A job guarantee is dead on arrival

Chalk me up as someone who thinks a job guarantee (JG) won’t work. The idea has surface appeal but it rapidly unravels once specifics are considered. See Jamie Hall for an excellent implementation critique, and Matt Bruenig (linked in Hall’s piece) for countless more.

In addition to the policy challenges, I don’t see how a JG could work politically. Sure there’s some evidence from polls that folks say they like a JG, but “jobs guarantee” is a slogan, not a policy. Everyone likes “jobs”. They like the word. But it’s a word that excites very different impulses in different people.

Those on the left imagine “good jobs”, with security and worker empowerment.

For the right, it’s Protestant work ethic stuff, curbing idleness and setting people to task.

These alternative dispositions lead to fundamentally contradictory conceptions of a JG.

For leftists, to satisfy “good jobs” criteria, the conditions would have to be significantly superior to a lot of jobs that people already have in the private sector. On the right, it’s widely believed that anyone who truly wants a job can already get one, implying that a guaranteed job is little more than formalising existing opportunities. Any fallback job provided by a government welfare department would likely resemble something like work for the dole: unpleasant and inferior to comparable ‘real’ jobs in the private sector.

The two contradictory impulses underlie the political impossible dilemma at the heart of the JG:


  • Workers can be fired – in which case it’s not a guarantee


  • Workers cannot be fired – in which case it’s not a real job.

The first “JG” (right wing JG) is workfare. In Australia’s social security system, people who reject work get kicked off the dole, so participation in this JG would be mandatory. Should workers be fired it would be equivalent to being suspended from welfare. Australia’s Bill Mitchell goes so far as to promote abolishing unemployment benefits altogether:

My personal preference is to abandon the unemployment benefits scheme and free the associated administrative infrastructure for JG operations.

The concept of mutual obligation from the workers’ side would become straightforward because the receipt of income by the unemployed worker would be conditional on taking a JG job.

The no firing version of JG – which the left would prefer – is really a type of basic income combined with an optional volunteering program.

In addition to the implementation challenges, these political contradictions are why JG advocates have an unusually high rhetoric to policy content ratio. The moment details are provided, the advocates are forced to declare their hand on their political philosophy, destroying the very ambiguity that enabled the cross-spectrum support.

My view is that folks who support a basic income with an optional volunteering component should just lobby for it directly. Any strategic ambiguity gained from pretending it’s a “job” will be exposed well before the policy ever gets implemented.

Finally, let me just register how weird I think it is that so many leftists have latched onto the JG. I always thought a fixation with work for work’s sake was a conservative pathology.

The JG will involve a Centrelink-style bureaucracy assessing hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people and finding/creating/administering for each them something called a “job”, supposedly based on their individual needs and capabilities. No one’s too sure exactly what these jobs will be, but most likely something like pretending to rake leaves. When the job doesn’t pan out – for a vulnerable person coming out of long-term unemployment, disproportionately beset by illness and trauma, the odds of this are high – they’ll be tossed off their welfare and onto the streets. Their compliance with the job program will be monitored by the bureaucracy, the folks currently running robodebt and work for the dole. What could possibly go wrong!

None of this necessarily means opposing public sector job creation initiatives altogether. But these jobs should be grounded in project cost benefit analysis, and cleanly demarcated from welfare policy. The former should be a relationship of obligation, and the latter a relationship of entitlement. Blurring these concepts will only end in tears.

2 thoughts on “A job guarantee is dead on arrival

  1. Pingback: Poll: Australians support a universal basic income | Western Sydney Wonk

  2. Pingback: Job guarantee errorism | Western Sydney Wonk

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