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Astral Codex Ten Podcast

May 19, 2018

Some Democrats angling for the 2020 presidential nomination have a big idea: a basic jobs guarantee, where the government promises a job to anybody who wants one. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders are all said to be considering the plan.

I’ve pushed for a basic income guarantee before, and basic job guarantees sure sound similar. Some thinkers have even compared the two plans, pointing out various advantages of basic jobs: it feels “fairer” to make people work for their money, maybe there’s a psychological boost from being productive, you can use the labor to do useful projects. Simon Sarris has a long and excellent article on “why basic jobs might fare better than UBI [universal basic income]”, saying that:

UBI’s blanket-of-money approach optimizes for a certain kind of poverty, but it may create more in the long run. Basic Jobs introduce work and opportunity for communities, which may be a better welfare optimization strategy, and we could do it while keeping a targeted approach to aiding the poorest.

I am totally against this. Maybe basic jobs are better than nothing, but I have an absolute 100% revulsion at the idea of implementing basic jobs as an alternative to basic income. Before getting into the revulsion itself, I want to bring up some more practical objections:

1. Basic jobs don’t help the disabled

Only about 15% of the jobless are your traditional unemployed people looking for a new job. 60% are disabled. Disability has doubled over the past twenty years and continues to increase. 

Experts disagree on how much of the rise in disability reflects deteriorating national health vs. people finding a way to opt out of an increasingly dysfunctional labor market, but everyone expects the the trend to continue. Any program aimed at the non-working poor which focuses on the traditionally unemployed but ignores the disabled is only dealing with the tip of the iceberg.