The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Billy Saas: Hello, you’re listening to Money on the Left, the official podcast of the Modern Money Network Humanities Division. I’m Billy Saas.
Scott Ferguson: I’m Scott Ferguson.
Billy Saas: And we are co-directors of the Modern Money Network Humanities Division or MMNHD.
Scott Ferguson: MMNHD is a big tent organization for scholars, social critics, and political activists dedicated to recovering and redeeming the cultural and political aspects of modern money, past and present. We do this primarily from a humanities perspective. But we welcome participation from anyone interested in engaging with the School of political economy, known variously as Neochartalism, or Modern Money Theory. MMT for short.
Billy Saas: So from our perspective, what’s so transformative about MMT is that it turns conventional political economy on its head. Rather than figure money as a politically neutral commodity invented a long time ago by some particularly clever traders in some remote marketplace, MMT shows that money is always in everywhere a boundless public utility, as well as a deliberate political, cultural, and ecological project.
Scott Ferguson: In doing so, MMT makes so much more thinkable and possible than liberal modernity’s austerity-driven imagination has historically permitted. It not only expands how money can contribute to collective flourishing, it also reorients how we conceive of cause and effect, as well as how we research and write history. In this podcast, we want to develop and complicate the Neochartalist imagination, on and for the left.
Billy Saas: A key way that Neochartalism reframes money’s history concerns the question and politics of employment. While the hegemonic liberal paradigm treats employment as a function of private hiring and firing. Neochartalism understands employment as a thoroughly political decision. The liberal variation permits modest government assistance and makes unemployment inevitable. But MMT insists that employment is first and foremost a policy choice. And that full, inclusive, and ecologically responsible employment is always affordable.
Scott Ferguson: In terms of format, the Money on the Left Podcast plans to feature conversations scholarly and political, close readings of texts, interviews, and occasionally some fresh hot takes on current events. In this, our first episode, we invited historian David Stein to help us make sense of the recent resurgence of full employment legislation and debate in the United States. David is currently a fellow at UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy, and a lecturer in the Department of History and African American Studies. His first book will be published in 2019 by University of North Carolina Press. Its title, Fearing Inflation, Inflating Fears: The Civil Rights Struggle for Full Employment and the Rise of the Carceral State 1929 to 1986. With Betsy Beasley, he co-hosts Who Makes Cents, a history of capitalism podcast, which we chat with him about at the end of the interview.
Billy Saas: We asked David for some historical perspective on the proposals for a jobs guarantee put forward recently by Senators Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker, who each seem ready to make the JG a critical plank of their 2020 presidential campaigns. Lots of us in the MMT world are thrilled to see the JG taken up by the front runners for the Democratic nomination. But some others on the left, many of whom have never challenged the liberal money story, worry that the jobs guarantee is alternately pie in the sky progressivism, or just another route to Workfare. As you’ll hear, David puts both the historical fight for full employment and these left critiques in a broader historical context. We were joined in our conversation with David by Max Seijo, a graduate student in Film and Media Studies at University of South Florida. Without further ado, here’s our conversation with David: You’ve done fantastic work documenting the history of full employment movements in the United States. How exciting have these last couple of weeks been for you? What has excited you most?
David Stein: Thank you for having me. It’s been thrilling to see the reemergence of full employment and guaranteed jobs to its place of prominence within the dominant agenda of the Democratic Party. It is a demand that has a long history within the Democratic Party from the 1940s through through the 1980s but really fell out of the Democratic Party’s platform in the 1980s and grew weaker in the platform in 1984 and 1988. I know a number of activists who really fought to get it back into the party’s platform in 2016, so that in and of itself was really exciting. I think to see Senators Gillibrand, and Senator Sanders and Senator Booker all come out in support of various versions of guaranteed jobs has really pushed it to the front of our political agenda. And I think it really can reopen our imaginations about what’s possible. I think that’s really exciting and the idea that this is going to be a durable kind of conversation over the next few years, to me is completely a reorientation of where we were just a few years ago. I started writing this project, this book that I’m in the process of finishing, back in the years after the 2008 recession. I was puzzled as to why guaranteed jobs weren’t emerging as a key solution to the unemployment crisis that so many people were facing. So to see it now, a decade later, after years of inadequate recovery, in terms of how the recovery has been experienced in everyday people’s lives, to me is a real exciting moment and testament to a lot of activism that a lot of people have been doing over this past decade.
