Why the Government Shouldn’t Guarantee Jobs…Yet
Guaranteed jobs seem to be the newest way for upper-class Democrats to demonstrate they are looking out for the working class. It’s not just a side project, either. Some pundits have suggested that the policy should become “the central tenet of the party’s platform” in 2018.
Instead of guaranteeing jobs to any economically fraught American though, Democrats should first aim to liberate the American worker from the outdated labor laws applied to the 21st century economy. Let’s face it: the rules of the labor market are rotten at the core. Their expiration date has well and truly passed. Simply creating more rotten apples is not going to solve the problem.
The Center for American Progress (CAP), a think tank with strong policy links to the Democratic Party, seems to disagree. Earlier this year, they sketched out a guaranteed jobs plan which sought to help “our brothers and sisters” left behind by this economy. They go on to equate the “declining fortunes” of the non-college educated to the war-torn realities of Europeans in the 1940s—the report is titled “Toward a Marshall Plan for America.”
The authors found that counties with a higher percentage of their workforce performing “routine jobs” (like manufacturing and sales work) were more likely to vote for Trump. Because these workers were particularly effected by low wages, lost jobs, and diminished mobility, they were more susceptible to President Trump’s populist message.
CAP’s strategy for regaining their support is to have the US government create working-class jobs—4.4 million to be exact. These federally assured jobs are necessary, they argue, because it would help the US economy attain a healthy 79 percent employment rate for prime-age workers without a bachelor’s degree. That in turn would drive up wages for workers across the economy.
These government jobs would provide a “living wage” of $36,000 (which at this time appears not to be regionally adjusted) and health insurance. Many Democrats are convinced that through this program “everyone can have a truly fulfilling and life affirming job.”
Proponents defend the dignity of work by pointing to studies that show “most people get a sense of identity from their job.” But it’s hard to say whether or not this is a reflection of work’s inherent value to human life or because we live in a society where our entire existence is centered around wage labor.
Economic frustrations already exist for those that do have a job, because (unsurprisingly) most Americans don’t actually like their work. They get super frustrated when they work 60 hours in a week but don’t get compensated for the overtime. They get very anxious when they feel trapped in a low-paying job because they’re afraid of losing their health insurance. These are all common worries for many Americans and simply guaranteeing jobs at the bottom of the economic ladder will not erase these concerns.
CAP’s report barely acknowledges these frustrations of the employed, only noting that sadly “key labor protections…have become weaker over time.”
It’s easy to understand why think-tank policy analysts do not address these shortcomings. The individuals who are pushing guaranteed jobs all derive great meaning, security, and prestige from their jobs. Blinded by their workplace experiences, they erroneously project their feelings about work onto those in the lower economic rungs of society.
The best way for Democrats to level with working-class Americans cannot be “Ok, we agree that labor laws screw you over, but come work at this government job which will follow these same rules.”
Rather than advocating for full employment, Democrats need to champion self-fulfillment. We need to say that the American Dream is not a matter of you slotting into the cogs of the machinery and grinding through your life so that some suit can boast about an economic benchmark. We must sell the government’s involvement as a means toward reworking our severely outdated and flawed labor laws.
There are many simple but vital changes that could be made to our current labor standards. Making unemployment insurance available to those who quit their job, not just for those who are fired, is a great example. By expanding the application of unemployment insurance, the government would drastically liberate workers from becoming mired in stagnant jobs—without having to insert themselves directly into the lives of Americans.
Similarly, non-compete clauses, which bar employees from working with other employers in similar industries for a certain period of time, must be made illegal. Elizabeth Anderson, a political philosophy professor at the University of Michigan, brought this issue to my attention in her new book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It). She points out how non-compete clauses “imprison workers’ human capital,” thereby diminishing a worker’s freedom to leave jobs while also diminishing the overall mobility of the American economy.
Speaking of economic mobility, the US government needs to finally disentangle healthcare from work—an idea that the Democratic Party still frustratingly refuses to support. And for goodness sake, can the government please secure overtime pay for at least 65% of salaried American workers (the rate in 1975)? It is absurd that Americans work harder than any other nation on earth, yet only a tiny percentage of our population’s labor is rewarded appropriately.
Now, I readily admit that reworking our labor laws and guaranteeing universal basic income (UBI) are not mutually exclusive tasks. However, the hatred and contempt for UBI by the centrist wing of the Democratic Party is real. The think-tank “progressivism” is almost universally opposed to the policy—and vehemently so. Neera Tanden, CAP’s Executive Director, calls basic income “pernicious” and Third Way Vice President Jim Kessler thinks it shows “we’ve given up.”
Countering guaranteed jobs with UBI could be disastrous, especially in a time when progressives need to unite. That’s why I am advocating for labor law reform first, as this solution would satisfy both the left wing and centrist blocs of the Democratic Party. More than intra-party unity, this political agenda will resonate with the working class and the middle class—because both will be affected by these changes. Labor reform, similar to UBI, affects everyone up and down the economic ladder, which makes it electorally advantageous and also doesn’t carry the stigma of basic income.
Democrats have a golden opportunity to become the working people’s party again. We will lose that opportunity, though, if we continue to talk to voters about intangible figures like full employment. Restructuring the labor market, not mindlessly throwing jobs into the marketplace, should be the central tenet for the Democratic platform moving forward. If that strategy doesn’t improve the lives of Americans, then we can start looking at other options.