The right to a job

by Herb Engstrom
22nd Assembly District member of the Santa Clara County Democratic Central Committee

15 August 2010


On January 11, 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered what became his last State of the Union speech.  In it he proposed that the United States should have, in addition to its political Bill of Rights, an economic Bill of Rights.  The very first of his proposed rights was "the right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or farms or mines of the nation."


Today, after more than 66 years, we have not only failed to realize Roosevelt's vision, we are failing even to consider its possibility.  It is long past time for a change in our political mind-set.


Of course, FDR had a realistic view of the possibility of providing a job as an inherent right.  At the time of his speech America was at the peak of its productivity due to the need for materiel required by World War II.  There was full employment and even a labor shortage despite or perhaps even because of the fact that some 10% of the population was in uniform engaged in economically nonproductive activities.  Consider how much benefit would accrue to the American people if similar effort were made in the peacetime activities related to education, infrastructure, agriculture, health, environment, leisure, entertainment, and many other areas.


We can hear the objections already. "Who would provide these jobs and how?"


To answer these questions we must realize that rights exist only because they are written into law and enforced by the government.  We Americans enjoy such rights as freedom of speech, the press, and assembly because they are written into the first amendment of the Constitution.  If government is responsible for securing the right to a job, it follows that government must be enabled and required to provide that job; that is, the federal government can and should be the employer of last resort.  This is similar to what Roosevelt's programs enacted during the Great Depression and again World War II did.  Surely there are plenty of things to do at all levels of people's education, experience, and ability.


"But this would bankrupt the country!" scream the pessimists, but as we will see, providing universal employment will ultimately pay for itself and then some.


Under the current system, when a person loses his or her job, we, the taxpayers, provide temporary unemployment compensation for such people whose daily activity then becomes searching for jobs, which, for the most part, do not exist.  We should use those same funds to provide, in FDR's words, "a useful and remunerative job" instead.  There are many exigencies that could be met by such employment.


Just one critical need is for universal child care.  There are many single mothers who cannot even accept available employment, simply because there is no other person to care for their children.   We can and should begin training the teachers of child care providers, and these providers could include many of those unemployed single moms.  Doing so could have the added benefit of providing very young children with a stimulating educational environment unencumbered by mindless, continual television viewing.


Infrastructure has also been woefully neglected.  Improvements to it are an area where less skilled and less educated workers can be provided with jobs.  Repairing highways and bridges, dredging harbors, and preserving wetlands are only a few of the many things that need attention.


One need in particular deserves emphasis.  Forecasts indicate that within the next decade or two we will experience a shortage of oil, not even to mention the deleterious effects of carbon dioxide emissions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.  This shortage will render much air travel and even highway transportation by vehicles powered by internal combustion engines prohibitively expensive.  Railroad trains, by contrast, can be run as they now are in much of the developed world by electricity, which can be generated from renewable resources.  To anticipate the coming scarcity of oil we should begin a massive program of modernization of our railroads to include electrification and high speed rail.  Such a project would entail an enormous number of jobs.


Another source of critically important work is those many jobs that have been relocated overseas due to severely flawed tax and trade policies.  These policies must be revised in such a way as to make it economically advantageous for American companies to bring these home and to retain existing domestic jobs.  Many, if not most, of those jobs are in the manufacturing sector, which has been shrinking in the U.S. for several decades.  America requires a healthy manufacturing base in such areas as steel, energy, shipbuilding, aircraft, transportation, and supporting industries the loss of which constitutes a clear threat to national security.  Most of those jobs could be provided, as they now are, by the private sector.


There is literally no end of improvements we could make to our transportation, health facilities, schools, parks, water ways, and more.  We now have, officially, about 10% unemployment, not even counting many more of the unemployed who have given up looking for jobs.  This, too, does not make sense.  Let's put these people to work.  The federal government should be ready with a list of outstanding, ready-to-go projects so that the newly unemployed could be put to work immediately when the need arises.


Now let us consider further the costs involved.  It is widely accepted that consumer spending is the engine of a robust, prosperous economy.  Conversely, when events occur that frighten consumers into holding back, the economy slows down, and recession often follows.  But from an economic standpoint, there is no difference between spending by consumers or by the government.


Many skeptics argue that we cannot simultaneously 1) maintain a high level of government services; 2) have low taxes; and 3) balance the federal budget (although we did all three during the Clinton administration).  The skeptics are wrong.  We can again achieve all three goals by widening the tax base.  How?  The key is to realize that money spent represents human labor.  All our gold, dollars, stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments are worthless unless there are human beings willing to trade their labor for these things.  It follows that wealth is created only by people at work in productive jobs.  Furthermore, if the government invests in such productive jobs at adequate pay, we taxpayers recoup some of our investment through taxes paid by the newly employed and by the multiplier effect of those people spending the money that they have earned.


The government need not even hire every single unemployed person but only a rather small fraction of them.  When these people are brought into the productive economy, they will have money to spend thereby creating jobs in the private sector.  Those jobs will lead to the creation of even more jobs in a virtuous circle of an expanding economy.


There is yet another advantage to having a right to a job.  Universal guaranteed employment will maintain consumer confidence, because Americans will know they can rely on an income.  A decline in consumer confidence invariably triggers a run on the stock market, which obviously has many negative consequences for the economy.  Thus, guaranteed employment will do much to stabilize the stock market on which so many retirees depend for their incomes.


At this time of TEA Party hysteria, Fox News mendacity, and GOP hypocrisy a government guarantee of universal employment might seem like a radical idea, although it seemed not to be so to Franklin Roosevelt.  We should therefore bear in mind another of his admonitions:  "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."