What jobs would be doable under a Job Guarantee program?

Jeff Spross has a piece about the idea that the federal government should guarantee a job to anyone who wants it. As with most such pieces, the argument starts to break down when Spross tries to figure out what exactly you would employ people to do.

Here is an exhaustive list of things Spross comes up with under his “The Work” heading:

A. Selling food, butcher shops, bakeries, clothing manufacturing, toy manufacturing, grocery stores.

B. Elder care, child care, comforting sick people, educating citizens, homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, cleaning cities, ecological preservation, recycling centers.

C. Sculpting, making murals, producing plays, urban gardening, tending parks, refurbishing historic buildings, beautifying neighborhoods.

Before going into the particulars of these jobs, it is useful to underscore the point of a JG. The stated purpose of a JG is to have the federal government absorb surplus labor when the economy enters a recession and the private sector sheds workers. This ensures that private sector recessions do not result in mass unemployment, but instead result in public employment expanding and then later contracting when the private sector rebounds.

The cyclical nature of the JG (it picks up in recessions and declines in expansions) is critical to understanding what kinds of jobs it makes sense for JG to do. Most importantly, the cyclical nature of JG means that you cannot use the program to staff jobs that are necessary to do. Put another way, it only makes sense to use JG to staff nice-to-have jobs but never must-have jobs. For the latter kind of job, you would want to hire a workforce that permanently crowds out the private sector (as we currently do with public school teachers).

With that understanding out of the way, let’s return to the list of jobs Spross imagines.

List A is stuff that is highly capital intensive (another thing the JG has to avoid, as Spross himself notes) and already exists in the private sector. This list is mostly derived from the Argentina situation where perhaps the circumstances are different. But it does not really make much sense in the US context.

List B is stuff that you should want to do permanently, not only when the private sector is in recession. You need child carers, elder carers, recycling workers, educators, and so on at all times. It would not make sense to stop caring for children and educating people just because the private sector has picked up steam.

List C is the only stuff that I think is plausible for a JG program. Local arts productions are mostly useless and so you could definitely spin them up and then spin them down with the ebbs and flows of the economy. Urban gardening seems completely useless, if not actively harmful insofar as it is not a good use of expensive urban land that is also typically full of heavy metals. The beautification stuff seems like the kind of thing that falls neatly under nice-to-haves but not must-haves.

So after we’ve looked at the list, what we find that really fits the JG mold are local arts productions and discretionary beautification. That’s supposed to absorb millions of jobless people, including those who want nothing to do with putting on plays? Seems doubtful.

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