Ten years after the GFC, Australia is still experiencing economic stagnation, minimal wage growth and high un- and underemployment. In this opinion piece, Marcus Champ explores a possible answer.
By Marcus Champ
The global economic crisis demonstrated the entire economic edifice we have been led to believe would be the path to prosperity was in fact a stinking morass of fraud and widespread corruption, held up by little more than greed.
Far from a quick recovery enabled by publicly funded bailouts, what followed has been 10 years of economic stagnation, almost zero wage growth, and millions of unemployed.
Sadly, this situation has happened before, with much the same causes, and much the same impact for ordinary people: years of painful austerity, economic stagnation, and long unemployment queues.
One of the key policy responses to the Depression was the New Deal, which included a jobs program whose impact continues to be felt to this day in every school, highway, bridge, community enhancement project, health program, and arts project that it fostered. History demonstrated there was never a shortage of work, just an utter failure of the market to pay for it.
The current situation
Currently, there are approximately two million Australians either unemployed, underemployed, working multiple ‘gig’ jobs, or only marginally connected to the labour market.
The ‘market’ has been allowed to turn valuable human capital into a race-to-the bottom, paid-by-the-hour commodity with an associated massive waste of human potential, substantial degradation of our economic capacity, and reduction in productivity that has undermined our national prosperity.
What we need now is a new New Deal to rebuild the economy and ensure people are the centre, not capital – the central pillar of which could be a federally funded, national jobs guarantee.
How could a job guarantee help?
To start with, it is very important to understand what a jobs guarantee is not.
It’s not a work-for-the-dole program, ‘welfare’, ‘a handout’ or ‘free money’ for no purpose.
A jobs guarantee is not just a public employment program, but a distinctive and innovative policy platform that plays a key role in building a more equitable economy that works for the people.
As discussed by Tcherneva (2012, 2014), Mitchell (2013) and Wray et al (2018) a Jobs Guarantee:
- Offers an elastic demand for labour that is universal to all, with no means tests, time limits, or limits on places;
- It hires workers at the minimum wage fixed by the Government – so that it ‘hires off the bottom’ and does not compete with the rest of the labour market – and only utilises workers who would otherwise be unemployed;
- As well as a minimum wage, all other associated benefits of full employment would be available, including sick leave, holiday pay, protective equipment, retirement benefits, workcover, and training;
- It produces ‘loose’ full employment, in that people would be free to move ‘at will’ between the regular labour market as better prospects present themselves, and back into the program as desired. As such – and crucially – the job guarantee is flexible and automatically adjusts to provide however many jobs are desired or needed, depending on the prevailing economic conditions;
- People on the job guarantee perform important tasks associated with building economic capacity, developing strategically desired industries or skills, and socially useful work. Proponents of the job guarantee have suggested an almost unlimited range of work options could be covered, such as aged care1, environmental schemes2, community activities3, arts projects3 and social services through the not-for-profit sector, to name but a few.
Most importantly, a jobs guarantee does not just provide ‘useless jobs’ for no purpose, but can play a key role in restructuring the economy that represents a radical departure from neoliberal economics that dominates our current two-party system.
At the heart of neoliberalism is undermining the sovereignty of the state, stripping profit reducing regulations, and maintaining high levels of unemployment/underemployment to ensure wages are suppressed as a key strategy to redistribute wealth to the owners of capital4, as has occurred in Australia over the last 10 years.
Furthermore, a jobs guarantee can be highly targeted not just in terms of the services that are provided, skills developed and activities funded, but also in terms of the communities that can be helped.
The goal is to create jobs in every community through beneficial and worthwhile projects and, as such, involve local communities in the projects from the proposal stage through to implementation, administration, and evaluation.
Although there would be projects run at the national level (and given the infrastructure requirements that are currently known, there are many potential projects that could be progressed) it is envisaged that state and local governments, as well as not-for-profit communities, would provide the bulk of the proposed jobs opportunities.
The way forward
I am not going to pretend that such a radical departure from the status quo would be simple. A jobs guarantee will be complex, take time to develop, and require hard work to progress.
It should be noted, however, that a great deal of work on how the program would work, how it could be administered and – most importantly – how it would be funded have already been thoroughly developed over several decades.
Yes, there would be a great deal more required than just depositing cheques into people accounts, but then nothing worth doing was ever easy. It wasn’t ‘easy’ to go to the moon either, but with determined effort we moved beyond our world to touch another, and the benefits continue to flow through to this day.
Let us also be honest about the massive social and economic costs of unemployment and underemployment. The benefits of work have been documented in literally thousands of social science journal articles and books over the last 100 years. These range from reducing poverty, increasing self-esteem, maintaining social contact, building skills, feeling valued, and renewing communities.
Although we are facing increased automation that has already transformed work since the industrial revolution, the demise of work is greatly exaggerated. The fact is, it will continue to be a central pillar of our economy and society for the foreseeable future. The question we have before us is whether we will continue to tolerate the wastage of human potential or not.
Marcus Champ is an analytics professional based in Queensland with a background in behavioural science. He has been a member of the Greens for about two years.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Greens.
1. Wray, L. R. (1998) Understanding Modern Money: The Key of Full Employment and Price Stability. Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, UK, and Northampton, USA.
2. Cook, B., W. Mitchell, V. Quirk and M. Watts. (2008) Creating Effective Local Labour Markets: a New Framework for Regional Employment Policy. Centre of Full Employment and Equity.
3. Mitchell, W. (2013) Full Employment abandoned: the triumph of ideology over evidence, Professional Lecture Series, Charles Darwin University, June 2013.
4. Mitchell, W., & Fazi, T. (2017) Reclaiming the State; a progressive vision of sovereignty for a post-neoliberal world. Pluto Press.