Normative Narratives


In Support of a Jobs Program (working title)

Fed Chief Jerome Powell, most of his life a fiscal conservative, has lately sounded like anything but:

“Given the number of people who have lost their jobs and the likelihood that some will struggle to find work in the post-pandemic economy, achieving and sustaining maximum employment will require more than supportive monetary policy,” Powell said in remarks to the Economic Club of New York. “It will require a society-wide commitment, with contributions from across government and the private sector.”

Recovery, Powell said, would require both “near-term policy and longer-run investments” to ensure anyone who wants a job can get one.

Powell on Wednesday cemented that stance, noting that after World War Two, as the economy transitioned from wartime and needed to absorb millions of returning soldiers into the labor force, the Employment Act of 1946 committed the government “to use all practicable means” to see that anyone willing and able to work can find “useful employment.”

Fed Chiefs typically stay out of fiscal policy debates; in being vocal, Powell is going against both tradition and his long held personal beliefs. But as a true expert he understands that appropriate economic policy is context sensitive, and as a dedicated public servant he understands what his priorities should be.

Powell is probably advocating for something temporary in nature, however I see the need for a more permanent expansion of the civil service. Whether such a program should be guaranteed to everyone, or just very large in scale, is open to debate (I would argue a guarantee is worth the higher price tag). What is not open to debate is the need to do something—the private sector is no longer up to the task of productively employing as many Americans as we ask it to:

“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.”

This decoupling of the economic and social functions of the labor market is most pronounced after recessions. It wasn’t until 5 years after the Great Recession “ended that employment reached its pre-recession level. This time around the CBO projects employment won’t hit its pre-pandemic peak until 2024, even though GDP is expected to recover midway through this year.

But workers getting a smaller piece of the pie is not just an issue during and after recessions—declining labor force participation and stagnant wages have persisted for decades. Even during the period before the pandemic—the longest economic expansion on record—labor force participation never really recovered from the Great Recession (which itself was lower than before the dotcom bubble burst). This gives reason to believe the COVID Recession might lead to permanent labor market scarring even with continued fiscal support.

Recessions aren’t just economic downturns, they also accelerate existing economic trends like automation. Cost reduction measures necessitated by the COVID Recession, combined with long overdue calls for a livable minimum wage, will likely accelerate the trend of less Americans (particularly the less educated) being employed through the private sector. If this is the case, the public sector will need to pick up the slack.

Universal Basic Income is an idea that gained mainstream attention in America during Andrew Yang’s 2020 Presidential bid. But giving everyone some money doesn’t really solve the financial problems of people whose jobs are displaced by automation and globalization, nor does it address the mental health impact of being disconnected from the labor force. A jobs program addresses both issues, and the jobs themselves can be used to address other social issues.

There is the question of what types of work we should prioritize, and there is a good argument for having some flexibility at the local level. But generally speaking there are needs which, while not profitable for the private sector to provide affordably, would nonetheless make us a more productive and cohesive society. The government already provides many of these things in some capacity, but they tend to be chronically underfunded. Notably they all address issues that were present before the pandemic, but have since been brought to light and exacerbated.

Lets start with infrastructure, historically a less contentious area for public investment and one where there is obvious need. America’s roads and bridges are in need of repair. Flint, Michigan didn’t have clean drinking water for years, and many other areas are at risk of similar crises. The “digital divide” (broadband internet availability and affordability) has been exposed as we scramble to educate children remotely, but is a problem that preceded and will outlast the pandemic. Climate change demands investments in clean energy infrastructure, and if we want to shift to electric vehicles we’ll need a reliable network of charging stations installed around the country.

For some types of infrastructure public-private partnerships could leverage taxpayer money to tease out private sector contributions, but not all of them. Recent history has made it pretty clear the government will have to do most of the heavy lifting if we want these investments made at scale.

Other areas of need exist in the education, healthcare, and social assistance sectors. Affordable childcare and universal pre-K help women enter the labor force, and have a strong positive impact on the development of young minds (increasing their future contributions to society). Mental healthcare is another area to invest in; improving mental health outcomes not only reduces human suffering, it also leads to an overall healthier and more productive society. Jobs in these sectors rely on a human touch, making them more difficult to automate.

America already had a lack-of-employment-induced mental health crisis before COVID—the “Opioid Crisis”. We need to try to address mental health issues preventatively by educating a more resilient and understanding youth through social and emotional learning (SEL) in K-12 schools. For adults we must address the difficulty of finding affordable mental healthcare by creating an corp of licensed mental health professionals. Police officers need more mental health professionals to effectively serve and protect their communities.

An Associates degree type program, developed in consultation with leaders in the field and focused on treating the most common mental health issues like anxiety and depression, could be administered at Community Colleges across the country. This corp of social workers is not intended to replace psychologists or psychiatrists, but rather operates under the belief that less-credentialed care is better than no care at all (which is what too many Americans are currently receiving).

There should be broad based support for such a jobs program. Progressive politicians need to make the case that these are the coal mining jobs, or the manufacturing jobs, of 21st century America; they won’t make you rich, but it’s meaningful work that provides a decent standard of living. We need to invest more in public higher education and apprenticeships, as President Biden is proposing, so new and existing jobs can be obtained without risking financial ruin by way of student loan debt (another drag on the economy and people’s mental health).

That is the promise America once provided, at least for some people—stable, meaningful employment you won’t go broke chasing the skills for. It is within our fiscal ability to provide these jobs, fulfills major societal needs, and complements the private sector by making it more productive in various ways. These are not just a scattershot of “progressive priorities”, taken together they synergize to form a visionary mosaic which would provide hope, direction, security and a sense of unity to the American people.

Yes, a jobs program would lead to some savings on welfare programs and the criminal justice system. Yes, health outcomes should generally improve as mental health issues are better addressed, resulting in increased tax revenues from a healthier, more productive society. But lets be honest–such a jobs program may or may not “pay for itself” in fiscal terms; forecasting a program of this scale, with all its unanticipated impacts, would ultimately be inaccurate. But factoring in what it would mean for America—by addressing the worsening and interrelated economic, social, emotional, and [literal] environmental storms the status quo has left brewing—how could it not be worthwhile? The question is not “can we afford to make these investments?”, but rather “can we afford not to?”

Social unrest this past year has proven people will not sit idly by while lawmakers figure out some elusive, deficit-neutral “grand compromise” to address the nation’s problems (as if they are even trying to). We will eventually have to pay for a jobs programs and other programs needed to promote economic opportunity, but low interest rates give us time to figure out that side of the equation. The Biden Administration is committed to international cooperation on taxation, a necessary precondition to building a global financial system that ensures the wealthiest and big corporations pay their fare share of taxes.

The levers of power and public opinion are aligned in a way our tilted electoral system doesn’t often allow for–the time for bold action is now.