relatively non-skilled work, such as maintaining parks or streets is already done by permanent workers and contractors. What happens when they lose their jobs because a local government decides its better to use ‘jobs guarantee’ people to do general maintenance and enhancement work?

    I’ve long personal experience with working with voluntary groups in wildlife conservation. That would seen an ideal ‘jobs guarantee’ approach. But its not simple. Sometimes people doing it are only interested in the fresh air, and end up not actually doing any work, leaving others to do it. Sometimes people with ‘issues’ require so much effort from others to support them, no work gets done. Sometimes well meaning amateurs do more harm than good. I know of an abandoned walk in a remote area in Ireland which was built this way (local community group). It was abandoned because 90% of the way through the work someone realised they were hacking the path through a protected habitat and had caused irreparable harm to it. I’ve walked the remains of this path and the damage is appalling – and it was all done as part of a well meaning local conservation job done by amateurs.

    And people are suggesting that it could be used for school support, helping the aged, etc. Well, maybe, but this is also to devalue the professional work done by people in these roles. Do we really need well meaning amateurs in schools ‘helping’ teachers? Maybe it will help, maybe the teachers will find them a distraction. Looking after the elderly is skilled work, is this suitable for people who don’t have a genuine motivation to do this, they are simply filling out their necessary ‘jobs guarantee’ requirement? What happens when the first ‘jobs guarantee’ placement is found committing a criminal act in these circumstances, how will that help?

    I do think work schemes are a vital component of any welfare system, but the notion that you can simply take surplus people and put them to ‘useful’ work is I think naïve and has just as many potential problems and issues as any other single-factor ‘solution’ to inequality and poverty.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I vehemently disagree. First, the infrastructure in the US is so bad that we do have a great deal of low skill work to do, that of repaving roads. I will wait for our house expert on all things construction-related, bob, to weigh in on what other sorts of infrastructure work is un or minimally skilled.

      Other activities include picking up litter (there are paid programs for the homeless in NYC of precisely this sort, corporations will adopt certain areas and hire homeless people in uniforms to clean the sidewalks, so if private businesses can make this work on a selective basis with the homeless, who are the most chronically problematic workforce, there are surely other opportunities). Urban beautification, such as gardening and painting in public areas, is another activity not requiring skills.

      Second, we also have a great deal of service work that can be done that would require some screening but again does not require high skill levels, such as day care services (not just child care but making meals, helping them get to and from the facility, cleaning the facility), elder care (in Europe there are what amount to voluntary day care centers, where old people can go and hang out; they have people mind them to make sure the old people are safe and to watch them in case any fall or have a medical emergency), reading to the blind, bringing meals or other necessities to elderly stay-at-homes….

      1. Summer

        It all depends on how accountable the middle man will be. Lots of discussion about possible worker problems, but not the middle man.
        The government is going to have to enforce regulations for companies taking part.
        The government is still neoliberal.

        1. John B

          Part of the problem involves mental illness. A jobs guarantee would have to be combined with ways to identify, treat, and very carefully employ people with many different degrees of mental disability, or otherwise provide for them, and for people who are simply lazy, dishonest, or astonishingly incompetent but who cannot get jobs at VC startups.

          Another program that a jobs guarantee program could benefit would be agricultural policy. Switching US farm policy from benefiting economies of scale in soybeans, corn, wheat, rice, peanuts, cotton, beef, and pulses to one that actually helped small farmers would be a useful part of a jobs program.

          1. Andrew Dodds

            I think this is why a jobs guarantee works with a UBI, not against it.

            Some people really are unemployable. Sometimes because of physical or mental illness, and in a few cases because of being bl**dy useless. There are also those people with caring responsibilities, making work impractical. Looking after a couple of small children is full time work..

            1. Marco

              Elder parent care by children is a HUGE area for possible JG schemes. The population is aging rapidly and we are rushing into a crisis soon if we don’t come up with something new. And it’s not just a US issue. Elderly women in Japan are committing crimes so they can get the care they need in prison (via NPR).

          2. Arizona Slim

            Thirty-some years ago, I was one of those people. Yup, true story. You’re reading it here.

            During the worst of it, I was unemployed, and then I went through a couple of menial jobs. I was far from a model employee, but, eventually, I figured out how to do the work well enough to keep the boss and my coworkers from blowing their stacks at me.

            And, here’s the fun part: The turning point actually came at work. This was in a food co-op, and the boss was processing special orders that members had placed. One was a bottle of L-tryptophan, and the boss told me that it was a supplement that helped you sleep better.

            Bam! I was having terrible problems with insomnia. So, I asked the boss to order me a bottle.

            When it arrived, I jumped on that L-tryptophan program immediately. Within days, I was a very different Slim. At night, I was able to sleep! All the way ’til morning!

            During the daytime, I wasn’t the hyperactive Slim who drove everyone nuts at the store. I was able to slow down and focus, and everyone was amazed. Including my psychiatrist.

