- Jan. 28th, 2009 at 4:26 PM
The American way of life depends, in part, on a specific illusion. It's a lie that we tell ourselves, and tell our children. What we just did last Tuesday, an orderly, peaceful, even civil transition of power from one generation to the next, from one ethnic group to another, from one political party to another political party with a different political agenda? We lie to ourselves, and lie even harder to our children, that that is something we can count on, something we have always been able to count on, that any alternative is so unthinkable and unnatural for Americans that we need have no fear whatsoever of any alternative.
Historians know that that's a lie. Even if one accepts the incredible claim that every US President who has ever been assassinated was killed by a deranged lone gunman, acting out of personal motives, with no political motive, and with no encouragement or assistance by anyone else, the fact remains: historians know that it can get so bad in the United States, economically, that the American people will withdraw their consent to be governed. We call one particular financial industry collapse that rippled outward around the globe (among other things, ultimately bringing the Nazis to power in Germany) not just any recession or depression, but the Great Depression, because the number of people needing work in the US rose to about 3.5 million, or about 20% of all working-age heads of households. In the hardest-hit parts of the country, it reached 50%. And it's not a coincidence that the next several years saw three credible attempts to topple the United States government: a half-million man general strike called by Soviet-influenced CIO labor unions aimed at sparking a general uprising and Communist revolution that couldn't quite hold out long enough to get their revolution before it collapsed, Huey Long's astronomically-growing Poor People's Army that aimed at overthrowing the Constitution which was only thwarted via its leader's assassination, and an attempt by the 1930s equivalent of the Democratic Leadership Council, then called the American Liberty League, to use corporate money to bribe US military generals into placing them in power via coup d'etat. No, we know as a matter of objective fact: somewhere in the near vicinity of 20% prolonged unemployment, the USA starts running a serious risk of anarchy followed by totalitarianism.
We also know that by the same measure of unemployment that was in use at the time, as of this month the US unemployment rate is somewhere in the near vicinity of 15%. And rising. Fast. As in perhaps as much as 1% per month. No, really, trust me on this: everybody in both political parties now understands what everybody in both political parties understood as of 1933, when centrist (and wealthy) Democratic former New York governor Frank Roosevelt was sworn in as President: they were doomed if they didn't find some way to lower unemployment. And trust me on this, both Republicans and Democrats in our own time understand that the clock is ticking on this now, too. What remains is the question: how do we do that? Nor are today's Republican and Democratic leaders the first politicians to be faced with this question, it is the exact same question that was asked in 1933. And the political elites and the professional economists of our time agree 100% with the political elites and the professional economists of 1933. Our ruling class, just like the ruling class of 1933, believes that government by definition screws up everything it touches. That all government intervention in the economy is inherently bad, that the best it can possibly be is a short-term necessary evil. That the reason that big corporations are big is that they are lead by people who know how to make the best use of money and how to get the best work out of employees. Therefore the political elites and professional economists of our time 100% agree with Frank Roosevelt of early 1933 and with the American Liberty League of the 1930s that what we need is something like the Public Works Administration. What we need, they are 100% sure, is a public-private partnership: government identifies legitimate government needs that aren't currently being met, and bids that work out to private contractors, and audits those programs and those contractors to make sure that not one thin dime of taxpayer money is wasted on any project that's unnecessary or on any expense that can't be justified. And in a sign of bipartisanship, Franklin Roosevelt appointed left-wing Republican Harold Ickes to do just that.
