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Federally Guaranteed Employment Can Be Politically Popular

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With the sudden boomlet in progressive support for government guaranteed work, there are a couple of pieces that you should read. I linked to this the other day, but the McElwee, McAuliffe, and Green piece in The Nation that included Kirsten Gillibrand’s support for the idea suggests a lot of potential here.

For decades, the idea of government-guaranteed jobs for all Americans has stalked the outer edges of political debate. It has been promoted by labor unions and has ideological support among some progressive thinkers, but in recent years hasn’t been seen as a mainstream policy issue for the Democratic party. Now, that may be changing.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told The Nation she supports a government-backed jobs guarantee. “Guaranteed jobs programs, creating floors for wages and benefits, and expanding the right to collectively bargain are exactly the type of roles that government must take to shift power back to workers and our communities,” she said. “Corporate interests have controlled the agenda in Washington for decades so we can’t tinker at the margins and expect to rebuild the middle class and stamp out inequality. We need to get back to an economy that rewards workers, not just shareholder value and CEO pay.”

Gillibrand is widely considered to be a front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and a jobs guarantee will definitely be part of that discussion. Already, major Democratic think tanks have been prepping detailed policies for how the federal government can guarantee that every worker can get a job.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, for example, recently released a paper arguing for a job guarantee through a national infrastructure bank that would set a floor on wages and benefits. The Center for American Progress has also crafted a job-guarantee proposal it dubs “a Marshall Plan for America.”

The CBPP plan envisions an infrastructure bank that would fund vital projects and ensure that jobs are well-paid, with health insurance and paid leave. The National Investment Employment Corps would guarantee a minimum annual wage of $24,600, with opportunities to advance and health and leave benefit. The plan’s mean expected wage of $32,500 a year is more than three times the highest proposed universal basic income.

The government would also be able to use this job-creating ability to expand jobs in sectors where the market won’t currently invest. “You can imagine greening the entire United States,” said Darrick Hamilton, an economist who co-authored the CBPP paper. “The ideas of the jobs go far beyond my imagination, and the NEIC allows communities to have a say in the projects they need.”

Hamilton noted that a job guarantee “would especially benefit marginalized and stigmatized workers that face structural barriers in the private sector.” As his CBPP paper notes, a job guarantee has a long history in the United States: Early versions of the Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1978 included language that would have established a Job Guarantee Office, but it was scrapped in favor of an “incrementalist approach.” There are international examples as well, from the Argentina’s Jefes y Jefas program and India’s and National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) to South Korea’s Moon Jae-in’s responding to the country’s rising inequality with a promise to create 810,000 government jobs.

But what about its political popularity?

To explore the possibility of Democrats’ running on a guaranteed-job plan, we asked the respected data analytics firm Civis Analytics to not only poll guaranteed jobs, but poll it in the way that would be most likely to gain opposition from voters. They asked respondents: “Democrats in congress are proposing a bill which would guarantee a job to every American adult, with the government providing jobs for people who can’t find employment in the private sector. This would be paid for by a 5 percent income tax increase on those making over $200,000 per year. Would you be for or against this policy?”

We expected that in a generic scenario, people would support guaranteed jobs, but before urging Democrats to embrace it, we wanted to see if the policy might take a hit when Republicans made the issue partisan and talked about tax hikes.

The results of the Civis polling were nothing short of stunning, showing large net support for a job guarantee: 52 percent in support, 29 percent opposed, and the rest don’t know. “Even with explicit partisan framing and the inclusion of revenue in the wording, this is one of the most popular issues we’ve ever polled,” said David Shor, a senior data scientist at Civis Analytics.

Now, yes, this is all very vague and doesn’t require anyone to support someone from a different political party. But this is hardly some out to lunch lefty utopian policy. It also helps put the lie to the centrist Democrat belief that selling out to the financial industry is a way to prove bipartisan bona fides for voters back home, as Eric Levitz explores.

After all, those senators aren’t known as “purists” for their hard-line positions on gun control, or effusive support for the House Minority Leader. In fact, Sanders’s record on firearms and immigration includes stances about as conservative as those that Lamb just championed in southwest Pennsylvania. The reason why Sanders can nonetheless serve as a synonym for left-wing purity is precisely because the most salient divides in today’s Democratic Party do not lie on “culture war” issues, but rather, on economic ones — which is to say, on those issues where Conor Lamb strayed least from progressive orthodoxy.

There is a lot at stake in these distinctions. The Democratic Party’s corporate wing has a vested interest in the idea that moderation on issues of regulation and redistribution is an electoral necessity in pro-Trump regions. Just last week, business-friendly Democrats helped Mitch McConnell make it easier for banks to discriminate against black people and evade regulatory scrutiny — and justified their complicity (in anonymous quotes to the press) on grounds of political expediency: To get reelected in red and purple areas, Democrats needed to prove their “bipartisan” bona fides.

But there is little evidence that Democrats have any political incentive to broadcast their sympathy for Wall Street, or to demonstrate their sensitivity to corporate interests. In fact, there isn’t even much basis for believing that running competitive campaigns in pro-Trump districts and championing far-left economic policies are incompatible objectives. On the contrary, there’s actually some reason to think that Democratic candidates would have an easier time making inroads in Red America, if they ran on the right kind of radical fiscal policy — like, for example, a federal jobs guarantee.

The idea that the federal government should serve as an employer of last resort — by guaranteeing a public job to any American unable to find work in the private sector — has a long history on the Democratic left. In the 1930s, the populist demagogue Huey Long popularized the concept as part of his Share Our Wealth plan — a far-left alternative to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Three decades later, Martin Luther King Jr. called on the government to provide either guaranteed jobs — or a guaranteed basic income — to all unemployed Americans. And in the late 1970s, as U.S. workers suffered from the unholy combination of high unemployment and runaway inflation, the idea nearly made its way into law. But the proposal proved to be too left-wing for the Carter administration, and the Reagan Revolution banished it from the realm of “reasonable” debate — until New York senator (and presumptive 2020 presidential candidate) Kirsten Gillibrand announced her support for the policy this week.

It isn’t hard to see why the federal jobs guarantee has spent so many decades in the wilderness: It is a genuinely radical proposal. In setting a minimum standard for wages, benefits, and hours — and giving every private sector worker the option to walk off the job without suffering unemployment — it’s a policy with the potential to drastically shift the balance of power between capital and labor. And given the scale of government intervention in the economy that it implies, it’s at least as “left-wing” as anything in Bernie Sanders’s 2016 platform; in fact, a jobs guarantee was ostensibly too radical of an idea for America’s favorite democratic socialist two years ago.

I actually disagree with Levitz on one point. Government guarantee of employment isn’t radical. It doesn’t really commit the government to much that was different from the New Deal, it reinforces traditional American values around work, and it reinforces the tax base from the taxation on the work created. It’s really a common sense policy. Moreover, while I can understand the need for Jon Tester and Heidi Heitkamp and Doug Jones to establish some bipartisan credentials, what is the constituency in Montana, North Dakota, and Alabama to bail out Wall Street? I don’t believe it exists.

There will be more on full employment here very soon for your audio enjoyment. But for now, know that top Republicans are starting to take notice and are worried. Why it’s almost as if an extremist faction taking over one party might just undermine corporate centrism on the other side!

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