Jared Bernstein on Basic Income vs. a Jobs Guarantee

Jim continues the discussion started on the Intelligence Squared debate over basic income with Jared Bernstein, who argued against the basic income. Bernstein explains various concerns he has with the concept, focusing on existing social programs, and a similarly radical proposal: a jobs guarantee. Bernstein is a Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and served as Chief Economist and Economic Adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden from 2009-2011.

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Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh.

Owen: In every episode we’ve done, whether we’re talking to an artist, a politician, an activist, everyone has been a supporter of the basic income. But this week, we actually have a dissenter.

Jim: A couple months back, there was a debate on basic income that was organized by Intelligence Squared. It put Andy Stern and Charles Murray arguing for basic income up against Jared Bernstein and Jason Furman argument against it. Most of the debate focused on the pros and cons of universal basic income, but one thing that popped up was Jared Bernstein mentioned that he was actually a fan of a jobs guarantee program, which would be another ambitious plan that falls pretty far outside of the scope of the legislation that has been considered in the US, also aimed at providing economic security, but looking different than something like an unconditional basic income.

Owen: Jim sat down with Jared Bernstein and discussed their feelings on the basic income and the jobs guarantee and a bunch of other topics. From my listening, I found that Jared Bernstein has a lot of the same goals and a lot of the same perspectives as people in the basic income movement but comes at them from something of a different angle and different experience and that comes out in the conversation. Without further ado, this is Jim Pugh and Jared Bernstein on the Basic Income Podcast.

Jim: I am here with Jared Bernstein, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Jared, thank you for joining us.

Jared: Thanks for inviting me.

Jim: Many of our listeners may have seen the basic income debate that was held by Intelligence Squared back in March between Andy Stern and Charles Murray arguing for a basic income as the social safety net of the future, and then you and Jason Furman arguing against that idea. One of the things you mentioned there was the idea of a jobs guarantee program in the US. I’m just curious, can you tell us a little bit more about how you think a program like that might work?

Jared: Well, sure. Let me start by saying a little bit about why I think we need it. As we speak, the unemployment rate is quite low nationally. It’s 4.4% and most economists, and I’m someone who thinks about the questions of full employment a lot, will tell you that’s full employment. That’s certainly what the Federal Reserve would say. In fact, we know that there are pockets of weak labor demand where even at a low national unemployment rate, there are parts of the country where people can’t find enough work. I’ve observed that even at full employment, sometimes, the labor demand is insufficient.

You need to think about a program to fill that gap. The way I think of it is we all agree or at least the economics community agrees that when credit markets freeze up, you need a lender of last resort, and that’s the federal reserve. Well, when the job market fails to provide adequate opportunities for all of commerce, I think you need a job creator of last resort. There’s a couple of different ways to do that which I can get into in a minute. I just wanted to give you that motivation first.

Jim: I know, I’m based out in the Bay Area, and particularly around here, there’s a lot of new companies that are basing their approach to work very much on a task-based model. Not seeing it as full employment but rather seeing it as smaller sets of work that people will take on in that “gig economy.” I’m curious to hear is that something that you feel connects here? Is that something entirely separate?

Jared: It’s definitely a connection. There’s definitely a connection there, but I think it’s separate in the sense that what I’m talking about are places where there’s just not enough work for people who want and need it. Now, in the case of the gig economy, there may be not enough steady work or work of a structure that people want. If somebody wants a steady job where they know their hours, the flexibility of the gig economy or maybe even the insecurity therein just doesn’t appeal to them, that’s a job quality issue or structural employment issue.

I’m talking about something that’s different than that. Think of the Rust Belt, you’ve certainly heard about that in the context of the Trump story, but also there are neighborhoods and urban areas that are like job deserts. There’s not enough jobs there for folks who want them.