As Timothy Noah pointed out yesterday in a lovely pair of articles on Slate.com, "Wrong Harry: Four million jobs in two years? FDR did it in two months" (with Charles Peters) and an almost immediate follow-up piece when the a news item proved his point for him even better, "CBO, Meet CWA: More evidence that Obama's stimulus falls short," FDR, congressional Republicans lead by Harold Ickes, and right-wing Democrats lead by Al Smith were wrong in exactly the same way that Barack Obama, congressional Republicans, and the Democratic Leadership Council are wrong right now. The Public Works Administration did its job. It did it under budget. It wasted not a single dollar. It attracted not a single critic. And it created almost no jobs. In 1933, it turned out that there just plain weren't that many legitimate government jobs that weren't being funded already. As Ickes took his sweet time coming up with more, lest he be criticized for wasting taxpayer money, he found out that there also weren't a whole lot of companies out there begging for the chance to bid on PWA contracts. They weren't crazy about the contract stipulations, and they weren't all that interested in retooling and reorganizing their entire corporate structures to service contracts there were guaranteed to end as soon as the Great Depression ended. As an anti-poverty, anti-violent-revolution government program, the Public Works Administration was an unvarnished, absolute, indefensible disaster. Period. End of story. Nobody even tries to defend it any more; its supporters just pretend it never happened, so they can recommend the same thing the next time without anybody knowing it's been tried before, because by their politics, it's the right thing to do whether it works or not.
And along about the time that Roosevelt was about to lose his temper over this, the First Lady talked him into talking to a very successful social worker named Harry Hopkins, who only wanted a few minutes of the President's time so he could ask one question. He showed the President figures (that he later showed Congress) showing that there were about 3.5 million Americans in 1933 who were heads of households between the ages of 18 and 64 that no employer was going to hire, no way, no how, not for any amount of money, and he asked: "Can you give one legal reason why we can't just hire those people ourselves?" The thing is, he got that estimate of 3.5 million people by going through the state-by-state lists of people who were already on the dole, people who were already receiving some kind of charitable or government cash hand-out because they weren't working. And what Hopkins realized was that not only did the American people deeply resent those people for taking money and doing nothing all day, the recipients weren't any happier about it, either: they wanted to work. So FDR shoe-horned a program through Congress, first as pilot program called the Civil Works Administration, to raise about $1200 (1933 US dollars) per year per unemployed head of household: $1000 per worker per year for wages, $24 per worker per year for administrative costs, the rest for hand tools and raw materials for whatever projects he could make up. 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 (see photograph above right).
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 FDR 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 twelve 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 FDR 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, FDR brought it right back again, 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 unemployed, non-disabled, 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" x 10" 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, and I know this one from a very personal source: my paternal grandfather was a WPA veteran.
Grampa Hicks was himself a right-wing anti-tax anti-communist Democrat of the American Liberty League school, and he hated the WPA with a fiery passion for the entire rest of his life. It was from him I first heard the joke: "How many people does it take to do one WPA job? Three. One on his way to the bathroom, one on his way back from the bathroom, and one leaning on the shovel pretending to work." But here's the funny thing. You know what Grampa Hicks was before the Great Depression? He was a bum. A mostly-unemployed unskilled laborer on the rare occasions he had a job, a street brawler and small-time crook, a chronic alcoholic and wife-beater who spent most of the 1920s in jail. So when he showed up in one of Harry Hopkins' branch offices and they asked him, "What do you do?" all he could answer was, "Nothing." So they stuck him on one of the WPA's archetypal projects: a National Guard armory. Under the thin pretense of "military preparedness," Harry Hopkins made up this total BS scenario whereby some day, in some foreign invasion of the US, we might end up having to retreat all the way back to any random tiny little town in America, so 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 before Hopkins and his few staff could come up with something else to do. Grampa Hicks went to his grave still mocking the work he'd done.
But you know what? There's a funny thing about that, something I'm pretty sure Grampa Hicks never thought about. First of all, if it weren't for the WPA, we Hickses would still be bums. Grampa Hicks was desperate to get out from behind that wheel barrow and that shovel, but was too drunk to do plumbing. So he took to hanging around when the electricians were running wire, and managed to get himself a totally useless job as a sort of human Vice-Grip. "Here," says the skilled electrician who was himself out of work, yelling over to my grandpa because the WPA wouldn't spring for proper tools, "you there -- hold these two wires together while I tape them together." By following that guy around and watching over that guy's shoulder, Grampa Hicks taught himself basic electrical wiring. And when the WPA was over, he was able to lie with a straight face to employers that he was a skilled electrician, and that got him his first real job, one his son learned from him, and that I learned from my dad that paid my way through college: electrical sign erector, IBEW local 1.
