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1/29/2009
12:16 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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Will It Take A New Deal To Stop The Economic Crash?

Colossal government work programs stopped the Great Depression and created infrastructure improvements we still use today, argues The Infamous Brad. What colossal technology programs might help pull the United States out of its economic nosedive, and leave a legacy for generations to come?

Colossal government work programs stopped the Great Depression and created infrastructure improvements we still use today, argues The Infamous Brad. What colossal technology programs might help pull the United States out of its economic nosedive, and leave a legacy for generations to come?Brad says that just giving money to private companies isn't enough to bail out the American economy. What we need is a massive, Depression-style program where the U.S. government employs millions of people directly on projects that private industry and other government agencies won't touch, he says.

If Brad's proposal sounds familiar, then kudos to you for staying awake during history class. Brad is arguing for a revival of the Works Progress Administration, launched by F.D.R. during the Great Depression.

In 1933, like today, the best minds of the private and public sector agreed that public-private partnership -- government writing checks to private business, which would then hire workers -- was the answer to reversing the economic downturn. In 1933, like today, the best minds were dead wrong, Brad argues. And so the U.S. government decided to simply hire workers directly, assigning them to make-work projects just to stave off civil unrest. These were subsistence jobs that paid very little, barely enough to let the workers buy food and get shelter.

The projects weren't designed to be useful. They weren't designed to be efficient. Their only goals were to keep a hungry population fed, busy, and distracted. However, a funny thing happened to those WPA projects -- they were great long-term investments, still in use today, Brad says.

The program was initially launched as the Civil Works Administration.

To get CWA funding, a job had to be something that no corporation was interested in providing, and that no government agency was interested in funding, and it had to be as labor-intensive as possible....

Conservatives in both parties hated it. And still do. And campaigned hard against it in the 1934 congressional primaries. Al Smith's right-wing Democrats convinced F.D.R. that if he kept the CWA, it would cost him his majority in Congress, so he shut it down after only four months. In that four months, CWA workers had already built 1,000 rural airports, built 40,000 school buildings, built or resurfaced a quarter-million miles of roads, and laid 12 million miles of sanitary sewer lines, some of the first sewer lines laid in most counties. In four months. Right-wing Democrats and anti-tax pro-corporate Republicans screamed bloody murder about all the money that the CWA was "wasting," but (and this is a point I'll come back to again) we're still using almost all of that stuff today. 75 years later, those "worthless," "make-work" projects are turning out to be some of the most valuable stuff the government had done in its first 150 years of existence. So contrary to what the right-wing Democrats in Congress were telling F.D.R. he "needed" to do to "save" the 1934 congressional elections, terminating the CWA turned out to be the least popular thing he did as president, and as soon as the elections were over, on voter mandate, F.D.R. brought it right back again, and rammed it through Congress again as the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Only this time it had full funding, and a Congressional and presidential mandate to try to hire every single one of the roughly 3.5 million nondisabled, work-aged heads of household in America. And in almost no time at all, they came as close as makes no difference, getting to 3.3 million, on one simple philosophy: you tell us whatever it is you "do," and we'll find you a job doing it. Those jobs paid very nearly jack squat; nearly all WPA workers ended up living with their whole families in roughly 8-by-10-foot or so rooms in improvised "boarding houses," spare rooms leased out by people who were house-rich but cash poor, trying to save their homes, tenants with no control over the menu of the meal plan it came with, and shared use of a single bathroom (or maybe just an outhouse and an outdoor water pump) with 3 to 8 other families. Nobody lived well on the WPA, but nobody starved, either. On the other hand, nobody worked terribly hard, either....

For example, one of these useless projects was building National Guard armories in small towns, on the rationale that small towns in Middle America might somehow be called on to fight off a foreign invasion. (I wonder if that was the inspiration for the movie Red Dawn).

The program's goal was that "every tiny little road-crossing town and every suburb and every city neighborhood in America should have a solidly built, concrete-block or raw stone building that the state militia can store their weapons in until that day, and can use as a fort when we get nearly conquered. Nobody was fooled. Everybody knew it was a lie: it was building buildings just for the sake of building pointless buildings. Furthermore, the whole "fort" thing was just an excuse to make the job take longer, to build out of improbably heavy materials and as slowly and carefully as possible, so those mostly unskilled laborers didn't run out of something to do...."

But we're still using all those buildings: As grocery stores, businesses, community centers, police stations, city halls, and they double as emergency shelters during hurricanes and other national disasters. They actually made money, Brad says.

Read the whole post, it's fascinating and goes into a lot more detail. Brad argues that all the so-called "wasteful" public works projects in the WPA proved to be good investments, even ridiculous things like improving outhouses in rural communities, and paying writers or actors to write and put on plays. Brad says the proposal is not particularly lefty or associated with the Democratic Party; Ronald Reagan campaigned on the proposal, he called it "workfare."

Let's say Brad is right. Let's say that the U.S. government comes around to his point of view, and we see a mandate to spend massive amounts of money -- a trillion dollars, 10 trillion dollars -- employing people on massive projects that the private sector won't do.

How would you spend the portion of the money that goes to IT projects? Are there any colossal projects that would cost a lot of money, employ vast numbers of people, and improve the national infrastructure for decades to come?

Here's one idea: Free fiber to the door of every household in America that wants it. Let's solve the last-mile problem by writing one enormous check. This project certainly fulfills the mandate of being expensive and labor-intensive, and requiring legions of employees at all skills and education levels, from highly trained IT managers and staff to design the networks, to ditchdiggers to dig the holes the lines would go in. It's expensive and huge, it'd put lots of people to work -- but is it a good investment? Or would it become obsolete in just a couple of years?

And another idea: Rewire the energy grid to support electric vehicles. Every gas station in America should get a power supply sufficient to recharge large number of electric cars that would be used to replace our present gasoline-powered vehicles.

What do you think? What massive technology project would put huge numbers of Americans to work, and improve the country's infrastructure for decades to come?

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