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Can the U.S. fix unemployment with 'Universal Basic Jobs'?
What would happen if the U.S. guaranteed every citizen a job with a living wage and benefits?
Stephanie Keith / Getty
- A new book from Pavlina Tcherneva, chair of the economics department at New York's Bard College, makes the case for a "Job Guarantee" federal program.
- The program would grant jobs to every citizen who's willing and able to work.
- A 2019 poll found that a majority of Americans would support a federally funded jobs program.
Since COVID-19 began spreading across the U.S. earlier this year, more than 45 million Americans have filed for unemployment. The Federal government has passed a $2.3 trillion economic stimulus package. And unemployment hit Depression-era levels, with the Federal Reserve projecting that rates will hover around 9.3 percent by the end of 2020.
"This is the biggest economic shock, in the U.S. and the world, really, in living memory," Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said at a news conference in June. "We went from the lowest level of unemployment in 50 years to the highest level in close to 90 years, and we did it in two months."
To economist Pavlina Tcherneva, the pandemic didn't just present the American economy with a unique set of problems, but rather revealed its built-in flaws that have long prevented millions of Americans from securing decent jobs.
In her new book, "The Case for a Job Guarantee", Tcherneva offers an ambitious policy proposal that calls for the federal government to provide living-wage jobs and benefits to anyone willing and able to work.
"At bottom," Tcherneva writes in the book, "the Job Guarantee is a policy of care, one that fundamentally rejects the notion that people in economic distress, communities in disrepair, and an environment in peril are the unfortunate but unavoidable collateral damage of a market economy."
The idea of using federal funding to create jobs isn't new. It's found in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, Franklin D. Roosevelt's proposed Economic Bill of Rights, and was again debated during the Civil Rights Movement. It's also a key component of the Green New Deal, a suite of policy proposals that seeks to aggressively tackle climate change and economic inequality.
In Tcherneva's vision, the Job Guarantee would act as a sort of buffer. Here's a bit on how a Job Guarantee might work in the U.S.:
$15 minimum wage and benefits
Jobs granted through the program would offer at least $15 per hour, and this base wage would remain flexible to match inflation over time. The Job Guarantee would also provide workers with health insurance, paid leave, childcare, and possibly fewer hours than the current 40-hour standard work week.
Establishing standards like these, Tcherneva argues, would pressure private firms to treat and pay workers better, considering that now they'd have more employment options and wouldn't have to settle for poor working conditions.
Jobs would be funded federally, administered locally
Across the U.S., unemployment offices would be converted into employment offices. The unemployed would be able to enter these offices and "leave with a list of employment options, public-service opportunities you'll be able to access locally," Tcherneva told Vox.
What would those jobs look like? Tcherneva offered some examples: performing weatherization on a local hardware store, replacing lead pipes on a construction site, helping out at a homeless shelter, or working on local alternative-energy projects.
The federal government would remain mostly hands off, allowing state and local governments to decide which public projects to pursue, and how to allocate resources.
The program would be 'counter-cyclical'
In the current economic system, unemployment spreads like a virus: people lose their jobs, stop spending money, businesses are forced to shut down, and so on.
A Job Guarantee could act as a buffer that absorbs unemployed people before they fall to the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. And this could help to stabilize the economy during recessions, assuming these workers continued to spend money. As the economy improves, workers could move back to their previous jobs, or to other employment options.
How the U.S. might pay for a Job Guarantee
Tcherneva doesn't deny that a Job Guarantee would require massive public investment, but she notes that what's lacking isn't the money, but political will. What's more, she notes the high social costs of having a large swath of the American workforce remain, more or less, permanently unemployed.
"I came to the Jobs Guarantee from a macroeconomic perspective — the realization that we were using unemployed people as a kind of "buffer stock" to control inflation," she told the Los Angeles Times. "Having unemployed people means that when the economy grows, those people would be there to take those jobs."
"But what if we could use employment as a buffer stock? That's obviously the superior option. I realized that you couldn't just argue about this as a macroeconomic policy, you have to bring in the human rights framework, the moral framework. You have to think about the kind of neglect, the health effects, the pain that unemployment inflicts on people who want to work."
According to projections from the Levy Institute, with which Tcherneva is affiliated, the program would cost about 1.5 percent of the U.S. GDP, boost real GDP by half a trillion dollars, and create 3 to 4 million jobs.
California is requiring all new homes to be built with #solar panels, all public buses to be zero emissions, and is… https://t.co/1wvxLQxfN9— Mike Hudema (@Mike Hudema)1593041549.0
The Job Guarantee proposal has no shortage of critics. What's more, these points are just a brief overview of what the program seeks to establish. But, surprisingly, more Americans seem to support the idea than you may realize.
According to a 2019 poll from The Hill-HarrisX, more than 70 percent of Americans said they would "somewhat" or "strongly" support a federal program that created jobs for the unemployed.
A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A new paper reveals that the Voyager 1 spacecraft detected a constant hum coming from outside our Solar System.
Voyager 1, humanity's most faraway spacecraft, has detected an unusual "hum" coming from outside our solar system. Fourteen billion miles away from Earth, the Voyager's instruments picked up a droning sound that may be caused by plasma (ionized gas) in the vast emptiness of interstellar space.
Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 space probe — along with its twin Voyager 2 — has been traveling farther and farther into space for over 44 years. It has now breached the edge of our solar system, exiting the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space influenced by the sun. Now, the spacecraft is moving through the "interstellar medium," where it recorded the peculiar sound.
