Supporters set these programs at odds, but they can work together to mitigate a crisis and provide basic dignity to everyone.
Before the coronavirus struck, the American left and the Democratic Party found themselves debating two wildly ambitious policy schemes: the job guarantee and a universal basic income. The pandemic and the ensuing economic collapse have actually reinvigorated these borderline-utopian ideas: Pennsylvania and California are actively pursuing New Deal–style public-works programs, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) recently asked if “a guaranteed income for people” was “worthy of attention”—then concluding, “perhaps so.”
As a quick refresher: A universal basic income (UBI) would be a no-strings check sent regularly—probably every month—to every person in the country. The idea is to set a floor for everyone’s standard of living. Meanwhile, a job guarantee (JG) is essentially a public option for employment: Anyone who wants work will be provided a job in their community, funded by the federal government, with benefits, and at a decent living wage. The idea here is twofold: to set a floor for conditions and compensation in the U.S. job market, as well as to push the economy to full employment and keep it there.
The two programs have often been cast in opposition to one another. To an extent, the friction is understandable: The UBI seeks to lessen Americans’ entanglement with work by breaking the link between jobs and income, while the JG can be seen as an attempt to strengthen that entanglement further. But the coronavirus has offered a very concrete and painful lesson in why this friction must be overcome. The destruction wreaked by the disease is demonstrating how the implicit critiques the UBI and the JG level at U.S. society are both right—and how we must tend to both solutions if America is to dig itself out of this mess and learn anything from the catastrophe.
The idea here is twofold: to set a floor for conditions and compensation in the U.S. job market, as well as to push the economy to full employment and keep it there.
Let’s begin with universal basic income, since its relevance to the coronavirus pandemic is probably more intuitive. America’s overwhelming reliance on employment to deliver incomes is bad enough in normal times, when many cannot or should not work, and when recessions occasionally throw millions out of their jobs through no fault of their own. But in a pandemic, when people must stay away from their jobs for the sake of their own health, their families, and their communities, it’s utterly perverse. At least 36 million Americans have lost their jobs since the outbreak began, bread lines are exploding across the country, and roughly a third cannot pay their rent or other bills. We ostensibly have programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps to step in as an alternative income. But, precisely because America’s political culture assumes that any income from a source other than work is something to be avoided and discouraged, these programs are grossly inadequate, riven by bureaucratic hurdles, poor design, and deliberate sabotage by policymakers. The CARES Act attempted to step into the breach, by temporarily boosting unemployment benefits and handing out one-time, no-strings checks for $1,200. But both measures fall utterly short of what’s needed.
This raw necessity explains why we now have Pelosi openly musing about a guaranteed income, and why several Democrats in the Senate are now proposing $2,000 payments each month to all Americans making less than $120,000 until the end of the crisis. In the House, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) has a bill that would do something similar—without the cutoff for higher incomes, making it genuinely universal.
None of these proposals, of course, is a true UBI. They’re temporary, or they aren’t available for people above certain incomes. But we have no idea when the coronavirus will be brought under control, and the economic damage will remain for years. Any “temporary” policy now could be with us for some time. Moreover, utopian policy demands like the UBI and the JG are never simply policy demands; they frame politics and policy by diagnosing an overarching problem and recommending a particular kind of solution. The implicit critique of UBI is that some basic level of consumption should be a universal human right. And the coronavirus-response policies that Democrats are toying with certainly point in that direction.
What of the job guarantee? Since one of its primary goals is to reach and sustain full employment, it’s a seemingly odd fit for a crisis where we’re trying to keep vast numbers of Americans away from their jobs. But once the pandemic passes, it will be time to drive the economy back to full capacity again. There is no guarantee of a speedy bounce-back, and another slow-grind recovery like we endured after 2008, but starting from 20 percent unemployment or more, would be an unthinkable human catastrophe. If the goal of the UBI is to make a baseline of consumption a human right, the goal of the JG is to make work itself a universal human right—one the government is legally bound to provide in both cases. The need for the latter will be of the utmost importance for whatever world comes after the coronavirus.
Only the federal government has the power to supply money to economic projects without concern for whether they generate a return.
