FDR campaigns in 1932. Photo: FDR Presidential Library

Thursday's New York Times brought us, for a change, a story about progressive policy ideas, untainted by any pilgrimages to an Iowa diner to ask "undecided" Trump voters what they think. And by golly, it resulted in a pretty good article on proposals for a federal jobs guarantee. Mind you, the Times did have to include a very serious guy from the freaking American Enterprise Institute among the economists it interviewed for the piece, so there could be someone to warn that if the federal government provided jobs to anyone who wants one, the labor market would be completely ruined. Still, it's encouraging to see the Grey Lady dip a toe into the waters of progressive think-tank proposals and not get eaten by thinksharks.


The piece, by Eduardo Porter, notes that a fair number of Democratic politicians and even "mainstream economists" think it would be a good idea to move beyond typical liberal goals of building a strong economy and then hoping full employment will follow. The idea of a federal jobs guarantee, Porter says, is looking pretty good to many right now, with the economy in a mess due to the pandemic, not to mention the class and social divides of the last year. Cory Booker has been big on the idea, and the Green New Deal explicitly made good government-paid jobs a main selling point in the push to switch to a clean energy economy. In a nice bit of timing, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) this week rolled out her own proposal for a federal jobs guarantee, too.

And now, says Porter, the political landscape is starting to look friendlier for sweeping government programs again:

A system that balked at passing a $1 trillion stimulus after the financial crisis of 2008 had no problem passing a $2.2 trillion rescue last March, and $900 billion more in December. President Biden is pushing to supplement that with a $1.9 trillion package.

That's actually where the piece brings in the token AEI economist, Michael Strain, to say, presumably through clenched teeth, that the "bounds of policy discourse widened quite a bit as a consequence of the pandemic," not that he likes it much. We're certain he'd prefer we shut that Overton Window nice and tight, before things get out of hand.

And while some of the economists interviewed aren't necessarily sold on the idea, they'd at least like to see some pilot programs to investigate it further. Lawrence Katz, a Harvard prof and former Labor Department chief economist under Bill Clinton, told the Times that a "job guarantee per se may not be necessary or politically feasible [....] But I would love to see more experimentation." So let's call him try-curious.

Porter also notes a November Gallup survey, commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation, which found that 93 percent of those polled would favor a "national initiative that creates paid work and job training opportunities as a component of COVID-19 economic recovery efforts." Porter points out that even 87 percent of Republicans thought that would be a good idea, although we can't shake the feeling they may only have been the Republicans who were home to pick up the phone because they weren't out marching to end mask mandates.

Even when the pollsters put a hypothetical price tag on the effort— $200 billion or more — almost nine out of 10 respondents said the benefits outweighed the cost. And hefty majorities — of Democrats and Republicans — also preferred government jobs to more generous unemployment benefits.

Well that's something, though again, we can't shake the feeling that some of that support may have more to do with a sense that people shouldn't get money if they're idle than with an impulse that government should be taking care of folks who can't find work. Call us cynical.

The piece also cites Darrick Hamilton, an econ prof at the New School for Social Research, who worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign and later consulted with the Biden campaign on economic messaging. (He also co-authored this paper on the federal job guarantee concept for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, if you want to dig into the policy weeds more like a nerd.) Hamilton said that while he pushed for a jobs guarantee as part of the Biden economic agenda, "We suspected we weren't going to get there."

One of the attractions of such a program, he argues, is that if the federal government is paying $15 an hour, with health insurance, then that would set a de facto floor for private jobs, too. And while Biden didn't ultimately sign on to a full job guarantee, Porter points out that government jobs are cooked into several Biden policies:

Mr. Biden's recovery plan includes efforts to train a cohort of new public health workers, and to fund the hiring of 100,000 full-time workers by public health departments. His commitment to expand access to child care and elder care comes paired with a promise to create good, well-paid jobs in caregiving occupations. And he has pledged — in ways not yet translated into programs — to foster the creation of 10 million quality jobs in clean energy.

"There are a number of proposals to pair programs for people to be at work with the needs of the nation," said Heather Boushey, a member of Mr. Biden's Council of Economic Advisers.

The costs of a federal jobs program, of course, would be pretty huge, though there's the not-trivial matter of actually making sure people who want work have it, which strikes us as a good thing because we're damn socialists. Another study co-authored by Hamilton estimated that such a program could cost between $654 billion and $2.1 trillion annually, and we believe we just heard some fiscal hawks drown in a pool of their own outrage. Those costs, Porter adds, "would be offset to some extent by higher economic output and tax revenue, and savings on other assistance programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance."

Just to keep things symmetrical, the piece closes with Strain, the AEI guy, straining to emphasize that if the government were to actually provide jobs with a comfortable living wage, it would "destroy the labor market" for low-paying employers like McDonalds or Walmart, just like a higher minimum wage or unionization would. We're not entirely sure that's the case, since those corporations' business models are already built around paying as little as possible and then letting taxpayers pick up the tab for employees' healthcare. Like the Harvard guy, we'd like to see more experimentation. As long as it's consensual.

[NYT / CBPP]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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