I can think of two ways to deal with that. The first is a real direct job creation program by the federal government, where the federal government creates gainful employment for people. I do think not just in terms of job quantity but job quality, so these jobs have to be adequately remunerative, and the other is a subsidized model where the government subsidizes employers to hire workers, sometimes to the tune of 80% or 90%, that is the government would pick up 80% or 90% of the wage for some fixed amount of time. I know a lot more about the second one because we did something like that during the Recovery Act when I was working for the Obama Administration.

But those are the two broad models, one where the government directly creates jobs, almost in the spirit of the New Deal, and the other is more of a subsidized employment model.

Jim: If we were to pursue a jobs guarantee program, do you have any sense what sort of timeline this would be on? Is this something that we’re talking about, with the big caveat that who knows what will be happening with the federal government over the next few years, but is this something that seems achievable in the relatively short-term or is this more of a longer term, something 10 -20 plus years from now?

Jared: With a rational, functional government, at least the subsidized employment idea could would be ramped up quickly and interestingly, this is not very well known, there are a number of programs like that in place already. The VISTA Jobs Program, there’s a number of youth employment programs. These are all very small programs, but again, during the Recovery Act, so in 2009, we quickly ramped up a subsidized employment program, it was under the aegis of TANF Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and there was something like maybe under $2 billion I think I have that right, that was assigned to a program where in states — it was actually more of a kind of flow of resources than a program, but basically we said to states, you can use this money, which we’re ramping up for TANF, because we’re in this really deep recession, you can use this money to subsidize employment for low-wage people who are facing labor market barriers. They can’t get into the job market.

You have to be careful not to displace somebody else, so an employer can’t say, “oh, well, by the way, you’re fired, but Ricky, you’re hired.” So you have to be careful to avoid this. There are ways in which you have to craft this thing to make it most effective, but we found that during the Recovery Act, this program created over 250,000 jobs in a bunch of different states, subsidizing employment, again, often to the tune of 70, 80, 90% sometimes for three months, six months, maybe a year and after the subsidized employment ended, as it’s a time-limited program, a number of those workers were able to stay on in the labor market. It looked like in some cases the program helped them get over a labor market barrier that was blocking them.

Jim: During the Intelligence Squared Debate, you raised several concerns about universal basic income as a policy to pursue. For those who weren’t able to watch the debate, could you share with us what your main concerns on that front are?

Jared: Yes. I would say my main concern comes from the proposal by Charles Murray who is one of my opponents in that debate. So he was on the other side, and he’s arguing for a form of UBI that I am absolutely sure would significantly worsen and deepen poverty and economic insecurity.

What Murray wants to do and I’m not telling tales out of school here, because I’ve debated him numerous times on this. Sometimes it’s not fair to argue with somebody who’s not there to defend themselves, but Charles knows exactly where I’m coming from here. He wants to essentially take all of the resources that we’re devoting to both the safety net and to some of our social insurance programs, Social Security, Medicare, and giving them up per capita across the whole population, so make it a universal basic income paid for by aggregating all the resources we’re currently spending on the safety net and social welfare program, and social insurance programs.

Obviously the arithmetic is quite simple because you’re going to be really seriously diluting the resources that are already targeted and pretty well targeted, I argued in that debate, at folks in the bottom half, bottom third of the income scale. So if you take resources that are well-focused, well-targeted and as I argued that night, having their intended effect and pretty effective and you give them to 320

million people, the population of the US, you’re very much going to dilute the program. That’s probably my main objection to at least that version of the plan.

Jim: I do think that something that’s become more apparent within the space of people advocating for basic income in recent months is that there are two quite different views on what the policy could be. What you just described, the repeal and replace model, tends to be favored much more by Libertarians…

Jared: That’s a phrase we hear a lot these days.

Jim: [chuckles] …often with the idea of having something radically simpler being one of the main things that attracts people to that version of it.

On the flip side, you have a more progressive view, which is more to support and strengthen model, of something that would be providing basic income and perhaps replacing some programs that exist today that seem fully redundant if people are receiving a basic level of cash every month, but done with the intention of making sure that people are not being left worse off than they were previously. I’d be curious to hear your perspective on that vision of the policy.

