Liberals Getting it Wrong on the Job Guarantee

I’ve been quite troubled lately by voices I’ve been hearing from my compatriots on the Left discussing the Job Guarantee — especially in relation to an alternative, Universal Basic Income. A new Jacobin article by  displays several of the aspects that make me uncomfortable.

Get the Math Right. Right off the bat, I’m troubled by the article’s flawed arithmetic — not what I would like to be seeing from left economists who need to be scrupulous in their role as authoritative voices for the left.

…we argue for a FJG that would pay a minimum annual wage of at least $23,000 (the poverty line for a family of four), rising to a mean of $32,500. … In comparison, many of the UBI proposals promise around $10,000 annually to every citizen…half the rate that would be available under the FJG.

$10K per citizen versus $23K per worker is not “half the rate.”

How do the two policies actually compare? I have no idea. This is exactly the kind of difficult calculation that we need economists to do for us (it’s way beyond our abilities), so we can evaluate different policies. Absent analysis with clearly stated parameters (Who counts as a citizen? Children? Etc.) this kind of statement carries no import or information value.

These analyses have been done by economists. I’ve seen them around. But I don’t have them to hand; they’re exactly what I’d like this article to point me to. Are these authors unaware of this work, or did they just not bother to look at it, draw on it, or cite/link to it in this article?

Perhaps most important: this kind of slipshod analysis delivers live and loaded rhetorical ammunition to the enemy. It’s an invitation to (very effective) hippie-punching.

Get outside economists’ fetishistic obsession with short-term business cycles, and with the automation versus globalization debate. We’re facing decades-long campaigns to get any JG or UBI implemented, and decades- or centuries-long technological and job-market trends. If Ray Kurzweil’s exponential productivity growth is even somewhat valid (choose your exponent), we’re facing at a world where Star Trek-style replicators can turn a pile of dirt into a skyscraper or a thousand Thanksgiving dinners — and potentially, where a small handful of people own all those replicators.

In this world, nobody would ever pay a human to produce goods. It would be stupid. Will service work deliver the kind of jobs and wages that let a worker share the fruits of that spectacular prosperity? It doesn’t seem likely. Will the highest-paying service jobs themselves be automated? It seems likely.

That’s an extreme vision, but it embodies the long-term issues these policy discussions need to address. Instead we get from the authors:

The dangers of imminent full automation are overstated…. No doubt, stable and high-paid employment opportunities are dwindling, but we shouldn’t blame the robots. Workers aren’t being replaced by automatons; they are being replaced with other workers — ones lower-paid and more precariously employed.

They’re pooh-poohing the technological future — continuing centuries of Luddite-bashing — because (quoting Dean Baker):

In the last decade, however, productivity growth has risen at a sluggish 1.4 percent annual rate. In the last two years it has limped along at a pace of less than 1 percent annually.

Issues here, in very short form: 1. Productivity and “economic capacity” measures are wildly problematic, both theoretically and empirically. The econ on this is a mess. 2. A decade, much less two years, is not even close to a trend. 3. The automation vs offshoring debate is specious; they’re inextricably intertwined, like nature and nurture. 4. They’re (I think unconsciously) buying into the whole economic worldview and conceptual infrastructure (think: “factors of production”) that delivered us unto these times.

The authors are certainly correct that:

…the balance of forces over the last few decades has been skewed so dramatically in the favor of capital. … It’s time to get the rules right

But this fairly muddled (and hidebound) depiction of the issues at hand does little or nothing to suggest what the new rules should be. We need left economists to unpack these long-term secular forces and trends far more cogently — and radically. They need to be examining the very foundations of their economic thinking and beliefs.

The “Dignity of Work.” It actually makes me squirm in discomfort to hear liberals with very cool, interesting, high-paying jobs going on about the dignity of work. I’m just like, “how dare you?” That kind of supercilious presumption arguably explains why liberals have been losing elections for decades — especially the latest one.

