Right to Employment Moves Forward

By Wade Lee Hudson

A standing-room-only crowd of 75 at a Capitol Hill forum on “Employment: A Human Right” provided a step forward in what may become a full employment movement. As reflected in my transcript of the answers to the moderator’s question on human rights, the five economists on the forum’s panel largely supported the proposition that access to decent jobs can and should be a human right.

Thea Lee, one of the panelists, offered a particularly eloquent affirmation. “What could be a more fundamental human right than employment?” she asked rhetorically. “It is essential to almost everything else that most people need in their lives, given that most of us aren’t born with a trust fund or a guarantee from the government. If you want to eat, if you want to feed your children, if you want education for your children, all of those things come from having a good job.”

And Lawrence Mishel astutely commented on how what is accepted as a human right has expanded over time through political struggle. “So what is a right is about what you can take,” he argued. “What lays before us is whether we are going to have a political struggle and economic policies that assure that people have jobs, good jobs, and economic security at work and in retirement.“

Most Americans believe the federal government should assure the right to living-wage employment. The middle class is shrinking. Everyone would benefit from a full-employment economy. The time may well be ripe for a movement to assure everyone the right to a living-wage job opportunity.

Unfortunately, however, the five economists on the panel failed to articulate a consensus agreement on what they mean by “full employment.” Due to their influence, lack of clarity on this point among progressive economists undermines prospects for the further development of a full employment movement.

During the forum, Mishel also touched on the need for an inspiring vision. “The American people would support a massive public investment program,” he argued. “They don’t want something that’s going to be just a little bit.” His well-taken point can be expanded.

In order to motivate widespread popular participation, a jobs campaign not only needs to affirm the universal right to employment. It also needs to define “full employment” clearly and honestly, as commonly understood – that is, we will have full employment when everyone who is able and willing to work can find a job quickly. As I discussed in “Conyers Pushes Full Employment,” it seems to me that HR 1000, which was introduced by Congressman Conyers, describes full employment in that manner, as did President Franklin Roosevelt.

But in recent decades, many economists and legislators have redefined “full employment” as being “a level of unemployment below which inflation rises,” or alternatively, “the specific level of unemployment that exists in an economy that does not cause inflation to increase.” They call this the NAIRU, the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment. Proponents of this view don’t agree on what that rate is, but their opinions usually range from 3-5%.

In fact, however, inflation need not necessarily rise when we achieve true full employment, as Phillip Harvey, another forum panelist, discussed in an email to me. He said, “A set of institutional arrangements [can] maintain a sustainable balance between wage growth and productivity growth (as very different wage setting practices in Sweden and Japan allowed into the 1980s).” In addition, wage and price increases can be restrained by “unusually rapid productivity growth (as a number of countries in Western Europe experienced in the 1950s).” And, Harvey pointed out, “Strict price controls (as during World War II in the U.S.)” can be used to restrain inflation.

Another factor is increased global competition. In recent decades, as unemployment has declined, inflation has not been problematic. In addition, measures such as those included in HR 1000 can assure true full employment “without adding significantly to inflationary pressures,” as the bill states. One reason this goal can be achieved is that it is “deficit neutral.” It generates funding from a small tax on Wall Street transactions, rather than using deficit spending to stimulate private-sector employment, which is the conventional way to create jobs.

According to the jobs program outlined in HR 1000, so long as we have unemployment, the federal government (as a last resort) will share revenues locally to fund public-service employment. The workers in the new public jobs will remain available to take jobs in the private sector, as they are when they collect unemployment insurance. The amount of money the federal government sends to each region will be based on that region’s unemployment rate. And this spending will diminish as unemployment is reduced. These factors will minimize inflationary pressures.

So we need to discard the NAIRU and return to the common sense definition of full employment. Let’s stop debating what the unemployment rate should be. Sure, some people will always be “between jobs.” But who knows how many that will be? And who cares? It’s irrelevant. Let’s even stop debating how many people are actually unemployed. Everyone knows it’s a big number. And let’s forget about “structural unemployment.” Except for the totally disabled, every adult has some useful skill. Especially with on-the-job training, we can put them to work. We can provide job opportunities where people live. And we can pay a living wage.

So long as one person who is able and willing to work cannot find a job quickly, it is a moral outrage and should not be tolerated.

Using a NAIRU as the definition of full employment is a misleading euphemism – an inoffensive expression that is substituted for a description that is more accurate but “unpleasant.” The reality that any NAIRU obscures is that it still involves widespread unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and economic insecurity. As such, it’s nice rhetoric, but it fails to constitute an inspiring vision that might motivate a movement because most people catch on to the deception.

