Millions Are Unemployed. Crises Abound. Is It Time To Guarantee Public Service Jobs?
"Is there a limit to how much we can take care of each other?"
This is the radical question at the heart of Pavlina Tcherneva's latest new book, The Case for a Job Guarantee, due to be released this month.
The 128-page book was printed in December when the US unemployment rate was close to a post-war low of 3.5%. However, this number masked the harsh realities of the economy that it so often describes. The sacred growth of the economy was less a rising tide than a wave that struck the most and made it possible for some chosen to surf.
Average real incomes of the bottom 90% of families declined from 2009 to 2012, the first three years after the recovery after the Great Recession. By 2017, this average was 2.2% lower than in 1997. And as wages continued to stagnate for decades, emissions rose as the planet warmed, and storms and fires became more extreme, displacing thousands and threatening to flee millions more in the coming years .
Then the coronavirus pandemic came. By the end of May, 40.8 million Americans had applied for unemployment, roughly one in four workers. When the virus broke out in nursing homes, the political response in many states was to protect the private companies that run such facilities from liability. When it emerged that the virus's origins came from wildlife - another example of habitat threats and biodiversity loss - humans, governments around the world, particularly the Trump administration, have gutted environmental protection to boost the private sector 'recovery.
It doesn't have to be that way. Tcherneva argues that fulfilling President Franklin D. Roosevelt's promise of nearly a hundred years to provide any American who wants one with a job would set a modern standard of living as well as the power of the national workforce to do work that needs to be done so urgently. Instead of creating dubiously enforceable incentives for profit-making businesses to meet urgent social needs, you pay Americans directly to do those jobs. Then, in cycles of economic growth, enable the private sector to pay higher wages and reap the benefits of workers with new training in the workplace.
The concept is popular. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) And Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) Supported versions of a job guarantee during the Democratic presidential primaries. When the left-wing think tank Data for Progress surveyed the topic last summer, 55% of eligible voters supported the guarantee of a federally funded job for anyone who wanted one, while only 23% opposed the proposal.
Tcherneva is a key figure in the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) movement that popularized the idea that inflation is the only real limit on federal spending - that there is no way for the federal government to go bankrupt when it prints its own money . Much like how to pay for the $ 2 trillion stimulus package Congress passed earlier this year, it was tertiary for its impact on people's lives. I focused my one-hour interview with Tcherneva on the impact of guaranteeing a job and not on the theoretical and controversial issue of how affordable it is. (To learn more about it, you can read economist Stephanie Kelton's new book on the subject, or watch this lecture she recently gave with my colleague Zach Carter, or read researcher Nathan Tankus' newsletter or the various MMT explanations read online.)
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Let me first read the first line of your first chapter: “Unemployment? What unemployment? "What a difference a few months make.
Yes indeed. Incidentally, I am very happy that I wrote it in a very low unemployment environment because I was hoping to shake people's views of how we normalized only millions of people. And then the coronavirus crisis forced many people to come up with the idea and think, "Do you know what if I am? What if it is someone I know?"
Workers clean an oil spill on a California beach. There is a lot more work where that comes from. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)
Briefly outline what exactly a federal labor guarantee is.
In the simplest sense, it is a public option for jobs that offer basic wages and benefits. If for one reason or another you cannot find a job, you can be sure that you can go to the employment office and you will be guaranteed a menu of public service options to choose from, and there will be employment opportunities there.
What would it be like if you introduced a job guarantee today?
Look, we have a very big problem today. Therefore, every type of employment and attitude is required. We need to tackle some very concrete things, such as the COVID crisis, that civil service requires. Addressing a public health issue requires that it is not a commercial return. It takes a strong public sector to set up logistic systems - everyone talks about contract tracking - but it's all; Schools reorganize, jobs reorganize. We need to make sure that older people are cared for and health centers are adequately staffed. We need centers for the homeless and shelters for those who escape their abusers. It is the whole broad spectrum.
But even before this pandemic, we had many communities in need. We have people who live in terrible conditions and polluted communities that do not have clean water. I say that the civil service has been neglected for so long that we need a very robust public sector to meet these needs.
You will surely come through the backlog at some point. What happens theoretically in five or ten years? How do you maintain a program of this size?
