National Jobs Guarantee, Volunteer Bucks, and the Future of Work

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s amazing victory in the 14th congressional district Democratic primary this week got a lot of people talking about the progressive ideas she ran on, one of which is a Federal Job Guarantee. According to her website:

Alexandria endorses a Federal Jobs Guarantee, because anyone who is willing and able to work shouldn’t struggle to find employment.

A Federal Jobs Guarantee would create a baseline quality for employments that guarantees a minimum $15 wage (pegged to inflation), full healthcare, and paid child and sick leave for all. This proposal would dramatically upgrade the quality of employment in the United States, by providing training and experience to workers while bringing much-needed public services to our communities in areas such as parks service, childcare and environmental conservation.

Furthermore, a federal jobs guarantee program would establish a floor for wages and benefits for the nation’s workforce. This program would provide a baseline minimum wage of $15 an hour and guarantee for public workers a basic benefits package, including healthcare and childcare. By investing in our own workforce, we can lift thousands of American families out of poverty.

She isn’t the only one pushing for a national job guarantee. Senator Cory Booker, who has close ties to Wall Street, has introduced a bill to test out the idea.

Even in lefty circles, the idea has its critics. Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein, two of the most highly respected progressive economists, recently argued that a national job guarantee may have serious problems and that there may be better ways to tackle the very serious problem that “even in year nine of the current expansion that boasts a 17-year low on the unemployment rate, there are far too many people and communities left behind.”

The package on offer from the one popular version of a job guarantee could be an improvement for at least 50 million currently employed workers. Even if the employers of half of these workers raise their pay to match the package offered through the job guarantee (a great outcome), that would still leave 25 million currently employed workers for whom the guaranteed job would be an upgrade.

Add in the unemployed and underemployed, and this gives us more than 35 million workers in this program and, quite possibly, many more. The federal government’s current workforce, outside of the Postal Service, is 2.2 million, meaning the job guarantee would increase the size of the federal workforce by a factor of 10.

Sen. Cory Booker (D–N.J.) recently introduced a three-year pilot program offering a guaranteed job in 15 urban and rural places. That’s a smart way to proceed, one that should allow us to see if our concerns are justified. If so, local governments in the pilot areas will find themselves having to essentially re-create the private low-wage labor market by undertaking a huge expansion of public-sector jobs.

Therefore, it makes sense to also try a less interventionist approach to job creation. Various members of Congress, including Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D–Md.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D–Calif.), are rolling out ideas for subsidized jobs programs that target long-term jobless workers and/or those with persistent poverty-level earnings. The job would have to pay at least the minimum wage, and employers, who could be in the public, private or nonprofit sector, would receive a subsidy to cover wages, overhead and training costs. Unlike many earlier versions of such plans, these subsidies would last for a significant period: at least 18 months, and possibly as long as 30 months (with the opportunity for subsidized workers to “re-up” with a different employer if necessary).

I definitely think we need to do something about the fact that our economy has left too many individuals and to many communities behind. I’m not convinced a national job guarantee is the answer — I think we’d be better off with a more inclusive version of the strategies the US used to create jobs right after World War II, where we used both subsidies and shaped the rules of housing, agriculture, autos, electronics, healthcare, and other industries to create the greatest mass-based prosperity the world has ever seen. But it this point, I’d settle for anything we can get signed into law in the next few years.

But in the longer term, if robots and AI end up wiping out more jobs than they create, I don’t think the solution is to create more jobs. It just seems crazy to me that as we create the capacity to automate away a lot of crappy work we wouldn’t take advantage of this and reduce the need for people to work full-time.

For example, why not push for something like Volunteer Bucks? The idea is that anyone could earn a few hours of pay each month for volunteering in the community, and people who were having trouble finding enough paid work could earn more hours per month. Volunteer Bucks would provide income security and give people more flexibility in how they spent their time — especially if it was combined with a small amount of Universal Basic Income.

In the short term, I don’t think it would make sense to implement Volunteer Bucks plus a UBI. It’d be too expensive today, and we aren’t facing mass unemployment. But if we fight to create an economy where as many people in every community can generate wealth from robotics, AI, and other emerging tech, we should be able to create a level of prosperity where we could easily afford that kind of safety net.

I don’t know if Volunteer Bucks + UBI is the long term right policy. But whatever we decide to fight for, the coming revolution in emerging tech offers us a unique opportunity to rethink the world of work. Let’s not waste it.

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UPDATE: this piece wasn’t intended as a criticism of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I’m big fan of hers: she’s exactly the kind of politician our country needs right now. And I’d have to be pretty out of it to expect anyone running for office in 2018 to have a platform that was focusing on long term questions like how what robots/AI might do to our communities in 10+ years. I was using the idea of a national jobs guarantee as a springboard for talking about where we want to be headed down the road.

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