But never mind how much difference those "pointless" National Guard armories made to my family, there's something even bigger that Grampa Hicks didn't know. We're still using almost every single one of those buildings. I saw an article a while back (citation lost, sorry) by an architecture student who'd gotten curious about what ever happened to all those National Guard armories, so he got some grant money and went on a national tour. And what he found was that in almost every single rural town in America and even in most suburbs, those "ridiculously over-built" armories were the first truly solid building ever built there. And because they were "ridiculously over-built," they're still in use. A few are grocery stores or other businesses. Some are schools or community centers. Most are police stations or city halls. Almost all of them double as emergency shelters for the town during natural disasters. So the student did some math to figure out, using standard construction techniques and assuming standard maintenance costs, and assuming that we would have built something to do those jobs some time between then and now, what it would have cost some of those counties to have done without those buildings. And compared that to what it cost them and their descendants in federal tax money to support the WPA and to pay off its debts. The WPA actually made money on its most "useless" projects.
You can take almost any WPA project from the 1930s that was widely mocked as a pointless waste of money; nearly all of them paid every penny back in long-term savings to the taxpayers, in taxes paid by people who learned their trade on those projects who would have otherwise stayed on the dole, or both. In the 1936 elections, Roosevelt's political enemies handed out campaign buttons mocking the stupidest-sounding idea the WPA ever had. See, in even the smallest towns, the WPA built the first sewage treatment plants those counties ever saw, and laid sewer pipe for them. But lots of Americans still lived in areas too rural for even that. So the WPA paid teams of laborers to ride from farm to farm, shack to shack, shanty to shanty all over America looking for private outhouses that were rickety, or worse were too close to water supplies or food preparation. Those teams were given a standardized design with a water-tight roof, solid construction that would require almost no maintenance for decades, and most importantly: clean concrete floors and toilet hole lids that could close nearly air-tight, plus ventilation stacks that were designed to be insect resistant, in order to reduce both ground-water contamination by and insect-born transmission of fecal bacteria. Many areas turned the WPA down, especially suburbs around cities, and people all over America relentlessly mocked the WPA workers who thought that the US had "nothing better to do" than to waste $17 per rural house building massively over-engineered fancy outhouses. But you know what? Over the course of the 1930s and 1940s, almost every area that turned the WPA down on the outhouse project and other sanitation projects suffered major cholera outbreaks. Areas where the WPA built sewage treatment and sanitary outhouses escaped, saving tens of thousands of children's lives, and probably millions of dollars in hospital costs and lost wages.
Some people were really determined to not even do anything as useful as pretend to dig ditches. So they claimed, when the WPA asked them "what do you do?" to be writers or actors or artists. Some of them were even sincere, and had actually studied those subjects in high school; others just made it up. When asked about it, Harry Hopkins famously shrugged and said, "Why not? Those people have to eat, too." So the government made up make-work programs for them, too, all of which were relentlessly mocked all through the 1930s. You're an actor? Here. You've got no budget for props, sets, costumes, or stage rights for plays. We'll let you use an empty storefront and call it a "theater," especially if you'll bring in some WPA laborers to build a stage and some seats for you. No, wait, you can have some costumes, but not many; we have some households headed by widows who could stand to do some sewing for you at WPA wages. And you can have any public domain script you want. Now, put on plays. We don't care what plays, or how many you do, but you will come in 20 to 30 hours a week and work on them, and put them on when you're done ... including you, Mr. Orson Welles. Whose acting, then directing, careers are still bringing in taxpayer dollars every year; all by himself he's probably paid back the entire cost of the WPA's program for actors.