Job creation is less of a complicated problem. You want a robust public sector, a sufficiently staffed [Food and Drug Administration] and an [Environmental Protection Agency]. But the job guarantee is that if something happens to you and you need a job, you need to be able to go to an unemployment center and go out with one. It is not difficult to imagine a model in which we only get suggestions from large community groups that are already working continuously. There are several ways you can do this. The way I propose is fundamentally a bottom-up approach, with environmental groups, nonprofits, food kitchens, and homeless shelters in every community. They try to do this on a voluntary basis, but are always under pressure and understaffed. So this kind of thing goes on.
But imagine that you also open up new opportunities. We could have community theaters, urban farms, tool sheds to rehabilitate and reclaim materials. As I put it, is there a limit to which we can nurture each other? Is there a limit up to which we can provide each other with services? Can we create public value for that? I think the answer is probably no.
I think of a lot of nursing work, especially with an aging population.
The elderly are currently protected in isolation. However, this is always a problem when people who have reached the pinnacle of their lives and may not have someone to look after them are left to these various private institutions, which are run for profit and are not sufficiently staffed. I mean it's a public purpose. We need an infrastructure that takes care of the elderly, the young and the teachers.
A diagram from the Think Tank Data for Progress shows broad support for a job guarantee. (Photo: data for progress)
One thing that came to mind as I read is this debate, which is about how to radically change or disband police stations. Guard work generally accounts for a growing percentage of the workforce in many US cities - I think Orlando was at the top - which says a lot about the society we are building. How would such a program work to reverse this trend?
You have the whole problem if you have police officers who deal with mental health problems when it should not be their job. Imagine someone calling a mental health crisis line. First, there is a dispatcher - someone has to occupy that line, right? Then there are quite a number of people who have the experience to deal with these problems. This also applies to violence in the partnership. The police may not be the right person to respond to. There should be some trained professionals who know how to perform trauma interventions. Why should you interact with the police in almost all areas of public life - when you drive with the lights on? It could just be an official who, instead of giving you a ticket violation, is there as a public service to report this problem. Regardless of whether the homeless sleep under bridges or intoxicated, none of these problems should be solved by an over-militarized police. A job guarantee is essentially a program that we can use to support all of these additional non-police public services.
How do you respond to concerns that a job guarantee creates unsustainable competition with the private sector and makes it impossible to have low-skilled jobs that have paid less in the past than some of these guaranteed jobs?
The current job market is a catch-22 for many people. It's not that everyone has a chance. In fact, the circumstances are stacked up against most people. They have a last-in and first-out problem where people who are always the last to get this job train never stay in good jobs for long and are the first to lose. They are usually colored people, the elderly and people with disabilities. Her unemployment rate was the last to recover. The way the labor market works always improves the conditions of those who consider private companies to be the most employable. And right now, the people who actually need the jobs are the ones who are mixing, and they work in the worst working conditions.
Because of this cruel game with musical chairs, we don't have enough job opportunities for everyone and not enough good job opportunities for everyone. Therefore, every negotiation always threatens unemployment, and companies use it to cut costs, which means difficult working conditions. Is this a world we want to reproduce? Don't we want to move away from a system that creates precarity? I'm not saying a job guarantee is a panacea, but it lifts the floor and says, look, this is the standard for jobs. There is really no reason why someone who works should live in poverty. It is just a basic commitment to living standards.
They also see this barely veiled argument for the right of companies to pay poverty wages, or corner shops will shut down because they now have to pay $ 15 an hour. But corner shops like to pay their employees good wages. It's things like the meat packaging industry that rely on low wages and migrant workers to be profitable. And that's a model that has to end. The job guarantee is an alternative.
This is a paradoxical argument since all free marketers love competition. A job guarantee offers competition, another option in the market for good jobs. So let them compete and let the best companies survive. We want to change the type of work and make it more stable and better paid. So what we need is a fixed standard.
Do you need a role for price control? How do you deal with the potential inflation of such a program?
We have had such experiences. In 1948 we almost doubled the minimum wage when the economy was still pretty busy. We have not seen inflation. The job guarantee serves as an anti-cyclical stabilizer. When the private sector is booming, people are switching from these jobs to secure better paid jobs. The incentive this program offers in a downturn diminishes in an upswing. So it's the same thing that unemployment is doing now, except that you're keeping people in employment. It is countercyclical.