Billy Saas: Yeah, it’s interesting that this conversation is starting back up 10 years after the worst of the financial crisis. What do you think it is? What had to go away or what had to happen in order for this conversation to be happening now, do you think?
David Stein: I think there’s a combination of a number of factors. One, I think the completely inadequate recovery of government jobs at the state and municipal level, which we’ve now seen over recent weeks, also with all the teacher strikes happening, I think that’s part of that inadequate recovery over the past decade. I haven’t seen the recent stats, but I know a little while ago, it was something like a million jobs were lost in state and municipalities that have just never returned. Those of us who are in academia, we really have seen this very clearly. That’s one element. I think another element is the 2016 election. Just like after the 1972 election, the Democratic Party believed that they had moved too far left in that election and began reorienting towards the right, and especially after the 1980 election. I think the 2016 election, alongside the immense energy that was posed that met the Sanders campaign. I think that’s propelled some of these conversations. I also think just the tremendous amount of grassroots activism has really propelled this conversation. And then I think, at the Federal Reserve level, or at the level, policy wonk conversations around inflation, the inadequate wage gains that have been made by workers, even amidst relatively low unemployment rates over the past few years, has really posed questions about the extent to which the Phillips Curve and ideas like that continue to hold purchase. I believe it was Daniel Tarullo, a key powerful actor within the Federal Reserve System now retired, who gave a talk at Brookings a few months ago saying “the Federal Reserve has no coherent theory of inflation.” Whereas inflationary fears really stifled the efforts to legislatively win guaranteed jobs over decades. So I think all of those factors have contributed.
Scott Ferguson: So on this podcast, we’re really interested in the humanities and what the humanities can bring to the study of Political Economy and specifically through a new charter list lens. Much of this story in the way it’s playing out now and the big actors are politicians, economists, as you said, policy wonks, certainly organizers and activists of various stripes. But clearly there’s a place and a role for us humanists, right? You in particular, you’re not just studying what’s going on, you’re participating in your own way. Whether it’s with Fed Up, or, or just on Twitter. And I’m curious if you can speak to your own role in how this is playing out, and how the study of history and maybe the humanities approach, more generally, is important for this fight?
David Stein: I think there’s a few different answers to that question. One of them is, I’m glad you asked this early on, because I think if anyone tunes out or later, I think I have two key lessons that I would say are really important going forward. The first one is that: if we think about how this was a key goal of the civil rights movement–one of the most powerful social movements I know of ever to exist, that broke the US apartheid system–that that movement was not strong enough to fully achieve a governmental jobs guarantee. I think if history provides a guide for us, it’s that our movements may, or will, need to be stronger than that, which I think is a really, really daunting task and a humbling task. But I also think from having studied social movements, that an appropriate power analysis is a key starting point for any struggle. So I think that’s one lesson and think the other key lesson is that in the post 1948 era or so, I can think of about a four year span, when winning these sorts of proposals could have been possible had the movements been strong enough. That’s the years 1964 to 1966, and 1976, to 1978. You can make an argument that had the movements appeared in 2008 to 2010, that they might have been legislatively possible. The movements were not anywhere there during 2008 to 2010. What that lesson shows us is that these openings can appear quickly, and they can disappear just as quickly, and we don’t know when they’re going to return again. So I think it’s really vital, back to the first question about one of the things I’ve been most excited about right now, is that I think and I hope we’re preparing for that opening that might occur between 2020 and 2022. I think that we need to be ready when that opening appears because we don’t know when it’s going to appear again. Those to me are the two key lessons that history teaches us. The third and sort of subsidiary to those two, and this more goes against some of the articles and essays that I’ve been reading that are a bit ignorant of the history of this demand that portray it as a demand so far out of left field or so incompatible with US history and US policy history is to assert that in the key reason that we don’t have this already, or at least it wasn’t achieved in 1945. We don’t know what would have happened after that. We can’t jump too far back into the counterfactuals. But the key reason this wasn’t achieved in 1945 was because of Jim Crow. And because of the role of Jim Crow power in Congress and to a certain extent it’s a similar story in the 1960s. One key reason why demands for full employment and job guarantees weren’t included in the war on poverty was because Johnson knew they could never get through Wilbur Mills’s House Ways and Means Committee. Wilbur Mills was considered at the time to be one of the most powerful members of Congress if not the most powerful member of Congress. Well, where did Wilbur Mills come from? He was the longtime congressman from Arkansas, from a Jim Crow district. So his power was very much linked with the kind of daily life of a Jim Crow society, and of course, when we look at all these key Dixiecrat congressmen, most of them don’t leave Congress by way of democracy. They leave Congress, in Mills’s case, via scandal and disgrace. In many other people’s cases, via death. They didn’t leave Congress until the 2000s, some in the 90s, some of the 80s. It’s not like the Voting Rights Act passes, and these congressmen and I say men specifically. And these congressmen didn’t just pack up their briefcases to go home in 1965. They continue to win election after election. Knowing that history can also show that although job guarantee movements were never ever to achieve those goals legislatively. It wasn’t because they weren’t a dominant moral value, I think guaranteed jobs, full employment was a dominant moral value from the 1940s through the 1970s. But they were never able to push those Dixiecrat congressmen out of their positions of power in order to win legislatively.
