The Case for a Federal Jobs Guarantee

From the New York Times “Opinion” Section by Eric Loomis:

Employment numbers may look solid now, but economists, physicists and industrial engineers all say that automation will, in the not-so-distant future, drive higher unemployment. The Columbus Dispatch recently calculated that in Ohio, out of total state employment of about 5.5 million workers, 2.5 million jobs are at risk of automation.

How do we prepare for such disruption and the future of work? We might revisit an idea from the 1970s: a federal guarantee of employment. In recent weeks, three Democratic senators (and likely presidential contenders) — Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — have either expressed their approval of the idea or unveiled initial ideas about how an updated version could work.

They are building on the legacy of the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, introduced in the 1970s by Senator Hubert Humphrey, Democrat of Minnesota, and Representative Augustus Hawkins, Democrat of California. In addition to the guarantee of employment, their initial bill allowed citizens to sue the government if they could not find a job.

Resurrecting Humphrey-Hawkins can help pre-empt a technology crisis and even future labor dislocation from globalization. In the original Humphrey-Hawkins bill — not the watered-down version that ultimately passed in 1978 — the president would submit an annual plan to Congress to achieve full employment, and local committees would coordinate job needs in their communities. The bill would have spurred private-sector job creation and a New Deal-style federal job creation program. Private employment would limit government investment, while federally mandated wage and price controls would fight inflation.

The final bill fell far short of this. Unions stripped out the wage and price controls in exchange for their support and put a priority on negotiating better contracts for their members over the fate of the nation’s poor. The Carter administration fretted about the potential impact on inflation from a bill without those controls. President Jimmy Carter never truly supported it, and the bill that passed committed the nation to ending inflation more than to full employment. Since then, the idea of full employment has largely disappeared from the American political system.

The arguments against Humphrey-Hawkins in 1978 are largely irrelevant today. After decades of low inflation, wage and price controls are unlikely to be problems. Mr. Booker’s pilot plan to test these ideas in 15 areas of the country builds on the Great Society belief in community control over federal resources.

Read the complete article here.