Democrats have begun to realize that simply being the Party of Impeachment might not be enough to win back Congress in November, much less the White House in 2020. And so, they're getting desperate.
Midwestern Democratic politicians, in particular, are complaining that while banging on about Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe may be a big vote-getter in solid blue states such as California and New York, where the so-called "Resistance" continues to fantasize with froth and fury about President Trump's eventual downfall, the Mueller talk doesn't play quite as well in Missouri and Ohio. America is bigger than the audience of MSNBC's Morning Joe. BuzzFeed quotes one frustrated Democratic county party chair in Ohio as saying that while Trump "keeps talking about jobs and the economy ... we talk about Russia."
Of course, one alternative to being the Party of Impeachment is to become the Party of Ideas. And it's not as if Dems and progressive activists haven't been trying to come up with a catchy, compelling economic agenda for post-financial crisis America. The left is desperately searching for a killer idea that would give middle-class voters something aspirational to vote for. Surely they can come up with something with more political oomph and policy substance than Trump's megawall with Mexico.
There was, for instance, the "Fight for the 15," the effort to boost the national minimum wage to $15 an hour. Then, during the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton vowed to combat corporate "short-termism," the idea that the private sector was too focused on short-term profits. More recently, left-wing wonks have been touting various universal basic income schemes to prepare for when robots take all of our jobs. But such a guaranteed income scheme is surely a bridge too far for most mainstream politicians. Joe Biden, for example, has dismissed the idea as a "no-strings-attached check from the government … pushed by some leaders in Silicon Valley."
Now the idea of the moment is a federal guarantee of employment. It's sort of the backup plan to the basic income. If the government won't promise to just give you money, at least they can promise to give you work and pay you for it.
Unlike the UBI, a jobs guarantee already has some mojo, thanks to support from several Democratic senators who are likely presidential contenders: Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders. And if a candidate runs on a big idea, it is likely that they will try to push for it if elected.
But the jobs guarantee is an undercooked policy idea that still needs a bit more time in the oven. The proposals floating around promise annual salaries averaging around $32,500, with another $10,000 or so in benefits. According to the 2016 census, there are nearly 50 million Americans working at full-time jobs earning less than that right now. So a jobs guarantee wouldn't just appeal to the roughly 6.5 million Americans currently unemployed, but nearly eight times that figure. This could wreak havoc on the private-sector labor market, as small firms unable to offer their employees comparable wages and benefits might face a worker exodus.
And there are other problems. It's far from clear what jobs all the Americans signing up for this program would do. Subsidizing low value make-work seems inevitable. Nudging millions of workers from private-sector occupations into guaranteed jobs of perhaps iffy value with barely an incentive to even avoid fireable offenses is a recipe for sapping the economy of much of its dynamism.
But the jobs guarantee, for all its faults, is further evidence of a bigger problem. Ideas should grow out of an accurate diagnosis of a problem that demands a public policy solution. This isn't 2008, the nadir of the Great Recession. The economy doesn't seem to be stuck at a permanently high level of unemployment, whether due to automation or other theories, such as secular stagnation. The hangover from the financial crisis has faded and unemployment has plunged. Yet Democrats seem not to have noticed because, you know, Trump. Indeed, the jobless rate may be headed to levels not seen since just after World War II. The U.S. economy still appears plenty capable of churning out gobs of jobs.
Now, the jobs guarantee ideas isn't just about jobs for all. It's also about forcing a higher wage floor on the U.S. private sector. If the government promises to pay a good wage, companies will have to do the same ... right?
No. The best way to generate higher wage growth isn't through government mandate, but through higher productivity (better worker training, more science investment, housing and labor market deregulation, etc), which has been weak for more than a decade. And if we need higher productivity — and we do — it seems weird to ponder dismantling and heavily regulating tech titans such as Google and Amazon, which are America's most productive companies. But that is exactly what some left-wing activists are itching to do.
The GOP likes to call itself the Party of Ideas, and with some historical justification. An agenda of lower taxes and fewer regulations made a lot of sense back in the 1980s. It flowed out of an analysis of the stagflationary economic conditions at the time. Unfortunately, the GOP seems to want to stick to that agenda till the bitter end, even as it becomes less relevant, which is a mistake. But Democrats seem to be making an error of their own. In a desperate scramble to stand for something, anything, they are reaching for radical solutions to problems that aren't particularly pressing — if they even exist at all.