Scott Ferguson: So a follow up to that. Let’s say skeptics will often point to Michal Kalecki’s now famous article, “The Political Aspects of Full Employment”. They presume that his argument is that sure this is monetarily, economically possible, but it may not be and probably isn’t politically possible. My response to this is always, well, let’s be historical about this, right? I mean, Kalecki was engaging and wrestling with this question at a very particular juncture, when we were in a post war context, the question of full employment was haunting everybody. Very different groups were weighing in, had different visions for what this might look like, how possible it was going to be or not be. I guess my question to you, David, is, if the political aspects and or obstacles to full employment are historical, what do you see today? What are the historical conditions which may facilitate this movement and may block it?
David Stein: It’s a really good question. Well, I think to me, one of the biggest lessons of history is that one is forced to confront with immense humility what is possible in a given moment, and how few people have any sense of what is both optimistically and pessimistically. One of the lessons that I really try to teach my students is a lesson that the scholar George Lipsitz writes about, and that his writing has taught to me. He says: very few people in 1859, very few abolitionists could have known that their decades of effort, the self activity of enslaved people, the resistance of running away, of breaking one’s hoes, all sorts of things like that. That those would see their expression in the self activity of enslaved people amidst the Civil War, and that enslavement would be abolished, never to return in the United States. Very few people could have envisioned that in 1859. To me, one of the things I’ve been inspired by in my writing about full employment movements is that I tried to write as if these movements could and would reemerge. And the second they achieved their goals, suddenly, the entire history of struggling for these goals would look different. That right this second, you can look at the history of struggles for full employment and say: it’s been 80 years of failure. The second that that changes, that history appears differently. The second guaranteed jobs appear, it’s like, wow, it took eighty years of robust activism to achieve this goal. And I’ve tried to write with that day in mind. I’ve thought about it alongside other activists. In the weeks after the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, the lead organizer of the March on Washington is giving a speech, and he says things like, “we’re losing the fight my friends,” he says, “we’re losing quickly, where are we winning?” He’s very frustrated at that moment. After three decades of activism, he doesn’t know what historians know, which is that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is right on the horizon, then the Voting Rights Act is right on the horizon. And so in the weeks after the March on Washington, he doesn’t feel this tremendous swelling of success, because he doesn’t know what’s on the horizon. We don’t know what’s possible, so for those who are writing, “full employment is so difficult because of x, y, z problem or x, y, z thing.” I tell one person writing, “what about the Fed?” It’s like, okay, yeah, that’s a key issue that Coretta Scott King really, really cared about. To me, it’s really important to ask that question, but not in a way that’s about saying it’s impossible and throwing up hands, but to say, yeah, the Fed, which is an institution that is created by Congress, it’s relative autonomy, its independence is institutionalized in congressional legislation. So that would need to be addressed in any legislation, how the Fed would need to adhere itself to an employment mandate, to a federal employment mandate for all, at least so far as the US continues to have a capitalist democracy. I think those are elements to struggle over and to work out and to be aware of in the writing of the policy, but they’re not reasons to not struggle for it.
Maxx Seijo: You brought up Coretta Scott King already. I was wondering if you could talk about the relationship between her lifelong activism and this current movement and maybe dig in a little bit into the details as to the things you were linking to your last comment about the Fed and things like that.
