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Here's a Conservative With Some Good Ideas for Getting People Back to Work

David Callahan

The left and right will never agree on many economic questions -- like how government can best stimulate growth -- but when you get down in the weeds there are places for a real conversation. At least with a smart guy like Michael Strain, who's a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of a chapter on reducing unemployment in the new conservative manifesto, Room to Grow. (I wrote previously about this volume here.)

Strain totally gets that today's large-scale, long-term unemployment is a catastrophe -- both in terms of how much human capital is sitting on the sidelines of the economy and the human tragedy of what those people are going through. This quiet, grinding crisis translates into divorces, suicides, health problems, and more. 
He also gets that falling wages for non-college educated men are a big factor behind the longer term trend of declining labor participation rates. Millions of people have basically given up on work as a hopeless sphere, and shuffled off to marginalized and often miserable lives. 
Now, at this point in the conversation, some of us would say: Yes, Michael, and that's why we need to deal with the deep structural forces that undermine work and labor markets in today's economy: like weak consumer demand as more wealth goes to the top and the way that workers lack the bargaining power to claim their fair share of corporate profits. And let's not forget all the clever new ways that companies have found to turn good jobs into bad ones through domestic outsourcing and flexible scheduling that keep as many workers in part-time status as possible. 
But barring a bigger conversation about contemporary capitalism, and how it increasingly undermines the great American value of work, it's helpful to look at some of the ideas that Strain puts forth. Here are the ones I like:
Expand the EITC for Childless Workers. This is a long-time item on the progressive wish list, and Strain is for it. After all, if there's wide agreement that the EITC incentivizes work for people at the bottom of the labor market, why not make sure that childless people can also enjoy its full benefits? What's not so great about this policy change is that it asks all taxpayers to subsidize low-wage employers rather than forcing those employers themselves to pay better wages. It's ironic that a conservative like Strain prefers to lift compensation at the bottom through government redistribution rather than making it easier for unions to form and letting those civil society actors push market actors to solve this problem without government getting involved. But whatever. 
Worksharing. This is an alternatives to layoffs that I've written about here a few times. Rather than the standard practice of firing a bunch of people who then go on unemployment, worksharing policies would encourage employers to keep everyone on the job and spread the pain across their entire labor forces. Very smart, and it's notable that Strain is behind this idea, which has long been touted by progressive thinkers like Dean Baker. 
Rollback Licensing Requirements. Another no-brainer. As Morris Kleiner recently pointed out in the New York Times, some 30 percent of all jobs now require a license to perform, triple the rate of a few decades ago. But requiring so many different workers -- like barbers and florists -- to have licenses creates obstacles to people looking for work. I'd add that a great many of these licensing laws bar people with felony convictions, making it harder for the many people coming out of our prisons to become employed. So let's start clearing away the dense underbrush of these stupid laws. 
I'm not so keen on the other ideas that Strain puts forth, but these three are good ones. And the fact that conservatives are talking about them suggests there are places for bipartisan cooperation to put people back to work.
Here's one more idea where I think you could get elements of the left and right on board: Replace our current tax system, which penalizes working and investing wealth, with a tax system that penalizes polluting, overconsumption, and financial speculation.
But, hah, maybe I'm thinking a bit too big here.