Assuming that such a program is implemented in the United States, how would that have an international impact in a globalized society?
The US as a whole will be a much better place to live and invest, rather than having this patchwork of depressed communities. That hides the unemployment figures. If you look geographically at how unemployment is moving, there are communities that are permanently depressed. You are not only in Detroit. You are across the country. They're in Washington, they're in California. So you could have a far more vibrant community to invest in.
After World War II, it was understood that the benefits of trading in full employment were being used. It is not that countries with lower unemployment rates necessarily suffer from global competition because they have low unemployment rates and an adequate standard of living. And if, as I conclude in the book, you have a global Marshall plan for full employment around the world, this is the foundation on which free trade is to take place.
There is certainly a lot of infrastructure and nature restoration work ahead of us. But I wonder if at some point you are risking a program like this that increases emissions by encouraging additional activities for individuals instead of providing a basic income, for example?
I think the opposite. If you do community work and it is local and you restrict all commuting and take care of the work ...
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President Franklin D. Roosevelt first proposed a job guarantee in the 1940s. (Photo: Bettmann via Getty Images)
Then it's low in carbon.
Exactly. The whole purpose of the job guarantee is to improve the environment. Now UBI [a universal basic income] has this promise that it will reduce carbon. However, if you are still dependent on the current supply chains and the current raw material system, you are only the consumer. Nothing is inherent to the UBI that changes the way we work. It is just a hypothesis. With the job guarantee we say very clearly and very explicitly that we have to do environmental work. So let's put the two together.
What impressed me on the spot is the way different states currently manage unemployment benefits. Certain states, particularly conservative ones, are very adept at creating barriers. So how can you allow such a program to be managed locally while avoiding being hindered?
This is a serious question. We see how deliberately sabotaging the current welfare system. Of course, this does not mean that the job guarantee is immune to it. However, I suggest that we want to use all aspects of civil society to do this. You can work around in certain circumstances. Community groups and non-profit organizations could directly propose funds to the Ministry of Labor. It creates a buy-in from the community.
How would you expect immigration and the debate on it to change? Would this defuse some of the xenophobic arguments against immigration that we are currently seeing?
This must clearly be linked to a comprehensive immigration reform. In an ideal world, the purpose of the job guarantee is to offer everyone decent work.
How would you give a conservative a job guarantee?
Jobs are not a partisan question. We have examined the job guarantee and it is extremely high in deep red republican states.
You saw what happened after 2008 and it took so long to dig this hole. For many, many people who are still in recession, their incomes have not increased. So the possibility of someone saying, "Hey, do you want to work? And here in the community there is something to do - this is a successful message for everyone.
What do you say to someone who is afraid of what will change and a possible disruption if he feels that he has made a decent place in the status quo?
I would say that it does not necessarily concern them. When you are happy with your life, it is wonderful. Would you also be happy about a new hiking trail in your community? Or maybe, you know, additional cleanups? I’m sure there’s something in your church that you’re driving past that you don’t like, and you say, “Oh, why wasn’t that fixed?” Everyone experiences these things in our lives. If we are only open to tackling this neglect and making improvements, people who need good jobs can get them.
What is the relationship between a guaranteed job and continuous investment in and development of automation tools?
This is another of these paradoxes. Jobs are against technology. It doesn't have to happen. This is only because we accepted and tolerated unemployment. We should take care of technology. Let's automate the packaging of meat, right? We don't want well-paid people to work in dangerous conditions. For me, technology can improve our lives, but right now it's used to create more precariousness. It is overworking jobs. You do not want that. But maybe someday we'll have autonomous driving machines and people won't be driving through the states for 10 hours. I'm less convinced by Armageddon's technological argument that somehow all jobs will disappear. But we should advocate a reduction in working hours, that is long overdue. This is not about jobs at any cost. It's about living a good life and ensuring an aspect of economic security.
I realize that there is generally not much reason for optimism at the moment. But what makes you most optimistic that something like this could be realized?
There is an enormous appetite. There are talks. The job guarantee appears more and more in conversation in the popular press. Hopefully, if we get many different corners that demand the same thing, it will be enough pressure for political changes.
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