You say you're a journalist or a historian or a writer? Hmm. Tell you what. During westward expansion, an awful lot of tiny little towns got founded, and the people who founded those towns are getting old; go ask them who founded the town, and why, and what it was like, and write it up as a history of the county. Take all the time you want. Nuts, we're out of tiny little towns, and still have writers left over. Think of something. I know, go interview former slaves; we'll give them some time off from their WPA jobs so you can write down what they say their lives were like. What, we're still overstocked on people who say they're writers? Fine, here, we'll hand 'em to the state tourism boards; we'll send teams of 'em to just walk around every state in the Union, get drunk in the local bars, describe the local sights, and make tourist guides. And, oh, by the way, who knew? That'll turn out to include an entire generation of America's most famous writers, including America's third and fifth ever Nobel prizes for literature. Just the taxes on the movie rights to John Steinbeck's novels have probably paid for that entire program all by itself, and are still paying taxes. Not to mention that we still have all of those books, and most of their notes towards the unfinished books, and guess what? Generations of grad students in history are extremely grateful to the WPA; they wish every generation of Americans had been as well documented.
I don't think you can come up with a single dollar of WPA spending that actually counts as wasted, not a single WPA "make-work" project so pointless and stupid that we didn't get our money's worth out of it, especially if you count all the on-the-job job skills training it gave the 8 or 9 million people who went through the program. And that's even if you don't factor in the analysis of very serious historians who question whether or not American "G.I.s" would have fought so hard or so well to save the world from 1941 to 1945 if they had been as resentful, and as starving, as they were in 1930. But no, the blunt fact of history is that if the truth were ever told about the WPA, if the truth hadn't been being smothered in lies by the same political factions that opposed it at the time all the way up to this very day, everybody would know what the WPA proved as inescapable facts. No dollar of government spending is wasted, if it does a job that nobody else was going to do and it builds something that lasts. Almost nobody is so greedy and lazy that they actually would prefer to be paid to stay home and watch TV or get drunk or stoned all day; there are untold tens of millions of us now that no employer would touch for any of a long list of bad reasons who would rather be working. And no matter how lazy you think they are, boredom is a powerful motivator, and so is a desire not to let down your team, and so is a desire not to look bad in front of others: bring 'em to work, leave 'em alone, and nearly all of them actually will work, will actually build things that are built well, built for the ages, built to last. Paradoxically, the really wasted money is the money that gets spent on government overseers determined to make sure that none of the workers waste any money: point people at jobs, give 'em simple hand tools, and tell them to take their time and build something solid and it's almost impossible for us to not get that money back in long-term savings.
Nor is this even all that "liberal" an idea. Ronald freaking Reagan himself briefly campaigned on it, calling it "Workfare:" if you can't find a job, we'll make you one, whether you like it or not. But he didn't even get sworn in before the same pro-corporate Republicans and right-wing Democrats convinced him to drop it, to instead concentrate on cutting taxes for corporations as his only unemployment-fighting measure. No, there is now, just as there was in Franklin Roosevelt's time, a bipartisan consensus of the elites in this country that the way to put Americans back to work is that taxes must be cut on investors and corporations. We are, apparently, supposed to ignore the last thirty years of history, which teaches us that every tax cut we pass and every subsidy we grant to big corporations will be used to hire robots or to move jobs overseas. No, this time we're supposed to believe it will be different and this time they really will use that money to make more jobs. Trust them on this, they say. And just as in Roosevelt's day, the exact same political coalition of big-corporation Republicans and big-corporation Democrats insist that if that won't do the job fast enough, then what we need are even more public-private partnerships. And ironically, even Barack Obama, who very nearly lost his political career early on because he was caught on the fringes of Tony Rezko's financially corrupt public-private partnership, one that Barack Obama had gotten for him, somehow hasn't learned that it's public-private partnerships and tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, not government make-work programs or benefits for the unemployed, that are the real welfare cheats. Being a Harvard graduate who grew up under the steady drumbeat of pro-corporate propaganda about how evil the WPA was, he's still talking up the need for more public-private partnerships like Harold Ickes' old Public Works Administration.
So I figure the odds at roughly 4 to 1 that he's going to screw up the unemployment situation in America, at the very least doing nothing to help it, and quite possibly making it worse by funding the elimination of yet more American jobs, because that's exactly what the new President and his cabinet officers are talking about doing, lately. Sadly, these are even better odds than we would have had under either Clinton or McCain, neither of whom would have even considered anything but public-private partnerships. Obama will, I think, at least think about it. But I don't think he'll do anything but try to set up another PWA. Which is a damned shame. Because what we really need is another WPA.