            So, thanks to better living through chemistry, I was able to find a better job, get out of therapy, and move on with my life. And here’s the best part: In under a year, I was able to taper off the L-tryptophan and continue with the good behavior that I’d begun back at the co-op.

            Jobs. They work for crazy people. And normal people too.

            1. Marco

              Great story Slim!! So L-tryptophan helps with insomnia? I’ll have to give that a try. I’m at my wits end with sleeping problems. And it really does affect one professionally.

      2. PlutoniumKun

        I don’t disagree at all that there are not many jobs that could not be done very well with a JG, and I certainly think a JG type program would be very positive. Its just my personal experience that many of the somewhat glib explanations (not from you) I’ve seen in support won’t actually work in reality, or will potentially be highly problematic.

        Another anecdote I recall is my mothers reply when asked about her new home help – she had been given support by a woman sent by the health service here as part of a work scheme to help older women get back into paid work. My mothers sole comment was ‘I thought the idea was she would help me, not the other way around’.

        I think work schemes are absolutely vital in a comprehensive social support system, although I must admit I’m in two minds as to what extent they should be compulsory (i.e. tied to unemployment benefit). I’m just concerned this is being sold (rather like UBI) as a ‘cure all’ for many problems, when I would see it as just one policy weapon in a necessary array of policies to address poverty and inequality.

        1. Nancy E. Sutton

          I’d like to see better suggestions, if someone is sure JG and UBI won’t work… or rather, ‘aren’t perfect’. What does history tell us about what actually did (or did not) work (perhaps more recently than 1850)…. there are real examples of these having been tried…. and they’re being piloted as we speak.

          As someone said, ‘the perfect is often the enemy of the good’…. and it can be used to skewer the ‘good’, while having no chance of actual implementation.

      3. steelhead

        One thing that concerns me is the expansion of the prison-county/city government use of inmates to pickup trash along highways and cleaning up of euthanized animal remains in public or private shelters among other jobs. Your thoughts?

      4. Grumpy Engineer

        Infrastructure and services work? You’re failing to see all the possibilities here.

        We could have millions of people working in munitions factories, so that we could funnel arms to everyone and their brother in the next Middle East war. Or we could have millions of construction workers building Trump Towers in every major city. Or maybe millions of people working for the surveillance state, reading everybody’s e-mail and Facebook postings and ensuring that all blogs and classrooms toe the party line. After all, aren’t we competing with China? Should we not have our own Great Firewall of America and censor corp?

        There is no guarantee that the activities by people employed by a jobs guarantee would be useful and beneficial. Nor is there a guarantee that the government wouldn’t damage the overall economy by poaching gainfully-employed people for useless (or even harmful) activities that were favored by your local congress-critter. If they jack up the job-guarantee wages far enough, they can poach from pretty much anywhere.

        I see a lot of risk here.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          So you’d rather have people unemployed and hungry and dying early with the private sector not creating enough jobs and crappy ones at that like WalMarts and physically debilitating, psychologically demeaning work at Amazon where the employer has all the power and young kids are signing up for four tours of duty in Afthanistan and coming back with PTSD. You’d not give workers more bargaining power by creating tighter labor conditions in the economy because….the jobs might not be socially productive? What kind of a sense of proportion do you have? It looks like you’ve never been unemployed and have no idea how debilitating and stressful that is.

          1. Grumpy Engineer

            Do I want to have people unemployed and hungry and dying early? Of course not. But if the solution is jobs that are useless or even harmful, I’d rather cancel the job and just give them a welfare check instead. Seriously. What people do for their guaranteed jobs matters.

            As for my “sense of proportion”, it comes from history. I can’t help but look examples from the past, where governments have hired legions of people for harmful purposes. Like the censors of China’s “Great Firewall”. Or Stalin’s surveillance state. Or China’s horrifying “Great Leap Forward”, where the private sector (mostly farming) was shut down in favor of collectivized farming and low-quality steel production. How many people died during those awful years?

            I think we’ve placed the cart before the horse. Jobs for the sake of jobs is not the right answer. There’d be too much opportunity for Congress to abuse the situation. It’d be better to call for expansion of specific programs. Like Americorps, Teach for America, infrastructure programs, or elder-care programs. Something that people know would be reasonably beneficial.

            Plus some trust-busting in the private sector. One of the major reasons American workers have such little bargaining power right now is that they’re facing employers with field-specific monopolies. Workers fared much better when companies had to compete for their services.

      5. kev4321

        Is it possible for an insane society to provide meaningful jobs? Will a jobs program evolve into another subsidy for the plutocracy? Is a guaranteed jobs program really an alternative to UBI, or is UBI the means to create a guaranteed jobs program? Frankly, it is beginning to appear that WWIII will be the impetus for a guaranteed jobs program.

