Hamilton (New School) & Darity (Duke) on a "Federal Job Guarantee"...

Darrick Hamilton (New School)

Darrick Hamilton (New School)

William Darity Jr. and Darrick Hamilton, Full Employment and the Job Guarantee:  An All-American Idea, in Full Employment and Social Justice 195-204 (Eds. Murray, M. & Forstater, M.) (Palgrave Macmillan, December 2017)

Sandy Darity and Darrick Hamilton are two of the leading proponents of a “Federal Job Guarantee” where Americans (citizens?) who want to work are entitled to a job provided by the federal government, should the private sector stock prove insufficient.  In this piece, they retrace the history of the idea to show that it has been supported by a wide array of interests, from avowed racists such as Huey Long, as well as civil rights icons like Bayard Rustin.  Administrative law professors such as myself may recall Thurgood Marshall’s dissent in Board of Regents v. Roth (1972) expresses his belief that citizens have a property and liberty right in federal employment.  Sadie Tanner Alexander, the first black woman to receive a Ph.D in economics, the Caucus of Black Economists and other highly respected figures have endorsed the idea.  Now that wealth and income inequality has become a topic of scholarly and popular conversation, progressive programs from the New Deal era may be re-booted.

According to Darity and Hamilton, two-thirds of black folks support a federal job guarantee.  While the economic benefits seem obvious, I want to express a few concerns that would be outside the obvious conservative’ criticisms—concerns which I must concede are beyond the scope of this Darity and Hamilton piece.  Because the proposal is not new and has been explored by several top scholars over the last century, the answer to those I pose have probably been presented elsewhere.  I’ll do the research later. 

I assume the typical conservative arguments would focus on how such a program would be ‘inefficient’ on several counts, crowding out private businesses from lucrative markets, inefficiency of performance, federal expense in times of budgetary deficits.  These are not just distractions to prevent a more equitable system, they are legitimate concerns, ones I also assume have answers.  It would be helpful if the responses were more widely published and promoted.  For example, why is the availability of military service not sufficient, and does not the internal federal workforce become a standing army with the same hazards/abuses?

As an administrative law professor, I have studied the mechanics of federal bureaucracy in some detail and I am very concerned about putting officials appointed for their political loyalty in charge of important institutions with millions of workers.  If the federal government had been expanded over the last century through the federal job guarantee, Presidents like the current one will have the authority to direct their actions in ways that can be extremely harmful, not just to the sanctity of an efficient market, but also in ways that hurt economic minorities.  Even so-called independent agencies are subject to political influence from each branch of government—legislative, judicial and executive.  One would hope the judiciary would be an impartial supervisor, but that is not possible for myriad reasons we don’t have time to discuss here.

As a critical race theorist and black nationalist, I’d want to be more certain how programs like these will be held to racially equitable standards and actions.  Consider the national trend towards policing for profit, where law enforcement all across the country are increasing their number and levying ubiquitous fines and fees and forfeitures disproportionately on people of color.  Increasing state and federal government’s capacity to create sophisticated ‘slave patrols’ does not interest me.  Jeff Sessions in charge of a greater Justice Department.  Betsy DeVos in charge of an expanded Department of Education with, presumably, greater reach and influence on all of our children because of its much grander personnel.  How do proponents of the federal job guarantee ensure that racially problematic presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump do not allow their Executive Officers with an internal standing army to run amok on black folks?

Charles Mills considers the United States a Herrenvolk Democracy, meaning the rights to life liberty and property are meant for those in the highest class.  This is ‘classic Greek democracy’.  While a federal guarantee would be promoted as universal, we know that there will be surreptitious ways to disproportionately exclude Black folks from the benefits.  As much as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal is credited with being progressive from both a class and race standpoint, agricultural and domestic workers (of all races) were excluded from Social Security benefits, thereby the excluding a super-majority of black workers at the time.

What about wage slavery?  The 13th Amendment’s prohibition of slavery cannot be skirted by paying employees a single penny in compensation.  In effect, the 13th Amendment is our first minimum wage law, although its minimum standards were left to judicial interpretation.  There is a moral line between work and slavery that precedes a legal one, so how can we be satisfied that this expanded federal workforce will in all times, good or bad, pay enough to avoid the charge of wage slavery—a charge that is being leveled at companies today who fulfill their obligation to pay the minimum wage.  If the federal government doesn’t pay its lowest ranking workers enough to get across the Monopoly board without going bankrupt or to Jail, then does the federal government own slaves? 

Last, there is a newer proposal for simply “basic income”, where citizens simply get paid to be law-abiding citizens, with no work required.  It would be as if everyone in America would receive welfare, regardless whether they needed it or not.  From there, citizens can use their time productively in private or public affairs.  Can ‘basic income’ do the same things a federal job guarantee promises without the administrative and bureaucratic headaches and concerns?  – DreSmith