David Stein: Yeah. So you mentioned in an earlier question about the Fed Up campaign. A few months ago or maybe almost a year ago, I co-wrote a report with the economist Dean Baker on behalf of an in collaboration with the Center for Popular Democracy is Fed Up campaign which has worked really hard to get the Federal Reserve to be more accountable to everyday people whose lives are impacted every day by the interest rates they pay on their credit card bills or student loans, or car payments, as well as the general level of the economy. Coretta Scott King was the founder, she co-founded and led this group called the Full Employment Action Council and the National Committee for Full Employment and they were kind of parallel organizations that were slightly separated for tax purposes. She co lead that organization, that coalition, starting in 1974, and the goal was to achieve guaranteed jobs legislation. She was well aware, as anyone was in the 1970s, that the high interest rate policies of the Fed and how the Fed needed to adhere to its employment mandate. There’s debate from scholars about where the employment mandate comes from. I found recent evidence that it does indeed go back to the 1946 Employment Act. But the Fed didn’t abide by that employment mandate as strongly as they might have to say the least. It was for that reason that many scholars traced the employment mandate to the 1977 Federal Reserve Reform Act and the 1978 Humphrey Hawkins Act, of which Coretta Scott King was the key activist and her organization were the key activists promoting the 1978 Humphrey Hawkins Act, which had been around and been drafted throughout the mid 1970s. They knew that in order to achieve guaranteed jobs and full employment, they needed the Fed to accede to those goals. Dean Baker and I wrote this report in a sense trying to remember this history of the Fed’s employment mandate, and promote the goal of the Fed keeping interest rates low, continuing to facilitate economic recovery, and continuing to adhere to the law. If people know of the 1978 full employment Humphrey Hawkins Act at all, it’s because when the Fed comes to Congress twice a year, it’s called the Humphrey Hawkins testimony. This was one of the acts that Coretta Scott King and legislators Augustus Hawkins and Hubert Humphrey tried to create in order to ensure that the Fed would be accountable to those who are democratically elected to Congress. The reason that’s really important is because prior to that, in the 1970s, you had a leading economist with the Joint Economic Committee saying they couldn’t even get basic data from the Fed at the time. The Fed was acting as if it was completely autonomous, that their independence was completely autonomous from Congress. This legislation was the attempt to get the Fed to be more accountable to Congress, and thus, more accountable to the people of the United States, who are impacted by their policies. In order to fight for that legislation, there’s all sorts of exciting stories that I can tell you about. I think the 1977 Full Employment Action Week is really inspiring, where 1.5 million people took all sorts of actions in order to protest and propel the legislation. There were parades in Erie, Pennsylvania, with 40,000 people attending, things of that sort that I think are really on a scale of activism that is quite significant. Augustus Hawkins said it was the most amazing activism he’d seen since the March on Washington of 1963. That can give our audience a sense of just how powerful this effort was.
Maxx Seijo: Coretta Scott King argues that we’ve never really dealt honestly with the question of a peacetime economy. And this is something that I’ve spent a little bit of time thinking about in relation to the kind of full employment debates of today. And I was wondering what you thought about the relationship between World War Two and the mobilization and the job guarantee debates and her activism and kind of how those all go together in this history, especially as you say, if we’re to really succeed now and really actualize this history for our present moment. We need to understand the way these certain strains of contestation interact with full employment and the war itself. So I was wondering if you had any thoughts about that?
David Stein: Yeah. So I think this is also really important for thinking about some of the contemporary critiques of full employment and guaranteed jobs. The people who say: “Oh, it’s too hard! Administratively, how would it work? It’s just way too complicated.” When we think back to the generation that Coretta Scott King was a part of: she was born in 1927, she lived through the Great Depression, she saw World War Two. They saw just a complete reorientation of the scale and scope of what the federal government could do, and that enliven their imaginations about what was possible, and gave them confidence to call for these sorts of bold demands. I was thinking, while you were asking your question, of a quote from William Lucey, who was the leader, and co founder of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists in the early 1970s. This was a group, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, which, as far as I’m aware, no group has continually promote full employment guaranteed jobs as long as this group has. So to the extent that people remember full employment, I stumbled on an article, that was a fairly good article, but that was like, Why Full Employment Is Back From The Dead, something along those headlines. I was like, well, it never died, and the reason it never died was because of people like Bill Lucy and people in the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, as well as you all are well aware of the Post Keynesian economic tradition. Bill Lucy has this quote in the early 1970s, amidst these full employment movements, this is in 1975. He says, “In the wartime, when they gear up the war machine, everybody fits into a slot. They make welders out of laborers and pipefitters out of farmers.” So for him, he’d seen that experience, and so he then said, “This is why the federal government should now employ people in transportation, construction, and health services, and environmental work.” So they were thinking dialectically, if you will, to say the military industrial complex and the World War Two efforts showed them what was politically and economically possible. But as dedicated peace activists, like Coretta Scott King was, like her husband was and like many others, they said: well, why don’t we reorient this spending and this energy towards social needs that really fulfill human human lives. I think that’s a key element. They had also just seen, we need to remember, this is amidst the Vietnam War and the years after the Vietnam War, depending. Scott King’s activism continued after the Vietnam War. For her, she saw, okay, we have this economy that’s so tied into militarism, that has helped propel this war effort. And so as an anti war activist, she was like, okay, well, we need an economy that’s geared towards peace and an economy that’s geared towards social needs. As she puts it, she says, “We’re going to have to create meaningful jobs, jobs that serve human needs. As long as there are people, you are going to have certain health care needs, education needs, things that will make for a better quality of living.” So this is what she believed in. She also believed that, she says, “jobs that go beyond the profit making motive.” Thinking a lot about what the job guarantee could do to decarbonize our environment, to clean up the environment, of course, to end the water poisoning of an entire city. We’ve just accepted that the Flint water crisis is going to continue indefinitely and I’m struggling for words to describe how we wake up every day, and we just allow that to continue.
