Full Employment: A Government Goal? At least twice in the last 65 years, Congress has debated guaranteeing jobs at good wages for every able-bodied American. Why did those moves fail? Will the debate resurface? Author Louis Uchitelle discusses the subject.
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Full Employment: A Government Goal?

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Full Employment: A Government Goal?

Full Employment: A Government Goal?

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So Alex, you and I have been busy off the air cleaning out our offices.


Yes, if you haven't heard yet, Day to Day, it's our last day on the air tomorrow so today, we've been packing up a bit.

BRAND: Yeah. And so, while I was doing that, you know, I was going through all the books that I've accumulated over the years, and I came across a book that has a particularly appropriate title. It's called "The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences," and it's by New York Times writer Louis Uchitelle.

COHEN: You were telling us about this book at the meeting. It was written a few years ago, but you noted it's relevant now more than ever.

BRAND: Louis Uchitelle notes that several times in U.S. history, the federal government has toyed with the idea of guaranteeing a job for every American who could work. Well, he joins me now and you know, and when I came across this passage, I had to do a double take because - I mean, it just seems so radical, a guaranteed job for every American. When did this proposed legislation come about?

Mr. LOUIS UCHITELLE (Author, "The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences"): Well, it's come about twice. Back in 1946, we were coming out of the war, there was great fear we would go back to the very high unemployment of the Depression years. And so there was talk of government stepping in and guaranteeing work for all Americans who were able to work. Now, they didn't quite figure out how to do that, whether it should be government jobs or it should be government spending so that private contractors would hire people. But in the end, there was quite a bit of feeling that the government should not mandate jobs. And there was an employment act in '46 that spoke of full employment, but it had no teeth in it. And…

BRAND: So then comes the prosperity of the '50s and '60s.

Mr. UCHITELLE: Yes and no one cared at that point.

BRAND: Nobody cared.

Mr. UCHITELLE: There was de facto full employment, but then we rolled into the '70s and a very severe recession of '74, '75, in which unemployment got to 9 percent. At that time, we were debating what later became the Humphrey-Hawkins Act. In the early drafts of that act, Augustus Hawkins, who was a congressman from Watts(ph) with terribly high unemployment, argued that government should guarantee full employment to everyone who was able to work and wanted to work.

BRAND: OK. So, that was debated, sounds like pretty seriously, in Congress. Why didn't it work out? What happened?

Mr. UCHITELLE: Well, inflation became a bigger issue. We got into the Reagan years and a period of market orientation, where it was not considered proper for government to intervene in the marketplace. So the whole issue died. Now, we're coming back to time where government has once again considered, not inept, in fact, quite necessary to generate employment. The stimulus bill and other government actions are generating employment. We are in a situation where unemployment is rising, and I think inevitably, we will come back to a debate, if unemployment gets high enough, as to whether the government must play some permanent role in generating jobs.

BRAND: Well, still you hear stimulus package. You hear federal government money trying to stimulate private investment, which will then take care of the jobs. So, it seems like it's similar but not exactly the same as the government coming in and just creating a bunch of jobs.

Mr. UCHITELLE: That's correct. We're on sort of the first rung of a ladder that could, if unemployment gets bad enough, lead to something more comprehensive. What's going on now is a first cousin to a full employment act. Obama has stepped in, and Congress, and they have said, look, the private sector can't generate enough jobs; we're going to generate the jobs. We're going to do it by generating stimulus that will then get the private economy going again, and they'll become the ultimate job creator. The problem might be that the private sector won't create the necessary jobs; the stimulus spending will end. Unemployment will continue to rise, and then we will start debating more profoundly government's role in generating full employment.

BRAND: Louis Uchitelle is an economics writer for the New York Times. His latest book is "The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences." Thank you very much.

Mr. UCHITELLE: Thank you very much.

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