"Long-term unemployment imposes severe economic hardships on the unemployed and their families, and, by leading to an erosion of skills of those without work, it both impairs their lifetime employment prospects and reduces the productive potential of our economy as a whole."One of the recurring topics of JG debate is "what would all these people do?" Some commenters have a variety of constructive answers to this question, while others suggest than any job tasks chosen by the government (even local government, as opposed to Congress) would be a "boondoggle." I am not familiar enough with the academic research and modeling to weigh in with strongly held opinions for or against the JG concept in general (though I lean strongly toward giving it the benefit of the doubt), but this post will outline a concrete JG idea I have not seen described elsewhere. There are aspects of the idea I find highly compelling, but I expect some people may hate it.
First, some brief context. Modern economies have major problems with their environmental sustainability. One of these problems is that they have evolved to treat natural resources as an "input" to human activity and accepted a large waste stream as an "output", as though the economy were the center of reality. There have always been some observers warning that economies exist WITHIN the natural environment, not APART from it, and economies must adapt to function in a sustainable closed-loop way just like natural ecosystems -- where the output of every system of production and consumption is ultimately an input to another such system. Here is a diagram from zerowaste.org reflecting the current economic system's material flows:
Here is a diagram reflecting the conceptually ideal zero-waste closed loop system:
Three of the major problems with the current system as shown in the first diagram are external costs, that is, costs borne by society at large:
- Land fills consume finite land (for which available locations are diminishing), and can be unpleasant and costly to administer.
- Garbage incineration contributes to air pollution that adversely effects health, and consumes many materials that might have had better forms of reuse.
- The economy's raw material input requirements are larger than would be necessary if we reused more of our waste stream. In addition, the methods we use to extract new raw materials typically have large external costs as well (e.g., habitat destruction and pollution from mining). These external costs go down when we reuse more materials.
What if the role of job guarantee work was to "intercept" the not-currently-recycled part of the waste stream with the goal of reclaiming recyclable, reusable, and organic (compostable or biofuel-ready) materials to the maximum extent possible? Source separation (such as separate curbside bins) should certainly still be encouraged wherever possible to create pre-separated streams of recyclables, organic waste (yard and food scraps), and general trash, however many localities don't do any separation at all, and even general trash streams will inevitably contain recoverable waste. So a JG zero-waste program would focus specifically on reducing the waste streams that are currently going to landfills or incinerators.
The pie chart below shows the composition of the 250 million ton annual waste stream in the US, of which only 34% is currently recycled! (Source: EPA). That 66% currently going to landfills and incinerators contains extraordinary amounts of valuable material! Separating it further would be labor intensive work, and would probably not be profitable for individual companies extracting only the materials they could sell for more than the cost of labor. But, the job guarantee concept isn't intended to be "profitable" in such a narrowly focused sense!
Of course, automation should be used in waste stream separation to the maximum extent possible, and we shouldn't abuse "cheap" labor if there are reasonable automation options available! Single-stream recycling facilities already have impressive technology for separation of material types, and technologies for processing "dirty" trash streams appear to be advancing too! But based on my limited knowledge, even these advanced "dirty" processing facilities still require some human labor in the sorting process, and may also be too expensive for many municipalities. We are probably still decades away (I'm guessing!) from sophisticated enough computer vision and robotic dexterity to achieve everything a human can in this type of process.
I expect this to be a controversial suggestion, in part because of the "trash" association and concerns about human dignity (perhaps this is an inherently bad idea!) but I'll run through some of the pros and cons I can think of. Here are some advantages:
- Job guarantee workers would be providing an obvious-to-all public service with broadly shared benefits, because the waste stream is produced by just about everyone, and the negative externalities being reduced would otherwise be suffered widely also. With other JG roles sometimes suggested by commenters (reading to the elderly, planting trees in parks, removing graffiti, etc) there might be concerns by voters about jobs benefiting some demographics more than others, or about potentially poor choices of projects in general. But everyone benefits from a zero material waste economy!
- If a program of this type intercepted the part of the waste stream not already being reclaimed, it would not compete with the private sector or charities (or perhaps very minimally). Presumably this work is too labor intensive to be cost effective for private industry, but cost effectiveness (with the typical narrow definition of a single entity's cash flow) is not the goal of the job guarantee.
- It is inherently local (which is one of the MMT design choices for implementing a JG), because waste streams are produced everywhere people live and work!
- The financial costs of waste handling are often already paid for by municipalities (source).
- The savings in materials-flow-related external costs alone (pollution, landfill space, and raw material inputs to the economy) could significantly offset the program's "costs" in terms of wages paid to JG workers (not that a JG program should be required to be provably "profitable" to be considered a success).
