The job guarantee and automation
Michael A. Lewis
Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College
In “Why a Universal Basic Income is a Poor Substitute for a Guaranteed Job,” Claire Connelly praises guaranteeing people a right to a job as opposed to guaranteeing them a right to an income. I’ve been involved in quite a few discussions, some of them debates, about the relative merits of basic income versus guaranteed jobs proposals. My position has always been that I have no problem, in principle, with guaranteeing someone a job. If guaranteeing jobs and an unconditional basic income were both financially and politically feasible, I’d be a proponent of both. But if I had to choose one of these policies over the other, I’d prefer the basic income. This is because I think guaranteeing people access to the resources they need to survive has priority over guaranteeing them the right to sell their labor. This, however, isn’t the debate I want to have here. What I want to do, instead, is raise a question about guaranteed jobs proposals: what would it really mean to guarantee someone a job? If those arguing that automation will result in a net loss of jobs for human beings are right, this question becomes especially salient.
Let me start by framing the question more precisely: under what conditions would the government, in its employer of last resort role, hire people? Connelly seems to be supporting the idea of government serving as a buffer stock mechanism. That is, it would step in to hire labor when private sector demand was low and, presumably, step aside when such demand was high. This would put a floor under the price of labor because private sector employers couldn’t, during economic downturns, use the threat of unemployment to get workers to accept lower wages.
As many readers of this site are no doubt aware, some have argued that automation is increasing rapidly and will only continue to do so. Now I’m no expert in this area. So I don’t know if these folks are right that we’re on the path to seeing robots take our jobs. But if they are, this would seem to cause a problem for the buffer stock idea.
The buffer stock approach seems based on a model of the economy where unemployment is due to periodic downturns. The public sector steps in to absorb the resulting labor surplus, but this is meant to be temporary. Once the economy starts growing again, and unemployment declines, public sector employment can contract, as those who worked in the public sector are absorbed by the private one. But automation isn’t supposed to work like that. Instead, there is a steady, but permanent, decline in many types of work as machines take our jobs. I know there’s a huge debate about whether other types of jobs will develop to replace the one’s lost to robots: but suppose such replacement doesn’t happen. Perhaps it’s premature to do so, but I wonder if guaranteed jobs proponents have thought about how their guaranteed jobs plan would work in such an environment. Would government indefinitely hire all those who’ve lost their jobs to machines?