Put ‘Full Employment’ Back On The National Agenda

Isaiah J. Poole

It seems so basic. Our number one priority should be doing everything we can to ensure that every American who wants a job can get one – in other words, full employment. Yet the very phrase “full employment” is treated as something that would be uttered only by wild-eyed radicals.

It’s time to mainstream the term – and the meaning behind it.

That’s why the new book by economists Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein, “Getting Back to Full Employment: A Better Bargain for Working People,” is so important. Rather than an anomaly that we haven’t seen since the late 1990s, when unemployment rates were falling toward 4 percent, Baker and Bernstein write, “Full employment can be a regular feature of the policy landscape, with tremendous benefits for rising living standards, poverty reduction, the federal budget, and equitable economic growth.”

In this interview, Baker, from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, explains the importance of “getting back” to a concept and a reality that conservatives have pulled the country away from.

Bernstein, a former White House economic adviser who is now with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and Baker will be featured in a talk in Washington on Monday at Busboys and Poets, 5th and K Streets NW. The event is cosponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future. A paperback version of the book will be available for sale there. An electronic version is available as a free download.

Bernstein and Baker use the book to debunk some persistent myths about how achievable, and even how desirable, is a full-employment economy. They don’t buy the argument that the high unemployment we see today is “structural” – rooted in such factors as job-seekers not having the skills required to do the jobs that are available. It is true that we need to do a better job of preparing workers for the jobs of the future, they write. “But the U.S. economy is capable of producing many millions more jobs for workers at all skill levels and, were it to do so, workers who appear to the punditry to be unfit for work would be miraculously on the job.”

Nor do Baker and Bernstein buy the argument that it is more important to control inflation – or, more accurately, pander to the fear of inflation – that to foster the level of economic growth necessary to keep people working. They make the case that the Federal Reserve needs to be assiduously held accountable to the mandate that Congress gave it through the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act to be equally concerned about the impact of its decisions on job creation, and recognized that while keeping inflation low is important, there are times – and this era is one of those times – when we need to be more worried about the long-term damage high unemployment is doing to the country and not obsess over whether the inflation rate creeps over the Fed’s current 2 percent target.

Some of their ideas are the ones we’re familiar with – such as a substantial increase in infrastructure spending that would create both short-term demand and long-term growth and stability. Some are less orthodox; Baker has been a long-time proponent of encouraging job-sharing arrangements, longer vacations and other ways that would lead many workers to have shorter work weeks, on the theory that employers would have to hire more people if existing job-holders worked fewer hours.

But the core of the book’s message is this: “We believe there are few if any economic policy issues as important as full employment,” they write, but “today’s dysfunctional politics are doing nothing helpful to get us there. To the contrary, policymakers in advanced economies are embracing ‘austerity’ measure that push the other way. That is why it is important to lay out the case for full employment and the path for getting there.”

Bernstein and Baker have literally given us a gift by making the book available free of charge. Everyone who cares about addressing the unemployment crisis should download the book, get familiar with their arguments, and help make the case for a U-turn in the national debate over jobs and growth.

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