Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) has proposed a plan to "give every American a shot at a day's work and, by introducing real competition into the labor market, raise wages for all workers".
Initially, this takes the form of a proposal to conduct three-year pilot programs in 15 locations to test the effects of a job-guarantee program. He says the jobs "will include a minimum wage phasing in to $15/hour, paid family and sick leave, and health coverage like that enjoyed by Members of Congress."
While I'm all for conducting thoughtful economic experiments, and I'm entirely in favor of treating states and local governments as the "laboratories of democracy", I have a problem with the idea that the Federal government is capable of doing better at assigning jobs than the marketplace.
The cold, hard reality of the 21st Century economy is that economic mobility and geographic mobility are tied together. It doesn't take much more than a glance at a map of county-level population changes to see that Americans are moving -- in large numbers -- toward population centers. In Iowa, it's clear that people are clustering around Des Moines and the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids corridor. Job growth and population growth are going hand-in-hand.
Other places, though, have peaked and are losing population. Some are in rural areas, but others are in urban ones -- prominently including Chicago.
The employment rate varies a lot across the country -- Iowa's close to one extreme, with a 3% unemployment rate (beaten only by Colorado, Nebraska, and New Hampshire). Other states have twice that rate -- going as high as Alaska's 7.9%.
There are often good reasons to try to help people find opportunities where they already live -- especially if there is a healthy, productive community fabric already in place. But we shouldn't expect the Federal government to step in to provide subsidized jobs in some places when another reasonable answer is to encourage people to move to where the jobs are.
Let's be open to debating and considering lots of possibilities that could make economic life better in this country. Sometimes there's a strong reason for the government to act because the public good substantially outweighs the cost -- for instance, to provide subsidies and opportunities for training and adjustment assistance to workers who are displaced by trade or technological change.
But we should be reluctant to put sweeping nanny-state promises into effect, like a big jobs-guarantee program. As hard as it may be to accept, sometimes the best option is to tell people that it's time to move. If Senator Booker really does want to put a jobs guarantee into effect, even on a trial basis, then the public deserves to know why that kind of program deserves priority over the alternatives -- from training programs and targeted redevelopment incentives to mobility vouchers.
Senator Booker is correct in noting that there is an important human dignity in having something useful to do. And it's important to put all of the options on the table and debate them vigorously. But there is also an ever-present danger in assuming that the government should step in to try to resolve things that we don't like just because we don't like them -- not because there is a compelling public interest in doing so, for which the benefits meaningfully outweigh the costs. And what America has right now is a lot of opportunities in different places than the people who might be able to take advantage of them. As the Wall Street Journal recently headlined one story: "Iowa's Employment Problem: Too Many Jobs, Not Enough People".
It may take tough love to say this, but sometimes the best choice isn't to keep a depressed area on subsidized life support; it may be to make sure that people are free to leave.