Vox! What is it Good For?

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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Good God Y’all. What is Vox good for? Absolutely …. What’s the point of having a fake-neutral liberal self-styled wonkish whippersnapper web site if it pisses on one of the few really good liberal ideas out there: the idea of “universal employment” or a right to a job.  Few politicians have pushed this idea (since Sen. Paul Simon in the late 80s) so it has been left to President Frank Underwood on House of Cards.**

Vox‘s Danielle Kurtzleben conflates the idea with “zero unemployment” and then proclaims it “bonkers” and “impossible.” But you don’t need an unemployment rate of zero to offer a minimal job to all comers. If the wage is modest, lots of people won’t take the government up on the offer. And the wage would have to be modest, as FDR realized when setting up his Works Progress Administration (WPA) — lest people leave private work in droves to go work for the government.

In fact, the basic wage for the “universal” job would probably have to be set at just below the minimum wage (which could be higher than it is now). *** Given the relatively low share of the population that will show up to work on building roads and bridges, etc, at $9 an hour,**** we’d be in no danger of eliminating frictional, structural, or cyclical unemployment. Laid off $85,000 a year accountants and marketing managers would probably stay home, unemployed. We’d still need a full employment policy on top of the basic job guarantee (what the rest of President Underwood’s jobs plan seems to address). But we would be able to tell every American that there was no excuse for not working — if you needed a job there was a (semi-lousy) job for you — a job that, with the Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicaid/Obamacare and other work-related add-ons and goodies, would at least lift you out of poverty. What’s wrong with that? Why should the foodie-progressives at Vox, of all people, sneer at that?

There’s also an argument that, because a guaranteed job provides the thing (universal employment) the Fed usually has to goose the entire economy to achieve, it would enable the Fed to pull back on monetary expansionism a bit earlier in the business cycle, lowering the risk of producing inflation (a risk Kurtzelben brings up). That was a point made years ago by ex-Fed chair Arthur Burns. Maybe his words could be given to a character in the next season of House of Cards, to help Underwood out. …

P.S.: There’s more on the neo-WPA idea in Chapter 8 here. …

P.P.S.: Kurtzleben also criticizes Underwood’s idea of paying for a jobs program by cutting entitlements. A president wouldn’t have to do that, of course, but it’s entirely possible to raise hundreds of billions of dollars by means-testing the nearly $2 trillion in federal entitlement spending — i.e. cutting benefits of the most affluent. That would minimize the number of recipients who needed to go back to work to make up the difference.


** — It was also the centerpiece of Kevin Kline’s presidency in the 1993 movie Dave. So Hollywood likes it!

***–  Supervisors and engineers, skilled equipment operators, etc., would earn more, of course.

**** — That’s one reason construction unions tend to hate the idea. FDR had to break a strike on the wage issue to save the WPA.

Mickey Kaus