Scott Ferguson: There’s such a disconnect between this pervasive feeling and discourse around crisis and around needs, right? We know the many, many things that we need to address. Then, when we get to some of the job guarantee rhetoric in the job guarantee debate, especially this last week, and suddenly those needs go away. Suddenly, everything is good enough. Suddenly, well, oh the private sector will take care of it. I wanted to bring up something that David, you and I have talked about in the past. I know you’re not principally an aesthetic theorist or a student of visual culture, principally. But I’m curious to have you speak to the aesthetics and visual culture around various moments of full employment, struggles, campaigns, fights. And it seems to me that questions of certainly race, if not also gender, and sexuality and of course class play a part in this. One of the things that I’ve been extremely frustrated by in contemporary discourse around just employment, especially around national elections, like pre job guarantee debates that have been happening very recently, where we can only imagine jobs, or employment politics through the image of a kind of Nixon hard hat. Like, a white guy who’s gonna do some tough infrastructure jobs. Sure, we want plenty of those. But there’s a whole diverse world out there. And I’m curious, if just in your research, maybe even anecdotally, could you reflect on just the aesthetics of full employment politics in the past?
David Stein: Yeah. Well, I think there’s a few things that I’d say to that. I think one, like you’ve suggested, we need to reorient our conception of work. There’s all these conversations about the future of work, but there’s a group of people at the Bureau of Labor Statistics who, at least among a lot of the kind of big headline conversations about the future of work, the Bureau of Labor Statistics folks don’t seem to be really consulted on. I just pulled it up on my computer, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts out the fastest growing occupations outlook every few years. If you look at it, I think it’s quite indicative and quite important, and can reorient our ideas around what this looks like. So the number one fastest growing occupation, says BLS, is solar panel installers, then wind turbine service technicians, then home health care aides, then personal care aides, then physician’s assistants, then nurse practitioners, right. So that’s what the future of work, at least according to BLS, looks like. If we think about especially the care work of home health care aides, personal care aides, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners, these are jobs that historically have been done by women of color, by Black women. To the extent that things like home health care aides, to the extent that those jobs are low paid right now, according to BLS, the median pay for home health care aides and personal care aides is $27,000 per year. Anyone who knows anything about those jobs knows that those are incredibly difficult jobs, incredibly skilled jobs, and jobs that require tremendous amounts of compassion, of energy, of physical hard work of lifting, making beds, doing so many different tasks. So if we asked, why aren’t these jobs paid $100,000 a year? Why aren’t they compensated commensurate to the skill that one sees in those jobs? Well, a big part of that goes back to the history of racism and the history of patriarchy in this country. When I think about what the future of work could look like, or does look like, I think about home health care aides, and how they can be compensated in ways commensurate with how difficult those jobs are, and also with how important those jobs are to dignified life for elderly people and all other people who those home health aides and personal care aides are helping with their daily lives to lead fulfilling, dignified life. And then I think there’s all sorts of other questions. If we think back to aesthetics, and the WPA, and art, I was just speaking with a friend of mine, who I think is a really brilliant, inspiring artist, Evan Bissell, who’s out of the Bay Area, who did a really extraordinary project a few years ago around around the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, as well as a number of other real community engaged art projects. Evan also is an urban planner, so he’s done a lot of work around community art to talk about the housing crisis and things of that nature. I just think about how many other artists are out there doing work like Evans, that is not necessarily going to be compensated by the market? There’s not a strong market for creating beautiful murals that educate a community about their rent control rights, which is the kind of work that Evan does. He did a project with the Morris Justice Project out of the City University in New York, to organize against broken windows policing in New York. He painted these beautiful pictures in collaboration with members of the local community that say “we are not broken windows” that showed what the community actually looked like. I think there’s not a strong market for that type of work. I always ask what images of beauty and safety can be proliferated with a job guarantee. Of course, as I mentioned a minute ago, if we go back to the WPA, you had people writing plays, the Federal Theater Project. You also had murals, you also had art workers, you had people writing guidebooks to their cities, people like Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright. There’s so much that people could be doing, work that the market has not necessarily chosen to compensate.
