Why Not a New WPA?

Sidewalk Lippitt Park

That’s a seventy-year-old sidewalk laid down by WPA workers in the Great Depression. Still sound, like a lot of the infrastructure work done then.

The New York Times business section puts in simple terms why stimulus money used wisely on needed repairs is smart policy…

Millions of Americans remain out of work only because employers can already produce more than enough to meet depressed demand. The obvious remedy is to increase total spending. Although economic stimulus has become a controversial topic in the abstract, a few simple observations should persuade every sensible legislator — perhaps even a majority! — to support a specific type of higher spending: accelerated refurbishment of our crumbling infrastructure.

Some in Congress have consistently opposed the president’s infrastructure proposals, citing the huge national debt. But that’s an incoherent objection. If repairs to the Capitol dome or a tattered stretch of interstate highway are postponed, they will just become more costly. Many job seekers have the skills for this work. If we wait, we’ll have to bid them away from other tasks. The required materials are cheaper now than they will ever be. And interest rates are at record lows.
Of course, the debt is an important long-run problem, but deferring infrastructure repairs will only worsen it. Relative to current policy, then, such projects would address multiple pressing problems without distress.

Pumping up consumption while neglecting essentials just means that the car we bought on credit gets dinged in the pothole we didn’t fix.

It’s true, Americans want jobs, but when we get past the desperate stage we want work that matters. The WPA created both jobs and useful work. Why not build on what we learned then at such cost?

Job of Work

I was stuck waiting in my car yesterday evening so I improved my mind by listening to live coverage of the Republican National Convention.

There were politicians talking about how their parents, their grandparents, their families started small businesses. We love small businesses no matter what party we vote for. The big businesses and multi corporations that both parties answer to for the big bucks were staying discretely in the background. That’s always the way. McDonalds hides behind the Mom and Pop diner and Walmart wipes out the corner store. Good luck, small businesses, you are minnows in the shark pool.

Anyway, I am sick of this phrase, ‘Job Creators’. If you are religious, there is only one Creator, and His name is not Donald Trump. If you are scientific you know that Einstein said you can’t make something from nothing. Since when have some of our population assumed Godlike powers? This couldn’t be Evolution, could it? Wouldn’t that be problematic with the base?

With all this self-congratulation about being the party of Job Creators, the politicians I heard seldom used the word ‘work’. Perhaps because ‘workers’ has a slightly discomforting sound, as if perhaps the workers might start organizing. It’s better to focus on the Job Creators, who bestow employment on the deserving if we just give them enough tax breaks and deregulation.

I think we are all, Republicans and Democrats, looking in the wrong direction. A job is a task. You can get a job digging holes and filling them in, but that would not be meaningful or dignified work. Anyone with their eyes open knows that there is abundant opportunity for work that needs doing. Construction and rehabilitation of our cities, roads and bridges, creative problem solving, service work for our growing elderly population to name a few obvious crying needs. There are qualified people ready to do this work.

We still use construction almost 80 years old from the WPA. I wish the Obama Administration had called it that. ‘Stimulus’ doesn’t have the historical connection that would have made it clear how we got the job done in the Great Depression.

Beyond that, we are in a new millenium. No one has to spend forty years kicking a foot press in a stifling mill. It’s all automated. The human being, who is capable of so much more than being used as industrial machinery could make her contribution though meaningful work, or be discarded and despised for her unemployment.

It’s been said that ‘workfare’ only makes sense when the government is committed to 100% employment. You don’t shove someone out of the plane without a parachute. There are not enough jobs. There is more than enough work. To balance the real needs and resources will require both private and public institutions in coordination, with some commitment to the good of our country.

There was a phrase I first heard at Occupy Providence, ‘solidarity economy’. An economy that takes into account mutual aid and the public good, independence and free enterprise, equal representation for all regardless of social class. If we get too fixated on ‘jobs’ we are not aiming high enough. If we don’t recognize that we all built it, we are deluding ourselves.

It’s like a game of mis-direction. No matter which side is talking, don’t watch their mouths, watch their hands.

Tom Sgouros has an analysis of job destruction in North Kingstown at Rhode Island’s Future.


As expected, Republicans voted down President Obama’s Jobs Bill. What next? New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg is calling for a new WPA.

“The President’s plan — and, by the way, we wouldn’t have minded if it passed, I voted for it — has a lot of good things… but it doesn’t have the immediacy factor [of mine],” he said.

Lautenberg’s legislation, called the 21st Century WPA Act, wouldn’t be exactly like the WPA that gave Lautenberg’s own father a job during the Great Depression. Rather, it would award funding to projects that would give jobs to people unemployed for more than 60 days; have a continued economic benefit after their completion; and would devote a “high” portion of each dollar spent to employee pay. The legislation suggests — but does not limit departments to — a variety of projects, including the construction of water treatment plants, schools and firehouses, highway repairs and maintenance, building weatherization and trail maintenance.

