Unemployment insurance for the 21st century


L. Randall Wray has a post up at New Deal 2.0 which puts forward an idea which is pretty innovative. I would label it a private sector replacement for unemployment insurance. It’s the kind of thinking that might bring Obama out of a policy cul-de-sac as the economy hemorrhages jobs.

Let me present an excerpted version and mention a few concerns one might have with this idea. The link to the full post is at the bottom:

The latest jobs report shows that the official unemployment took a huge jump to 10.2% –15.7 million jobless workers. If we add to those numbers involuntary part-time workers, plus those who have given up looking for work, the unemployment rate is 17.5%. Even that seriously undercounts those who would be willing to work if decent jobs at decent pay were readily available–a number I put at 25 to 30 million…

I am advocating… a universal job guarantee available through the thick and thin of the business cycle. The federal government would ensure a job offer to anyone ready and willing to work, at the established program compensation level (including wages and a healthy benefits package). To keep it simple, the program wage could be set at the current federal minimum wage ($7.25 an hour), and then adjusted periodically as that is raised. The usual benefits would be provided, including vacation and sick leave, and contributions to Social Security.

Let’s call this the Job Guarantee (JG) program.

… A permanent and universal JG program should be decentralized, with projects created and administered locally–where the workers are, and for the benefit of their communities. The federal government would provide the wages, plus a portion of capital and supervisory expenses (perhaps capped at 25% of total wages paid for each JG project). Local governments and nonprofits would propose projects and cover the rest of the expenses. State unemployment offices would be converted to employment offices, helping to match workers and projects.

Project proposals would be submitted to regional councils and, if approved, would be evaluated by state councils and then by a federal council. Wages and benefits would be paid directly to workers (using Social Security numbers and direct bank deposits) to minimize fraud. Organizations submitting proposals would be prevented from replacing paid workers with JG workers. For-profit business would be excluded, because the temptation to substitute would be too great. At the same time, businesses would be protected from unfair competition because all JG projects would have to demonstrate they’d fulfill unmet public purposes. If at some future date, a for-profit firm decided to provide services that a JG project is performing, the JG project could be phased out. There is neither need nor desire for the JG program to compete with the private for-profit sector.

…JG workers will be gaining useful work experience and training, making them more appealing to other employers. When firms hire, they will recruit from the JG program, offering a slightly higher wage.

At the same time, the program’s fluctuation allows it to act as an employed “buffer stock”-or “reserve army of the employed”-helping to attenuate the business cycle while maintaining full employment without setting off a wage-price spiral. An economic boom will shrink the size of the JG program; in a recession the program will grow.

Thus, an effort like the Job Guarantee program I am proposing would act as an automatic stabilizer — a feature most would agree is desperately needed in our current rollercoaster economy.

This is definitely outside the box thinking. It is basically a decentralized counter-cyclical works program to largely replace the unemployment insurance program we presently have.

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The benefits I see are that it maintains full employment by putting to work those that would be idle and collecting unemployment insurance.  We have an enormous number of unemployed people who are drawing significant social welfare payments (five million are drawing unemployment insurance according to my latest post). Why not use a lot of that same money and deploy them.

This approach also would employ a huge slew of longtime unemployed workers that have benefits expire and skills languish, making them harder to employ and increasing structural unemployment.  The job guarantee could then reduce the level of structural unemployment that results from a steep downturn (see Mark Thoma’s recent piece on structural unemployment for a cogent explanation of that issue).

In my view, full employment is compatible with free market capitalism. In this approach, a job guarantee is there for anyone who wants it. Any structural unemployment will be largely voluntary.

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Here are my questions. I am going to present what I consider the standard questions using the standard terminology – not because these are the exact questions I have but because these are the questions I would anticipate. I have run these same questions by a few economists to generate some answers. I have incorporated most of their answers. But, I still would like to hear your thoughts as well.

  1. Isn’t this just an attempt to expand the state i.e. be a move toward big government? Why shouldn’t we expect ‘mission creep?’ Since the idea is designed to fluctuate with changes in the economy, it seems less of a concern. Yes, this is the not-for-profit private sector. But, we would still need to flesh out the safeguards to make sure that it didn’t crowd out investment in the for-profit sector. (You should expect this program to increase the pie and expand investment in aggregate, so that certainly mitigates these concerns as well.)
  2. Won’t this misallocate resources and create malinvestment?  Since it is designed to be an automatic stabilizer i.e. countercyclical, it doesn’t necessarily appear so. But, it still might create misallocations by increasing the propensity to spend excessively on infrastructure. Infrastructure spending in the U.S. is probably too low at present.  But, at some point in the future, this will be a concern. The fact that much of it can be administered in the private sector locally is important in this regard.
  3. How much will this cost? How do we pay for this? As I understand the idea, it is designed to replace unemployment insurance entirely – and that means we will recoup in taxes lost output from cyclical and structural unemployment. But, as the Federal Government is paying not just wages but benefits, it does not seem to be a deficit neutral strategy in a employer-provided health-insurance world. If health insurance became detached from employers that would be less of an issue. But, that’s not going to happen. (I should also point out criminality and imprisonment associated with lack of job opportunities would be reduced, so that certainly decreases any costs – both social and monetary).

Personally, I am not especially keen on the ‘New Deal’ terminology in the original piece.  That goes to political/philosophical predisposition. So I have stripped it of that language here.

As an aside, of 1920s and 1930s Democrats, I find Al Smith, the Governor of NY and 1928 Democratic Presidential candidate, far more interesting than FDR. Smith and Roosevelt had a very antagonistic relationship in no small part due to FDR’s co-opting of all of Smith’s 1928 ideas for FDR’s 1932 run. Al Smith was a first-generation Irish Catholic who grew up poor on the lower East Side of Manhattan and owed his rise to Tammany Hall. Prejudice is a big reason he lost to Hoover in 1928. Roosevelt was a blue-blooded Harvard-educated Aristocrat who was much more palatable to early 20th-century Americans. Try “Al Smith and His America,” or better yet “Empire Statesman,” for a good read on Smith.

I suspect Wray’s idea will gain more traction if it can be examined it in a politically-neutral frame.

Economists I have talked to who have studied this idea inform me all studies indicate the proposal has a 1-2% of GDP price tag.

Right now, President Obama seems like he is banking on a recovery that will bring unemployment down. But, this may not end up being so. From a purely political perspective, Wray’s suggestion is the direction Obama should go if he wants any traction on the unemployment issue should recovery not bring unemployment down.  But, Wray’s idea also deserves more discussion irrespective of the political ramifications because it keeps a buffer stock of skilled, employed people ready to hand for the for-profit private sector to employ.


Navigating the Jobs Crisis: Time for a New ‘New Deal’ Jobs Program – L. Randall Wray

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