While discussing the related issue of inflation during the forum, Dean Baker called for honesty in our discussions. “We really do let much of this get away in the form of euphemisms,” he lamented. Referring to when the Federal Reserve Bank was “raising interest rates deliberately to slow the economy and keep people from getting jobs,” he said the media reported the Fed didn’t want the economy to “overheat,” rather than stating that “what he was doing was keeping people from getting work.” Baker concluded, “At the very least we need to get some honest discussion of this.” The same point applies to the conventional dishonest use of the term “full employment.”

Unfortunately, however, we learn to be calculating in what we say. Worried about the future impact, we become overly careful about what we say, rather than being open and spontaneous. The word “political” has come to carry this often pejorative connotation of calculated maneuvering. Hopefully, young people, with their use of social media like Facebook, are overcoming this tendency toward deception and manipulation. And with the growth of the Surveillance State, we might as well assume that whatever we say may become public.

Toward this end, tiring of going back to seek permission to quote emails, I now include the following in my email signature: “Since I believe in transparency, I may – with discretion – publicly quote any email sent to me unless asked not to. So please let me know if you prefer that I not quote you.” So far, only one correspondent has asked me to never quote him without consent, which I consider a hopeful sign. Let’s learn to be honest and speak our truth, with compassion and sensitivity.

Even with this commitment, however, the other day I introduced a somewhat delicate question with the phrase “between you and me.” Later I regretted it. Old habits die hard.

Seeking clarity and honesty on the issue of human rights and full employment, prior to the Feb 5 forum I emailed to the panelists the letter that I included in “Conyers Pushes Full Employment.” The intent of my letter was to help clarify what we mean by the phrase “full employment.” In that letter, I said:

As economists with considerable standing in progressive communities, at the February 5 forum … you will be in a position to offer valuable support for true full employment, in contrast to one NAIRU or another.

You can provide this support by affirmatively answering two questions:
• Do you support the human right to a living-wage job opportunity?
• Do you believe that if we have the political will, we can handle any inflationary pressures that result from securing the human right to a living-wage job opportunity?

My impression is that they largely responded positively to the first question, but did not fully address the second question. So afterwards, I sent each of them another email, thanking them for their contribution to the forum and stating:

Would you please clarify two points:
• Do you affirm a definition of full employment that is not tied to any unemployment rate?
• Do you believe that with the political will, we can handle any inflationary pressures that result from assuring that anyone who wants to work can find a living-wage job?

So far, I’ve received two responses. John Cavanagh answered:

On the first question, I believe that everyone has a right to a livelihood, period. I don’t think the unemployment rate tells us much.

On the second, I do think we have to raise more revenue to pay for job creation and I think there are plenty of sources. IPS has done a study called “We’re Not Broke” that identifies over $800 billion a year that is available by taxing pollution, the 1%, corporations, and Wall Street, and by cutting military spending. If you do this, you won’t have inflation problems.

But Baker replied:

Full employment is used in many different contexts and some of those are going to be tied to specific levels of unemployment.

The second question is tautologically true. If you’re asking me whether I would sacrifice everything else to meet your definition of full employment my answer is that I don’t know. If full employment depends largely on direct government employment then it is likely to be very unpopular politically and lead to political figures getting into power who don’t give a damn about unemployment. So I wouldn’t support it under those circumstances.

I responded to Baker:

I believe it would be much less confusing, and help build a full employment movement, to consistently use the common sense understanding of the phrase “full employment.” That is a vision that could motivate people.

I don’t see how the second question is a tautology. Many objectives could not be achieved even with the political will to try. An affirmative answer to the question therefore could be falsifiable. But if, in terms of the economics, you consider it indisputable that is reassuring.

In terms of the politics, I know no one who is proposing that we depend “largely” on direct government employment. I certainly do not, for I assume most new jobs will continue to be in the private sector. And public opinion polls have consistently shown strong support for the proposition. For example, in a 2013 study funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, Page, Bartels, and Seawright reported that two-thirds of the general public in the United States believe “the government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job.” So I hope you will consider whether a push for true full employment would be popular politically if the plan is not “largely dependent on direct government employment.”

I encourage others to investigate and reflect on these issues. I’d be interested in your thoughts and will occasionally report on my own conclusions here.

The forum, which was hosted by Congresspersons John Conyers Jr. and Frederica Wilson, co-chairs of the newly formed, first ever Congressional Full Employment Caucus and moderated by Christina Bellantoni, Roll Call Editor-in-Chief, is available for viewing at http://www.dems.gov/photos-videos/.

To build a full employment movement, we need an inspiring goal. Forming a clear definition of “full employment” will help articulate that goal. Prominent progressive economists can help establish that definition. Perhaps you can help rally that support.

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