I’m always a little amused by how people across the board, conservatives included, like the idea of a WPA. I think it’s because there’s living memory of how it saved people from poverty and desperation and put the country back to work. Not busy work, either. We still see WPA plaques, cite WPA research– the infrastructure built by the WPA is still sound. There’s WPA sidewalks in Lippit Park.

Lautenberg proposes a tax on millionaires. I always wonder why some call this kind of tax a ‘punishment’. Jeeze, I should be punished with a million or two a year and I won’t gripe about taxes since I don’t gripe about the taxes I pay now.

But consider– do not millionaires drive on streets? Do they not call the fire department when they have a fire? Do they not hire workers who went to public schools? I think they will get their money’s worth.

Occupy Providence Day 2– Talking Ron Paul

A late dispatch since we’re on Day 3, but Mr.Green and I stopped by yesterday before church. It looked like almost 20 tents, good spirits and peaceful. We were standing by General Burnside reading the posters. Again, the only presidential candidate with a presence here is Ron Paul, though one of his posters had a red, drippy ‘x’ painted on it, which I think indicates non-support.

A man in a union t-shirt came up and asked John, ‘As a Black man, do you have an opinion on Ron Paul?’ This was pretty direct, but he was asking an honest question– why do Black people generally not support Ron Paul?

John said that he thought Paul’s political philosophy in practice tended to social Darwinism, and he was unhappy with Paul’s desire to undo the Voting Rights Act. John’s family originally came from Selma, Alabama, and the Civil Rights Struggle, and the role of the Federal Government in protecting demonstrator’s persons and rights are part of his family’s living history. And John reads a lot.

I said that I cannot understand how a physician can politically support letting people die for lack of insurance. Paul supports a radical deregulation and privatization of health care, I wrote about here. I also had heard Ron Paul in a radio interview say that he thinks abortion is murder, but outlawing it should be left to the states. This is doubletalk to me. ‘You can’t shoot someone in RI and have it not be a crime in MA’, I said, but our questioner disagreed, pointing out that in places like Texas you can shoot lots of people legally. Still, if Ron Paul had said he considered abortion to be murder, but that he respected the right of the woman concerned to make that moral decision since it involves her own body I would say he is consistent in his Libertarian principles.

We had a disagreement about Libertarianism– I mentioned that Ron Paul is a Republican. Our questioner said that he’s only nominally a Republican, actually he’s a Libertarian. He is, however, running for president as a Republican and participated in the Republican debates.

I like Paul’s stand against the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and I am happy when he takes a stand I agree with, but I don’t think he has the answers.

I don’t want to throw a discordant note into our Kumbaya. Occupy Providence is the most politically diverse group I have ever demonstrated with, and that’s saying a lot. I don’t think any politician owns this energy, though many would like to. No politician has the power to undo decades of concentrating the wealth, even those who want to.

But reform that requires the wealthy and the corporations to pay their fair share, and directing that money to a new WPA would start us on the right track. Most of the country thinks we’re on the wrong track, and some are taking it to the streets.

Stay Tuned

I’m getting some lunch at Panera Bread, bless their corporate heart– they’re here, they take my card and they have Wi-Fi. I’m a little sorry that a nice pizza place I was going to stop at has closed their doors– tough for small businesses.

Not to eat their bread and dis them– it’s nothing against Panera, but big chains don’t trickle customers down onto Mom and Pop’s Pizza. They take the customers. That’s what they’re supposed to do.

I’m listening to WRNI news that the Republicans will almost certainly succeed in extending tax cuts for the richest, as a condition of tax relief for the middle class. In their faith-based enthusiasm they assure us that the rich will trickle on us and bless us with golden showers of prosperity.

Robert Reich on Common Dreams gives us the two competing narratives on economic reform. I’m going back to work, so I’m going to just lift a lot of what he wrote, but follow the link for the whole post, it’s really good…

Quiz: What’s responsible for the lousy economy most Americans continue to wallow in?

A. Big government, bureaucrats, and the cultural and intellectual elites who back them.

B. Big business, Wall Street, and the powerful and privileged who represent them.

These are the two competing stories Americans are telling one another.

Yes, I know: It’s more complicated than this. In reality, the lousy economy is due to insufficient demand – the result of the nation’s almost unprecedented concentration of income at the top. The very rich don’t spend as much of their income as the middle. And since the housing bubble burst, the middle class hasn’t had the buying power to keep the economy going. That concentration of income, in turn, is due to globalization and technological change – along with unprecedented campaign contributions and lobbying designed to make the rich even richer and do nothing to help average Americans, insider trading, and political bribery.

So B is closer to the truth.

But A is the story Republicans and right-wingers tell. It’s a dangerous story because it deflects attention from the real problem and makes it harder for America to focus on the real solution – which is more widely shared prosperity.

Reich calls for a new WPA. That’s what the ‘stimulus’ should have been called, because it’s what people want. We want to work, we want to see everyone give their fair share. Someone has to find the words and get heard.