Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A nation-wide public works program would be good for everyone! Which is exactly why it will never happen.

(WPA workers building a dam in Maryland, 1936. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

Republican political strategist Matthew Dowd recently offered up the following idea to address our ever-growing economic inequality: "...we need to have a well-paying jobs program tied to infrastructure improvements administered locally by cities, counties and states where people still trust government to get the job done. And this should be funded by tax policies at the federal level which put a much bigger burden on the wealthy in this country." Dowd is essentially calling for a new WPA, a New Deal public works program that was funded mostly by the federal government, but administered more at the local level.

Though definitely not the norm among conservatives, Dowd's proposal is not completely unique either. Indeed, the icon of the modern conservative movement, Ronald Reagan, praised the WPA in his autobiography: "The WPA was one of the most productive elements of FDR's alphabet soup of agencies because it put people to work building roads, bridges, and other gave men and women a chance to make some money along with the satisfaction of knowing they earned it."

And Dowd's proposal seems rational, given that America's infrastructure received a letter grade of D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2013. Indeed, our infrastructure is literally falling apart. For example, America experiences about 240,000 water line breaks every year -- or about 657 per day.

Jared Bernstein, a progressive-minded economist and former adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, recently suggested a compromise between the political left and the political right: "...the left agrees to work requirements for the able-bodied poor and the right agrees to direct, public sector job creation to ensure ample opportunity." Again, this is a WPA-type (and common sense) idea.

So, considering that (a) youth unemployment is still in the double-digits, (b) 23 million American wish they had a full-time job but can't find one, (c) the August jobs report showed 3 million long-term jobless workers, (d) the labor force participation rate is now at a 36-year-low, and (e) our infrastructure is falling apart, what in the world is our problem? Why can't we connect the dots? Well, there are three major reasons: Weak democrats, right-wing extremism, and the policy preferences of super-wealthy Americans. Put these three forces together and you've got a toxic stew of plutocracy, gridlock, and irrational public policy.

Weak Democrats--Example:

When the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced legislation to create a new WPA, he received little or no support from his fellow democrats (including Obama). So, Lautenberg's bill died in committee.

Right-Wing Extremism--Example:

When Democrats introduced legislation to create a public jobs program for unemployed veterans, Senate Republicans blocked it. It seems that, in the minds of many Republican politicians, service is a one-way street. On the one hand they say, "Go risk your life for us," and then, on the other hand, they say, "Sorry, we can't afford to help you." That's an extremist (and sociopathic) position to take. And it's interesting that Democrats had the courage to introduce such legislation. I suppose they felt it was "safe" legislation, since it would only apply to unemployed veterans, a group that usually garners a great deal of concern from the general public.

Preferences of Super-Wealthy Americans--Example:

Researchers from Northwestern and Vanderbilt universities conducted a study of the policy preferences of wealthy vs. non-wealthy Americans. Their findings indicate that most wealthy Americans would probably not support a new WPA. When presented with the proposition, "The federal government should provide jobs for everyone able and willing to work who cannot find a job in private employment," only 8% of wealthy respondents agreed, while 53% of non-wealthy respondents agreed (see "Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans," p. 57, table 5). Earlier research showed that wealthy Americans "tend to emphasize relying on free markets or private philanthropy to produce good outcomes. More than other citizens, they tend to think in terms of 'getting government out of the way' to solve public problems" (see here). And we know that our current policymakers listen closely to wealthy Americans when crafting public policy, and largely ignore non-wealthy Americans (see, e.g., "The Governments Listens to Lobbyists and the Wealthy, Not You and Me").

So, what does all this mean? Well, it means there is little or no hope for unemployed Americans, under-employed Americans, and other low-income Americans. Sure, people will still find jobs here and there, but those jobs will increasingly offer little pay, few benefits, and no future. It also means that our infrastructure will continue to deteriorate faster than it is upgraded. Private enterprise is not a good solution to infrastructure problems, unless you want to stop at a toll both every few miles to pay the corporation or billionaire that is maintaining the road you're on.

So, a combination of weak Democrats, right-wing extremism, and the anti-government policy preferences of most super-wealthy Americans will prevent a nation-wide public works program from ever happening. Sorry Mr. Dowd and Mr. Bernstein--though your ideas make sense, the very fact that a public works program would be good for everyone ensures that it will never happen.

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