Here’s the full passage on this:

Conventional wisdom holds that people dislike work. Introductory economics classes will explain the disutility of labor, which is a direct trade-off with leisure. Granted, employment isn’t always fun, and many forms of employment are dangerous and exploitative. But the UBI misses the way in which employment structurally empowers workers at the point of production and has by its own merits positive dimensions.

This touches on a heated debate on the Left. But for now, there is no doubt that people want jobs, but they want good jobs that provide flexibility and opportunity. They want to contribute, to have a purpose, to participate in the economy and, most importantly, in society. Nevertheless, the private sector continues to leave millions without work, even during supposed “strong” economic times.

The workplace is social, a place where we spend a great deal of our time interacting with others. In addition to the stress associated with limited resources, the loneliness that plagues many unemployed workers can exacerbate mental health problems. Employment — especially employment that provides added social benefits like communal coffee breaks — adds to workers’ well-being and productivity. A federal job guarantee can provide workers with socially beneficial employment — providing the dignity of a job to all that seek it.

The variations on the “dignity” thing are endless. Our authors here give us:

employment structurally empowers workers at the point of production

This is clearly something that working-class workers and voters are clamoring for.

by its own merits positive dimensions

Sure: in our current system where only wage/salary work provides “dignified” income, you’re gonna see positive second- and third-order effects from employment. Does a program where government provides the income (in most implementations, channeled through private-sector employers) change that pernicious social environment?

But wait: workers get communal coffee breaks!

The whole thing actually, rather remarkably, turns Marx on his head. The alienation that he imputes to working-for-the-man, wage labor is here transformed into the sole, primary, or at least necessary source of human dignity and self-worth. It’s the only way for the working class “to contribute, to have a purpose, to participate in the economy and, most importantly, in society.” Contra David Graeber, if there’s not a money transaction involved, it’s not “valuable” or worthy.

This before even considering the freedom to innovate and thrive that arises when you don’t have to go to work. (Every startup I’ve ever been involved in — many — began with endless hours of hanging out and drinking beer with friends.)

Like so much so-called left thinking over the last half century (think: The Washington Consensus), this thinking unquestioningly, even blindly, unconsciously, adopts and is entrapped by one of conservatism’s core economic mantras: “incentives to work.”

Why in the hell do we want people to work more? We know why conservatives do: because it allows rich people to profit from that labor and grab a bigger piece of a bigger pie. But isn’t the whole point of increasing productivity (or a/the main point) to work less while having a comfortable and secure life?

What the authors dismiss as “conventional wisdom” is in fact largely correct: Most people don’t want to go to work. Or they don’t want to work nearly as much as they do. They can manage their “relationships” and social well-being just fine, thank you. Sure, they enjoy the social interaction at work, to the extent that… But they go to work because they want and need the money. Full stop.

In 1930 Keynes predicted a future of 15-hour work weeks. Sounds idyllic to me. Does anyone think workers would object? Or do we have a better handle on their wants and needs than they do?

We haven’t even come close to that future. Two-earner households are now the necessary norm, and hours worked per worker has been flat since — surprise — 1980, after a very nice decline postwar. Here’s annual hours worked per household, even as households have gotten steadily smaller:

A job guarantee as I understand it does nothing to advance that Keynesian bright future. Given the pro-work rhetoric we hear from JG enthusiasts, it might just further entrench what you see above.

So three takeaways here:

• Get the math right. Do the careful, difficult analysis for us so we can make informed judgments. Or point us to the work that’s already been done.

• Look to your theoretical and empirical fundamentals. They’re often inherited, often unconsciously. They’ve been indoctrinated and inscribed into economists’ invisible System 1 thinking. Many of them are not conceptually coherent, or morally valid.

• Just stop talking about the “dignity of work.” It’s a huge own-goal — both the policy results (more work for workers), and the electoral results of that presumption.

If we want that Keynesian utopia — comfortable, secure lives with not a lot of work required — UBI seems like a far more direct path to getting there. If you want to give people comfort, security, dignity, well-being, power, the opportunity to thrive on their own terms, and economic security…give them money.

Cross-posted at Asymptosis.

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