The Challenge for Democrats: a Plethora of Ideas on Jobs and Wages

I hereby give everyone permission to write off anyone who suggests that Democrats are merely running on an anti-Trump agenda as being either lazy or a purveyor of right-wing talking points.

Almost a year ago elected Democrats released an agenda they called, “A Better Deal.” House Democrats followed that up with “A Better Deal to Rebuild America,” which outlines the specifics of an infrastructure plan. Candidates all over the country are running on platforms to improve health care with everything from proposals to improve Obamacare to single payer plans. Just yesterday, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made a bold statement about what will happen when Democrats take back control of the House.

If Democrats control the House in 2019 they would quickly schedule floor action on gun violence prevention, protections for “Dreamers” and infrastructure, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday.

The latest policy proposal generating a lot of buzz from Democrats is a federal job guarantee for all Americans. As Harold Meyerson documents, that isn’t a new proposal, but one that has been raised several times in the past.

The revival of a federal job guarantee has been sparked by a proposal from Sen. Cory Booker, soon to be followed by one from Sen. Bernie Sanders. Rather than Democrats (and Independents like Sanders who caucus with them) having a shortage of ideas, the problem the party is more likely to face is an abundance of ideas on both priorities and specifics. As with health care, there are a plethora of ideas on the table when it comes to jobs and wages. The question Democrats will face is whether or not it is possible to have a conversation on the merits of the various proposals rather than a slugfest that demonizes those who disagree. In other words, can they avoid the proverbial circular firing squad?

The primary difference between what Booker and Sanders are proposing is that the former has called for a pilot program in 15 urban and rural areas whereas the latter will put forward a national program. If, as many legislators have acknowledged when it comes to single payer, Democrats can view Sanders as proposing the ultimate goal while Booker is suggesting a step that might get us there, no one has any reason to question the motives of people who are firmly attached to one proposal over the other.

The reason these kinds of discussions will be important is that with this proposal, more than most others, Democrats are walking into uncharted territory because there aren’t models of how to do this kind of thing effectively on such a large scale. Paul Waldman raised a few of the questions that have yet to be addressed.

If the jobs are genuinely guaranteed, what do you do with people who don’t show up, or are incompetent? Can they be fired? The proposals suggest that the cost of a truly full job guarantee would be at least half a trillion dollars a year. What sort of tax increase would be necessary to pay for it?

Kevin Drum just wrote about a meta-analysis of 207 studies on the impacts of various jobs programs. Unfortunately, public sector employment programs fared the worst. Before launching too far into a federal guarantee, it will be important to understand the factors that contributed to that performance.

One of this country’s most progressive economists, Dean Baker, is suggesting caution due to the sheer size of such a program, which could mean that the federal government is overseeing the employment of over 10 million people, almost five times its current level. For the true wonks among us, he also raised the problem of the Federal Reserve’s assumption about curbing full employment in order to deter the risks of inflation.

In the end, Democrats need to view the idea of a federal job guarantee as a long-term process that will require a lot of work, while taking up measures like their infrastructure plan and raising the minimum wage in order to have a more immediate effect. Time will tell if that reasonable course prevails.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.