Should the federal government bailout Detroit? That’s the question everyone is debating. We think the discussion should be expanded well beyond this narrow question. Detroit is the canary in the coal mine, but it’s symptomatic of a bigger problem, which is the lack of jobs and decent demand in the economy.
The problem is that President Obama believes we can cure our jobless problem by providing the proper incentives to the business community. So we’re sure there will be all sorts of talk about “incentive zones” for Detroit. And here he is committing one of the few big policy blunders from Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Like Johnson, who focused on retraining the unemployed for jobs that did not exist, Obama has focused on incentivizing the businesses community to hire workers to produce for customers that do not exist. Time and again, Obama has shown that he will only tinker around the edges, relying on the same tired supply-side initiatives that will not work: more incentives to build business confidence, subsidies to reduce labor costs and to promote exports, and maybe even tax cuts to please Republicans. He told a Labor Day crowd in Detroit a few years ago that he wants to match the more than 1 million construction workers with an infrastructure-related rebuilding program to improve the nation’s roads and bridges. That is an improvement over his efforts to date, but it falls far short of the 20-plus million jobs we need.
So what should be done? Well, the three of us (and others) have long advocated a longer term solution to deal with all of the Detroits that are out there: The government could serve as the “employer of last resort” under a job guarantee program modeled on the WPA (the Works Progress Administration, in existence from 1935 to 1943 after being renamed the Work Projects Administration in 1939) and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942). The program would offer a job to any American who was ready and willing to work at the federal minimum wage, plus legislated benefits. No time limits. No means testing. No minimum education or skill requirements.
The program would operate like a buffer stock, absorbing and releasing workers during the economy’s natural boom-and-bust cycles. In a boom, employers would recruit workers out of the program; in a slump the safety net would allow those who had lost their jobs to continue to work to preserve good habits, making them easier to re-employ when activity picked up. The program would also take those whose education, training or job experience was initially inadequate to obtain work outside the program, enhancing their employability through on-the-job training. Work records would be maintained for all program participants and would be available for potential employers. Unemployment offices could be converted to employment offices, to match workers with jobs in the program, and to help private and public employers recruit workers.
Funding for the job guarantee program must come from the federal government—and the wage should be periodically adjusted to reflect changes in the cost of living and to allow workers to share in rising national productivity so that real living standards would rise—but the administration and operation of the program should be decentralized to the state and local level. Registered not-for-profit organizations could propose projects for approval by responsible offices designated within each of the states and U.S. territories as well as the District of Columbia. Then the proposals should be submitted to the federal office for final approval and funding. To ensure transparency and accountability, the Labor Department should maintain a website providing details on all projects submitted, all projects approved and all projects started.
To avoid simple “make-work” employment, project proposals could be evaluated on the following criteria: (a) value to the community; (b) value to the participants; (c) likelihood of successful implementation of project; (d) contribution to preparing workers for employment outside the program.
The program would take workers as they were and where they were, with jobs designed so that they could be performed by workers with the education and training they already had, but it would strive to improve the education and skills of all workers as they participated in the program. Proposals would come from every community in America, to employ workers in every community. Project proposals should include provisions for part-time work and other flexible arrangements for workers who need them, including but not restricted to flexible arrangements for parents of young children.
That’s the approach we would take on behalf of all of the Detroits out there.