Billy Saas: What’s been exciting about this week, like watching how people are talking about the job guarantee, is to sort of notice the kind of arguments that have fallen off, that were active for the last 30 years, specifically around the pay for question and the idea of fiscal responsibility and the fiscal constraints, and that’s too ambitious, you’re going to take our taxpayer money, and all those sorts of things. That seems to have taken a backseat if not disappeared. But we have, at the same time, these other kinds of rhetorical currents or obstacles that are rising up as we talk about full employment in a real sense and a federal jobs guarantee. So the rhetoric of Workfare is circulating now, and as this is happening, and thinking about these new rhetorical obstacles that might take the place or take precedent over the fiscal responsibility talk. I wonder if you might say a little bit about the sort of rhetorical currents and arguments that were used between 64 and 66, and 76 and 78 when you say that these movements were most possible. What were the arguments then? What were the big rhetorical obstacles put in front of Coretta Scott King and others like Bayard Rustin and Leon Keyserling, the freedom budget. What were people saying then?
David Stein: Firstly, I’ve been, frankly, a bit mystified, by the claim that this would be Workfare in the sense that every single person who I know who has fought for guaranteed jobs over the past 80 years, it was always about expanding the social welfare state, through social movement organizing. Like most activists, they thought dialectically. So they thought, okay, we win something, and then we continue working on it. It’s not like we win a goal, and then we go home and retire. It’s always about winning something usually. For these activists, they demanded 10 things, and they won three of them. And then they took that list of seven things, they didn’t win and continued working on it. So for them, the job guarantee was never was never the end of the road. It was always okay, well, now, how does that reorient the political landscape? And now how do we keep working towards greater degrees of justice and equality for all people. The other thing is that, for these activists, a job guarantee wasn’t the only thing they were fighting for, it was one of many. For them, a job guarantee wasn’t about reducing the social welfare state that currently existed in any way. It was about expanding it, as I said a minute ago. In the 1960s, there were various ways in which the full employment campaigns did and did not work in synchronicity with the Welfare Rights Movement. Some of which had to do with assumptions about male breadwinner ideas and male work, some of which had to do with a number of other things that are a bit more idiosyncratic. But then there’s also elements to where, and this won’t surprise anyone who’s involved in contemporary activism, or who has ever been in contemporary activism was that, at least in Seattle, and I haven’t been able to explore this more thoroughly in other locales, but at least in Seattle, the people who are meeting around guaranteed jobs and full employment on say, Wednesday night, were then meeting and organizing around welfare rights on say, Thursday night and or Friday night. They were like, these organizations are going to be formally separate. They weren’t collapsing them. And, of course, no political formation fought against the nascent system of Workfare more than the National Welfare Rights Organization in the mid to late 1960s. And Coretta Scott King was a strong supporter of the national rights organization and their support of a guaranteed annual income for all which, of course, is different from a universal basic income. They’ve kind of collapsed historically in recent years but I’ve seen some collapse but that’s very different from what Martin Luther King or Coretta Scott King or what the National Welfare Rights Organization was fighting for. They were promoting a guaranteed annual income for everyone who was unable to work for whatever reason due to care work responsibilities, and they were fighting for dignity for all people. Whether through a job or through or through guaranteed annual income, it wasn’t a universal basic income that would apply to everyone. All that’s to say that the claim that adding a federal jobs guarantee to our otherwise existing welfare state that that would somehow be Workfare has, I find it, as I said, a bit mystifying. It doesn’t. There’s not one significant supporter of guaranteed jobs that I can think of in the past 80 years who would have endorsed that type of proposal, and I can’t imagine very many people, if any, would endorse that kind of proposal today. I mentioned Wilbur Mills earlier, the congressman from Arkansas, he was one of the chief proponents of the Work Incentive Program and the types of early Workfare that was created in the 1960s that the National Welfare Rights Organization and the Poor People’s Campaign and Coretta Scott King were fighting against during that era. So not only is the charge that job guarantee advocates would create Workfare inaccurate. In point of fact, job guarantee advocates and guaranteed annual income activists fought against the nascent system of Workfare in the 1960s. Back to your question about what some of the arguments against full employment were in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1960s, a lot of the arguments were about upsetting the balance of payments problems that were going on during that period. And by the 1970s, the key arguments against it were that it would be inflationary.
