Further Thoughts on a Job Guarantee

From today’s New York Times “Opinion” Section by Paul Krugman:

As I wrote the other day, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may call herself a socialist and represent the left wing of the Democratic party, but her policy ideas are pretty reasonable. In fact, Medicare for All is totally reasonable; any arguments against it are essentially political rather than economic.

A federal jobs guarantee is more problematic, and a number of progressive economists with significant platforms have argued against it: Josh BivensDean BakerLarry Summers. (Yes, Larry Summers: whatever you think of his role in the Clinton and Obama administrations, he’s a daring, unconventional thinker when not in office, with a strongly progressive lean.) And I myself don’t think it’s the best way to deal with the problem of low pay and inadequate employment; like Bivens and his colleagues at EPI, I’d go for a more targeted set of policies.

But I’m fine with candidates like AOC (can we start abbreviating?) proposing the jobs guarantee, for a couple of reasons. One is that realistically, a blanket jobs guarantee is unlikely to happen, so proposing one is more about highlighting the very real problems of wages and employment than about the specifics of a solution. Beyond that, some of the critiques are, I think, off base.

Here’s the way some of the critiques seem to run: a large share of the U.S. work force – Baker says 25 percent, but it looks like around a third to me – makes less than $15 an hour. So offering these workers a higher wage would bring a huge rush into public employment, implying a very expensive program.

What’s wrong with this argument? The key point is that all those sub-$15 workers aren’t just sitting around collecting paychecks: they’re producing goods and (mostly) services that the public wants. The public will still want those services even if the government guarantees alternative employment, so the firms providing those services won’t go away; they’ll just have to raise wages enough to hold on to their employees, who would now have an alternative.

Now, that doesn’t mean zero job loss. Employers might replace some workers with machines; they would have to raise prices, meaning that they would sell less; so private employment might go down.

But all this is true about increases in the minimum wage, too. And we have a lot of evidence on what minimum wage increases do, because we get a natural experiment every time a state raises its minimum wage but neighboring states don’t. What this evidence shows is that minimum wage hikes have very little effect on employment.

So if we think of a job guarantee as a minimum wage hike backstopped by a public option for employment, we should not expect a mass migration of workers from private to public jobs.

Read the complete article here.