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The Future Is Now | The Nation

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The Future Is Now

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For Life and Liberty

About the Author

William Greider
William Greider
William Greider, a prominent political journalist and author, has been a reporter for more than 35 years for newspapers...

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You wouldn't know it from reading the newspapers, but substantial and often overwhelming majorities of Americans have repeatedly endorsed governing concepts that conventional politicians dismiss as radical or unrealistic: Universal healthcare. A job for everyone who wants to work, guaranteed by the government. Secure retirements. Stronger enforcement of environmental laws. Stronger defenses against encroaching corporate power. Union protection for workers against exploitative employers. The list goes on. These widely endorsed goals assume an activist government that nurtures people and society first, ahead of corporations and capital. Imagine a political agenda that sets out to give the people what they say they want.

The heart of the problem is the deterioration of work and wages. There are many other elements damaging the pursuit of life and liberty; but as old-school liberals always understood, if wages and working conditions are not moving in the right direction, you won't accomplish much toward healing other social injuries and disorders. What follows is a short list of provocative ideas meant to stimulate imaginations.

§ Repair wages. This should start with government acting as the "employer of last resort" and involves a large and permanent program of federally financed jobs, open to anyone ready and willing to work and closely integrated with skill training and education. For most workers, the public jobs would be temporary, a safe harbor until opportunities improve in private employment. What might the people do? Any work that helps address the vast inventory of unmet public needs--a broad program of public investment that rebuilds neighborhoods, reclaims ruined ecosystems or restores production. Local citizens and governments would choose the priorities, not Washington.

The most dramatic benefits would obviously accrue to the poor--injecting jobs with reliable (and legal) cash incomes into desolate urban and rural communities, a financial platform to stimulate private enterprise and redevelopment. Young people could hold part-time public jobs, conditioned on staying in school, and bring cash home to the family, while getting hands-on experience and productive skills--a powerful alternative to dead-end lives. The federal job guarantee would also bolster the broad working class: a new safety net for the people displaced by recessions, offshoring or corporate downsizing. Wages could be scaled upward for the public jobs, based on the skill levels involved, and the displaced industrial workers would have access to retraining.

Above all, a permanent program of public employment, properly conceived, would boost wages. It would mop up surplus labor (about two times larger than official unemployment) and create a new wage floor, generating upward pressure in the labor market. In a more bountiful era, this might seem unnecessary, even inflationary. But today's economy has things upside down: It proliferates the low-wage service jobs that cannot sustain families, while it gradually eliminates the high-wage manufacturing jobs that provide middle-class incomes. Public jobs, together with a sustained campaign to raise the minimum wage and other measures, would gradually shift the flow of rewards in the other direction.

Employers will not like this, obviously, and will argue that rising wages are bad for the economy--higher prices, lower profits. But is that really so? The steady deterioration of working-class wages over the past thirty years did not produce a healthier economy. Someone should ask working people whether they would choose cheaper prices at Wal-Mart or better incomes for themselves. The current labor market does indeed benefit the more affluent Americans who have been enriched by what happened to the price of labor. Now it is time to reverse the flow and heal the wounded--that is, restore a balanced prosperity.

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