Normative Narratives


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Economic Outlook: Guaranteed Income vs. Guaranteed Employment

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose understanding of social justice was unrivaled, knew the importance of gainful employment in achieving his goals. In his day, Dr. King advocated for (among other things) good jobs for African Americans who had been systematically discriminated against for centuries. This was largely something the private sector could provide, if racial discrimination was sufficiently deterred.

Today, it is not an individual race that faces barriers to gainful employment, but a whole socioeconomic lower class. With corporate profits at an all time high, and interest rates at historic lows, the past few years would have been the perfect time for corporations to ramp up hiring. However, due to forces such as globalization and automation, it appears the private sector alone will not provide the number of well-paying jobs American’s need–it simply does not have to in order to maximize profits (at least in the short-run).

A recent Brookings blog advocated for guaranteed income (i.e. welfare) in the face this reality:

The labor market continues to work pretty well as an economic institution, matching labor to capital, for production. But it is no longer working so well as a social institution for distribution. Structural changes in the economy, in particular skills-based technological change, mean that the wages of less-productive workers are dropping. At the same time, the share of national income going to labor rather than capital is dropping.

This decoupling of the economic and social functions of the labor market poses a stark policy challenge. Well-intentioned attempts to improve the social performance of the labor market – through higher minimum wages, profit-sharing schemes, training and education – may not be enough; a series of sticking leaky band-aids over a growing gaping wound.

As Michael Howard, coordinator of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network, told Newsweek magazine: “We may find ourselves going into the future with fewer jobs for everybody. So as a society, we need to think about partially decoupling income from employment.

…the answer for American families is an old idea whose time has come—a universal basic income.

While an interesting idea, I think having the government act as an “employer of last resort” is a better way of achieving the goals of “universal basic income”, in a way that would be more politically viable. Aside from the economic benefits of employment, there are numerous social benefits as well, including: less crime, improved self-esteem / mental health, and experience / skill building (making people more desirable to private sector employers).

Government jobs could work in many sectors, at lower average wages (so people look for private sector work first), but with more of a training component to promote eventual private sector employment.

Below are a few potential areas for government jobs–areas that are severely under-invested in, and have strong positive “externalities“:

Infrastructure:

The most often cited example when discussing greater government employment is infrastructure. America’s roads and bridges are largely neglected, costing billions a year in lost economic output and putting people’s safety at risk.

Community Development: 

New evidence suggests that where a person grows up has a significant impact on their chances of being successful later in life. Those who grow up in poorer areas find it much harder to “get out” and live productive lives. This is, of course, a huge hindrance to social mobility.

Community development initiatives include mentoring programs (which can mitigate the effects of bad parenting), and “after-school activity” type programs (which can steer young people towards constructive hobbies which often become the basis of employable skills, and away from destructive behavior). Community centers could also offer affordable / free daycare services for younger children.

Parent(s) determine both “who” raises a child, and “where” (since adults make the choice of where they raise their kids)–winning or losing the “parenting lottery” should not be such a strong determinant of future success. While it is impossible to separate the genetic link between parents and their child (the “nature” side of human development), the “who” and “where” (“nurture” side of human development) can be impacted by investing in community development.

Mental Healthcare:

The ACA ensures mental health parity, but not everyone gets the help they need.  To close this gap, government work could increase the “supply” of mental healthcare workers. What I propose is a Mental Health Corp, featuring a new job type–something akin to nurse practitioners taking on more of a doctor’s duties to reduce healthcare costs–in the mental healthcare field.

One does not need a PhD or MD to provide meaningful help to someone struggling with mental illness. There will always be demand for the best trained mental health professionals from people with the means to afford their services, but for those who cannot, surely some care–even if it is not “the best”–would be greatly beneficial. Such care could help people overcome issues that make them unable to find/hold a job and/or lead to criminal activity. 

Feel free to disagree with me on any of the fields mentioned above. The point I am trying to make is that government employment need not be “digging holes to fill them back up again”.

Robust analyses are needed to compare the costs of our current welfare and criminal justice systems versus the cost of a guaranteed employment program. Not all criminal justice or welfare costs would be eliminated with guaranteed employment (criminal justice reform and a livable minimum wage are also needed) but a significant portion would. It is possible a guaranteed jobs program would not cost much more than what we currently pay to combat the symptoms of unemployment, with much greater benefits. 

While on the topic of welfare, guaranteed employment would remedy one of the major holes in the otherwise sound work-for-welfare requirement of the 1996 welfare reform act. After this reform, those unable to find a job also found themselves without a safety-net, falling into “extreme poverty” (which has more than doubled since the reforms were passed)There is a common saying that a nation should be judged not by how well off its wealthiest are, but by how well off its poorest are–with guaranteed employment for those who want it, America would be doing much better on this count. It is past time to plug this obvious hole in welfare reform.

While no one would get rich from government employment, they would be able to live a comfortable life and provide the resources needed for their children to realize their full potential, fulfilling the promises of equality of opportunity and social mobility that America is built upon.

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Greece, Birthplace of Democracy, Needs A Democratic Lifeline

No More Blood From A Greek Stone:

It appears Greece’s government has come up with a list of reforms it and its creditors can agree upon in return for 4 months of bridge financing to restructure the conditions of a longer-term growth strategy.