But even that is only part of the story. Even as many of us avoid our jobs to contain the virus, the work done by a significant chunk of the population has become, well, essential: health care, food production and distribution, sanitation, the Postal Service, warehouse workers, shipping, child and elder care, public transit, and so on. And yet, just as these forms of production have become more necessary than ever, capitalism’s ability to effectively organize that production via price signals and competitive private markets has gone haywire. There are critical shortages of masks, gloves, and ventilators, both because hospitals and providers kept their resources on thin margins for years and because they cannot figure out what or how much to buy for fear they will be eating losses once the crisis is over. We’re having a political slugfest over whether to keep portions of our food supply system open at the risk of workers’ health. The country cannot seem to manufacture or administer nearly enough tests to actually make reopening the economy feasible. And with the restaurant industry in hibernation, farmers and food providers are simply discarding massive amounts of goods and allowing crops to rot, because they cannot cheaply retool their supply chains to meet the domestic grocery market, as the latest data suggests that many more Americans are going hungry.
Yes, it is perverse and cruel that we leave people’s incomes at the mercy of the job market, and of the self-interested profit motives of the gatekeepers of private capital. But the right to consume will also mean nothing if society does not produce the goods and services people must buy with their UBI checks to maintain a basic standard of living. Deciding what should be produced, when, and how is also a matter we have left to the markets and the gatekeepers of private capital. And they are failing us.
Nor is this failure a one-off emergency related to the coronavirus. It is built into the nature of market capitalism, which can handle calm and predictability, but turns irrational and self-destructive whenever future returns are uncertain or when market participants must work together. It’s why America had to effectively socialize the economy to fight World War II, and why private markets have thus far utterly failed to address the still-oncoming crisis of climate change. It’s why, after the shocks of globalized trade and industrialization destroyed thousands of American communities, no new forms of employment flooded in to fill the breach. The coronavirus is an extreme event. But, just as with the question of incomes, it’s an event that reminds us that these problems, in greater or lesser form, crop up all the time.
Some of these challenges, such as with medical supplies, can probably be addressed simply by the government operating as a centralized buyer. But for other matters, there is simply no substitute for a workforce organized and financed by public rather than private means. The food supply chain is a prime example. We can still produce enough food for everyone in America, running the farms and the plants while also taking precautions to keep workers safe. What is in doubt is whether we can do these things in a manner that is profitable to private owners. If not, then someone else will need to direct and finance that economic activity—someone who does not suffer from the private owners’ limitations. And only the federal government has the power to supply money to economic projects without concern for whether they generate a return.
Imagine how we could have responded to the coronavirus’s overlapping production challenges if we already had a platform for public works in place.
There is a minimalist conception of the job guarantee, in which the program is solely a countercyclical stabilizer, geared toward providing temporary jobs until the private market can snatch workers up again. But the stronger version could also operate as a kind of permanent staging platform for public-works projects—one that can be spun up quickly to respond to various needs or crises.
Such a job guarantee program could both organize large regional or even national public projects (think installing solar panels on every home and weatherizing every building) or match workers to local needs via local decision-making. There would be challenges: Maintaining a population of skilled professionals who could train and supervise new JG enrollees would require outbidding private employers, for instance. And that could possibly complicate the JG’s goal of stabilizing inflation. But we should also not fetishize “skills” too much. Up until the last few decades, learning on the job was a common American experience. The Works Progress Administration of the New Deal era put millions of unemployed Americans to work by teaching them how to build bridges and dams, as well as buying, storing, processing, and redistributing food that farmers would have otherwise left to rot, thanks to the haywire market disruptions of the Great Depression. Which should sound familiar.
Imagine how we could have responded to the coronavirus’s overlapping production challenges—providing health care, testing and contact tracing, food provision—if we already had a platform for public works in place. That brings up one last point: To do any policy well requires practice. If America limits itself to disbursing universal checks or attempting big public works in singular economic collapses that come along once a decade or so, it will inevitably do it in a confused and ad hoc fashion, as we have seen in this crisis. If Americans already had something like a UBI in operation in non-crisis times, the infrastructure to distribute additional money aid would be firmly in place. The same goes for public-employment efforts like Pennsylvania’s plan to train a “Commonwealth Civilian Coronavirus Corps” to conduct testing and tracing, or California’s effort to employ laid-off restaurant workers to provide meals to seniors.
The lesson of the coronavirus is that none of this can be dealt with in isolation. Production and consumption cannot be politically hived off from one another. Recessions and emergencies will strain both in different ways, and their consequences will bleed into both spheres. For one to be democratized, they both must be. And the best way to learn is by doing.