Commentary. At the heart of Roosevelt's New Deal were extraordinary collective projects, such as the electrification of rural areas, the rehabilitation of degraded neighborhoods and the creation of parks. A similar opportunity is opening up today, and we can seize it in order to replace an unhealthy development model.

The left is back to its roots: guaranteed work and taxes on the rich

A plethora of initiatives for a “job guarantee” are coming up in the US Democratic Party, a cause that was promoted by Bernie Sanders—his socialist outlook leading him to embrace a cause that has been promoted for a long time by think tanks like the Levy Institute—but which has now been picked up by centrist figures as well, aiming to revitalize the argument for the superiority of public services. The focus on a “job guarantee,” especially for young people and women, is the immediate sign of the reality of the rediscovery of a value and a goal that had been considered obsolete.

In Italy as well, the objective of “full and quality employment” has finally been taken up with an admirable degree of analytical effort and political determination, starting from CGIL’s efforts since 2013 with its Work Plan, which is now again being pursued, with both imagination and determination, by the new leader of CGIL, Maurizio Landini. In turn, the goal of full employment is rooted in the urgent need to concentrate all productive forces towards the revival of investments, both public and private, which need to be given new life within a renewed effort for the grand design of a new model of development, which would be centered on the questions of “why,” “for whom,” and “how to produce.”

To this interconnected nexus of values ​​and goals, the US Democrats are also adding the revival of the democratic legitimacy of progressive taxation, a liberation from the dominance of the neoliberal dogma of cutting taxes anywhere, at any time and as much as possible. The Democrats are instead proposing a large increase in the highest tax rates for the richest taxpayers (up to 70%, in the proposal put forward by Ocasio-Cortez), as well as more ambitious taxation on companies and estates.

All this shows that, when the intellectual arguments are effectively combined with the ethical ones, the entire political environment can change, profoundly and rapidly. This is why moral reasoning and emotional energy are showing themselves to be strategic resources.

It is precisely these resources that are lacking among the Italian and European left, as Peppe Provenzano argues in his book La sinistra e la scintilla (“The left and the spark,” ed. Donzelli).

And it is precisely these resources that the Lega-M5S government is lacking in altogether. Going against the deficit rules of the Stability Pact is certainly not the worst thing they have done—although still a failure, because it used the margins of fiscal flexibility gained in this manner for unproductive spending on badly-thought-out pension raises and social subsidies that are simple subsidies and do not promote real development. What the government needs to be criticized most for is the miserly narrow-mindedness with which they are fulfilling the requirements of preparing the yearly fiscal planning document (DEF), which comes in the middle of a serious slowdown of the European economy and an outright recession in Italy.

Treating employment as a right that must be guaranteed by the state—as the Italian Constitution actually says—would be something radically different from the attitude assumed by their paternalistic vision, which can think of nothing better than dispensing cash benefits for the people.

On the other hand, bringing the focus back to employment and jobs—and thus challenging the supposed inevitability of the “jobless society” that is arising from capitalism’s spontaneous tendencies—would allow us—among many other benefits—to address the issue of inequality not only as a problem of redistribution, falling back into ineffective rhetoric, but also primarily as a problem concerning the sphere of production, the allotment of production, and the institutions through which the models of development are articulated.

Behind the “job guarantee” initiatives and the related idea of ​​using the state as employer of last resort stands a great theoretical tradition (from Keynes to Meade, Minsky, Atkinson), as well as all the profound transformations in recent years that are pushing all countries toward a growth model that is less export-led and more focused on domestic demand, which needs to be fueled by mission-oriented action by the public sector, as well as strong industrial and regional policies and potent innovation and research initiatives.

We must reject the rhetoric that casts technological phenomena as exogenous, natural and neutral, and reaffirm the possibility of what Atkinson has called a public and collective direction for innovation. On the one hand, more than ten years since the advent of the 2007-2008 crisis, the world economy’s situation remains so uncertain that many are claiming to see the signals of a new great crisis and are talking about “secular stagnation.” According to Larry Summers, this means “the achievement of fairly ordinary growth with extraordinary policy and financial conditions,” thus encouraging unreasonable risk-taking, unhealthy debt accrual and the formation of bubbles, which, in turn, set up the conditions for new crises.

In Europe, the end of quantitative easing is highlighting the difference between the number of jobs that would be needed and that which is actually offered by companies. Some—e.g. the Swiss unions—are proposing that “occupational standards” should be codified into law for firms above a certain size, applying the terms of the European Employment Guideline (EEG)—a kind of tax for labor for the new millennium.

On the other hand, we are seeing the emergence of dramatic issues, such as that of the environment, as well as the emergence of enormous unmet social needs (which usually shape domestic demand)—all of which the market alone is not able to solve, or mitigate, or improve. The destruction of the environmental equilibria is taking place at an unprecedented rate, while the citizens’ needs remain unfulfilled in terms of housing, nutrition, mobility, leisure, culture, education, training or health, and the quality of life is degrading throughout all territories (from the large metropolitan areas to the small and medium-sized cities, all the way to rural and peripheral areas).

In all these problematic sectors, what is needed is an extraordinary mobilization of energies. The commitment towards a “job guarantee” reminds us that at the heart of Roosevelt’s New Deal—about which ignorant takes are plentiful—were the extraordinary collective projects (such as the electrification of rural areas, the rehabilitation of degraded neighborhoods, the creation of large parks, the conservation and the protection of natural resources), put to use for the purpose of creating jobs in vast quantities and for all levels of skill (including for artists and theater actors) through the Job Corps, and thus identifying new opportunities for investment and for ensuring the dynamism for the entire economic system.

A similar opportunity is opening up today, and we can seize it in order to replace an unhealthy development model—based on the narcotic effect of financial and real estate “bubbles” and the exponential increase in the value of assets, as well as of speculative private debt—with a new model for development, oriented towards the Green Revolution, urban regeneration and redevelopment of the land, cultural heritage, education and universities, and individual and societal welfare.

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