The Conservative Case for a Federal Jobs Guarantee

The Conservative Case for a Federal Jobs Guarantee

“The chief business of America,” claimed the famously reticent Calvin Coolidge, “is business.” In this single sentence, uttered, I imagine, with a New Englander’s WASPish lilt by the only president born on Independence Day, Coolidge articulates the implicit founding philosophy of the United States. Business is an American virtue, and the countless tasks and task-clusters performed by countless Americans which comprise our business and businesses – the stuff you’d call work – is nearly always on the minds of our politicians. How to make more of it, how to get more people doing it, how to make it more efficient, more interesting, more lucrative, more ennobling (but also: how to fill the jobs that will never be interesting, lucrative, or ennobling). Within the political arena, it’s painfully clear that one party has been just way more successful talking about work than the other recently. What to do about business and about work has become a de facto Republican concern; Democrats have ceded the stage in recent decades, in rough approximation, I’d argue, with the decline of labor unions – what had once been a partnership with the American worker was basically dissolved in favor of assistance policies perceived, by a large segment of the population, as giveaways.

The transformative value of working – both to the individual and to society – is something Republicans espouse daily with a kind of religious fervor; they just frankly really love talking about this stuff, and by combining capitalism, democracy, and religious feeling (along with the white population’s profound fear of falling), they’ve successfully created an ideological witch’s brew that captured just enough voters in just the right spots in 2016 to give them control of the White House and both houses of Congress. Since then, they’ve been unabashedly pro-business, passing that tax bill and engaging in orgies of deregulation; they’ve even co-opted a typically Democratic talking point about fair trade, in an effort to position themselves as the champions of the American worker, and have shown some interest in regulating the giant tech companies, like Facebook and Google, that are undermining our democracy.

In their existential quest to regain some share of the politics of business, Democrats have been recirculating an interesting idea that may threaten the GOP’s at-the-moment unquestioned hegemony over work: the federal jobs guarantee. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Bernie Sanders (D-VT) have endorsed the idea, and three progressive think tanks – the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Center for American Progress, and the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College – have released proposals in the past year.

At first blush the political expediency of a federal jobs guarantee seems unlikely: it’s best known in its two New Deal-era iterations, the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps, which between 1935 and 1943 spent more than a billion dollars a year – during the Great Depression! – to employ more than eight million people. Republicans associate the New Deal, pretty firmly, with socialism, and with the rise of a massive, bloated welfare state that’s been existentially threatening to the twin American virtues of business and work; presidents like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and now Donald Trump have sought, in various ways, to shrink the government’s reach, believing it’s necessary to allow business to flourish. Republican representatives and senators have sought – and now achieved – really, really deep tax cuts in the interest of the cherished theory of trickle-down economics, which has had, at best, mixed results (at worst: such thinking has led us to the greatest instance of income inequality in our nation’s history, on par, as Gwynn Guilford reports in Quartz, with Putin’s Russia).

Politically, too, Republican support for the idea seems almost ludicrously far-fetched: it is, after all, an idea that’s picked up steam on the far left, first explored by academics like Darrick Hamilton, William Darity Jr., and Mark Paul in the social-democratic pages of Jacobin and Dissent, and now picked up by national progressive figureheads like Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker; Republicans essentially earmuff themselves and make faces when these guys say anything (and vice versa, to be fair). Not to mention the fact it would cost, as Annie Lowrey points out at the Atlantic, something like $400 to $700 billion a year.

Against such an ideological backdrop, you might think a jobs guarantee is dead on arrival in a Republican government. But shrewd Republicans will understand that such a program is in fact both ideologically and politically aligned with their interests.

With a few small phrasing tweaks, the essay that Paul, Darity Jr., and Hamilton published in Jacobin last February provides a solidly Republican rationale for a jobs guarantee program: they argue that an FJG would help lift millions of Americans out of poverty (or: help them lift themselves out of poverty), fill jobs for which we need workers but have a shortage (like child and elder care), drive private-sector wages up (by functioning as a “de facto wage floor”), provide training for workers with outdated skillsets, and, paired with infrastructure spending, help update our aging roads, bridges, parks, airports, and power grids – a central campaign promise of Donald Trump’s. An FJG would also do much to stabilize an increasingly volatile economy, by functioning as a kind of backup plan – the idea is that the FJG rolls would shrink during the economic good times, and expand in recessionary eras, when private industry is struggling. There are major challenges, as Lowrey details in that aforementioned Atlantic piece, but there are successful examples of cost-effective jobs guarantee programs on small scales. There is, as well, one really big example of a jobs guarantee program that Republicans universally, and rabidly, support and work tirelessly to expand every single year: the military.

For thoughtful analysis of an FJG, take a look Matthew Yglesias’s explainer at Vox, which also offers some alternatives to a full-blown jobs guarantee, including relocation vouchers, extended unemployment insurance benefits, and a payroll tax holiday.

The conversation about a federal jobs guarantee is in its infancy, it’s important to note, and as many policy wonks have observed, each of the proposals dished out has serious flaws. That said, it’s likely they’re meant to shift the range of discourse – the Overton window – back toward a more progressive worldview, as both Lowrey and Yglesias suppose: “we should remember,” notes Yglesias, “that policy change is a marathon and not a sprint. The post-Nixon turn against a Keynesian, full-employment political economy was not achieved with a single bill – it was a sustained political drive to reorient America’s policy conversation. In the wake of the massive catastrophe of the Great Recession, another sustained drive is warranted.”

My objective here is not, as the writers and wonks mentioned above, to dive into the nuts and bolts, or even to make a moral case for the program (which is very strong: with such a program, the US could finally eliminate the persistent, Third-World style deep poverty that’s entrapped around 20 million Americans, and make some serious progress on racial equity); instead, I’m arguing that, ideologically, a federal jobs guarantee, with its emphasis on work, may in fact hold some appeal for conservatives – plus it polls really well among the general public. Simply put, an FJG is not, as some might charge, a socialist idea, because no one’s being forced to work. Instead, it’s an opportunity. And what better way to confirm the conservative belief that people want to work than by incentivizing it?

header image: "construction workers," one day closer / flickr

James Comey is an altruist, not a moralist.

James Comey is an altruist, not a moralist.