Why you should care

William Darity Jr., a Duke University professor, has pushed the idea of a federal jobs guarantee into the mainstream.

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If there’s some future day when the federal government guarantees a quality job to everyone who wants one, an increasingly popular notion as we arrive at the 10-year anniversary of the global financial crisis, historians can trace the program back to a guy who plays the blues harmonica.

William Darity Jr. is an economist and the director of Duke University’s Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity. If you ask him about his musical proclivities, you’ll get a glimpse of his winning smile, bracketed by deep creases on either side of his mouth, and he might tell you that he’s performed with blues bands at festivals and at too many bars to count.

But he’s better known as someone who has authored or co-authored hundreds of economics journal articles, not to mention a macroeconomics textbook. And even more striking than the volume of this musically minded economist’s scholarly output are the questions he’s chosen to explore.

Darity has published papers on skin-shade gradient and unemployment, and on the desegregation of the economics department at MIT, his alma mater. He is a vocal proponent of reparations for Black Americans, and in late 2016 he wrote in The Atlantic a criticism of Barack Obama’s unwillingness, on political grounds, to support a reparations program.

Until recently this ambitious proposal had been viewed, in Darity’s own words, “as something out of cloud cuckoo land.”

Darity’s devotion to equity and racial justice is rooted in his childhood. His mother grew up in Wilson, North Carolina, which sits 40 miles east of Raleigh along Interstate 95, and when he was a child, his family made regular visits there to see his grandmother. He observed the town was clearly divided by railroad tracks: White people on one side, Black people on the other. While he noticed the divide in living conditions on either side of the tracks, he also observed that not all White folks and Black folks had the same standard of living as one another.

His own life circumstances, meanwhile, were quite comfortable, and he concluded that was the upshot of having been born to successful parents. “If the only reason why you really have the opportunity to start life in a more comfortable place is because of which family you’re born into, then it’s ultimately a matter of serendipity,” Darity says.

From the time he was a child, that troubled him.

Fast-forward half a century and he has an impressive record of devising and advocating for policies that would give a leg up to folks who did not win the birth lottery. “He’s about big and bold ideas,” says Bruce Orenstein, Darity’s colleague at the Cook Center and an award-winning filmmaker who’s currently documenting discriminatory practices in the mortgage industry. Even as they research distressing topics, Orenstein says his colleague remains laid-back. And he always knows when Darity is in the office, because of his distinctive, joyful laugh: “It makes me want to get up out of my seat and go down the hall.”

While Darity supports a host of far-reaching initiatives, he has become best known as the longtime champion of a “federal job guarantee” — an echo of legendary British economist John Maynard Keynes’ 1930s prescription for government-guaranteed full employment as a way out of a recession. According to Darity’s proposal, the U.S. government should establish a National Investment Employment Corps, and any resident who’s unable to find decent work in the private sector could walk into an NIEC office and sign up for a full-time job that would pay at least $24,600 and offer the same benefits that all federal employees receive. Workers then would be trained and assigned to tasks to benefit the local community, such as infrastructure repairs, green energy retrofits, child care and elder care.

Total employment would reduce federal costs on unemployment insurance and Medicaid, but the balance could be funded through a financial transaction tax, a carbon tax or expanding the estate tax. While it might sound improbable for the federal government to hire everyone who needs work, Darity points out that this country has done it before — when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration as part of the New Deal.

Until recently, this ambitious proposal had been viewed, in Darity’s own words, “as something out of cloud cuckoo land.” But in the past two years, as Democrats have reached for bolder ideas in response to Donald Trump’s ascent, Darity’s pitch has come into favor. U.S. senators and potential 2020 presidential contenders Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker — who has introduced a bill to create 15 job-guarantee pilot programs across the country — as well as former treasury secretary Robert Rubin, are among those who have voiced their support. A poll in May found that 46 percent of the public is on board.

While the proposal gives a leg up to the unemployed of all races, it would be an innovative way to tackle persistent discrimination. The overall unemployment rate for Black workers is regularly twice that of White workers, and it’s not uncommon even for Black people with degrees in high-demand fields such as engineering to have trouble securing employment in their fields.

The idea is gaining some steam in the world of liberal policy wonks and politicians but is a long way from becoming law — or even a core piece of the Democrats’ agenda. Jared Bernstein is a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington and a former economic adviser to Joe Biden. In principle, Bernstein supports the idea — he has known Darity for decades and even commissioned a paper from him on the subject — but he also acknowledges that putting it into action would be wickedly complex. “It calls on the federal government to create tens of millions of jobs,” says Bernstein. “And that is a very heavy lift, both politically and logistically.”

Perhaps more to the point, the White House and Congress are now controlled by Republicans whose agenda, broadly speaking, is to cut taxes and reduce social programs. The very notion of a job guarantee gives the GOP ammunition to say Democrats have gone overboard with expensive, big-government ideas. But Darity doesn’t let the politics dissuade him. “If this were 1815 in the United States, I might be convinced that slavery would never come to an end,” he says. “I can’t treat the odds of success as the basis for trying to pursue the right policy.”

In the meantime, he finds solace in music. It might be a while before lawmakers change their tune on his big idea, but Darity can reach for the harmonica today.

OZY’s Five Questions With William Darity Jr.

  • What’s the last book you finished? Underground Railroad, the novel by Colson Whitehead.
  • What do you worry about? I try to avoid worrying because there’s so much to worry about.
  • What’s one thing you can’t live without? Music.
  • Who’s your hero? My parents.
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? The Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.

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