Publikation Ungleichheit / Soziale Kämpfe - Gesellschaftstheorie - Globalisierung What Do We Mean by Full Employment? A Survey

Contribution to the Workshop of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation "Keynesian Economics as Alternative Economy" (February 24-26, 2006, Berlin)





Februar 2006


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Contribution to the Workshop of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation "Keynesian Economics as Alternative Economy" (February 24-26, 2006, Berlin)

The authors of this paper are proponents of full employment who study and write about it as well as advocate for it (Ginsburg, 1983; Collins, Ginsburg, & Goldberg, 1994; Harvey, 1989; Goldberg, 1997). For nearly two decades we have participated in a seminar on full employment at Columbia University. We also assume leadership roles in the National Jobs for All Coalition (NJFAC), the only national organization in the United States that has as its goal living-wage jobs for all who want them.  Our definition of full employment resembles the ILO’s concept of “decent work”-- “not only the promotion of full, productive employment but also a range of other key elements … such as conditions of work, gender equality, social security, safety at work and social dialogue” (2004, 112; 1999). “Decent work” also means a job with “a fair income” and “social protection for families” (ILO, undated).Full employment is a central component of a state that deserves the designation of welfare in the broadest sense of the term. Sir William Beveridge, the British economist who is considered a father of the modern welfare state, designed a plan for income security that included not only comprehensive social insurance, national assistance programs, a children’s allowance and a national health service but full employment. Beveridge considered the maintenance of employment more important than income support, for “Idleness is not the same as Want, but a separate evil, which men do not escape by having an income. They must also have the chance of rendering useful service and of feeling that they are doing so” (1945, 20). (Beveridge had men in mind--a attitude prevalent at the time and not unknown among others who have stood for human welfare!)Nobel laureate Amartya Sen , like Beveridge, considers income support no substitute for employment: If income loss were all that were involved in unemployment, then that loss could be to a great extent erased—for the individuals involved—by income support. If, however, unemployment has other serious effects on the lives of the individuals, causing deprivation of other kinds, then the amelioration through income support would be to that extent limited. There is plenty of evidence that unemployment has many far-reaching effects other than loss of income… (Sen, 1999, 94). The demise of full employment as a policy goal must be seen as a major form of welfare state retrenchment. As Korpi and Palme point out in an 18-nation study of retrenchment, “In Western countries, full employment has a short history …. The return of unemployment on a mass scale since the 1970s must be described as a basic regress of welfare states, a crushing of one of their central parts” (2003, 429; see also Goldberg, 2002). As a goal of policymakers, full employment is in eclipse. We wondered about those who have been its advocates. Does the “short history” to which Korpi and Palme refer include its former advocates? What about the return of mass unemployment? What about the challenges to the Keynsian paradigm with full employment as a paramount goal? Have these led them to change their minds about the feasibility—perhaps even the desirability—of full employment? These questions convinced us to do a study of individuals once known to be full employment advocates. We asked how they define full employment and whether current conditions and trends have altered their conceptions. Do they consider full employment achievable, and if so, how? Is it desirable? And how does it rank as a social priority?In raising these questions, we recognized that the concept, full employment, is itself elusive. The question, “What does full employment mean?” sounds simple, but the answer can be complex.  The meaning varies in different times and places as well as among contemporaries within nations. Clearer understanding of both disagreements and consensus would, we felt, sharpen our own thinking about full employment and identify what advocates should be aiming to achieve.Our method was straightforward. We e-mailed Brief Questionnaire on Full Employment to presumed advocates (see Appendix). Two organizations, the U.S. based National Jobs for All Coalition and European Economists for an Alternative Economic Policy  were major sources of potential respondents. The list, however, was expanded by the researchers’ knowledge of other prominent advocates.  There were 50 responses. Twenty-seven (27) were from Europe: Austria (1), Belgium (1), Denmark (1) France (5), Germany (5), Greece (1), Hungary (1), Italy (4), the Netherlands (2), Norway (1), Poland (1), the U.K (3) and unspecified European (1). Five respondents were from Australia (3) and Canada (2). The remaining 18 were from the United States.  Participants were mostly economists, but there were one or more of the following: sociologist, political scientist, social worker/social policy analyst, economist/political scientist, lawyer and clergy. Only eight out of the 50 respondents were women.

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