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Bernie Sanders’ latest jobs plan is a political fantasy, but also a fantasy insofar as he imagines such a program could improve job market outcomes and the U.S. economy. Sanders wants the government to guarantee a job to anyone who is unemployed and pay them a wage of $15 an hour. But what job roles will be identified and by whom? Will the unemployed be required to accept these jobs or else lose other benefits? Which unemployed workers will come forward voluntarily for “workfare”? What will qualify them for particular roles? How many public-sector workers will be diverted from their existing responsibilities to administer the program and manage these new workers? How much will the program cost? How will the above-market wages and administration of the program be funded? These questions deal only with the first-order mechanics of the Sanders proposal. What will be the second-order effects on the private economy?

Scott Shackford delves into these and other gory consequences that are likely under the Sanders plan, most of which should be obvious to anyone with a modicum of economic literacy. Apparently, that does not include the so-called economists at the Levy Economics Institute at Bard College, who produced a “study” on guarantees of public sector jobs that manages to prove their ignorance of basic economic principles.

The headline for this proposal is about jobs, but the real motive is to impose wage controls through the backdoor. The plan is announced at a time of full employment (now 4.1%), traditionally defined as an unemployment rate of roughly 4%. That level accounts for “frictional unemployment”, which recognizes that job transitions and the normal market process of matching worker skills with jobs are not instantaneous. It’s true that certain segments of the labor force typically experience higher than average unemployment. So Perhaps i should give Bernie the benefit of the doubt by stipulating that the program is geared toward addressing cyclical and structural unemployment, or that it’s intended to benefit minorities. But if the goal is to keep everyone working all the time, it is impossible in view of the informational frictions, skill mismatches, and mobility issues that characterize the labor market. Workers would have difficulty conducting a job search were they employed in Sanders workfare program, and that sacrifice would be particularly costly for skilled workers seeking employment at wages greater than $15/hour.

Again, all “guaranteed” jobs under the Sanders plan are to pay a wage of at least $15/hour. Low-skilled workers whose productivity is not consistent with such a wage can thumb their noses at private employers. Either pay your low-skilled workers $15 or lose them. This is Sanders’ way of implementing a de facto federal minimum wage without actually requiring employers to pay that rate by diktat. Of course, under the plan, the taxpayer is on the hook for the excess of wage payments over and above the value of these workers’ productive contributions. The bulk of those workers lack the skills and job experience to contribute value commensurate with that wage rate, and sometimes they lack even the temperament and comportment necessary to make a sufficient contribution to output, or to keep steady work absent the gift of a wage from government.

But that’s not the worst of it: Sanders’ program is cloaked in terms suggesting that it would have countercyclical effects: government hiring would increase in association with increases in the unemployment rate, and vice versa, or so we are told. But “vice versa” is a stretch: government programs have a tendency to be self-perpetuating. And this program creates instability by allowing government to compete for workers on a distorted basis. The private sector will lose workers as the government gains workers. The tax bill and its burden on the private sector will lead to business failures, still fewer private workers, and still more public-sector workfare. And as the government displaces private activity, good luck to consumers finding the plentiful goods and services to which they are accustomed. The Sanders program is a prescription for economic and social decline.

Public sector competition for workers under Sander’s plan would be distorted because work would be assigned by special interests, not by market demand. Bob Bryan of The Business Insider has the following details:

Sanders’ plan would create 12 districts within the US that would approve jobs plans from municipalities, states, and American Indian tribal governments and then pass those plans along to the Labor Department for final approval.”

Thus, a new administrative layer of government, 12 districts, would be created wielding the authority to winnow the pool of projects for a new category of spending. In the parlance of public budgeting, this spending would be called an “entitlement” because the spending would be programmatic rather than discretionary. State and local governments would create wish lists, and their wishes would then be constrained by the decisions of district authorities and the Labor Department. Those decisions, however, would very likely be responsive to special interests. Like most administrative decisions, the spending allocations would be guided by politics, not economics.