    2. lyman alpha blob

      I’m not a fan of busy work myself and would rather just hand people the money rather than having the government pay people for work that is useless and/or destructive – like they do for the millions working in the defense industry for example.

      But there is a lot of necessary work to be done. Hadn’t realized until reading the article that the Boys and Girls clubs were part of Americorps. They provide a tremendous service for working class people. My kid goes there for after school programs and we pay $5. That’s $5 per year.

      I know there are some issues with Teach for America being used to break unions, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The programs mentioned in the article are all good ones that could be improved and expanded with a great benefit for all. What’s not to like about providing someone a good job and cutting the cost of your day care to practically nothing?

      1. lyman alpha blob

        And speaking of shoveling money at people to do something useless – A startup that raised $62 million to kill the post office is shutting down

        Shyp, an on-demand shipping startup once compared to Uber, has shut down after five years in business and $62 million in venture funding. The news was announced via Twitter, as well as an e-mail sent to customers.

        Shyp allowed users to ship anything with a few taps on a smartphone, bringing a courier to your location to pick up and package the items. It was pitched as a more user-friendly alternative to the post office. In total, Shyp raised $62 million, including a $50 million series B round led by legendary investor John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins.

        In a candid and personal post on LinkedIn, CEO Kevin Gibbon said Shyp will be ending all operations because the business could not recover from Gibbon’s early mistakes, including embracing a “growth at all costs” strategy and not listening to his advisers.

        “It’s easy to be drawn to the allure of stories where founders didn’t listen to advice and benefited from it, and I was definitely guilty of that. It clouded my judgment,” Gibbon wrote.

        My question is how much does Mr. Gibbon have in his bank account after this catastrophic failure with other people’s money? Will he be hitting the unemployment line or living off what he banked for failing for five years straight?

        All this Silicon Valley VC sounds a lot like a JG except that the money they get is orders of magnitude more than what any JG is proposing. If our society is OK with making millionaires out of people inventing Juiceros and useless apps, why not a decent living for the rest of us to perform services that actually benefit someone?

      2. jonboinAR

        I have tremendous experience with laziness, both in myself and in others. I’m here to tell you, make work may not be good, but, at least a good deal of the time, just giving people money is worse. It definitely creates dependency if it goes on for too long, and damages character.

        1. jrs

          I’m not sure what creates dependency means as we are all dependent, a person with a job is utterly dependent on that job and they know it, it’s why job stress can be off the charts because keeping a job is everything (not that they can’t find another job, most people can eventually, but it’s hard). I do think that in a work focused society lack of work can be hard even in non-economic ways.

          Honestly though I’m not sure I personally even know what laziness is, just doesn’t really seem to be a large part of my personality, I do know what getting weary of a 40 hour week of tedious work can be.

          1. jonboinAR

            Yeah, I don’t know either. That’s what happens from jabbering right off the top of my head. I will say that I’ve known quite a few people who managed to get themselves declared disabled. Sometimes it took a lot of work! Other times they had really suffered something crippling. Almost to a person though, I think I can say, before 2 years had passed they were spaced out shells of what they had been before they had been while they were still working.

      3. Nancy E. Sutton

        Don’t know enough about Teach for America, but I do know that the usual reason rich people give for sending their kids to expensive private schools is… ‘smaller class size’. And this has been demonstrated…. more direct teacher attention leads to better student achievement. So, couldn’t this program be used to reduce class size?

    3. Norb

      A federal jobs program could kick-start a trend for meaningful change. People of good intention could bring their expertise into a realm designed with the goal of building a more fair society, not just lining their own pockets. There is such a difficulty getting things done today because the real motivations for action are hidden behind a facade of lies and those in power continue to get away with this sort of thing. Hope from the citizenry is misdirected and abused.

      What is needed is systemic change, and as you pointed out, guaranteed work is just one aspect of a larger, complex and interdependent system. But work is the foundation upon which everything else depends. People of good intention have been outmanoeuvered by the unscrupulous, and must regain that primary position. Whom is in charge of the program is what matters to ensure success.

      A federal jobs program could be the foundation upon which an a system is constructed where an highly educated and trained workforce labors for say 4 hours a day, or a 3 day workweek, spreading the required labor needed to construct a just society more evenly throughout the broader society. More people working less would be the goal instead of a few people working more- which is our current model. Also, the idea that people can be just cast aside as social waste needs to be addressed.

      This will be a titanic battle. The marriage between government and the private sector must be rewritten once again. Giving a blank check to corporate power is not working. The winners of the long game will have an industrial policy that accommodates the majority of its citizens- at the very least, would provide a powerful political force.

    4. johnnygl

      Excellent point PK that doesn’t get enough attention.

