Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Democratic Establishment calls for a new WPA-type program. Sincere or subterfuge?

Above: "Employment in Public Works," an oil painting by Tom Lea (1907-2001), created while he was in the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, ca. 1933-1934. Image courtesy of the General Services Administration and the New Mexico Museum of Art.

The Democratic Establishment, through their think tank, Center for American Progress (CAP), recently proposed "a large-scale, permanent program of public employment and infrastructure investment - similar to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression but modernized for the 21st century" (Neera Tanden, et. al., "Toward a Marshall Plan for America," Center for American Progress, May 16, 2017). CAP was founded by John Podesta, and is currently presided over by Neera Tanden - both of whom are high-level operatives in the Obama and Clinton political machines.

CAP's call for a new WPA-type program is (seemingly) a positive development, but there are a few items of concern:

1. Only for noncollege graduates? It appears that CAP is developing this idea solely for "noncollege graduates." If that's true, it's a grave mistake - for two reasons: (a) because many college graduates are struggling too (a college degree is not a vaccine against unemployment and struggle); and (b), it sounds too paternalistic and condescending. It seems to say, "We, the college-educated and elite, will show you, the people who can't seem to figure things out, the path to success." A new WPA-type program should be open to anyone who needs a job but can't find one. Period.

2. A commission of the elite? CAP tells us they're "putting together a new commission to help design a national 'Marshall Plan' to rebuild hard-hit communities through increased economic growth; more jobs with better wages; and rising opportunities and increased security for families... The commission will be composed of national, regional, and local leaders who can provide direction and visibility to its work. It will call upon the expertise of urban and rural leaders who represent labor, business, education, health, faith, community and economic development, and racial justice to help understand the problem; lift up promising practices; and develop bold new ideas, particularly for people who did not attend college." 

Okay, but CAP also needs to put a few non-elite people on their commission, e.g., people who have experienced long-term unemployment, as well as the financial victimization that occurs during such long-term unemployment. The experiences and observations of these people will help craft the best possible jobs program.

3. Why no mention of the New Deal or Roosevelt? The article / proposal makes no mention of the New Deal or Franklin Roosevelt. Also, why is the title, "Towards a Marshall Plan for America," instead of "Towards Another New Deal for America?" Perhaps I'm being too nit-picky here, but considering the Democratic Establishment's abandonment of the New Deal, I find their terminology (or lack thereof) a little problematic. Well, at least they had the courage to say "WPA".

4. Too concerned with getting votes. Throughout CAP's proposal, heavy emphasis is put on election results, both past and future. For example, they suggest: "with President Obama not on the ticket to drive voter enthusiasm, it is quite possible that lingering job and wage pressures in more urban areas with lots of young people, and in areas with large populations of African-Americans, yielded similar, if distinct, economic anxiety in ways that may have depressed voter turnout among base progressives. The combined effect of economic anxiety may have been to drive white noncollege voters toward Trump and to drive down voter engagement and participation among base progressives. Either way, issues related to lost jobs, low wages, high costs, and diminished mobility played a critical role in setting the stage for a narrow populist victory for Trump." 

Well, if the main driver behind CAP's jobs program is election results (i.e., more than, let's say, empathy) what happens if / when the voters described above are considered less vital? Bye-bye jobs program! As journalists Alex Shephard and Clio Chang have noted, Neera Tanden "repeatedly steers discussion of policy into political directions, judging proposals like the $15 minimum wage by their perceived political impact, not by their merits" ("How Neera Tanden Works," New Republic, October 28, 2016). To be fair though, Tanden is hardly the only one. And it's not that political impact is unimportant but, my God, have some fire in your belly, fight for what's right; that's why the Bernie Sanders movement gained momentum so fast. People want heart, and authenticity, and fight.  

5. How far will corporate donors and billionaire philanthropists allow them to run with this idea? CAP is funded by Corporate America and super-wealthy individuals, i.e., people who rely on a steady pool of unemployed, financially devastated workers to build their profits (unemployment = desperation = willingness to work for low wages = higher profits for wealthy investors and executives). Given this reality, just how far do you think the donors will allow CAP to develop a new WPA-type program? At the end of the day, I think we can be fairly certain that it will be shut down or watered down.

Above: "CWA Workers at the Stadium," a black ink linoleum by Sheffield Harold Kagy (1907-1989), created while he was in the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, ca. 1933-1934. A predecessor to the WPA, the Civil Works Administration (CWA) employed millions of jobless Americans between 1933 and 1934. We still use many of their infrastructure projects today, as documented by the Living New DealImage courtesy of the General Services Administration and the Detroit Institute of Art.

Sincere or Subterfuge?

I hate to sound so cynical about CAP's WPA-type proposal (after all, we do want positive change, right?) but the Democratic Establishment has been so disappointing over the last few decades that it's hard to believe they're really going to fight hard for this, or even get it right. For example, in 2011, when many unemployed Americans were crying out for a public jobs program, the Obama administration dismissed the idea of a WPA. When U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced legislation to create a new WPA, also in 2011, he received no support from the Democratic Establishment and the bill died a lonely death in committee. When Bernie Sanders proposed a massive public works program to rebuild our infrastructure, during his 2016 campaign, he and his supporters were dismissed by the Democratic Establishment as delusional, pie-in-sky dreamers. And when Jill Stein ran on a campaign that included "a WPA-style public jobs program to secure the right to decent paid work through public jobs for the unemployed" she was dismissed altogether, not even permitted to debate Hillary Clinton.

So, is the Democratic Establishment's proposal for a new WPA-type program sincere, or subterfuge? Well, I hope they prove me wrong but, at this point--after so many heart-wrenching let-downs--I can't even give them the benefit of the doubt. I believe it's a subterfuge, designed to gain votes in the short-term, and I think they also know full-well that their corporate & super-wealthy donors will crush any WPA-type program before it has a meaningful, wide-scale, and positive impact for the unemployed and poor.


  1. Looking at some of the officials in the organization, Madelene Albright, Austan Goolsbee, Larry Summers, etc. most of whom came out of the school of behavioralist economics that came to dominate the Obama administration, not surprising that their shtick about a few jobs in order to get votes would be their choice. With Trump out romancing the massive (New Deal on steroids) Eurasian Belt and Road initiative as a way of getting the trillion dollar financing of his infrastructure plan, this might be a counter proposal.

    1. Yes, one would definitely hope that the Trump administration can do something positive on infrastructure. But the guy is so far out in left field, I just don't think he's competent enough to get the job done. And I think congressional Republicans will just keep saying, "we can't afford it," as they gleefully slash (or eliminate) top marginal, capital gains, corporate, and estate taxes. Sadly, I think it's going to be four more years of band-aid solutions, at best.