Within the last month, three Democratic senators have announced their support for a federal “jobs guarantee” program. In reverse chronological order, they were Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand. One by one, the rising stars of the Democratic party are all trying to position themselves as Bernie-adjacent: first, single-payer; then, free college; now, the jobs guarantee. Such policies were once considered too radical for anyone other than independent Vermont socialists, but ambitious Democrats sense a trend and are racing to get ahead of it.
Sanders, Booker, and Gillibrand say they want to guarantee every American a job that pays $15 an hour and confers health benefits. Drawing on an existing jobs-guarantee literature, the senators propose to guarantee jobs mostly in the health-care, child-care, infrastructure, and environmental sectors. From a conservative perspective, these proposals are ludicrous: They would risk runaway inflation, be colossally costly, involve a massive amount of inefficient central planning, cannibalize the free market, and nationalize a huge chunk of the economy.
But it’s not just conservatives who have pointed out that these proposals are deeply unworkable. Jobs-guarantee advocates say the jobs will 1) be socially beneficial, so taxpayers aren’t funding ditch-digging projects; 2) not require much in the way of skills, so anyone could indeed take one; 3) be distinct from existing public-sector jobs, so as not to undercut unionized public servants who make more than $15; and 4) be inessential enough that the program can grow and shrink as needed to provide a “buffer” for bad economic times. But as economist Hugh Sturgess points out, this is an “impossible quadrilateral”: There are ineluctable tradeoffs between any two of these criteria.
Most jobs that are socially beneficial, for instance, also require a moderate level of skills — and by definition, there will be some negative social consequences if such jobs go unfilled. Of course workers will leave their $15-an-hour child-care jobs for the private sector when the economy is roaring. Of course it will be impossible to teach millions of newly unemployed people the basics of civil engineering when the economy turns down. Existing jobs-guarantee programs have left policy writers even from left-wing think tanks such as the Economic Policy Institute and the People’s Policy Project cold. This is bad policy, and everyone knows it.
So the idea has to be gaining purchase among prominent Democrats for political reasons. These days, no Democrat wants to risk being outflanked from his left, especially if he has designs on running for president in 2020. The unofficial primary for the party’s nomination has already begun, and left-wing critics of moderate Democrats, like right-wing critics of moderate Republicans, tend to be especially influential in the primaries. It’s a race to the left: As Jeff Spross points out in The Week, Democrats are “taking the basic building blocks of Sanders’s political philosophy and running with them.” There was talk that Trump’s rise heralded a rightward shift in the Overton Window, but Democrats — unencumbered by the possibility that their policies will become law — are widening it on the other side as well.
Ambitious Democrats are terrified of being called Progressives in Name Only.
Enough Democrats apparently decided that their problem in 2016 wasn’t that Trump voters were sick of being berated by their cultural betters, but rather that they weren’t offered a genuinely progressive program. Whether this is a sound political strategy remains to be seen: Sanders’s popularity was no fluke, but there are limits to how far free-bread salesmen can go. (The popularity of single-payer health care, for instance, tends to decline as its consequences become clear.) But the rhetoric of contemporary progressivism, steeped as it is in the language of “justice,” makes resisting the tide a risky proposition. When the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that has historically been aligned with the Clinton family, came out with its own proposal for an attenuated jobs-guarantee program, economist Sandy Darity criticized the policy on the grounds that it “really repressed” racial issues. When liberal writers Kevin Drum and Jonathan Chait said the jobs guarantee was a bad idea, they were vilified on social media for being old white men.
Had Booker not signed on to “Medicare for All,” progressives aware of his past support for charter schools might have declared him a traitor. Had Gillibrand not supported the jobs guarantee, progressives reminded of her former support for William Jefferson Clinton might have deemed her insufficiently righteous. If there’s one thing we can learn from the rush to embrace bad left-wing policies, it’s that ambitious Democrats are terrified of being called Progressives in Name Only.