A fed­eral job for every­one?

The Washington Post - - WEDNESDAY OPINION -

Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.) wants you to have a good job. He wants every­one to have a good job. In fact, he wants to guar­an­tee it, and he’s joined Sens. Kirsten Gil­li­brand (N.Y.) and Cory Booker (N. J.), two other po­ten­tial Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls, in propos­ing some sort of pro­gram to pro­vide a highly paid job with the fed­eral govern­ment to ev­ery Amer­i­can who wants one.

Un­like other ideas gain­ing vogue on the left, this ac­tu­ally seems vaguely cen­trist in its premise, de­spite its ven­er­a­ble so­cial­ist his­tory. Democrats, af­ter all, are the party of big entitlement spend­ing, and Repub­li­cans are the party that says “Get a job!” If you smash those two things to­gether, you get some­thing that sounds kind of . . . mod­er­ate. At least un­til you get into the details.

Those details, un­for­tu­nately, are a devil.

San­ders wants the govern­ment to pro­vide guar­an­teed jobs at $15 an hour, plus ben­e­fits. His of­fice did not, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive de­murely told Post re­porter Jeff Stein, yet have cost es­ti­mates for this pro­posal.

Per­haps we can help the sen­a­tor out. With two weeks of paid va­ca­tion, each worker would make roughly $31,000 a year. Add, con­ser­va­tively, about $10,000 for ben­e­fits, and the to­tal cost would be about $40,000.

The United States has be­tween 25 mil­lion and 50 mil­lion work­ers mak­ing less than this to­tal com­pen­sa­tion pack­age. Mil­lions more are un­em­ployed or fully out of the la­bor force. As­sum­ing most of them did the ra­tio­nal thing and signed on, that would make for a $1 tril­lion to $2 tril­lion an­nual pro­gram — ri­val­ing or ex­ceed­ing our to­tal ex­pen­di­ture on So­cial Se­cu­rity, with maybe Med­i­caid thrown in for good mea­sure.

Of course, Wal­mart won’t just shut its doors; it will raise wages to com­pen­sate, keep­ing many of those work­ers in the pri­vate econ­omy. In fact, that’s what ad­vo­cates of a guar­an­teed job pro­gram re­ally want: an at­trac­tive al­ter­na­tive that forces pri­vate em­ploy­ers to pay more.

Un­for­tu­nately, we can’t as­sume all em­ploy­ers can just raise wages at will, es­pe­cially in poor ru­ral ar­eas, where $15 is of­ten within strik­ing dis­tance of the me­dian wage for all work­ers. In those ar­eas, at the very least, the San­ders plan would gut lo­cal busi­nesses, forc­ing even more work­ers into the guar­an­teed job pro­gram and de­priv­ing com­mu­ni­ties of the ser­vices they pro­vide. Though at least the own­ers of those busi­nesses would have the com­fort of know­ing that a $15-an-hour job awaited them, too.

Which brings us to the other ques­tion: What would all these peo­ple do?

Ad­vo­cates seem to be imag­in­ing some­thing like the New Deal’s Works Progress Ad­min­is­tra­tion or Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps. But those pro­grams ex­isted in a very dif­fer­ent coun­try. For one thing, in that coun­try, the un­em­ploy­ment rate hov­ered be­tween 15 and 25 per­cent, so hir­ing a few mil­lion work­ers had lit­tle im­pact on pri­vate la­bor mar­kets. For an­other, those la­bor mar­kets were also very dif­fer­ent.

In 1940, only one-quar­ter of adults had com­pleted high school, and only 5 per­cent had a col­lege de­gree. Work tended to be phys­i­cal, in­volv­ing skills that work­ers ei­ther al­ready had or could quickly learn. In that mar­ket, it’s pretty easy to an­nounce that you’re go­ing to build a road and hand a shovel to who­ever shows up.

But mod­ern Amer­i­cans gen­er­ally have dif­fer­ent sorts of skills. And mod­ern roads aren’t built by armies of men wield­ing shov­els, but with ex­pen­sive heavy ma­chin­ery you must be trained, ex­pen­sively, to use. There are in­fra­struc­ture tasks that vir­tu­ally any­one can do, such as paint­ing schools. But they aren’t what we most need done — and, also, some­one’s al­ready be­ing paid pretty well to do them.

The govern­ment doesn’t much use many of the skills that low-wage work­ers have, such as bar­tend­ing or short-or­der cook­ing. And it doesn’t have much pres­ence in ar­eas that em­ploy a lot of lowskilled, un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated la­bor: retail, fast food, call cen­ters. Even in cat­e­gories where the govern­ment does have needs, those needs are lim­ited. The fed­eral govern­ment might well be able to use more home health-care aides, day-care work­ers and clerks. It prob­a­bly can­not use 25 mil­lion of them.

Guar­an­teed jobs re­verse the nor­mal logic of the la­bor mar­ket: start with some­thing we want done, then find work­ers ca­pa­ble of do­ing it. In­stead, you have to start with what­ever num­ber and kind of work­ers show up, wher­ever they hap­pen to be liv­ing, and then fig­ure out some­thing they can use­fully do. Then you must find the money to buy com­ple­men­tary as­sets — paint, fil­ing cab­i­nets, day­care space — so they can do it.

This would, of course, cre­ate even more govern­ment jobs, at a spe­cial agency for mak­ing make-work. But this is no way to run an econ­omy. In the long run, such bu­reau­cra­cies make us all a lot poorer, as the com­mu­nists found out.

The im­pulse be­hind this idea is noble, and cor­rect: that all Amer­i­cans should be able to earn a de­cent liv­ing for them­selves. But no­bil­ity can’t take a back seat to prac­ti­cal­ity. This old so­cial­ist standby de­serves to stay ex­actly where we left it — on the ash heap of his­tory.

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