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A Second Look at Bernie Sanders' Federal Job Guarantee Program

When one thinks of Bernie Sanders' federal job guarantee proposal, one may be inclined to associate it with Louis Blanc's The Organization of Labor, the 1839 socialist tract, which supposedly introduced the idea of a "right to work". But one can also find this "right to work" idea in classical republican theorists like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.

Thomas Paine says in Rights of Man, part 2, that the government should ensure "[e]mployment at all times for the casual poor." And Thomas Jefferson says in a 1785 letter to Madison, "The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. If for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided to those excluded from appropriation." That is to say, if we allow some men to own the land so that others cannot just freely live off the land, we have to guarantee employment to those who are deprived of ownership. Both of these American Founding Fathers speak of a "right to work." In Franklin Delano Roosevelt's famous Second Bill of Rights, he speaks of "[t]he right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation."

A version of the job guarantee idea was also supported by Martin Luther King Jr. in an essay, where he declares: "We need an economic bill of rights. This would guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work. It would also guarantee an income for all who are not able to work. Some people are too young, some are too old, some are physically disabled, and yet in order to live, they need income."

The idea of a "right to work" is not some leftist or socialist idea imported into American politics; it is a deeply American idea. Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. all believed in a right to employment. All of which seems like it would make good propaganda for Bernie's federal job guarantee proposal. I'm actually surprised that I've never heard anyone cite any of the Founding Fathers on this.

I am primarily an Andrew Yang supporter and I have great reservations about Bernie Sanders' federal job guarantee proposal. Nevertheless, I recognize — assuming that the program is successfully passed and effectively administered — that it would greatly benefit me and others like me. I recognize that this policy proposal has its merits as well as its flaws.

Let's start with the flaws. Bernie's minimum wage hike and job guarantee would work together to put virtually all small businesses out of business. The typical response from Bernie and his supporters is the one given in the above screenshot: "If you can't afford to pay a living wage, you don't deserve to own a business." Of course, the Bernie stans who say this seldom stop to realize that such an assertion is coterminous with this one: "Only rich people deserve to own businesses." Many small businesses cannot afford to pay their employees more than twice what they are now paying them. More than doubling the minimum wage overnight will certainly put most small businesses out of business. And the small businesses that survive will have to lay off some of their employees so that they can afford to pay the remaining ones more. Some people will become unemployed as a result of the wage hike and the distribution of ownership of private industry will skew even more towards the wealthy. This would be the death knell for the ownership economy that the Founding Fathers envisioned for America. Ownership will be concentrated almost entirely in the hands of the rich and the government. Those who are displaced by the collapse of small business will, of course, gain employment elsewhere through the federal job guarantee program, but this doesn't change the fact that big business will continue to thrive while small businesses are destroyed. As a neo-republican and a proponent of property-owning democracy (or republican distributism), I believe that this is the opposite of the direction in which we ought to be moving. Small businesses ought to be subsidized and widespread ownership ought to be encouraged. Bernie's policy will have the opposite effect.

A better proposal, in my estimation, would be to implement a universal basic income (or guaranteed minimum income). This would subsidize the income of low-wage workers who happen to work for small businesses that can't afford to pay a living wage. This would bring the workers all up to an income sufficient to live on and would do so without ruining all small businesses in the process. Andrew Yang's freedom dividend happens to be just such a proposal, which is why I am supporting Yang for President in 2020.

It's worth noting that, while both Paine and Dr. King supported a job guarantee, they supported it in conjunction with a universal basic income. It is my conviction that a job guarantee, if it is implemented, needs to be implemented after, and in addition to, a universal basic income. It should also be noted that while Jefferson and Paine did speak of a "right to work" and suggest that the government should take action on the matter, neither of them specifically suggested that it should be done by the federal government. In Jefferson's estimation, providing work and wages for the unemployed was a job for local municipal governments. Given the financial constraints of local and state governments, such decentralized jobs programs are probably doomed to fail in the modern economy.

For the time being, I will forego a broader critique of Bernie's federal job guarantee proposal. The particular proposal is rooted in the ideas of MMT economists, most of whom — with the notable exception of Michael Hudson — are particularly nefarious, intentionally deceptive, and intellectually dishonest. I will critique the MMT federal job guarantee proposal in detail in a later post. I am also foregoing the discussion of the more wonky arguments for a federal job guarantee (e.g. it being an automatic economic stabilizer) until my next post.

