It’s always a pleasure interacting online with the jobs guarantee (JG) and “modern monetary theory” (MMT) crowd. They must be the most passionate, devoted and fervent people on the internet, excluding ISIS.
Due to my concerns that a specific policy – the JG – could not be implemented as they envisage (see here, also here and here), they stopped by my Twitter yesterday and gave some constructive feedback.
Apparently, my worldview is “morally and intellectually impoverished”, is “fundamentally neo-liberal (and wrong)”, “basically invalidates almost all progressive goals”, “10000% it’s an incredibly uninspiring view and at best a wet liberal, if not genuinely conservative”. I find this kind of deranged hyperbole to be one of the genuinely entertained aspects of Twitter.
Ironically, my views on economic justice largely derive from radical traditions. Inequality is, at root, a construct of legal and institutional fictions known as property rights. We are born into society that determines our command over resources based on arbitrary definitions of ownership. There is nothing natural or just about the prevailing system of property rights. On the contrary, it is fundamentally unjust because it catastrophically fails to allocate sufficiently to those of greatest need. This is not an issue of work, it preceeds work. Property rights must be redefined such that the poor receive a greater share of society’s resources – not because they work for it, but because the principles of economic justice require it.
Nearly 40% of the income in from the Australian economy is capital income, awarded for no work at all. The average adult in the Australian top 1% receives capital income that is more than triple the total average adult income from all sources. Given these facts, how is the central issue of distributive justice in this country insufficient work? If income can be detached from work for the capitalists, it can be for the rest of us. The single most potent tool modern governments have for redefining ownership of resources requires no work at all: it is the tax and welfare system.
Leading JG gurus fetishise work because of a profoundly conservative impulse that it should be a requirement for survival (for the poor). It is not surprising to find they are overtly hostile to the welfare state and that they echo the rhetoric of right-wing welfare reformers. Minsky condemned the “welfare mess” and argued “one must earn one’s keep”. Bill Mitchell would like to “abandon the unemployment benefits scheme”.
If this is the language of the JG’s foremost advocates, is it any wonder why some of us worry that it would turn into glorified work for the dole?
In my model of social democracy, social security and safety net concepts are cleanly separated from labour requirements. This protects beneficiaries from coercion and exploitation. Unlike the JG advocates, I do not believe the centrepiece policy for economic justice should depend on work.
What would society look like under this evil conservative vision?
- generous unemployment benefits with lenient conditions
- active labour market programs
- no work for the dole
- mass unionisation and sectoral level bargaining
- generous and universal family benefits
- a universal social dividend to all citizens funded by a social wealth fund.
As I have argued, there is room to trial a transitional and optional job of last resort (JLR), which unlike the standard JG proposals would be sensibly modest and designed to mitigate against risks. It would not pretend to be a universal “guarantee”. If it is wildly successful, by all means, expand it. But don’t be so dogmatic and hubristic to assume a highly complex, bureaucratically intensive theory that screams risk will work just because you will it too, not when the most vulnerable in the community are at stake. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan rightly cautioned in his Senate speech against Clinton’s 1996 welfare reforms:
But first, do no harm. Do not pretend that you know what you do not know. Look at the beginnings of research and evaluation that say, “Very hard, not clear.” Do not hurt children on the basis of an unproven theory and untested hypothesis.
The JG folk don’t seem to comprehend the danger of committing to something – a “guarantee” – that they may not be able to deliver on, of the way a phony guarantee would stigmatise the welfare recipients who are unable to be matched with a suitable job. They don’t seem to understand how the concept of a guaranteed job could, in the actually existing Australian society, turn into a social expectation that the recipient will take a “guaranteed” job, something entirely unreasonable given the health and welfare profile of so many of the unemployed.
They don’t seem to understand how maybe, just maybe, allocating a complex range of individuals, each with highly specialised needs and capabilities, to an extremely narrow range of jobs possibilities, which must satisfy restrictive criteria such as not displacing other workers, could be beyond the power of actual human bureaucracy and that people might get hurt in this process. They don’t seem to appreciate the risk that these pseudo-jobs would in fact displace real jobs, despite best efforts, trapping people in dead end drudgery with limited opportunity for promotion.
Much of my concern about bureaucracy relates to my personal experience as a kid in a single parent family, with a mum who was often sick. Knowing the stigma attached to poor single mothers, I would have zero confidence in fairness from local committees either.
If concern for the most vulnerable in our community is “morally and intellectually impoverished”, “fundamentally neo-liberal” and “genuinely conservative”, I plead guilty.