Is a Well-Paying Job the next Entitlement Program?

The Job Guarantee is a policy proposal that would have the state function as an employer of last resort.

Is a Well-Paying Job the next Entitlement Program?
George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)

Here at Big Think we like to talk about the basic income guarantee. While the basic income is an interesting idea, objections to it abound. Also, it isn’t the only idea for ending poverty making the rounds. While the basic income gets a lot of press, there's another idea: the Job Guarantee.


What is it?

The Job Guarantee is a policy proposal that would have the state function as an employer of last resort; always having public works projects in action to assure that any person looking for work is going to be able to find a job. That job might not be glamorous or conveniently located, but it will exist.

Such a plan would not end unemployment outright, but would rather assure that the rate is always near a low target. While most proposals set the target unemployment rate near three percent, that rate has been as high as six percent in others. It is based not only on economic questions, but also on the pragmatic question of how many people would take the work offered.

Is this a new idea?

No, the idea was formalized by Bill Mitchel and Joan Muysken decades ago. However, the principle goes back to the New Deal in the United States when agencies like the Civilian Conservation Corps and WPA offered work to the unemployed when the market failed to provide it. In the United Kingdom it goes back to the work of William Beveridge, notably the book Total Employment in a Free Society, which reached the conclusion that the state could assure total employment by a variety of means consistent with a liberal, capitalist, society.

Has it been tried?

In the United States, the bill known as Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act states the Federal Government can institute this policy- but no action has ever been taken along these lines despite unemployment often being above the bill’s suggested level of three percent.

Currently, India has the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which aims to provide work in impoverished areas. While criticism the projects has been made, independent studies show it does have a positive effect on the people and areas it serves. It is, however, less comprehensive than many theorists would have liked. Though it does employ many people and provide needed infrastructure work in isolated areas.

What are the upsides?

The benefits of attempts at job guarantees have included reduced poverty and the ills associated with unemployment, including issues with health, family problems, drug use, and high crime rates. Supporters also argue that it can lead to stability of both prices and economic growth by assuring the unemployment rate never spikes.

Well, this sounds pretty good, what are the downsides?

There are a few, one objection of course is that such a policy calls for major government intervention in the economy; an idea opposed by many people for various reasons. The project could also cause inflation if not managed properly. The risk of politicians using assured employment to create a pool of loyal voters has also been a hurdle to the creation of new projects.

There is also a practical problem to consider. While it may be possible to assure that there are more open job positions than unemployed workers at any time, it may prove impossible for that work to be useful, attractive, and accessible. While there will be a demand for people to pave roads in Northern Alaska at some point, it will prove difficult to get people to move there to do it at a low cost. At the same time, you could employ everyone digging and filling in holes, but would have a hard time selling it to voters as being useful.

And more recently, the question of how automation would influence attempts to have productive work for everyone is also currently unsolved.

How we are going to organize the economy is always a pressing question. With the pressures of automation and globalization becoming stronger all the time, the question takes on new dimensions. Will the right to have a job be the next freedom enjoyed by people all over the world? Or will the idea end up as a trivial notion in a history of economics class?

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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The common cuttlefish

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
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A scene from the 1996 Tim Burton film "Mars Attacks!"

Credit: "Mars Attacks!" / Warner Bros
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