Stella Koch Ocker, a doctoral student in astronomy at Cornell University, discovered the sound in the data from the Voyager's Plasma Wave System (PWS), which measures electron density. Ocker called the drone coming from plasma shock waves "very faint and monotone," likely due to the narrow bandwidth of its frequency.
While they think the persistent background hum may be coming from interstellar gas, the researchers don't yet know what exactly is causing it. It might be produced by "thermally excited plasma oscillations and quasi-thermal noise."
The new paper from Ocker and her colleagues at Cornell University and the University of Iowa, published in Nature Astronomy, also proposes that this is not the last we'll hear of the strange noise. The scientists write that "the emission's persistence suggests that Voyager 1 may be able to continue tracking the interstellar plasma density in the absence of shock-generated plasma oscillation events."
Voyager Captures Sounds of Interstellar Space www.youtube.com
The researchers think the droning sound may hold clues to how interstellar space and the heliopause, which can be thought of as the solar's system border, may be affecting each other. When it first entered interstellar space, the PWS instrument reported disturbances in the gas caused by the sun. But in between such eruptions is where the researchers spotted the steady signature made by the near-vacuum.
Senior author James Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell, compared the interstellar medium to "a quiet or gentle rain," adding that "in the case of a solar outburst, it's like detecting a lightning burst in a thunderstorm and then it's back to a gentle rain."
More data from Voyager over the next few years may hold crucial information to the origins of the hum. The findings are already remarkable considering the space probe is functioning on technology from the mid-1970s. The craft has about 70 kilobytes of computer memory. It also carries a Golden Record created by a committee chaired by the late Carl Sagan, who taught at Cornell University. The 12-inch gold-plated copper disk record is essentially a time capsule, meant to tell the story of Earthlings to extraterrestrials. It contains sounds and images that showcase the diversity of Earth's life and culture.
A team of scientists managed to install onto a smartphone a spectrometer that's capable of identifying specific molecules — with cheap parts you can buy online.
- Spectroscopy provides a non-invasive way to study the chemical composition of matter.
- These techniques analyze the unique ways light interacts with certain materials.
- If spectrometers become a common feature of smartphones, it could someday potentially allow anyone to identify pathogens, detect impurities in food, and verify the authenticity of valuable minerals.
The quality of smartphone cameras has increased exponentially over the past decade. Today's smartphone cameras can not only capture photos that rival those of stand-alone camera systems but also offer practical applications, like heart-rate measurement, foreign-text translation, and augmented reality.
What's the next major functionality of smartphone cameras? It could be the ability to identify chemicals, drugs, and biological molecules, according to a new study published in the Review of Scientific Instruments.
The study describes how a team of scientists at Texas A&M turned a common smartphone into a "pocket-sized" Raman and emission spectral detector by modifying it with just $50 worth of extra equipment. With the added hardware, the smartphone was able to identify chemicals in the field within minutes.
The technology could have a wide range of applications, including diagnosing certain diseases, detecting the presence of pathogens and dangerous chemicals, identifying impurities in food, and verifying the authenticity of valuable artwork and minerals.
Raman and fluorescence spectroscopy
Raman and fluorescence spectroscopies are techniques for discerning the chemical composition of materials. Both strategies exploit the fact that light interacts with certain types of matter in unique ways. But there are some differences between the two techniques.
As the name suggests, fluorescence spectroscopy measures the fluorescence — that is, the light emitted by a substance when it absorbs light or other electromagnetic radiation — of a given material. It works by shining light on a material, which excites the electrons within the molecules of the material. The electrons then emit fluorescent light toward a filter that measures fluorescence.
The particular spectra of fluorescent light that's emitted can help scientists detect small concentrations of particular types of biological molecules within a material. But some biomolecules, such as RNA and DNA, don't emit fluorescent light, or they only do so at extremely low levels. That's where Raman spectroscopy comes into play.
Raman spectroscopy involves shooting a laser at a sample and observing how the light scatters. When light hits molecules, the atoms within the molecules vibrate and photons get scattered. Most of the scattered light is of the same wavelength and color as the original light, so it provides no information. But a tiny fraction of the light gets scattered differently; that is, the wavelength and color are different. Known as Raman scattering, this is extremely useful because it provides highly precise information about the chemical composition of the molecule. In other words, all molecules have a unique Raman "fingerprint."
Creating an affordable, pocket-sized spectrometer
To build the spectrometer, the researchers connected a smartphone to a laser and a series of plastic lenses. The smartphone camera was placed facing a transmission diffraction grating, which splits incoming light into its constituent wavelengths and colors. After a laser is fired into a sample, the scattered light is diffracted through this grating, and the smartphone camera analyzes the light on the other side.
Schematic diagram of the designed system.Credit: Dhankhar et al.
To test the spectrometer, the researchers analyzed a range of sample materials, including carrots and bacteria. The laser used in the spectrometer emits a wavelength that's readily absorbed by the pigments in carrots and bacteria, which is why these materials were chosen.
The results showed that the smartphone spectrometer was able to correctly identify the materials, but it wasn't quite as effective as the best commercially available Raman spectrometers. The researchers noted that their system might be improved by using specific High Dynamic Range (HDR) smartphone camera applications.
Ultimately, the study highlights how improving the fundamentals of a technology, like smartphone cameras, can lead to a surprisingly wide range of useful applications.
"This inexpensive yet accurate recording pocket Raman system has the potential of being an integral part of ubiquitous cell phones that will make it possible to identify chemical impurities and pathogens, in situ within minutes," the researchers concluded.