- After also accounting for the benefits to society of reduced involuntary unemployment (e.g., reductions in mental illness, crime, family breakdown, soup kitchen spending, safety net transfer payments, etc) such a program would look even more cost effective!
- It would scale easily with the ever-changing size of the JG's buffer pool of workers. If the economy booms and the JG pool shrinks and there is no fiscal adjustment made by federal government to increase the pool (potentially needed if inflation were accelerating), then more of the waste stream will simply end up in the landfill or incinerator as is the practice today. Thus "zero" waste would be an exaggeration, but the waste reduction might still be large. Conversely, if the economy contracted and the JG pool of workers grew large, perhaps the sorting process could focus on reclaiming a much larger percentage of the waste stream, possibly even with extra time to break down and disassemble complex waste into component parts. What would the "typical" size of the JG pool of workers be? At least one MMT economist has suggested it might average around 3% of the work force.
- Waste sorting and separation jobs would be easily filled by unskilled labor, consistent with the "hiring off the bottom" goal of the JG.
- A job guarantee is widely recognized as setting a floor on economy-wide wages. However, it might also set a floor on conditions. Some commenters have expressed concern that having too many jobs viewed as "easy" in a JG (reading, tutoring, etc?) could be a problematic competitive force attracting workers from private sector jobs to the JG. An assumption in this thinking is that society relies on some industries in which the work can't be made "fun" and "easy" and while there should certainly be safe and humanitarian working conditions enforced, those industries' attempts to pay enough to retain workers might result in problematically large shifts in private sector wage structures, potentially raising the general price level by enough to force the nominal JG wage too far below a "living wage" to be politically acceptable. Thus, for better or worse, waste stream handling as a choice of JG program would be likely be seen by voters as not setting an overly "cushy" floor for work conditions.
- Waste handling is a large enough problem that it might (?) be able to absorb ALL JG workers (even if that represents 3% or more of the work force).
- Waste handling is a national and global problem so best practices could be shared widely across implementations.
- Such a program might be able to piggy-back on some existing infrastructure.
- Such a program might not be seen by voters as "make work" (see CETA-related quote here), and thus have higher political feasibility than some JG suggestions?
Here are some potential drawbacks:
- There could be a large social stigma for JG workers handling society's waste in this way. But would it be worse than the social stigma of unemployment? And might society's notions of dignity be able to evolve? After all, one of nature's waste handlers, the scarab (a type of dung beetle), was considered sacred in Ancient Egypt...
- Concerns may arise about the moral hazard for households and businesses in knowing that someone will "clean up after them." But with a national emphasis on good practices in sustainability, hopefully there could be ways to minimize this. And certainly manufacturers and such whose waste output is already regulated should continue to bear a higher responsibility (enforced by regulation) for minimizing their waste streams. (Often this process turns out to be profitable for them anyway.)
- Such a program might not be "transitional" enough -- does it adequately prepare workers for transition to the private sector when a job becomes available? I don't know, and I'm not sure how favorably it would compare in this respect to other job types suggested for unskilled labor in JG programs.
- Could the potential for unsanitary organic waste (dirty diapers!), sharp metal or glass, hazardous chemicals, etc make it too dangerous? Are there standards for hazmat suits and assistive tools and technology that would suffice? Even assuming so, there would need to be some sort of externally administered inspection process to ensure safe working conditions.
- Could such work inherently lead to repetitive stress injuries? I'm not sure how highly repetitive such sorting tasks would be given the nature of a mixed waste stream -- it could include some interesting dis-assembly of a big variety of items (toys, electronics, furniture, etc) into their component pieces. Perhaps every certain number of hours would involve a shift in the "creative project" room designing and building the [mini-]pyramids for the 21st century and other art out of the waste not useable for other applications!
- Separability of materials might be too difficult if organic waste can cause too much contamination... but this might be addressed with larger source separation initiatives (curbside food and garden waste containers) along with a willingness to send unrecoverable bags or clumps of trash to the landfill-bound conveyer.
- Energy use for sorting, transportation, and reuse might be more of a limiting factor than the needed human labor. If getting the separated materials back into the industrial production stream in a useable form required too much energy, such a project might not be popular (at least until further strides are made in renewable energy). Of course, the organic waste stream may itself be an energy source given ongoing innovations in waste-to-energy technology.
- Some new infrastructure (facilities and equipment) might be required. This could actually be beneficial to the economy if there was enough spare economic capacity to build and produce what was required within putting undesirable upward pressure on prices.
To repeat, the high level aspiration outlined here is to "kill two birds with one stone" by matching the goal of reducing human labor waste (involuntary unemployment) with the goal of reducing other external costs currently borne by society. This post focused on the "other external costs" related to materials flow and associated environmental sustainability, but are there other large-scale external costs a JG could potentially address?