Billy Saas: Would it be inflationary?
David Stein: To be honest, I’m probably not the best person to answer that. As a historian, I think there’s reasons to think it might. I think, to paraphrase Coretta Scott King, the unemployed are not pawns to be sacrificed in some economic chess game. So the cost of a bit of inflation is, the human cost is the immense unemployment that hits transgender workers, formerly imprisoned people, Black people, Latino people, the worst. If that’s the acceptable cost of stabilizing the economy, then I think we really need to pose critical questions about that, and who those policies serve and who they don’t. As Daniel Tarullo said, as I mentioned, the Fed and most economists don’t have a coherent theory of inflation. That’s where I’m like: well, I trust Daniel Tarullo. He knows more about it than I do. And so if he says that the Fed doesn’t have a coherent theory of inflation, I don’t see how and why you can continue to go along sacrificing such human capacities in human beings lives to this idea that it would be inflationary when people like him are not even sure that this idea has any purchase any longer.
Billy Saas: That definition of full employment was one of the things that Coretta Scott King pushed back on, and you’ve written about this, defining it as 5% unemployment doesn’t quite make sense. So zero involuntary unemployment being the preferred definition of full employment for Coretta Scott King. Have you seen people bringing up that discussion of the rhetorical aspects of full employment recently around these jobs guarantee proposals?
David Stein: I’ve seen a bit of it. I haven’t seen a ton. My colleague, the economist Mark Paul and I have been talking about maybe writing something–Now that I’ve said that out loud to you all, maybe we actually have to write it–that traces that. And that was a consistent ideological struggle during this period was the definition of full employment. As the idea of the non accelerating inflation rate of unemployment takes hold, the idea of the NAIRU takes hold, people keep saying, full employment equals, like you said, 4% 5% 6%, and so forth, which really contrasted to what full employment meant, say in the 1940s when it came a popular concept as William Beveridge, who really helped popularize the concept says in his book. He says, full employment means jobs at decent wages where people are located, that there should always be more vacant jobs than, he says, unemployed men. I think we would think that concept be excised of the “man” in that sentence today, but I think that definition is really important. To see how that was what it meant in the 1940s, and what is being struggled over in the 1970s, is the definition of it. The definition we’ve inherited is one that was antagonistic to what Beveridge and many others proposed. And we can even see that if you read the congressional debates over the 1945 Full Employment Bill, you can see that definition being struggled over and you have leaders of the National Association of Manufacturers arguing for the definition that many people currently have of it today that it’s whatever percentage economic policymakers deem appropriate in order to stabilize the inflation, right? That’s obviously not the Civil Rights tradition of what full employment means.
Billy Saas: It strikes me as one of those phrases or terms that has gotten the historical privilege of not having to be defined. And when I talk to students about, or I ask them about, what is full employment? The first thing that comes to mind is not 5% unemployment, it is everybody has a job. What might be salutary about this current resurgence of jobs guarantee talk is a real politicization of that idea of what counts as full employment. Sorry, please write that essay. Maxx Seijo: I wanted to shift gears a little bit to the more contemporary and think about the relationship to the history that you’ve discussed, and the fight for full employment, and also kind of a step beyond that to the contemporary Black struggle, specifically in the rise of Black Lives Matter over the last decade, and how your history and what the questions that you’re thinking about in your book can inform the movement today, and the fight for racial justice today, and how that coincides with the job guarantee?