By trading structural reforms for fiscal space, each major player (Greece and Germany) is making major concessions in the name of pragmatism. Germany is relaxing its dogmatic belief  in fiscal targets to provide the Greek government with the fiscal space needed to restructure its economy without exacerbating its “humanitarian crisis”. Greece, in return, must officially bring to an end the era of lax tax collection and over-rigidity in the labor market.

Both sides are making major concessions, neither side is 100% happy, and its appears as if middle ground has been found–all signs of a meaningful compromise. One can only hope that when Greece’s list of reforms comes in on Monday, both sides of this debate remain on the same page:

Greece’s list of reforms to be submitted to the euro zone on Monday comprises pledges on structural issues such as tax evasion and corruption over the next four months without specific targets, a government official said on Saturday.

The accord requires Greece to submit by Monday a letter to the Eurogroup listing all the policy measures it plans to take during the remainder of the bailout period.

If the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund are satisfied, the Eurogroup is likely to endorse the list in a teleconference without the need for a formal meeting. Then euro zone member states will need to ratify the extension, where necessary through their parliaments.

There will not be specific figures or targets to be achieved tied to the goals, the official said, adding that the two sides had not yet discussed how Greece would be evaluated on the reforms.

EU officials and euro zone ministers said they had no reason to think Greece would not come up with a satisfactory list of measures on Monday night. However, some hawkish countries have insisted that if there are doubts, the Eurogroup would have to reconvene in Brussels.

Structural reforms are inherently difficult to implement. In order to make the difficult task of taking on strong interest groups politically possible, an overwhelming popular mandate is needed. The need for strong public backing becomes even more important during times of high unemployment, when those lucky enough to remain employed are (quite rationally) more afraid of losing their jobs.

According to a recent opinion poll, 68% of Greeks want a “fair compromise” with the EU; even after years of economic suffering, the vast majority of Greeks remain steadfast in their believe in the E.U.. Such support must be seized upon, it will not last forever.

What Greece needs now is a pro-growth, structural reform based bailout plan, not a continuation of its failed blood-from-a-stone internal-devaluation based “recovery”. Reducing it’s primary surplus while collecting greater tax receipts would open up the fiscal space Greece needs to both deal with its humanitarian crisis and create a safety-net for those adversely affected by labor market reforms as the economy readjusts. 

The past 6 years have had a deep psycho-economic effect on the Greek people. With overall unemployment at 26% and youth unemployment at 50%, to go along with a 24% contraction in GDP, the Greek economy has been ravaged. Lack of control over monetary policy (as all members of the Eurozone face) has limited Greece’s policy space, it must be allowed to regain some control over fiscal policy.

Greeks have suffered enough and have learned their lessons–these next four months are an opportunity to prove it. In addition to any external monitoring imposed as part of this deal, the Greek people must prove they can be their own corruption watchdog and can pay their taxes.

Fighting wealthy tax evaders may be a popular political platform and merited on social justice grounds, but in order to pay-down Greek debt without compromising human development, a widespread cultural acceptance towards paying taxes is required. There is no doubt Greece has been too lax in collecting taxes in the past, but this does not need to be an irrevocable problem. Through legislative reform and social accountability, Greece can overcome it’s culture of tax evasion.

Locking in long-term labor market reforms, without driving more people into poverty and exacerbating the “lost generation” of young Greeks, should be the mutual goal between Greece and it’s creditors. In fact, this could be a potential blueprint for other economically depressed European countries to renegotiate their social contracts with the EU. Democratic governance derives its legitimacy from the will of the governed; if peoples basic needs are not met, democratic governance cannot be sustained.

Greece is not in the clear yet. But by finding this acceptable middle ground, the foundations of a sustainable solution for keeping the Eurozone intact may have been laid.

Reversing the Democratic Recession:

Neither side of this debate should have to pretend that keeping the Eurozone unified is an unimportant political, economic, foreign relations and security consideration. Greece staying in the E.U. is important for Greece, Germany, the E.U. and any country with aspirations of democratic governance:

[Stamford University democracy expert] Diamond adds, “perhaps the most worrisome dimension of the democratic recession has been the decline of democratic efficacy, energy, and self-confidence” in America and the West at large. After years of hyperpolarization, deadlock and corruption through campaign financing, the world’s leading democracy is increasingly dysfunctional, with government shutdowns and the inability to pass something as basic as a budget. “The world takes note of all this,” says Diamond. “Authoritarian state media gleefully publicize these travails of American democracy in order to discredit democracy in general and immunize authoritarian rule against U.S. pressure.”

If anything, the U.S. has been the poster-child for prosperity through democracy compared to the E.U.. Regardless, twin “democratic recessions” of varying degrees on both sides of the Atlantic have compromised the appeal of democratic governance abroad. Spreading Islamophobia, antisemitism, and xenophobia throughout Europe–side effects of Europe’s failed economic policies–compromise the appeal of Western values and galvanize authoritarian and extremist messages. 

ISIS finds itself at Italy’s back-door geographically in Libya. But ideologically, ISIS could not be further away from European ideals. Ultimately, reversing the democratic recession and countering authoritarian and extremist ideals requires. among other things, proving democracy remains a viable path to widespread freedom and prosperity.

“Western” countries cannot push Greece towards China / Russia for a bailout. We, like Greece, finds ourselves at an inflection point–we must  prove that democracy in a first world country can satisfy peoples basic needs. Failure to do so could lead to a long-term setback in promoting modernization, human rights, and democratic governance in the worlds least developed countries.