Skip to content
View Featured Image

Why Full Employment Was A Great Idea, But Is No More

Above Photo: Supporters of the Hawkins-Humphrey bill, including Jesse Jackson, march near the White House on January 15, 1975. Thomas J. O’Halloran, U.S. News & World Report.

You Can’t Swim the Same River Twice.

Had it been fully implemented the Hawkins-Humphrey full employment bill would have been a boon to U.S. workers. Any talk of reviving it is now moot, as the industrial economy of the 1970s has been hollowed out by finance capital. Employment today is not what it was 50 years ago.

Hoping to recapture the White House in the United States’ bicentennial year, Congressional Democrats introduced legislation to guarantee  a job to nearly every adult who wanted one.  Sponsored by Minnesota’s liberal lion, U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey, and California Congressman Augustus Hawkins – one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus – the bill would’ve required the executive branch to establish nationwide quotas for industrial output, and forecast the number of jobs necessary to meet those annual  benchmarks.

However many jobs the private sector could not – or would not – provide would be absorbed by the federal government at the prevailing wage.

Modeled on President Roosevelt’s Full Employment bill of 1945, the Humphrey-Hawkins Act enjoyed broad support from the labor and civil rights communities, including such iconic figures as Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King. With House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill touting the measure as “the centerpiece of our party’s 1976 platform,” the Democrats’ strategy was to force President Gerald Ford to veto the popular legislation in an election year, and use that veto to deliver the White House to a Democrat, who would sign the legislation after Congress passed it on its second go-round.

Humphrey-Hawkins would eventually pass, though in watered-down form, following complaints from both liberal and conservative economists that full employment would cause wages to rise and inflation to spike, causing a beleaguered President Jimmy Carter to qualify his support for the bill.

Had it passed as originally written, Humphrey-Hawkins would have almost certainly been a game-changer, and could well have changed the course of history by mending the snags in the country’s social fabric that were just beginning to unspool, leaving both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton with fewer racial resentments to exploit for political benefit.

And so it’s hardly a surrprise, given the current state of the American economy, that a trio of economists have reprised the role of Senator Humphrey and Representative Hawkins and are again proposing to make a federal jobs guarantee the law of the land.

The three economists – Mark Paul at the New College of Florida, William Darrity Jr. at  Duke University and Darrick Hamilton at the New School for Social Research –  that hiring practically everyone who wants a job is the best tool we have to reduce the numbers of Americans living in poverty, address racial disparities in the workplace and to revive an economy that has been largely moribund since the Great Recession more than a decade ago.

What may surprise you, however, is that while Paul, Darrity and Hamilton’s plan differs in some significant ways from the 1976 measure, the most salient distinction is this: if Humphrey -Hawkins was a potentially transcendent piece of legislation, the latest iteration of a federal jobs guarantee is tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and arguably represents the single worst domestic policy idea from the political Left since Daniel Patrick Moynihan uttered the phrase “benign neglect,” more than half a century ago .

It’s a matter of timing, really. The national economy today bears almost no resemblance to the industrial juggernaut that was once the sun around which the global economy orbited. A federal jobs guarantee 45 years ago would’ve been the capstone for a labor movement that had congealed at the nadir of the Great Depression, organized nearly 40 percent of the workforce, transformed bad jobs into decent ones, and imbued the economy with enough buying power to create the most prosperous working class the world has ever known.

Full employment legislation today, on the other hand, would be a tombstone for an American manufacturing sector that no longer makes anything of value and lays dead and buried in an unmarked grave, rendering labor unions all but obsolete and birthing a speculative economy that is so bereft of consumer buying power that it can only turn a profit by printing dollars out of thin air.

In other words, jobs that fueled upward social mobility 50 years ago can no longer support a middle-class lifestyle in America. Consider, as one example, the story of Bethany Simmons , who was the subject of a recent documentary on Al Jazeera English. Despite working 40 hours a week, Simmons lived until recently in a Huntsville, Alabama homeless shelter with her husband and four young children. The cost of living in Huntsville is the cheapest in the country and yet the city is experiencing a surge in its homeless population that is consistent with what is happening across the country as rents soar, and wages flatline. But here is the rub: with an unemployment rate of 3 percent, Huntsville’s jobless rate is lower than the national average, and meets the definition of full employment.

