Yet the plausible notion that the government should become the “employer of last resort” would prove as unsound in practice as the guaranteed income without any work attached.
The politicians in power could certainly not afford to be accused of offering even harder jobs or worse conditions than the poorest private employers. Therefore they would have to supply easier jobs and much better conditions, and would probably attract many workers out of existing private marginal jobs into the government-made jobs. For most of those whom the plan would affect, the government would in fact become the employer of first resort.
There is already a demand for workers for the jobs that need to be done, and for which employers are willing and able to pay the legal minimum wage. The government would therefore either have to invent jobs that do not need to be done, or at least are not worth having done at the minimum wage.
The invented jobs, moreover, would have to be where the jobless were. The government could not announce that there were plenty of guaranteed jobs in the forests of Alaska for the slum dwellers of New York City—unless it also provided guaranteed transportation for the workers, their families and their furniture, and guaranteed their housing, supermarkets, schools and other living conditions.
Under such a program it is obvious that most of the made work would be pointless and useless, and most of the made jobs needless and phony.
That is not the end. Suppose the workers with guaranteed jobs were incapable of learning to perform them, or created far more spoilage than useable production? Suppose they habitually showed up an hour or two late, or took three hours for lunch, or came in only to collect their pay, or ignored all instructions, or were unruly, or committed acts of sabotage and vandalism, or kicked the boss downstairs? Their jobs would be guaranteed, wouldn’t they?
Anyone who thinks I am imagining problems need merely read the details of the riot of 1,500 youngsters outside New York’s City Hall on July 10, 1968. They were protesting cutbacks in the city’s projected summer job program. I quote the account in the New York Times:
Some of the youngsters (most of them teen-agers from the city’s white, Negro and Puerto Rican poverty areas) smashed six automobiles parked outside City Hall, hurled rocks, bottles and broken glass at the police and looted frankfurter wagons and newsstands in the area. At the height of the disturbance, bands of youngsters fanned out from City Hall Park, smashed several windows in the nearby Woolworth Building and knocked down and robbed a 50-year-old woman.
These tactics were rewarded handsomely. The very next day Mayor John Lindsay announced that the city would appropriate $5 million for more summer jobs. Before that he had repeatedly asserted that no city money was available for such jobs.
All this doesn’t mean that the problem of providing more real jobs for the unskilled and for teen-agers is insoluble. As some eminent economists have already pointed out, the most important step would be to repeal the existing Federal minimum wage law.