      Whether a job guarantee works or doesn’t depends quite heavily on how it is designed and implemented.
      1) as you point out, skills/training is a big issue. Programs would take years to hire and develop the managers who can oversee the lower skilled and train/supervise them to make sure they are doing a job that should be done and doing it well.
      2) requiring flexibility to hire/fire quickly makes this task much harder. I suspect these programs are going to have to be seen as real jobs and careers, instead of just passing the time until the private sector resets itself.
      3) i worry about pro-free trade types who hand wave away the job losses from say, manufacturing, by saying a job guarantee will fix this problem. I’ve seen stephanie kelton do this at times and i wince. You are asking an awful lot of this program and continued offshoring would only add to the pressure to get it right.

      1. jrs

        On point #3 +1000. After having basically DESTROYED the economy of the country with free trade policies to the point it will never be the same, does anyone really think they can just handwave a functional economy back into existence like that? About as likely to work as geoengineering restoring a functional climate after it’s destroyed. This doesn’t mean some government job creation programs might not be a net positive, but it’s easier to destroy than to create something out of whole cloth after our economic ecosystem has been destroyed.

        On #2 passing the time until the private sector resets itself seems questionable anyway. It is hard enough for people who have worked for a long time in government in full time positions to transition to private sector work if they want to (not that it is easy to get into government work without prior government experience either). Because rightly or wrongly the private sector sees government work as not directly transferable to it’s concerns. Is it going to be any easier?

    5. jonboinAR

      Actually, I can imagine all sorts of the CCC-type work that might be done. Those stone works in the parks: retaining walls, bridges, pathways, buildings, that were built in the 1930’s or so, the ones I see when I visit a state or national park are in good shape to this day. They are just the type of structure, built to last with a kind of aesthetic appeal that comes from building things that way, the lack of which in our modern infrastructure we moderns decry all the time (I do, anyway). My gosh, there’s tons of useful stuff you could have people do. It doesn’t all have to be relatively menial, either, although doubtlessly a fair amount would be. It does take some time in any case to train. What you’re actually pointing out is that this type of thing would take some coordination and planning effort to ensure that, say, the trail-building crew in your example does NOT end up tearing up a protected area unnecessarily. I just think you’re dooming-and-glooming a bit too much.

      1. marym

        There’s tons of work that needs to be done in this country. Everyone knows this, just from ordinary living and looking around their community. This need should be part of any advocacy for a Job Guarantee.

        This is “what’s in it for me” even for people who don’t need a job.

        Below is a list of New Deal project categories. Click on them at the Living New Deal website for details.

        New Deal airports, schools, hospitals, post offices, art, highways and more are still in use 75 years after they were built. No city, town, or rural area was untouched by the New Deal.

        Archaeology and History (247)
        Art (2237)
        Civic Facilities (3161)
        Education and Health (2832)
        Federal Facilities (1554)
        Forestry and Agriculture (400)
        Information Needed (614)
        Infrastructure and Utilities (4003)
        Military and Public Safety (747)
        No Longer Extant (534)

        Here’s a map.

        It’s a great site. It should inspire us to imagine the possible.

        1. Paleobotanist

          And not all these projects were a great idea: for instance planting kudzu through-out the South to control erosion was one of these projects. Now kudzu is out of control as it has no predators and is eating the South.

          Don’t get me wrong, a jobs guarantee is not a bad idea, but it has to be done well.

          1. marym

            It’s a real concern that we’re more prone now to making some big mistakes, as we lose expertise and institutional memory on so many fronts, with downsizing, off-shoring, austerity, etc. causing people to retire or not enter so many fields. Of course, this is true even without a jobs program, with corporate and individual greed dictating what work gets done or not done.

            It does show us, though, that a robust, imaginative, public-spirited jobs program has room for many skill levels, including consultation by paleobotanists. :)

    6. XXYY

      The proposals I’ve seen for a job guarantee program involve real jobs, not just a crew of ne’er-do-wells showing up to piddle around for a couple of days. I don’t see much difference between a private sector construction company hiring people for a project and a public sector one doing the same thing. Skills and experience are relevant, and people who aren’t working out can be fired.

      The idea that every unemployed person in the US is an “amateur” is wrong. Unemployed people had jobs before they became unemployed: teachers, welders, mechanics, nurses, clerks, forklift drivers, retail workers, plumbers, drywallers, landscapers, you name it. These are people who would be hired for private sector jobs if (a) one were available, and (b) the pay were sufficient to make it worthwhile. FJG provides many more jobs, and also provides a wage and benefit floor that ensures the job provides the worker a decent life. (An important additional benefit is that private sector jobs would have a strong incentive to meet or exceed the wages and benefits of FJG jobs, lest they find their workers heading out the door.)

      One obvious issue is training. There will be people who have no useful skills. This problem exists with or without FJG and needs to be solved in either case.

      Another issue is disabled people who can’t work. Again, this situation exists now, and we need good solutions for this.

      1. Grumpy Engineer

        And a third issue is people who are essentially unemployable because they can’t play nicely with others. Like those who steal materials, sabotage equipment, or repeatedly insult, bully, or harass their co-workers. For the sake of others nearby, what is the solution here?