Paul, Darrity and Hamilton’s reheated jobs plan would pay workers a minimum hourly wage of $11.83, or $24,600 annually if working full-time, both of which are less than what Simmons earns as a fast food worker. While no doubt well-intentioned, the three economists’ federal jobs guarantee is simply out of touch with the quotidian reality of most workers in the U.S., reflecting the Academy’s failure of imagination and fealty to the financial interests that fund university chairs, research projects and junkets under an arrangement that joins knowledge production and neoliberalism at the hip. The three economists’ proposal of a federal jobs guarantee is not so much a work of scholarship as a confession of everything they haven’t read, to paraphrase the late, great John Henrik Clarke.

Of those omissions, the most notable is Karl Marx’s signature theory on dialectical materialism, which posits that the known world is the result of a constant churning between two opposed classes, the employers and the employees. Hence, Marx theorized that political economy was not static, but in constant motion, similar to a river. This is the source of the oft-repeated expression “you can’t swim the same river twice.”

Congressional lawmakers gutted Humphrey-Hawkins because they worried, rightly, that a tightened labor market would drive wages up. But they were also  concerned that full employment would strengthen the hand of labor unions at the negotiating table by effectively providing workers with a public option as a hedge against layoffs or even plant closures.

The bill’s supporters were in fact playing the long game, and Black activists and labor leaders in particular envisioned full employment as a firewall to protect organized labor against the racism that would ultimately be its undoing. In fact, African Americans at that time widely understood Richard Nixon’s minority set-aside programs and affirmative action policies as a cynical ploy intended to stoke racial tensions in the workplace, and as they had in the Reconstruction and New Deal eras, an organic black intelligentsia articulated a universal vision for lifting all boats, including those already underwater. One of the founders of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Cleveland Robinson, explained the danger of affirmative action absent full employment:

“Consequently you will have a situation where the white worker who is hungry cannot see any reason why he shouldn’t have the job, just because the black worker has traditionally been left out. It’s actually asking too much to say to that white unemployed, ‘You should understand (how important it is for a black person to have this job).’ So together with the struggle for affirmative action, we have to struggle for full employment.”

Humphrey-Hawkins managed to “read the room” as it were, because its authors consulted with the proletariat, generally, and specifically the Black working class that has been the sine qua non of all social advancement in the U.S. since at least the end of the Civil War. Conversely, we have to assume that their estrangement from radical black politics is what led Paul, Darrity and Jackson to assert that a low-wage job is the key to jumpstarting what is essentially a kleptocracy.

Hiring every jobless person in the U.S. will do nothing to stop landlords from jacking up your rent, utilities from jacking up the cost of water or electricity, universities from jacking up your kids’ college tuition, hospitals from charging you an arm and a leg to treat injured arms and legs, banks from nickel and diming you half to death, or professional sports franchises from charging you top dollar to enter a football or basketball arena that your tax dollars helped build.

Far from being a public option, full employment legislation in the context of an economy that is wholly owned by corporate interests would be the equivalent of a work mandate such as that imposed on welfare recipients in exchange for their benefits.  Employers would almost certainly use a jobs guarantee to fire workers leading organizing efforts and workers in line for a pay raise, reduce unemployment benefits and other subsidies, and replace Black employees with whites knowing that the federal government would have to hire them.

And these top-down solutions are particularly inadequate to address as grave an issue as racial justice, and reminds me of South Africa’s apartheid government, which in the early days of that country’s HIV pandemic, responded to the public health crisis by focusing on an obscure rural practice in which widows were expected to marry their late husband’s eldest brother. The real mode of transmission, of course, was apartheid itself.

Similarly, our brand of racial capitalism is the source of our discontent here in the U.S. What we need are not more low-wage jobs, but to rethink this Ponzi scheme that we call an economy and why the workers do 100 percent of the work for 40 percent of the pay.

My proposal for making America great, at long last, would twin reparations for blacks with reshoring the supply line as the corporate media calls it, creating worker-owned cooperatives and refinancing consumer debt as part of a broader plan to nationalize key sectors of our economy, which is entirely in private hands.

If you want to read more about it, you’ll  have to come back to this space in a few days.

Sign Up To Our Daily Digest

Independent media outlets are being suppressed and dropped by corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for our daily email digest before it’s too late so you don’t miss the latest movement news.