A few weeks ago, Rolling Stone magazine ran a piece by Jesse Myerson supporting the idea that the government should guarantee a job to anyone who is willing to work. In their recent work, Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein also give support to this policy proposal. Randy Wray, Warren Mosler and other modern money (MMT) economists have been pushing for this idea for a long time. On the center-right and right, the idea is being promoted by Peter Cove and Kevin Hasset.
This is good news. I certainly welcome a good debate on this idea. That said, it's too bad that commentators who are skeptical of the idea simply dismiss it as a non-starter for policymakers.
This, of course, is overstating the case somewhat. It's worth recalling that in the 1970s none other than the Chairman of the Federal Reserve supported the idea that the federal government should be the "employer of last resort". Here's the former Fed Chairman Arthur Burns back in 1975:
I believe that the ultimate objective of labor market policies should be to eliminate all involuntary unemployment. This is not a radical or impractical goal. It rests on the simple but often neglected fact that work is far better than the dole, both for the jobless individual and for the nation. A wise government will always strive to create an environment that is conducive to high employment in the private sector. Nevertheless, there may be no way to reach the goal of full employment short of making the government an employer of last resort. This could be done by offering public employment -- for example, in hospitals, schools, public parks, or the like -- to anyone who is willing to work at a rate of pay somewhat below the Federal minimum wage.
With proper administration, these public service workers would be engaged in productive labor, not leaf-raking or other make-work. To be sure, such a program would not reach those who are voluntarily unemployed, but there is also no compelling reason why it should do so. What it would do is to make jobs available for those who need to earn some money.
It is highly important, of course, that such a program should not become a vehicle for expanding public jobs at the expense of private industry. Those employed at the special public jobs will need to be encouraged to seek more remunerative and more attractive work. This could be accomplished by building into the program certain safeguards -- perhaps through a Constitutional amendment -- that would limit upward adjustment in the rate of pay for these special public jobs. With such safeguards, the budgetary cost of eliminating unemployment need not be burdensome. I say this, first, because the number of individuals accepting the public service jobs would be much smaller than the number now counted as unemployed; second, because the availability of public jobs would permit sharp reduction in the scope of unemployment insurance and other governmental programs to alleviate income loss. To permit active searching for a regular job, however, unemployment insurance for a brief period -- perhaps 13 weeks or so -- would still serve a useful function.
The idea was even supported by one of the most respected names in economics at the time: Franco Modigliani. When asked to comment on Chairman Burns's proposal during a testimony before the Congressional Banking committee in 1976, Modigliani said the following:
...the idea of a public employment program as an employer of last resort, which is an alternative to unemployment compensation, strikes me as a very sound idea (p. 110).Interestingly, the economist who got Burns and the Fed to put serious thought into the idea of a job guarantee was another well-respected contributor to US public policy during that period: Eli Ginzberg.
Job Creation through Public Service Employment
Eli Ginzberg was a Professor of Economics at Columbia University and author of numerous books on human resources and manpower economics. He was also -- in the language of Harold Wilensky and organizational sociology -- a "contact man", a person who provides ideas and furnishes intelligence to decision-makers on the political and ideological tendencies in the society at large. Ginzberg played this role throughout his career as presidential adviser for many administrations and through his affiliation with the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC), which recently marked its 40th year of operation.
Ginzberg was an institutional economist in the tradition of John M. Clark and Wesley C. Mitchell who believed fervently that "people, rather than physical or financial capital, were the principal source of productivity and wealth" (1987:107). For this reason, Ginzberg believed it was critical for the government to eliminate unemployment as quickly as possible through the use of a publicly-funded jobs program.
Another reason why Ginzberg believed the government ought to be employer of last resort is that he understood that economies sometimes face a shortfall in jobs that makes it impossible for all unemployed workers to find work:
Just as reality has mocked the ethos of equality of opportunity for many minority children, the counterpart doctrine that adults are responsible for their own support and that of their dependents has been undermined by the continuing shortfall in jobs. The existence of high unemployment rates make it socially callous, even reprehensible, for a society to continue to affirm the doctrine that all adults who need income should work and then not provide adequate opportunities for many of them to fulfill this imperative.
