The Job Guarantee: The Coolest Economic Policy You’ve Never Heard Of

When you think of economic issues what are the first things that come to mind? Poverty, inequality, unemployment, inflation, and crisis are all common answers to the question. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a policy that could address all of those issues (and more) in a cost-effective manner? In this piece I will give a very brief introduction to Job Guarantee (JG) schemes, the proverbial economic silver bullet.

JG Minskys3

Illustration: Heske van Doornen

Hyperboles aside, Job Guarantee proposals (which may come in many different names such as Employer of Last Resort, or Public Service Employment) are a remarkably good way to address many of the social economic problems current faced by populations all over the world. Ideas about JG programs date back to as early as the 1600s, they have been implemented in many nations during a variety of different stages of the business cycle – and usually to a great deal of success.

Simply put, JG is a direct public employment policy where all of those people who are willing and able to work are guaranteed a job given that these individuals meet some basic employability requirements. Most proponents of JG establish that these jobs should pay a basic, fixed, uniform wage plus full medical coverage and free child care (the latter can be provided by JG workers themselves). The goal of the program should be to ensure that all full-time JG workers are able to obtain a living standard that is above a reasonable poverty threshold. Thus, this sort of program go a long way in addressing poverty. Furthermore, it would also target another major economic problem, the stagnation of real wages and the currently low minimum wage granted to US workers. The JG wage would instantly become the minimum wage for the entire economy: workers in other sectors that are receiving less than the JG wage would be very compelled to take one of those guaranteed jobs, and employers would have to raise their salary offers in order to keep their workforce. Finally, the wages would also act as price anchor, which improves upon the stability of the economy.

The first question I usually get when telling someone about the Job Guarantee is “yeah but, how can we afford it?!” Questions about the deficit and national debt have been put to rest previously on this blog (see here), hence I shall focus on other questions regarding its affordability. For starters, it has been shown elsewhere that JG is remarkably cheaper and more effective than other proposals, such as Basic Income and Negative Income Tax, in achieving lower poverty and unemployment rates (see here, and in many pieces by Rutger’s Phillip Harvey). Secondly, the newly employed JG workers would bring in savings in many different ways: they would get out of unemployment insurance, food-stamps, and other such programs; they will pay income tax, medicare and social security tax, as well as more consumption related taxes; and the government would spend less on issues that are related to poverty, such as higher crime rates. In addition, employment multipliers would make it so the JG program would not have to employ the entire unemployed population. The extra consumption and production related to the JG will create indirect and induced jobs which will represent a significant portion of the job creation from the program. Finally, yours truly is among a number of economists who have modeled the implementation of a a JG for the US and found that eliminating unemployment at a living wage would cost just around 1% of the American GDP.

At this point many say something like “but employing everyone while raising the minimum wage has to be inflationary!” the answer to which is a simple “nope”. First, we have to bear in mind that in the current system the economy’s most precious resource – workers – is being wasted in unemployment, while under a JG program it will be put to use. Orthodox economic thought claims that millions of people need to be unemployed in order to contain inflation, that it is financially “sound” to a tenth of the population in idleness for an unknown period of time. It comes from the idea that the economy is always operating at full capacity, which then brings the inflation problem to being a matter of equilibrating the demand and supply forces of the economy. Both of these assertions are, to quote Keynes, “crazily improbable – the sort of thing that which no man could believe had not his head fuddled with nonsense for years and years.” Government expenditure is as inflationary as any other sector expenditure. Unemployed workers are spending in consumption either way, being sustained by welfare or, dangerously, by credit – and there’s nothing financially “sound” about that.

A JG program would in fact control for inflation by proving a minimum wage anchor for prices and by increasing the productive capacity of the economy through its projects. It would take off the pressure put on demand from the unemployed by increasing supply of goods and services by incorporating those idle workers in the productive structure. Furthermore, even if we assume it to be inflationary it would be a “one-time” increase in inflation, and not an accelerating type one, meaning that demand (and inflation) wouldn’t rise above the full employment level.

In that sense, the costs associated with a JG program (increasing budget deficit and inflation) are not more than ideological myths that obscure the true social costs of unemployment and poverty and curtails any innovative attempts to deal with them. Indeed, generating aggregate demand, employment and inflation is all what the US economy has tried to do since the 2008 financial crisis, but through the wrong ways. A JG program would be extremely more efficient and less costly than QE or negative interest rates. As the world crumbles in economic and political instability, guaranteeing jobs would surely deal with most of its problems. It is up to governments to load and shoot that silver bullet. I don’t think there’s a more appropriate time than now.

Written by Carlos Maciel & Vitor Mello
Illustrations by Heske van Doornen