Last year, Ro Khanna, the Democratic Congressman from Silicon Valley, introduced a $1tr proposal to expand the EITC, seen as a gateway to a universal basic income. It got showy write-ups in thinky publications on the way to nowhere. This week, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker threw his weight behind Democrats’ alternative preference, a universal jobs guarantee. Sanders, Booker and the whole progressive wing of the Democratic Party have embraced a jobs guarantee while rejecting a universal basic income. Their reasons aren’t pretty.
Booker’s preference for a job guarantee over an expanded EITC or basic income is everything frustrating about the Democratic Party in a single press release. Presented with an opportunity to spend public money to relieve suffering, they just can’t resist the temptation to divert a portion back to themselves, enough to turn a great idea that could change our future into just another miserable public boondoggle. Booker is recreating on a larger level what he once fought against in Newark.
There’s nothing new about a jobs guarantee. It’s been a feature of Democratic politics for more than a century. For a model of how a job guarantee actually works, look at the mayoral administration of Sharpe James, the man Cory Booker had to defeat in Newark to launch his career.
James was a city councilman in Newark from 1970 until he became mayor in 1986. He ran the city like a mob boss, using the police as his enforcement arm. He shook down local businesses through taxes, bribes and favors. He pocketed some of that cash, using much of the rest to fund public sector jobs for key supporters. Some of those jobs involved real or semi-real work. Many were phony. For more than a decade James served as both the Mayor of Newark and its representative in the state senate, drawing two paychecks and leveraging two sources of patronage loot.
This is how the Democratic Party functions in the places it has governed for the past century. Local political leaders get to dole out jobs and other benefits to supporters. Those supporters are responsible for the precinct level operations for the party. Public sector unions have become a keystone of this machine, using their leverage to the choose who will represent the public and taxpayers in negotiations for their union contracts. In some cases, employees of public sector unions can actually get paid to attend protests, attend public meetings, and perform GOTV activities.
The same goes for non-union employees in politically connected jobs. People you see working in airport or public stadium concessions usually got their jobs through political connections. Companies employing them got their contracts through their service to local politicians. It’s a machine that’s always starving for more fuel, since very little of the work it doles out features any self-perpetuating economic benefit. It’s always tough to find enough of other people’s money to give away. People only lose those jobs when the political capo sponsoring those jobs loses an election, like in Newark when Booker finally dethroned his corrupt predecessor.
Booker tried to unseat James as mayor 2002. It was a nasty campaign in which Sharpe deployed every ounce of his corrupt leverage. Sharpe defeated Booker, but the publicity Booker drew to the city and the strain on James’ machine took its toll.
Booker promised to run again in ’06. James retreated, promising not to run for his mayoral job, but it was too late. He was indicted on numerous charges in 2007 by an ambitious US Attorney named Chris Christie. He would serve 18 months in federal prison, all the while calling himself a political prisoner. Today, more than a decade after James’ departure, the city is still the largest employer in Newark, as it has been for decades and will remain for the foreseeable future. That’s what a jobs guarantee does for a city, diverting talent and resources that might have been used for market purposes into a churning wheel of numbing dependency.
Bad institutions will bend good people toward corrupt purposes 99 times out of 100. Why would a police officer in Newark threaten rival campaign workers? It’s not because he’s a bad human being.Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan are nice people who’ve done monstrous things in office without losing a night’s sleep. If you want political change, insist on policies that will transform institutions rather than placing your faith in nice people. They’ll start saying sane, civilized things once they’re beyond the reach of the institution that controls them today. Put a nice guy inside a system engineered to produce a corrupt outcome and you’ll get a corrupt outcome.
How would a jobs guarantee work?
The proposal being touted by Booker and Sanders, drafted by the CBPP, would create 4 million jobs at a $12/hr minimum wage. Available jobs would spike during recessions as needed. What would these workers do? That’s where the program starts to show its true colors.
The CBPP’s plan is vague, suggesting workers could do things like “reducing our carbon footprint.” One plan from the Center for American Progress proposes to put the unemployed to work as EMT’s and teachers’ aids. We are experiencing unemployment rates lower than ever recorded in some parts of the country. These policymakers imagine that we’ll take people who can’t find work in this market, and have them saving lives in ambulances.
Here’s how this program would actually work, once it’s been ground into political sausage. It would be funded by grants that would be channeled through state and local governments. “Employers” would “apply” for these grants, through a byzantine process only navigable with considerable assistance from a politically connected Sherpa. Grant recipients would promise to put people to work doing simple things, like removing garbage from vacant lots, etc.
Politically connected community organizers would receive the grants. They would hire their supporters, who become their little political turnout army. It would be impossible to verify what work was actually completed, but it would be easy to determine who was receiving the paychecks. If they wanted to keep getting a paycheck for their job as a “teachers’ assistant” or “carbon footprint reducer” they would have some obligations to the machine.
For concrete examples of what a jobs guarantee looks like right now, compare staffing levels at your city or county public hospital to levels at the most elite private hospital in your area. To see the impact of a jobs guarantee on public services, watch what happens when someone tries to replace patronage hires with real professionals at schools, hospitals or other public institutions.
A government employment guarantee is still money for nothing. If the economy needed this work to be done, chances are someone would already be doing it. A jobs guarantee is merely a basic income with a political payback clause. Someone imagining a scenario to validate the Republican talking point about the Democratic “plantation” would dream up a jobs guarantee.
More than a decade after Cory Booker’s transformative victory in Newark, the city is governed by a man endorsed by Sharpe James. The mayor’s brothers are on the city payroll and city contracts are being fluffed to feed political allies. Newark once again belongs to a family, supported by paid allies. The machine does not yield to good intentions and Booker seems not to have learned any lessons from his failures.
Both a universal basic income and a jobs guarantee deliver a safety net of income people can use in difficult times. Both provide a wage floor pushing up salaries for everyone employed. One of them cycles that money through a political machine, creating expensive theater of worthiness while serving to corrupt our political system. The other one sets people free from that machine, free from corporate exploitation, and just free in general. We shouldn’t be surprised that today’s authoritarian Republicans oppose both programs, and Democrats support only one of them.