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What the Country Needs Is a New New Deal
Posted on Sep 8, 2011
By L. Randall Wray and Stephanie Kelton
When it comes to the health and welfare of a nation, there is no economic policy that is more important than job creation. And yet decades of experience, in nations across the globe, provide ample evidence that while the private sector plays an important role, it cannot by itself provide employment for all who want to work.
There is a way to do that: The government could serve as the “employer of last resort” under a job guarantee program modeled on the WPA (the Works Progress Administration, in existence from 1935 to 1943 after being renamed the Work Projects Administration in 1939) and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942). The program would offer a job to any American who was ready and willing to work at the federal minimum wage, plus legislated benefits. No time limits. No means testing. No minimum education or skill requirements.
The program would operate like a buffer stock, absorbing and releasing workers during the economy’s natural boom-and-bust cycles. In a boom, employers would recruit workers out of the program; in a slump the safety net would allow those who had lost their jobs to continue to work to preserve good habits, making them easier to re-employ when activity picked up. The program would also take those whose education, training or job experience was initially inadequate to obtain work outside the program, enhancing their employability through on-the-job training. Work records would be maintained for all program participants and would be available for potential employers. Unemployment offices could be converted to employment offices, to match workers with jobs in the program, and to help private and public employers recruit workers.
Funding for the job guarantee program must come from the federal government—and the wage should be periodically adjusted to reflect changes in the cost of living and to allow workers to share in rising national productivity so that real living standards would rise—but the administration and operation of the program should be decentralized to the state and local level. Registered not-for-profit organizations could propose projects for approval by responsible offices designated within each of the states and U.S. territories as well as the District of Columbia. Then the proposals should be submitted to the federal office for final approval and funding. To ensure transparency and accountability, the Labor Department should maintain a website providing details on all projects submitted, all projects approved and all projects started.
To avoid simple “make-work” employment, project proposals could be evaluated on the following criteria: (a) value to the community; (b) value to the participants; (c) likelihood of successful implementation of project; (d) contribution to preparing workers for employment outside the program.
The program would take workers as they were and where they were, with jobs designed so that they could be performed by workers with the education and training they already had, but it would strive to improve the education and skills of all workers as they participated in the program. Proposals would come from every community in America, to employ workers in every community. Project proposals should include provisions for part-time work and other flexible arrangements for workers who need them, including but not restricted to flexible arrangements for parents of young children.
In truth, the $300 billion the president might propose Thursday is more than enough to jump-start our economy if it is really targeted to job creation. We can estimate the total program cost at $20,000 per worker, times 15 million workers. That adds up to a $300 billion gross cost, less savings on unemployment compensation (roughly $150 billion), welfare and food stamps, as well as the social cost of depression, divorce, abuse and crime. A direct job creation program modeled on the New Deal’s WPA could create 15 million jobs for less than $300 billion net spending, while also providing the infrastructure and public services required to bring our nation into the 21st century.
And because the job guarantee is designed not to compete with other employment options, the program would not result in the bidding up of wages (and prices) as workers were absorbed into the buffer stock. This is because the job guarantee program would hire only those that the market was not yet ready to employ. Because the program would not intensity competition for workers, it would not lead to wage-push inflation. It would, however, help to stabilize output and employment by establishing a floor on wages.
The program should be permanent, offering a good job at a basic wage to anyone who wants to work. With recovery, the number of jobs required in the program would quickly shrink, as the private sector would ramp up hiring as sales to consumers rise.
By keeping the program in place even once the economy recovered, we’d ensure continuous full employment, with the job program acting as a “buffer stock” that absorbed workers laid off when the private sector contracted and as an employment recruitment pool when private sector hiring resumed. In this way, full employment is maintained through the thick and thin of the business cycle.
Only jobs will create the infrastructure we need to compete in the 21st century. Further, Americans have never embraced welfare. For better or worse, our nation has always preferred a more libertarian path: self-help, personal responsibility, individual initiative. As a result, our welfare programs have always been stingy, temporary and purposely demeaning. They are not designed to reduce insecurity—while they relieve the worst of the suffering, those receiving handouts are supposed to quickly get back into the workforce, to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But they cannot do that when the nation is 20 million jobs short.
And we cannot restore the security needed to turn around expectations, to get the sales the private sector needs, with anything less than a nationwide universal jobs program.
The $300 billion investment in a direct jobs program would be the best way to prove that President Obama is committed to resolving the jobs crisis.
L. Randall Wray is a professor of economics and research director of the Center for Full Employment and Price Stability at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. Stephanie Kelton is an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a research scholar at the Levy Economics Institute in New York. Follow them on Twitter @deficitowl
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