David Stein: I mentioned the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, they’ve continued to promote a job guarantee for decades. In other new formations alongside the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement groups, like the Black Youth Project 100, have also called for a job guarantee. The way I see it is that the broad Black freedom movements have had the longest tradition fighting for guaranteed jobs for all, and a lot of it comes through the moral values of people over profit, that human beings lives are more important than the profit motive, and more important than profit, which is a durable, moral value across Black freedom movements. The other way I think about it is I think there’s multiple streams of welfare state traditions. I’ve been thinking about this as I develop my dissertation, in collaboration with one of my advisors and mentors, and now friends, the historian Robin DG Kelley. One thing that he and I talked about, and that I really learned from him, is that while many people trace the welfare state tradition to Germany and Otto von Bismarck, there was also as I’ve written a contemporaneous Black radical tradition of welfare state struggle during Reconstruction. W.E.B. Du Bois called this tradition “abolition democracy”, which was the focus on creating new democratic institutions in order to provide safety and social provision for all people, while also seeking to eradicate institutions of racial violence and any vestige of enslavement. There needed to be both a negative abolition of enslavement and a positive abolition, the creation of these new institutions. I see the kind of moral values of abolition democracy that in the 1870s might have expressed themselves as calls for things like land access for the formerly enslaved. In the 1940s and after, I think we really see those expressing themselves or articulating themselves as calls for a job guarantee, within Black freedom movements. I think we see that tradition continue through today. It’s also part of the radical humanism of Black freedom movements, that’s a consistent force throughout their history. I’ve been teaching a course on women in the Black Freedom Movement for the past few weeks and this quarter, we just finished reading Ella Baker’s biography, by Professor Barbara Ransby. One thing Professor Ransby notes is that, for Baker, she secularized her childhood social values in the black Baptist tradition, and expressed them throughout her life in the form of radical humanism, calls for job guarantees and economic justice for all. We can see the expression of those types of social and moral values throughout the Black Freedom Movement in different forms from reconstruction, through today.
Scott Ferguson: Well, I was thinking, perhaps to conclude what has been a really rich dialogue, we could get you to talk a little bit about plugging your podcast.
David Stein: So I host a monthly podcast called Who Makes Cents, a history of capitalism podcast. Cents is spelled C-E-N-T-S. And you can find us on whomakescentspodcast.com I produce and co-hosted with my colleague, Betsy Beasley. We talk about some of these issues. I do a lot less talking on that show. Folks who are listening to this show might be interested in a number of our episodes. We have an episode with Sandy Brian Hager on public debt and inequality that harmonizes with Modern Monetary Theory post Keynesian tradition. We also have great episodes with LaShawn Harris on the history of Black women in the informal economy. We have, you know, an episode with Geoff Mann on what he describes as a Keynesian sensibility. Also an important episode with Kim Phillips-Fein on the fiscal crisis in New York in the 1970s and the rise of austerity politics. One more episode folks might be interested in is an episode with the scholar Mehrsa Baradaran on banking for lower income Americans and she talks a bit about some of her ideas about postal banking, and things like that. And then lastly, I’d just say one more thing. I know I’ve given you a lot, but folks might be interested in our episode with Sarah Jaffe on social movements since the 2008 recession. Sarah Jaffe is a really important journalist who did a really important interview with activist Ady Barkan about the jobs guarantee and how it’s coming in this moment of resurgence. So Sarah’s episode on her own show with Ady, might be inspiring for folks listening as well as Sarah’s work generally, and our interview with her about social movements since the 2008 Recession.
Billy Saas: Do you want to say anything about your book project? And yeah, I mean, we’ve spoken about it generally, and I think maybe very specifically at points.
David Stein: Yeah, I think I’d just say that I’m finishing a book on civil rights struggles for guaranteed jobs, and how and why those were stifled and how the kind of stifling of those struggles helped facilitate the rise of mass incarceration. The temporal scope is from 1929, the Great Depression to 1986 with the passage of the Omnibus Crime Control and with the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Tax Reform Act of 1986. And I’m finishing that up as we speak, and it should be out in the next 18 months or so from the University of North Carolina Press.
Billy Saas: To keep up with David and his many projects, follow him on Twitter at @davidpstein. For more Money on the Left related content, follow us on Twitter at @moneyontheleft, and subscribe to our YouTube and Vimeo channels, which are each called Modern Money Network Humanities Division. Special thanks to Alex Williams for producing this podcast and for being one half of Hillbilly Motobike, the excellent Montreal based drums and electronics duo that hooked us up with our theme song.
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: William Saas (audio editor), Mike Lewis (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)