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Oh, you have that backwards. Those people usually rise to the top. It’s the nice and honest people that get turfed out the fastest in organizations of any size.

          It appears you invested in neoliberal urban legends. Lambert highlighted this Warren Mosler clip earlier this week:

      2. Jamie

        Of course proposals will sound more than reasonable, they are designed to sell the idea. The problem is what happens afterward.

        This whole JG debate is something we have been hashing and rehashing for a long time now. I think another new proposal and more attention to the matter in the mainstream is a good thing. The public has not yet become part of this debate in any significant way, and that ought to happen. But I am not expecting any sudden new insights or shifts in the landscape. The proposal has its pros and its cons. Different people will emphasize either the pros or the cons according to their lights, but neither the pros nor the cons are going to be debated away.

        I would rather see the government just spend sufficiently on socially valuable projects than institute a new “program” with all that entails. But then each and every project has to be individually debated by whatever authorities or legislature does that in whatever country we are talking about, and that is a long, slow, difficult and painful process with, sometimes little prospect for success.

        I think part of the appeal of the JG program is that this painful process can be shunted off to the body that runs the program. Perhaps if we cannot get the government to spend on socially valuable programs directly, we can get them to do so implicitly through a JG. But once that task is given to a government agency it is further removed from the direct democratic control of the people. The agency is open to capture by various special interests, and the whole project is vulnerable to exploitation and distortion. The agency mandated to fund socially valuable projects can be turned against its original mission and be used to oppress us. The people newly tasked with determining what is socially valuable work that needs doing can realign their values so that no socially valuable work ends up being done.

        Of course that doesn’t have to happen. Perhaps the agency runs very well and does its job very well and lots of social benefit accrues. The point, from my point of view, is that if we want a good outcome I don’t think we can escape the work of publicly debating, constantly monitoring, and politically choosing what we should be doing with our collective resources, both material and labor. It might seem like too much work to figure out how to make the government responsive to our real needs, protect the common good and serve a beneficial social purpose. But that’s the work that needs doing. And it needs doing whether or not we have a JG, and the JG does not in and of itself do that work for us.

        We can do the work piecemeal fighting to elect representatives who will actually represent us, demanding a response on every single important issue, and demanding a more equal sharing of resources in a thousand different laws and policies, or we can put the same effort into trying to “oversee” and control an agency given a mandate, to keep it on track. Or, of course, both. They are not mutually exclusive. What I am trying to say is that I do not think we make our job any easier by setting up a JG, but in some ways it becomes harder. That, of course, has to be balanced against the real benefit accruing to real people who would be employed by the agency and its “trickle up” economic effects. Many individual lives might be made better even if the agency was not doing all socially valuable projects all the time. But we will still need to take back our government.

  2. Henry Moon Pie

    I have two concerns about a Jobs Guarantee as opposed to a Universal Basic Income.

    First, how far does the money have to travel from the government to the hands of those who need it? In the case of a UBI that pays a given amount to every citizen every month, the route is as short as possible. The government “cuts a check” in old parlance, and we receive it. In the case of JG, there will be:

    1) administrators within the federal government (or a designated decision-make) who will determine eligibility both for the hirees and employers (if private employers are allowed, which is likely) along with setting and enforcing pay and benefit scales and working conditions (plenty of “nudging” opportunities here!);

    2) in all likelihood, private contractors, perhaps non-profit and for-profit, will receive the money and then pay it out to the JG recipients (ka-ching opportunities!);

    3) some kind of decision-making process would be necessary to determine what these JG employees would actually be doing.

    That’s lots of extra bureaucracy and a multitude of opportunities for corruption and siphoning. What percentage of the money necessary for the program would actually end up in the hands of recipients?

    Second, I don’t believe in reinforcing the immoral concept that one must have a “job” in this society to be worthy of survival. JG runs perilously close to what Scott Walker and other right-wingers are trying to do with Medicaid and what has already been done to what was formerly AFDC. We no longer live in a world where it’s necessary for everyone to report to work for 40 hours a week in order for our society to produce enough to provide a decent standard of living for everyone. And we have never lived in a world where everyone is equipped or inclined to be a happy wage slave. Advocates of Single Payer rightly want to de-couple receiving health care from having a job. Let’s be consistent and cut the link between having a job and being able to eat and have a roof over your head.

    1. XXYY

      I think you’ve raised two excellent criticisms.

      I can make two points in reply (not in the spirit of arguing, but just getting them out there)

      First, the numbers don’t work out very well for BIG. Giving everyone in the US (say) a check every month requires that the checks be very small. I have not seen a BIG proposal where recipients get more than $5-10,000 a year. This is a nice income supplement if you have a job, but guarantees a poverty level existence if not. Many people might actually be worse off than they are now depending on how many other aid programs were folded into the BIG (welfare, food stamps, disability, heating oil subsidies, Social Security, etc.). There would also be a tendency to eliminate other social benefits “now that everyone has a guaranteed income.”

