The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with knee-jerk predictability, has lost no time condemning the proposed new Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act, although it would appear that labor has more to compain about than management.
The supposedly landmark legislation, better known as the Humprey-Hawkins bill, is hardly more than a shadow of the government-guaranteed job program originally called for by the chief sponsors, Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) and Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D-Calif.).
The compromise that emerged after many weeks of negotiations between the White House and the backers of the bill merely sets as a far-off national goal a reduction of the overall unemployment rate form the present 7 per cent to 4 per cent six years from now. And even that is subject to presidential change.
During his campaign for the presidency, Jimmy Caeter repeatedly said that he regarded unemployment as a greater threat than inflation. He also said that his "first priority" in sparking economic recovery would be fullfledged job-creation efforts.
Now, however, full employment, or something akin to it, becomes a second-term objective. Even though Hawkins finally went along with the White House compromise, he says "it is ridiculous" to contend that unemployment can't be reduced to 4 per cent before 1983.
Early opposition, though, is coming not from liberal-labor circles, but from business spokesmen, despite presidential assurances that the Humphrey-Hawkins bill includes commitments to "price stabililty." Jack Carlson, chief economist of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, complains that the 1983 goal cannot be achieved "without causing" inflation at a rate of 10 per cent a year or more.
Many economists would disagree. After all, during the eight years of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations, the inflation rate averaged only 2.6 per cent despite a relatively low unemployment rate that averaged out at 4.7 per cent. If Kennedy and Johnson could do it, why can't Carter?
In the long run, management as well as labor has a vital stake in high employment, for that is what ensures big purchasing power, with consequent expansion and profits for the business world.
Over the last 40 years or so, there has been unbroken inflation of one degree or another in the United States, and during that period business has generally enjoyed the greatest growth and prosperity in American history. Conversely, the century's worst depression was aggravated not by inflation but by almost fatal deflation.
The Humphrey-Hawkins bill, as introduced, was based on the sound proposition that no matter how costly it is to put people to work, it is far more costly and wasteful to pay them not to work, as we do now with unemployment compensation and other benefits that run into many billions of dollars.
Every time the jobless rate goes up 1 per cent, it costs the government around $14 billion annually in tax revenues it would collect if these people were working. Moreover, the same 1 per cent of unemployment costs the country $50 billion in goods and services annually.
Thus, the difference between 4 per cent and 7 per cent comes to $150 billion a year. Leon Keyserling, former chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, estimates the failure to maintain a full economy cost the United States over $3.35 trillion from 1953 through 1975.
Michael Levy, an official of the Conference Board, a leading business research organization, says, "Except for the Great Depression, such massive losses of real output are of unprecedented magnitude." He says he is "not sure whether our economic, political or social system can sustain such a severe and prolonged dislocation."
Some of the costs of underemployment are not readily perceived. The Social Security Administration, for example, recently released a study showing that, if unemployment were reduced from the current 7 per cent figure to merely 5 per cent, Social Security income over the next four years would show a surplus of $10 billion instead of the projected deficit of $11 billion. Hence, even a moderate reduction of unemployment could have averted the sharp boost in Social Security payroll taxes that Congress has just enacted.
After World War II, it was felt that umemployment should never again be tolerated. Congress, in the Full Employment Act of 1946, declared that "all Americans able to work and seeking work would have the right to useful, remunerative, regular and full-time employment."
Unfortunately, Congress never made good on implementing the legislation. From 1960 through 1970, for instance, unemployment averaged 4.7 per cent in the United States as against only 0.6 per cent in Germany, 1.3 in Japan, 1.5 in Sweden, 2 in France and 3 in England. From 1975 through 1977, the U.S. rate has mostly fluctuated in the range of 7 to 9 per cent.
So, the diluted Humphrey-Hawkins bill is not likely to accomplish much more than the 1946 proclamation unless President Carter embraces it more enthusiastically than he has so far.