When the June jobs report from the U.S. Labor Department came out this year, the numbers looked good: The unemployment rate had dropped to 6.1 percent—the lowest rate since the economy started tanking in 2008—and the country had added 281,000 new jobs. The general consensus was that these were great numbers.
Fadhel Kaboub, associate professor of economics, is not part of that consensus. He believes we can do better—that we can get almost all of those 9.7 million Americans still out of work back into gainful employment.
Kaboub has been studying and writing for years about the concept of “full employment”—meaning that everyone willing and able to work is doing so. (His doctoral dissertation looked into achieving this in his native Tunisia.) The idea of full employment may seem fanciful to us now, he admits, but that wasn’t always the case. “None of this was radical during World War II,” says Kaboub, when the war effort brought work to millions. That changed in the 1980s, he says, when Western political leaders increasingly espoused a strong adherence to the whims of free markets, including the view that some unemployment is a natural way to ward off inflation. Kaboub says former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher summed up the thinking with a famous phrase: “There is no alternative.”
Kaboub disagrees. He believes that there are ways to get economies around the world to achieve full employment for their populations, and he’s started a new think tank, the Binzagr Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, to show just how to do it. Launched in October, the institute is funded by the Binzagr family in Saudi Arabia, whose business produces and distributes products regionally for consumer goods conglomerate Unilever. The institute is staffed by a board of economists and academics from across the country, including Kaboub and his former thesis advisor, Mathew Forstater, who is an economics professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC).
The goal of “sustainable prosperity” differentiates the institute from think tanks and policymakers who are focused solely on simple job creation and economic growth. Kaboub’s mission is deeper. “Economists tend to look at GDP as a key indicator,” says Kaboub. “We want to focus on quality of life, too.” A focus on GDP, for instance, might show an increase in healthcare spending as a positive, without considering that healthcare spending might be rising due to environmental issues like pollution. “A good employment opportunity provides work without necessarily destroying the environment,” says Kaboub.
And while the majority of the think tank’s output will be ideas—to generate media attention and start conversations among policymakers—the institute also will have the opportunity to see some of its theories in action. Early pilot projects in Saudi Arabia will seek to match community employment needs with community skills to create rewarding work for all involved. “Many young people looking for work in Saudi Arabia have media and digital skills,” says Kaboub. “So you’re not going to have them trim the trees and clean the streets.”
Again, he says, there are lessons to be gleaned from American economic history here: During the New Deal era, federal agencies often matched job applicants’ skills with community needs. Unemployed artists, for instance, were commissioned to paint public murals. Kaboub says the same ethos will guide the institute, which will offer research opportunities for Denison students, as well as Ph.D. students at UMKC. “We want to take the old concept of the New Deal and update it to the new economic system.” If the think tank is successful, Kaboub says, it could get government funding to implement it on a larger scale.
But putting people to work isn’t just about moving needles. Kaboub points to Argentina’s “Head of Household” program, which offered guaranteed work for a minimum of four hours a day and 150 Argentine pesos a month (roughly $18) to 2 million people beginning in 2002—in the midst of the country’s deep economic crisis. When the workers were later asked whether they’d prefer to go back on public assistance rather than participate in the work program, the vast majority, Kaboub says, preferred the program. “They were excluded from the formal economy and marginalized because they were poor and rural, but this program allowed them to participate in the economy.” It’s an enviable outcome: With a little help, the program created a new, empowered labor force—just the kind of result Kaboub hopes to create.