      Second, the existence of BIG would probably serve to depress wages. If the government is already picking up $10,000 of everyone’s income, Joe Employer will reason, can’t I cut my pay by $5000 and everyone will still be better off? Or heck, why not cut it by the whole $10,000? What is everyone complaining about? It’s easy to imagine the minimum wage laws being adjusted by corrupt legislatures to permit this. (We actually saw this happening during Clinton’s “workfare” program. Employers paid a sub-minimum wage when providing work for workfare recipients.)

      I like BIG, but absent some fantastical source of wealth that can be used for the purpose, it’s hard to see how it would play out. I’d be thrilled to be wrong.

      1. Jamie

        First, the numbers don’t work out very well for BIG. Giving everyone in the US (say) a check every month requires that the checks be very small.

        OK. But what are the constraining assumptions they are using? Are they assuming “revenue neutral”, or “balanced budget”, or what?

        And why give it to everyone? No one proposing a JG is suggesting that already employed people ought to be given additional government jobs. It is a ‘guarantee’ not an “everyone gets a government job” program. Similarly, only people who lack an income need to be given one in a ‘guarantee’ situation. Even if you change BIG to UBI, ‘universal’ doesn’t have to mean everyone gets the same check from the government. It can mean everyone gets sufficient resources to live on, and if they get sufficient dollars, housing, health care etc. working in the private sector (or from other government programs which do not necessarily need to be destroyed to be rolled into the UBI), there’s no need or reason for the government to include them in the program.

        Don’t get me wrong, I see a mountain of problems implementing a UBI. I think it would be better to get away from the concept of income altogether and focus instead on a guaranteed standard of living (GSL?) that would take into account not only income, but housing, food security, health and savings. But regardless, I don’t think the government not being able to afford it is a valid criticism of the idea of a UBI. I could not get really excited at the prospect of a BIG that sent everyone $10K and left everything else untouched. But I think it would be better than what we’ve got and to the extent that it failed, I think it would highlight where some other very real problems are in our current system.

        1. Blake Kelly

          I think some of the best features of a UBI are lost if it isn’t equally distributed regardless of need. A lot of the savings comes from not needing to police who is really disabled or who is working under the table, and letting people do any work they can without worrying about losing their benefits. It is expensive, but it is just redistributing money, so if the money is collected in a useful way like a carbon tax it doesn’t actually do much real harm. The government taking $20,000 from someone then giving them $12,000 sounds really dumb, and it kind of is, but it is more foolproof, and not more expensive than taking $8000 and then looking for a deserving person.

    2. Ray Phenicie

      RE: Henry Moon Pie

      And we have never lived in a world where everyone is equipped or inclined to be a happy wage slave.

      Please Don’t imply such is the desire of or put words in the mouths of anyone who advocates for the JG program. Not a one of them wishes anyone to be a wage slave. A major premise of the JG is that the work environment, the working conditions, the attitudes of employers, would be changed for the better. The job market would become a seller’s market and workers would be free to vote with their feet on issues like safety (think of miners), ergonomics of work stations, to mention but two out of at least two dozen matters unions and other worker advocates are fighting for. If I wanted only 30 hrs a week at a living wage, the JG would have been the causation factor to shape a market where that would be available. We on the JG side invite people to dream and dream big. We can ask for what we want (paid time off, leave of absence, child care at work-just to mention some other concerns) and expect to get a lot of what we demand as our rights as workers. This whole initiative here is about making worker’s lives better, more fulfilling and meaningful. Which brings me to the existential question of ‘why work?.’

      For me, personally, the answer is: ‘because I really enjoy working and having work that delivers monetary reimbursement.’ There are other things I might rather do than what I’ve done for years (customer service) but I’ve played it safe and went for the known quantity of a pay check. I might rather work full time (or less)at composing music, writing literary criticism and essays, publishing a new history of the Reconstruction era, making posters and painting landscapes, put up my shingle as portrait photographer, teaching Political theory to college sophomores. I have a high degree of competency in all of those endeavors. I could spend more time explaining why I don’t do those things but it’s too personal so I’ll move on to my last topic and it’s one that I find too many of the UBI advocates don’t speak on loudly enough; here’s to hoping that will change. We need to sweep away the attitude ubiquitously implemented in all aspects of our society that says that good things only flow to those who are wealthy.

      What features of a customer service jobs would make it so undesirable? Angry callers? Nah-there are ways of dealing with that. Tedium-answering the same question again and again? Mmmm, yeah but again not a major gripe for me. My major gripe was the attitude of management that clearly evoked the reality of paternalism. Workers who are not given a chance to have a voice in how their own work is managed and structured are being clearly told “you are of no value despite your paycheck.” So what’s going on with that? It’s that attitude ubiquitously implemented function I mentioned earlier-if democracy only functions inside of the pens created for us to resist in then we don’t have a democracy. Imagine a work place structured by the workers and for them. One that allows them to have a say on how many hours they work, the quality of the service and subsequent reviews, concerns for customer care and the whole enchilada we call work.