Shackford quotes the Levy Institute:

A local artist collective employs painters, actors, musicians, and stage hands to run year-round productions for the community. They organize school outreach programs, run summer camps, and offer free art, music, and literacy classes for disadvantaged/special needs youths. They collaborate with local schools in offering art enrichment programs.”

Those aren’t Sanders words, but he might well entertain such notions. Should we all just agree that the government ought to tax us more heavily and spend the proceeds on supporting local, “unemployed” artists (I use quotes because many artists are not fully employed at their art for lack of demand, and they often work at other jobs from which they would quickly separate given a flow of government funds for their art). Usually those who insist on such things belong to the very interests who would benefit from the programs. One can argue that the “external benefits” of the arts justify public expenditure, but there is no objective measure of those benefits, and those who benefit directly will always want more. Therefore, the Sanders program, like so many other public initiatives, would violate standards of governmental fiduciary duty to taxpayers.

What about construction and repair of public infrastructure? Those projects should be chosen and initiated on their merits and on taxpayers’ willingness to fund them, not because there are people unemployed at the moment. What’s more, construction and maintenance of infrastructure requires various levels of skills that might not be readily available in a pool of unemployed workers.

Regardless of the specifics, the jobs program promoted by Sanders substitutes a wholly unrelated goal, jobs, for the underlying rationale of particular projects. As such, Sanders’ proposal would provide opportunities for special interests to collect rents without a programatic justification for the expense to taxpayers. Shackford says:

… the examples in the Levy study seem like descriptions of programs that certain types of local government-connected people with very particular ideas would like to see the government doing. Their plan leans heavily on the assumption that all these unemployed or underemployed people would happily do the grunt work that aligns with left-leaning environmental and public policy project goals. The report openly uses the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal as a model to support it. …

But how does one determine what a community needs while ignoring market responses? Why should taxpayers fund community plays if they have no interest in actually sitting through them? This report makes it very clear that the task falls to local public institutions and job centers, not market demands. That necessarily means it will be driven, much like this report is, by the interests of the people who are in charge of the programs or have the most influence over the programs. That these programs could end up as a corrupt breeding ground for government cronyism and nepotism in who gets assigned for which jobs is utterly absent from the study.

Here is more from Bryan:

“The plan would also utilize job training centers to train and connect workers with jobs on the new projects.”

This is either another new agency or a demand on private job training organizations. Presumably the training would be free to the trainee, in addition to the $15/hour paid during the training period. I would have fewer objections to an explicit job training program than to the sprawling job-making and wage-paying authority called for in Sanders’ plan. Unfortunately, the absence of apprentice wage levels in the U.S. often eliminates the best training of all: on-the-job training.

Shackford wonders whether workers hired under the program could ever be fired for cause:

I mean, given how hard it is to fire bad teachers or dangerous cops, it’s worth wondering whether people who get these jobs will continue to get paid if they fail to show up for their job trimming the hedges of their community skate park or surveying people about their food insecurities. (According to the Post, Sanders’ plan calls for something sinisterly called the Division of Progress Investigation to handle discipline.)

The program could employ as many as 15 million people if the Levy Institute study can be taken as a guide. That would represent a huge increase in government employment. Presumably, the burden would be spread across federal, state and local governments, all of which are facing degrees of fiscal crisis.

Bernie Sanders’ jobs program is ill-defined, but we know enough about it to safely conclude that it is economically preposterous. It will compete with job search activity that is necessary to the function of the labor market; lure low-skill workers away from their current employers, or indeed from their highest valued uses; require massive public borrowing and ultimately higher taxes; compromise other functions of government by diluting fundamental program goals and diverting human and other resources; place further strain on government budgets at all levels; lead to business failures; and lead to a permanently larger role for government in the economy. Governments, of course, do not operate under market discipline, so the program would degrade the overall productive potential of the U.S. economy. 

As David Byrge, aka Iowahawk, says about Sanders:

Who better to get America back to work than a guy who was actually fired from a Vermont hippie commune for being too lazy.”

For a fairly thorough compendium of Sanders’ policy proposals over the years, here is Matt Welch on “Bernie’s Bad Ideas“.