The Job Guarantee and the Wilted Liberal Imagination

By Jack Meserve

Tagged Job GuaranteeLiberalismWPA

Vox’s Weeds podcast recently covered the job guarantee debate, and Matt Yglesias, Sarah Kliff, and Dylan Matthews were respectful but broadly skeptical of the idea. Kliff’s comments matched the tenor of the concerns well:

I get a little skeptical about that investment on the administrative side–in terms of standing up the jobs, making sure that somebody who comes into the “job store” is able to leave with a job, making sure that person actually gets to their job… it seems like there’s a lot of infrastructure that would have to exist around a program like this.

Yglesias sounded similar practical worries about the ability of the federal government to monitor partnerships with say, Mississippi, or to find suitable work for unskilled workers or ex-prisoners. This skepticism about government’s ability to perform complicated tasks is a common refrain in job guarantee criticism. Kevin Drum, advocating subsidizing private wages instead, wrote “a jobs subsidy does what government does best: it writes checks, which ordinary people then spend on whatever they want. A jobs guarantee, by contrast, does what government does worst: it specifies exactly where the money will be spent; what it will be spent on; who will get it; and what the rules are for allocating it.”

This attitude and the pessimistic presumptions underneath it are immensely frustrating, and the person who best explained that frustration was… Matt Yglesias, when he tweeted that “If they didn’t already exist, public libraries would strike people as the most outlandish left-wing idea.” This is also true of the post office (a public program to send any letter or package anywhere in the country for relatively little money), the national parks system (50+ government parks spanning 84 million acres), and a million other government achievements we all take for granted.

But more relevant to the job guarantee and the Kliff, Drum, et al. criticisms: the Works Progress Administration and related agencies during the 1930s. To employ millions of people and do many good things, they performed exactly the sort of complicated administrative and logistical work that is today declared impossible. Take my hometown of Rochester, NY. Over about 10 years, they:

If you browse Living New Deal, you’ll see that they were undertaking this level of public spending in hundreds of cities at once. They came up with plans, hired many millions of unemployed people, distributed grants, and did the work.  Productive public employment and work at a mass scale is not some theoretical impossibility dreamt up by goofy leftists: It all already happened. Government had the capacity to do this 80 years ago. Here’s the program for a Rochester art exhibit that that WPA arts center paid for:

Here’s the library, still part of the central system in Rochester:

Rundel Memorial Library, built 1932

Here’s the post office, from then and now:

East Rochester Post Office, left on Completion in 1937, right in 2009.

Here’s the extremely cool Art Deco fire department headquarters with carved stone firemen above the door:

Rochester Fire Department Headquarters, built 1936

You can’t say this kind of public work and employment is impossible if you’re living in a society built by it.

Few, if any, of those projects would have occurred under Drum’s program of writing checks to private individuals. Private individuals with private money don’t build post offices or parks or sewers or airports or libraries.

Something sad has happened to the liberal imagination, and it’s made too many liberals dreary and defeatist about the ability of government to do much of anything besides “write checks.” Proposing a network of government funded federal arts centers would have you laughed out of policy-making circles today, even though the WPA created 100 of those art centers nationwide, along hundreds of others similar projects for music, writing, and theater. I’m not lying, here’s another poster:


Why don’t liberals (and some leftists) think any of this is possible today? It could be that we’ve had too many failures like Maybe it’s that “decent and aesthetically pleasing places to live” can’t be plugged into an economists’ cost-benefit analysis or made into an interactive chart. But you can’t build a country or a society that people actually live in on earned-income tax credits and wage subsidies. Government needs to do more than that.

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Jack Meserve is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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