      So say I had obtained the qualifications to work that dream and production of art posters was about to begin. Maybe some assistance is needed, printers are contracted and publishing begins. I would want to know that my work was published in an environment that gave the workers-who loved what they did, who came to work everyday full of the expectation that they were going to give it their all, who respected my work and liked the idea of promulgating it-I would want to know that those workers had opportunities to realize their dreams as well.

      And that’s why I support a Job Guarantee program. I urge you to do the same

  3. Felix FitzRoy

    Journal of Poverty and Social Justice • vol x • no x • xx–xx • © Policy Press 2018
    Print ISSN 1759 8273 • Online ISSN 1759 8281 •
    Accepted for publication 10 January 2018 • First published online 17 March 2018
    Basic income and a public job offer:
    complementary policies to reduce poverty
    and unemployment
    Felix FitzRoy,
    University of St Andrews, UK
    Jim Jin
    University of St Andrews, UK
    The above article argues for combination of a public job offer with a modest basic income, muchmore effective than either policy alone, moderate budget cost.

    1. Steve H.

      This looks like the full article.

      “We argue here that the only cost-effective policy for comprehensive welfare is a combination of modest basic income with a job offer by local authorities at less than the minimum wage.”

      That ‘local authorities’ is an issue for me. Flint MI doesn’t have the resources to fulfill the offer. The town I live in is high GINI coefficient but looks good, is a ‘compassion’ nexus in the state, and in- and out-of state localities have given their unterklassen bus tickets to here, which puts undue burden on us.

  4. Skip Intro

    Instead of ‘Jobs Guarantee’, I would like to see it framed as the ‘Right to Work’, a fine piece of Luntzian doubletalk that is ripe for expropriation. So many are already on record supporting a right to work…

    1. DonCoyote

      per Yves, double-talk: “Not just a Right to Work, but an Opportunity to Work.”

      Yes, Virginia, the government *can* create jobs.

      I seem to recall Pears Anthony used “Employer of Last Resort” language. which might help allay conservative criticisms that the government is supplanting rather than supplementing.

      And it wasn’t all dams and bridges: “In a much smaller project, Federal Project Number One, the WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects.”

      1. Left in Wisconsin

        And economists! Harry Magdoff, later of Monthly Review, came up with the first U.S. data on productivity on a WPA project for unemployed economists. Of course, economists were a more varied lot back then. Not sure it would be wise to do the same now with this crop.

  5. Steve Ruis

    I think that if we are going to have a “pay-as-you-go” society we need to have a jobs guarantee, one that will provide at least enough income to provide food and shelter and health care to the worker. For those who knee-jerk react and say this would create a permanent underclass, studies show that this is not the case (even for studies done in Ireland, the Land of the Dole).

    My argument is that this would be cheaper to execute than our current system. Currently workers are allowed to be paid non-living wages and society picks up the tab for the rest in a giant web of externalities: emergency room visits for those without health insurance, food stamps, all of the charity organizations, all of the help organizations, all of the governmental aid programs, etc., etc.

    These programs do not benefit the individuals as much as act as corporate welfare for the companies paying the workers.

    The effect of this rising tide of lower wages would be to raise the wages of those in the next tier and, Gasp!, MacDonald’s and the rest would have to pay its workers more, would have to raise its prices and its profits …. might … drop. This is a consequence of their paying sub living wages to underwrite artificial lower prices and is just moving them to the actual costs of their industries … without a governmental subsidy to their earnings.

    Philosophically such a wage structure would be promoting the value of honest work. The prices that would rise would reduce consumption which is probably a good thing as consumption was artificially driven by these subsidies and was negatively affecting environmental externalities and the health of U.S. citizens. (Eating less at MacDonald’s might just have positive health consequences.)

    For those who say this is social engineering, I say “Yes, and your point is?” If you look to the left and see another lemming and to the right and see another lemming and we are all running, it is a good thing to ask “Where?” Allowing some mythical system called capitalism to determine the future state of humanity is putting too much trust in a system designed to support elites on the backs of the masses.

  6. kramer

    A Job Guarantee that is federally funded and locally administered could have one very positive aspect if properly implemented. It could be very democratic. If a community is provided funding for employing workers it will need the oversight of the local citizens over the programs to ensure it is doing work which is valuable to the local community. It will be up to the community to make sure there is no skimming and that the workers aren’t being employed to build the mayor’s swimming pool. It would give the citizens a powerful reason to be involved in the democracy of the local community.
    Also, there is nothing less efficient then an unemployed person, so as long as we have any unemployed citizens and a trade deficit at the same time I think there is almost unlimited work to be done. We just have to get over this idea that work is only meaningful if creates a profit for a corporation. This doesn’t need to be limited to unskilled labor ether. Job Guarantee programs could be the start of worker owned coops that do anything and private corporation does now.

