As the party out of power, Democrats have the luxury of thinking big as they consider how to topple President Donald Trump in 2020. Bold, ambitious ideas are what the party sorely needs if it is to capture voters’ attention and woo them from Trump’s corrosive grip.
But if Democrats are to craft a winning agenda for 2020, bigness and boldness alone are insufficient; political feasibility and substantive plausibility are also necessary ingredients. That’s why the latest big and bold idea catching the eye of potential 2020 contenders – a federal jobs guarantee – is ultimately a disappointment.
Touted by advocates as a way to achieve “permanent full employment,” the notion of a federally guaranteed job for anyone who wants one has won support from three rumored presidential hopefuls so far, including New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Last week, Booker revealed draft legislation3 to pilot a federal jobs guarantee program in up to 15 localities nationwide, while Sanders has floated a much more ambitious national plan4 focused on public works projects at a scale not seen since the Great Depression. Under both proposals, participants would earn wages of up to $15 an hour, along with benefits such as paid family and sick leave and health insurance. “There is great dignity in work – and in America, if you want to provide for your family, you should be able to find a full-time job that pays a fair wage,” said Booker in a press release announcing his effort.
Booker’s endorsement speaks to the inherent surface appeal of a jobs guarantee. To borrow President Bill Clinton’s famous formulation, Americans who “work hard and play by the rules” deserve a shot at self-sufficiency, and the promise of work for all who want it invokes Americans’ innate sense of fair play. Proponents also rightly point out stark disparities in employment between certain groups, the result of discrimination and other structural barriers that guaranteed access to meaningful employment could arguably remedy.
Unfortunately, the idea also suffers from a variety of fatal defects, including its size, timing and relevance and any number of practical obstacles that make it administratively unworkable as well as politically untenable. For one thing, it rests on the dubious assumption that the American electorate – at a time when public cynicism and distrust toward government remain at all-time highs6 – is ready to embrace a dramatically expanded role for the federal government as the nation’s largest staffing agency and employer. More fundamentally,
the idea betrays a deep lack of faith in the inherent resilience of the American economy and its people to weather disruption and change. Most Americans don’t share the left’s inordinate confidence in government’s ability to engineer shared prosperity from the top down. Aggressive advocacy of a panacea like government guaranteed jobs can only reinforce public impressions that progressives will always default to “big government” as the solution to complex economic problems.