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Some thoughts about the Job Guarantee

Mainly for economists

The idea of the state stepping in during a recession to offer some group of the unemployed a job was selectively adopted by the UK Labour government in 2009: see hereby Paul Gregg. Richard Layard has proposedit for the long term unemployed. We can think of both schemes as providing a partial insurance policy against the failure of countercyclical stabilisation policy to completely do its job in a downturn/recession. But MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) economists go beyond that to suggest that it could be a permanent feature, which would eliminate involuntary unemployment (IU) without creating inflation.

Given our recent experience, the use of a Job Guarantee as an insurance policy for all unemployed people during a recession seems like a good idea. Unwanted leisure is replaced by labour producing useful output, and paying a wage greater than unemployment benefits would add to automatic stabilisers. The devil is of course in the detail: JG jobs need to be setup to allow job search (many jobs are created even in a recession) or (if necessary) retraining and the JG jobs would need to involve an output that was socially useful [1]. The main problem that Gregg discusses in his paper is the ‘Lock-in’ effect, where those in a JG job reduce their search activity. To combat that and for other reasons it also seems helpful to provide detailed individual advice along the lines of the Swedish scheme described here.

MMT economists have suggested extending such a scheme so that it operates at all times. As I understand it any worker without a job would be offered a JG job. It can be refused with no consequences in terms of unemployment benefit, so it that sense it is not workfare. Many people who were confident of getting another job quickly might want to focus all their spare time on job search, and so might decline a JG job. Anyone who wanted a job could receive one, so the scheme would largely eliminate involuntary unemployment (IU). [2] In the rest of this post I’m going to focus on this idea of JG as being a permanent feature of an economy, rather than just something put in place during an economic downturn.

A key issue is what the JG wage would be. In most MMT literature I have seen, the JG wage would be the minimum wage or better: see Mitchell herefor example. There seems to be an obvious consequence of this. Unfortunately many private and public sector jobs are paid the minimum wage. These jobs are risky whereas JG jobs are by definition permanent. Minimum wage non-JG jobs may have compensating advantages like a career structure, but still it would seem probable that the existence of JG jobs paying the minimum wage would attract some workers from private sector minimum wage jobs.

The obvious response would be for private and public sector employers paying minimum wages to increase their pay sufficiently to stop this happening, which in turn would often lead private sector firms to raise prices. How far this ripples through the economy is not certain [3], but it is quite possible that the overall price level rises by a noticeable amount. This higher aggregate price level would reduce the real value of the JG wage. If this reduced wage differentials in the economy as a whole this process might be regarded by some as beneficial, but it is an implication that JG advocates need to acknowledge.

A perhaps more serious concern is the impact of the JG on inflation. What is conventionally believed to prevent policy makers expanding demand sufficiently to eliminate all IU is that to do so would embolden workers to ask for greater pay increases, generating an inflationary spiral. The existence of IU, and the possibility of joining their number. becomes a threat that keeps inflation stable. In a JG economy that threat is greatly reduced, both because an alternative job is always available and it will pay more than unemployment benefit. (JG and the lock-in effect will also reduce geographic mobility, although the other side of that coin is that joblessness would not be a feature of deindustrialisation.)

Suppose we start with an economy with stable inflation, implying unemployment was at the NAIRU, and introduce JG.. As this puts upward pressure on inflation because the costs of losing a job are reduced. the only way of keeping inflation stable is to deflate demand, which of course would reduce output, labour demand and therefore increase the number of people on JG jobs. So if we were to compare two economies where inflation was stable, one with IU and one with JG, the number of JG jobs would exceed IU in the other economy.

That does not mean that output would necessarily be lower in the JG economy, because JG workers are producing some kind of socially useful output while the IU workers are not. In welfare terms you have also eliminated any non-pecuniary costs associated with spells of unemployment, and the distribution of income in the JG economy is more equal than in the IU economy. However in practice the productivity of JG workers will be pretty low, as they need to be allowed time for intensive job search and the turnover in JG jobs is likely to be high. We have a trade-off, and if anyone can point me to any analysis of this particular trade-off I would be very grateful.

Can I end with a personal plea. When I write things like this it is often assumed by MMTers that I am being critical for the sake of it. In other words they think all I want to do is attack the JG or MMT. I don’t. I have far better things to do with my time. I actually find the idea of JG appealing at an intuitive level. More generally I agree with MMT on many things, although not all. But I am also fed up with policy makers implementing bad policies just because they sound good to those policy makers, so I want to subject any policy I intuitively like to rigorous analysis.

[1] JG jobs couldbe as assistants in police stations, schools and other public sector institutions. Or they couldbe jobs in social enterprises.

[2] Keynes defined involuntary unemployment as those seeking a job at the going real wage. As JG jobs would be at the minimum wage it would not eliminate all involuntary unemployment defined in this way: as I noted those looking for a higher than minimum wage job who chose to stay unemployed would still technically be classed as involuntarily unemployed. But this is being a little pedantic.

[3] Mosler and Silipo (section 7) talk about the JG wage as a nominal anchor. This captures the idea that movements in the JG wage would influence other wages. However nominal anchors, like the money supply or the exchange rate, are often talked about as being able to control the aggregate price level in the longer term on their own. The JG wage would not be able to do this. As the authors note, active stabilisation policy would still be required to do this, although the number of JG jobs could be a useful indicator of what action was required, just as the unemployment rate is now. Another way of saying the same thing is that the JG does not supplant the need for active macroeconomic stabilisation.



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