    1. Jamie

      Also, there is nothing less efficient then an unemployed person, so as long as we have any unemployed citizens and a trade deficit at the same time I think there is almost unlimited work to be done. We just have to get over this idea that work is only meaningful if creates a profit for a corporation.

      Hmm… work that does not create profit for a corporation will not have any effect on the trade deficit. I agree that we need to get away from the idea that only profit has value and meaning. I also think we need to get away from the idea that unemployed people do not do anything useful. That is sometimes the case. Just as it is sometimes the case that employed people do not do anything useful.

      1. jrs

        If all unemployed people do is search for work then they probably don’t do anything useful really, not in the time period they are unemployed anyway.

  7. Ray Phenicie

    One point that was not made that is too often missed is the counter-cyclical nature of a jobs guarantee program. It is really a major (if not the feature) of the whole program. The discussion so far here, has not addressed that feature and so is sorely lacking. Without this understanding, and I find a lot of people don’t get this, the Job Guarantee is usually misunderstood. Rather than explain it I’ll give a link to one of the experts, Prof Randy Wray

    1. ebbflows

      Much confusion around the delineation between sound finance vs. functional finance and the need to end NAIRU. One would think the “Natural” bolt on quantifier would be a heads up to the ideological underpinnings, but then again, who could argue against two plotted intersecting axis in a two dimensional graph, whilst proclaiming “absolute truths” in imaginary model worlds.

      Complex social interaction boiled down to meaninglessness or worse, quasi religious iconography to be recited like a litany and never questioned for fear of being accused of heresy.

      Um… free markets or economic freedom… now which adjective actually fulfills its suggested intent…

  8. ChrisAtRU


    The Naming Issue:
    Well, I can understand that to a degree. I’ve grown less fond of the term #MMT over the years since it is not really modern: this leads to it being tagged disparagingly as “radical”, “untested” or “unproven”; nor is it a theory: it’s actually the way fiat works for sovereigns! If not #JG then what? I (like others in the commentariat) say just bring back the WPA. In it you would have a program whose name is immune from the aforementioned slights of modernity and untrustworthiness.

    I am also growing weary of some of the debates online over “oh my, what are all these people going to do?” and “just do UBI already”. To me, for all the good a #JG is capable of doing for the economy, the best and oft overlooked aspect is that it will effectively set the wage floor. This will in turn kill off a lot of exploitative labor practices and the companies that engage in them. Oh to think of the outright slaughter this will cause to the “gig economy”!!


  9. Brian L.

    To all you USians who “have concerns” about “make work,” grift, and the JG, yet passively accept the massive grift of the MIC and the others feeding at the tit of the USGov, all I can say is “Whose side are you on?”

    Is it not immoral to demand payment of government taxes and fees only in dollars, but not provide a method for people to get dollars when the “market” casts them aside? (Well, I guess prostitution is an option for some, but that’s illegal, go figure.) Not to mention that there is not much of a commons anymore and money is absolutely essential to survival in this upside down world we’ve created.

    This is a moral issue as much as it is an economic one.

    The US has the most flexible monetary system on the planet. If $billions are grifted on a yearly basis, I think the USGov can afford a little more “waste” if something gets done that benefits flesh-and-blood people and/or the planet. Heck, spending it on “nothing” is better than spending it on death and destruction, IMO.

    Those of you who have concerns, don’t worry. A JG is a good idea, and when a good idea bumps against the status quo, you get wondrous things like PPACA and Dodd-Frank! A proper JG would be a revolution in employer/employee relationships. The PTB can’t have that now, can they?

    Apologies, I am feeling quite prickly today. The only way a proper JG even gets seriously considered, IMO, is if the Berniecrats achieve a hostile takeover of the Democratic Party and then win elections, lots of them. It could happen.

  10. hemeantwell

    Fwiw, the author is mistaken about the original VISTA program.

    “providing vital services to struggling communities by employing regular citizens as laborers. To an extent, Americorps has been filling the void of a formal federal jobs guarantee for over 50 years. With the formation of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) in 1965, the organization has quietly employed more than 75,000 people each year.”

    When I was in VISTA the emphasis was on community organizing, reflecting the “maximum feasible participation” policy that had been implemented to give the poor a voice against poverty program administrators. The focus often shifted to local power structures. Our group set up a food coop and eventually helped a working class community member run for city council. (It was a town with an at large voting plan, implemented as part of “Progressive Era” voting manipulation to block working class political representation. It still worked, she lost.) The Neighborhood Youth Corps was a parallel organization that provided employment. Americorps, which replaced VISTA, was an outcome of a political defeat, a cave-in to community elites who often tried to get VISTA groups thrown out of town because they were trying to organize.

    This book page is useful . We didn’t have to carry guns.

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