Jared: Well, there are aspects of that vision that I like and share. As I said that night, mostly focused on some of the work of Andy Stern, who I’m sure is known to your audience — he was the other “opponent.” I can’t really think of Andy as an opponent because he’s fighting for social justice for as long as I’ve known him and that’s been many decades — is a version that says, “let’s build off of what we have.” And there are many ways in which I’m supportive of that.

However, while I think it’s perfectly legitimate to suspend political disbelief when you have these debates — even the jobs debate we had earlier about guaranteed or subsidized employment, as I said, this congress isn’t going to do that. I’m always happy to suspend disbelief. I think there’s a question of just how far out of the box do you want to go. One of the things that worries me is that if you start opening up this opportunity to take resources from one program and give them to a bunch of people. There is a U, in UBI. In other words, there’s a universal aspect to it. This dilution problem I think is a real one unless you’re really talking about adding significant new resources.

Well, we’re in a climate where that’s really tough to do and one of the things that I recognize, I recently wrote about this in a piece called UBI and I, is that many of the programs that I think are well-targeted and working pretty well — not perfectly by a long shot, and I suspect you and I can have a good conversation about how to improve some of the safety net programs that are existent — but they’re underfunded.

Before I would think about building on top of what we have, I probably want to get the Earned Income Tax Credit to be a lot more robust. I’d want the child tax credit to be a lot more robust and to start, instead of at dollar 3,000 of earnings, to start at zero and perhaps be fully refundable and not conditional on work. There’s a child allowance idea that I’ve been getting more interested that shares some characteristics with UBI, but it’s just targeted at kids.

There’s ways in which I’d want food stamps to be, SNAP to be, maybe expand benefits particularly in the downturn which is something that worked in the recession, and I could go on. I very, very much want to see a quality preschool program in place. I think we just really hurt the potential of a lot of kids who really need a quality opportunity when it comes to preschool.

There’s a bunch of stuff I’d rather put in place before I start thinking about building on top of what we have in the spirit of UBI. Again, I’m always worried about the dilution problem. I do think that U in the UBI is something that gives me pause sometimes.

Jim: One thing I’d be curious about is, it does seem that there is, at least to some degree, a chicken and egg issue around how big of or how radical of a policy you propose versus what’s realistic today. I think that’s something that, as basic income has become, at least to some degree, more of a mainstream idea over the last couple of years, people who support it are thinking about, well, what are the stepping stone policies that move us in that direction?

I think some of what you just mentioned, actually, are policies that are discussed there, something like a child allowance. Programs that are providing unconditional cash in different scenarios. So I don’t know, and I realize that this is in some degrees conflating two worlds here, the economic side and the political marketing side, but if you have any thoughts around, do you think maybe that fighting for something that’s radical, basic income, might actually make some of these policy that you were discussing possibly easier if we’re shifting the debate window?

Jared: Yes. I think that’s a good point. One has to be very careful to not negotiate with yourself and not say, “oh, I don’t like super progressive idea X because it’s too progressive. I like some other idea because that’s half as progressive or half as ambitious.” Because if you realize that you’re already starting on a very tough battlefield, Negotiation 101 suggest that you should start from a very ambitious place. What you’re saying resonates with me.

I think one of the problems that UBI has this — some of my friends are Libertarians, so this sounds worse than it than I mean it – this kind of infection from the Libertarian side. There are those who are just gunning for what they call the welfare state. There are people in this debate, this UBI debate who view it as a vehicle by which they can undermine social insurance, by which they can undermine the safety net.