While I recognize that Bernie's federal job guarantee proposal is not ideal, I also recognize that it could potentially loosen the hold of wage slavery on people like myself. The two major planks of Bernie's platform are Medicare for All (M4A) and his Federal Job Guarantee (FJG) program. These two programs together would greatly reduce the burden of wage slavery. We'd still be wage slaves, but we'd be relatively more free in a liberal sense, if not in a republican sense. I'm currently stuck working for an employer that I don't particularly care to work for. At one point, I had $30k in the bank. It would have been nice to take a year off work to "find myself." But, health insurance is linked to employment. I also knew that as my money dwindled down I'd have to find another job; and, finding new employment in the shitty post-recession economy seemed uncertain at best. Consequently, the fear and uncertainty of being able to find new employment and of being uninsured forced me to remain with my current employer. I never took my year off work. If we had had M4A and FJG, the fears that coerced me into wage slavery would not have existed. If Bernie's proposed policies had been in place, I could easily have taken a year off work to delve into meditation, martial arts, spirituality, and travel. Of course, I'd still be a wage slave because eventually, after funds diminished, wage-work would be my only option again. Nevertheless, the burden of wage-slavery would be lessened. I do have doubts about implementation. Bernie's FJG will be hard to administer and, when the GOP is in power, they'll probably sabotage it just like they did ObamaCare. Andrew Yang's universal basic income proposal would be much easier to implement and much harder to sabotage. It would be easy to implement because it could be implemented using the Social Security framework that already exists and it would be hard for Republicans to sabotage because the GOP base would be major beneficiaries of the program.

Andrew Yang's platform — Medicare for All (M4A) plus Universal Basic Income (UBI) — is genuinely better. It is more emancipatory (in both a liberal and in a republican sense). Also, it helps small businesses and will move us in a more libertarian and decentralized direction. This sits well with my left-libertarian leanings. As a civic republican and a proponent of property-owning democracy, I believe that property-ownership ought to be widely distributed throughout society. Yang's plan would instantly transform the crony capitalist system into a republican distributist property-owning democracy, re-aligning America with the vision of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson.

Andrew Yang's universal basic income proposal assumes that the Free Enterprise System created by the American Government is the property of the American people and so all Americans ought properly to have a share of ownership in the system. When corporations become immensely successful and profits soar, they give their shareholders a dividend. Yang's freedom dividend is analogous to that. If GDP or GDI is seen as the national wealth, then it can be said that each citizen as a shareholder of the nation is due a dividend as their share. It may be objected that a nation is not a corporation, but I'm not so sure the Founding Fathers would agree with that sentiment. The Founding Fathers admired company rule in India, which is why the American flag is based on the flag of the East India Company. The nation is a company or corporation in the truest sense of the term — it is a co-operative association of individuals for productive purposes, much more so than are capitalistic fictions like Microsoft or Coca-Cola.

I'm a philosophical conservative, a liberal-republican, and a proponent of property-owning democracy. Property-owning democracy, or distributism, is when industry is privately owned but ownership is widespread. Socialism is when private-ownership is abolished altogether. Capitalism is when a few individuals privately own the majority of industry and the masses are enslaved within a wage-labor market. Andrew Yang's platform is the one that leads toward property-owning democracy directly by making all people shareholders of the nation's wealth. The problem with Bernie's platform is not that it is socialist but that it will actually solidify and entrench capitalism further. If successfully implemented, Bernie's plan will actually stabilize the capitalist system. (This will be covered in my next post where I will analyze the job guarantee proposal in detail.) Yang's plan, if successfully implemented, would lead us beyond capitalism towards a truly republican property-owning democracy.

Honestly, there's nothing particularly socialist about Bernie Sanders' platform. There's nothing in his platform that the American Founding Fathers didn't support to some extent or another. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton supported an early version of single-payer healthcare and socialized medicine. In 1798, the Founding Fathers passed legislation that (1) established a mandatory payroll tax on privately employed sailors, which was to fund health insurance for those sailors, and (2) established government-owned hospitals at port cities. The first single-payer system and the first socialized medicine system, as far as I have been able to discern, was created by the American Founding Fathers. (Cf. Rick Ungar, Congress Passes Socialized Medicine and Mandates Health Insurance — In 1798 and Thomas Jefferson Also Supported Government Run Health Care) Even now, we have single-payer healthcare in America (e.g. Medicare) and socialized medicine (e.g. Veterans Health Administration). Candidates like Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang are merely proposing an expansion of programs that already exist. Nordic model social democracy aligns well with the ideas of our Founding Fathers and is far more American than the GOP and Fox News would like for us to believe.

If Bernie Sanders gets the Democratic Party nomination, he will get my vote. However, I fully support Andrew Yang and believe that Yang's platform is infinitely better than Bernie's. I am an Andrew Yang supporter and I will hold out for the candidate with the best policies unless/until the Democratic Party chooses someone else as its nominee. As a philosophic conservative and a civic republican, I see Andrew Yang as the most conservative choice. Yet, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, Bernie Sanders is the second most conservative candidate out there. Let's not forget that the welfare state was not created by radical socialists but rather by conservatives like Otto von Bismarck who realized that these measures were necessary in order to stabilize a system that was becoming inherently unstable. Normally, someone like Pete Buttigieg or Joe Biden would be more conservative than Sanders, but times of crisis require radical changes in order to conserve the system. The conservatism of a Biden or Buttigieg, in my opinion, would do nothing to improve the precarious position of the masses — their failure to make radical changes would result in more political unrest and lead to populist and insurrectionist movements gaining more traction.

My greatest fear with Bernie is that the far-right media (e.g. Fox, Breitbart, etc.) will give nothing but negative press coverage and will so thoroughly brainwash the rightwing populace that it will cause a backlash following his Presidency similar to the anti-Obama backlash that got Trump elected. Andrew Yang would be far more difficult for them to demonize.

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