Although the US experimented with federally financed job creation in the 1930s and again in the 1970s, the record in retrospect must be viewed as equivocal. Most students believe that on balance the New Deal was right to put large numbers of the unemployed to work on governmentally financed programs rather than to keep them on the dole as the British did. (1987:162)
The principal lessons I extracted included the superiority of work relief over cash support...; the cause of unemployment being rooted in a shortfall in demand for labor, not in the inadequacies of the unemployed; the centrality of work and self-support for the integrity of the individual worker, his family, and the community. By the time our investigation was concluded, [we] were convinced that no society concerned about its security and survival could afford to remain passive and inert in the face of long-term unemployment. We argued that in the absence of an adequate number of private sector jobs, it was the responsibility of government to create public sector jobs. (1987:111)Ginzberg also believed that guaranteed work for those who are able and willing would find greater acceptability among Americans than a policy that would require government providing a guarantee income to everyone. According to Ginzberg, providing guaranteed income to everyone would conflict with the powerful American ethos of self-reliance and the American population's highly favorable view toward the culture of work:
There is no simple way, in fact, there is no way to square the following: to provide a decent minimum income for every needy person/family in the US, given the differentials in living standards, public attitudes, and state taxing capacity, and at the same time avoid serious distortions in basic value and incentive systems that expect people to be self-supporting through income earned from paid employment. (157)For this reason, Ginzberg believed that a job guarantee should play a key role in social policy:
Accordingly, I would like to shift the focus from welfare to work, from income transfers to the opportunity to compete, from dependency status to participation in society. In advocating this shift toward jobs and earned income and away from unemployment and income transfers, the planners must focus on two fundamentals: the developmental experiences that young people need in order to be prepared to enter and succeed in the world of work; and the level of employment opportunities that a society must provide so that everybody able and willing to work, at least at the minimum wage, will be able to do so. (157)In the 1970s, Ginzberg held the position of Chairman of the National Commission for Manpower Policy, a government-mandated commission that produced some of the best policy-oriented research on the topic of public service employment, including an excellent paper entitled "Public Service Employment as Macroeconomic Policy" by Martin Neil Baily and Robert Solow (1978) that explains how public service employment (PSE), while not necessarily more stimulative than the normal kind of fiscal policy (e.g., government spending on goods and services and tax measures), can be a perfectly sensible policy if the program is well-administered and the jobs that are created provide useful social output:
Solow later revisited the issue of public service employment in Work and Welfare (1998), in which he argued that any attempt to reform the welfare system in order to get the unemployed back to work would only succeed if every able and willing worker is given access to a job through public service employment and/or by offering incentives to businesses to hire the unemployed.
We conclude that the main advantages of PSE over conventional fiscal policy are: (a) that it can be targeted to provide jobs for hard-to-employ groups in the labour force, and for especially depressed cities and regions; (b) that PSE employment, correctly targeted, may be slightly less inflationary than the same amount of ordinary private sector employment, so that total employment can safely be a little higher with a PSE component; and (c) that PSE can be coordinated with other forms of social insurance -- public assistance and unemployment insurance, for instance -- to make them perhaps more effective and certainly more acceptable to public opinion. (1978:30)
Solow and Baily
It was in the 1970s that Ginzberg persuaded Chairman Burns to call on the US federal government to become the employer of last resort. Here's Ginzberg's account of how he was able to get the Fed Chairman to support the job guarantee:
I made a deal with Arthur Burns when he was the head of the Federal Reserve, that I would try to control the amount of money we asked for from the Congress for manpower training if he would come out in favor of the government as the employer of last resort. And he did it. It took him a year, but I negotiated with him and he did it.A final word. Although Ginzberg supported the idea of a job guarantee, he fully recognized the high budgetary cost that such a policy would entail and the practical challenges facing public administrators in terms of successfully implementing a public service employment program. To address these concerns, he believed the government authorities should make improvements to the program using trial and error and cautious experimentation. But the key, he would argue, is to ensure that the jobs created through these measures provide productive social output:
There is no big trick to put more and more people on public service employment. If that is the only thing that one is interested in, obviously, the Federal Government can create the money by fiat and put more people on public service employment. The question is what are the short- and long-run implications of doing that in terms of keeping our economy productive, competitive and innovative....So I do not think it is just jobs; it is productive jobs and that is another way of saying that the Federal Government can go only part of the way in terms of assuring that we have a productive economy.References
Baily, Martin N. and Robert Solow, "Public Service Employment as Macroeconomic Policy", National Commission for Manpower Policy, 1978
Ginzberg, Eli, The Skeptical Economist, Boulder and London: Westview Press, 1987
National Commission for Manpower Policy, "Job Creation through Public Service Employment: An Interim Report to the Congress", 1978
Solow, Robert, Work and Welfare, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998