Read Charles Murray, literally on page three he says, “The safety net is a horrible failure. It is imploding. It’s crashing in on itself, and before it explodes or implodes, or whatever the words there, we have to do something different.” Well, that’s all completely wrong. I think that not to say that these programs are perfect, but if you go back to my wrap during the Intelligence Squared Debate, I tried to provide pretty nuanced analysis of the way in which these programs are having their intended effect, working very well in terms of staving off probation that is faced by many low income people, but also having some very positive long term effects.

Medicaid, food stamps, Earned Income Credit. We now have people who were exposed to these programs as children, and we follow them over their life cycle. We can look at their outcomes as adults and we see earnings advantages, better health outcomes, better educational outcomes. These programs aren’t just consumption, they’re also investment.

Every time I say this, I’ve been careful to say that they’re far from perfect. I’m not saying that there’s not work to be done there, but I do think one of the challenges — while I take your point about the importance of being ambitious and not being, not self-negotiating because of political constraints — I also think you’ve got to be mindful of these dark forces in this debate.

Jim: Going back to the jobs guarantee idea: one aspect of basic income that appeals to a lot of advocates is opening up new types of opportunity for work. The ones that come up most often, I would say, are entrepreneurship — giving people a runway to be able to pursue a new idea for business — but also recognition of unpaid labor, particularly care giving work that happens at home. Is that something that if you were to pursue a jobs guarantee program, you might be missing that gain?

Jared: I think those are legitimate concerns. I must say that the UBI programs that I’ve seen articulated — I think it’s important not to talk in the abstract, but look at the programs that Andy Stern or Charles Murray is writing down there — they don’t look to me like they really afford people all the resources they would need to explore much in terms of entrepreneurship.

For that I think you just need much more liquid credit markets and the ability of people to access those markets. Perhaps they need a backstop, a loan guarantee if they don’t have the wealth or the resources or the networks to collateralize the loans they need. I probably approach that more through credit markets than through a UBI.

In terms of the work things: one of the things I don’t know that I have mentioned is I’m pretty sensitive to two aspects of this debate. One is that, the US approach to anti-poverty policy has consistently become more and more oriented towards work. Now again, this is a trend that you could decide to accept in your policy taking or push back on.

But there are many aspects of that trend that makes sense to me. I started out about 150 years ago in this business as a social worker in New York City and ever since then, and since then I’ve recognized that a lot of people particularly low income people raising kids really want to have a good, secure, high quality remunerative jobs.

The problem that many of them face is sometimes inadequate skills, but just as often, inadequate demand for labor. One of the things that really sticks in my craw in this debate is this conservative mantra that all you have to do to get a good job is to want a good job. The only thing it’s holding you back is you’re lazy, or you’re dependent on welfare programs. The demand side of the labor market, the opportunities and availability of good jobs, that’s something that I’ve been very sensitive to, the insufficient numbers of throughout my work. That motivates me in that space.

Jim: It seems like on one hand, we have some people who may not currently have access to a job who really want one, but on the other hand, there may be people who are interested in entrepreneurship or engaging in labor that isn’t paid in today’s economy. Could there be some hybrid model that actually can combine a jobs guarantee and a negative income tax in order to be serving both of those populations?

Jared: There could be, but I think one of the things you’ll run into there is the income constraint that Jason Furman and I focused on at the Intelligence Square Debate. Again, I recognize that it’s a little squirrely to keep raising these political hurdles where you want to. I think that the job guarantee is more in sync — I’d say I know this — with anti-poverty policy, which is becoming more and more work oriented.

In that sense, while everything is a hugely heavy political lift, it’s less of a heavy political lift than a UBI. At least a UBI that’s not done in the Libertarian or Murray sense, which just undermines stuff we’re doing already. I think in a way you’re saying, the hybrid services “well, let’s do both.” If we had unlimited resources, I’d say, “yes, let’s do both and a bunch more too.” But in a world with constrained resources I’ve at least set my sights on a job guarantee, which I think is actually a pretty already ambitious and progressive program.

Perhaps, as in the child allowance case, which I view as not conditioned on work, and as you and I agreed earlier, that is certainly a step in the direction I think you want to take things. There may be other ways to go about that, maybe other ways to get at conditioning income not on work, but I’d say before I was too interested in a hybrid, a UBI attached to a job guarantee, I’d work on the job.

Jim: Alright, Jared, this has been great. Really appreciate you taking the time to chat. Anything else you’d like to add?

Jared: No. I think we’ve covered a lot of ground.

Jim: Great. Alright. Well, thank you again.

Owen: That was Jim Pugh and Jared Bernstein on the Basic Income Podcast. I think it’s pretty clear that Bernstein comes from a perspective of fighting for and defending these programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicare, food stamps. He’s defending them against people who often argue that they’re worthless and that we should just get rid of them. If we’re going to propose something big and new that might replace at least some of these programs, we do need to make the case that a basic income is an improvement on what we have now.

Jim: I think that’s exactly right. I think that there’s a fear of throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. I think it was clear also from the discussion that ultimately political viability is coming into play here. Despite generally talking outside the realm of what’s possible today, he had major concerns about how far from our current political thinking we actually get.

In some ways I think we’re coming at this from qualitatively different perspectives. Are we actually talking about something that feels more achievable with the way people think about things today, or are we talking about this North Star vision of where we ultimately want to end up, and then recognizing that it’s going to take us potentially decades to get there, but saying that that’s where we want to keep our eye, and see what steps we can take in that direction.

Owen: Honestly, I find the fact that we are maybe talking on a decade’s perspective to be liberating because we don’t need to be thinking about what is politically viable in the next five years. We need to be thinking about, what do we want going forward? What are the best policies? I think you can draw parallel to healthcare. There is a debate around, do we tweak and fix the system we have now, or do we move something towards something like universal healthcare?

I would think the basic income debate is pretty analogous. Do we improve systems like the Earned Income Tax Credit, or do we move toward this North Star vision of a basic income for everyone?

Jim: One thing that basic income supporters may have noticed is that we never actually talked about automation during our conversation. That was actually quite intentional.

Automation came up during the Intelligence Squared Debate, and there was just complete lack of alignment. Bernstein isn’t sold that automation is going to have a drastic impact on the workspace that we have today and that there will be new jobs created. I mean, we could have gone back and forth on that, but we’re really not going to come to any sort of consensus there. When we do start to see a drastic impact from automation and when you can really feel that more tangibly, I think that is going to lead to a different conversation. But it’s not one that we are really going to be able to get to a conclusion on where we are today.

Owen: And again, I would just take that zoomed out perspective. I think 10, 20 years from now this automation conversation is going to be quite different, and we do need to be thinking about how we might prepare for that if certain predictions come true about just how intelligent artificial intelligence is going to get.

Jim: I think for me really the big takeaway here is, even though Bernstein was skeptical about it, it seems like these aren’t competing policy, jobs guarantee and basic income.

If you’re looking at basic income and your motivation is really guaranteeing economic security, we’re fighting for the same things here. I worry about setting these up as head to head contestants because I think that if we’re actually pushing for big policies that aim towards that value of making sure everyone has enough to get by, we can be open minded here, and we can think about different scenarios. What are situations where guaranteed employment might be really attractive to people, and what are situations where an unconditional payment that opens up opportunities and spaces that really haven’t existed before actually could be the game changer that many us think it is?

Owen: All right. That’ll do it for this week’s episode of the Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer Erick Davidson. I encourage you to subscribe on iTunes, and please do leave a rating or a review while you’re there. It’ll help other people find the podcast. See you next week.

2 thoughts on “Jared Bernstein on Basic Income vs. a Jobs Guarantee

  1. Michael Keith

    The main concern with basic income is how do you fund it? The Non-Tax Dollar has an idea that could make it possible without costing the taxpayers. The government could use it’s own cryptocurrency, if done in proper stages. Visit nontaxdollar.com to see how proper implementation could work!

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