January 22, 2009


I am neither an economist nor a historian, but this article at Newsweek made my eyebrows raise:

The New New Deal: The WPA fixed the economy by creating unusual careers. Should that be the plan for today's unemployed Americans?

I actually was under the impression that WWII fixed the economy, but perhaps it was the fact that

In our nation's capital, more than 100 men were paid to scare off pigeons. In Brooklyn, men and women worked as fire hydrant decorators. And in Boston, the government sponsored a project to make fish chowder. Indian tribes were paid to create new totem poles and other artifacts. "Rhythmic dancing"—whatever that means—was also sponsored, as was craft-making, or what the Boy Scouts might have called "boondoggling." In fact, the term "boondoggle," meaning any job or activity that is wasteful or trivial, was inspired by just these sorts of WPA projects. The best example from the FDR years? Government-funded research on the production and efficiency of safety pins.

The link to this article is "Will a New WPA Create Boondoggle Jobs?" It sounds like the answer is yes. That previous paragraph is in defense of the WPA, for heaven's sake.

"As we know from watching Congress debate the recovery plan, lawmakers have a great ability to let [random projects] slide through," says Nick Taylor, the author of "American Made," a history of the WPA. "But you would hope that these new jobs would at least be interesting."

"Interesting." Not, you know, effective or necessary.

"Most of this work is not rocket science," Eisenbrey adds, mentioning the nearly 800,000 skilled construction workers currently unemployed. What will these men and women build? Unlike 70 years ago, we should expect largely incremental improvements to existing structures rather than new projects built completely from scratch.

"Since so many of these new plans involve laying pipes in the ground, retrofitting buildings or improving public transportation," says Peter King of the American Public Works Association, "we're not going to be able look at different places and say, 'This project came from this investment.'"

Ah, I see. So we won't really know what our money is actually being spent on, and we won't be able to point to any improvements and say that they were a direct result of this new WPA. But we definitely need to do this to "fix the economy." Just trust us.

And this is my favorite part, the bold being mine.

So while we may not end this economic downturn with a slew of new parks and pools, we could end up with other unexpected benefits: for example, completely public wireless Internet access; a shorter commute on newly decongested highways; or, for those who live in cities, subway cars that aren't so crowded.

In an article about how the original WPA fixed the economy, the journalist says that we "may not end this economic downturn" with any of these projects, but at least we'll all get some free stuff out of it. And by "free," I mean "at a huge waste of taxpayer money for make-work nonsense."

Oh, this part is good too:

Alas, financing the arts isn't a priority in the new recovery plan, so bohemian types might want to consider teaching, fire-fighting or policing, all public sector jobs that will get a boost along with the infrastructure investment. Not interested? The WPA was often criticized (and occasionally challenged in court) for not providing the sort of employment that Americans were seeking.

"Alas"? I say more like thank heavens.

"Not providing the sort of employment Americans were seeking." If that doesn't make you guffaw, I don't know what does. So supply had nothing to do with demand. The Obama administration will invent a bunch of green jobs, and if a green job isn't what you want, tough toenails for you. We create jobs that we think are for The Greater Good, demand be damned.

Only in retrospect, and with the sheen of Walker Evans' photography, has the WPA gained glory.

Snort. If the glory of your program is only to be found in photos of people doing jobs that didn't need to be done, your program is hogwash.

The last line of the article:

Now get to work, Congress, so we all can work, too.

First of all, is this an article or an editorial? Secondly, gag. Pass this into law, Congress, so we can start wasting a bunch of taxpayer money to make everything eco-friendly.

Incidentally, via Greg Mankiw, the effects will not be felt for quite some time:

It will take years before an infrastructure spending program proposed by President-elect Barack Obama will boost the economy, according to congressional economists.
The economy has been in recession for more than a year, but many economists believe a recovery may begin by the end of 2009. That would mean that most of the infrastructure money wouldn't hit the economy until it's already on the mend.

The economy will recover on its own, like the Great Depression economy eventually did, and everyone will heap praise on Obama because his make-work silliness just happened to coincide with the rebound.


It's only day three of this administration? I'm going to have a heart attack.

Posted by Sarah at January 22, 2009 01:41 PM | TrackBack

Our infrastructure desperately needs improvement. The thing is, the reason that the money hasn't been there for the improvements thus far is because it's been going to stupid shit. Like that poop sculpture "art".

Money that goes into NEA coffers can't go into fixing water mains that are decrepit. In Maryland, one burst about a month ago and nearly killed people.

My father just retired from being a City Manager. Infrastructure is expensive to repair, and because so many people would rather commission a mural that everyone can see instead of spending the money to put in new sewer pipes that no one can see (and no one notices until the shit literally hits your basement fan) the money gets allocated into various pots.

Not every budget has a Social Security pot that can be raided indiscriminantly, if the state passes on money to a municipality, they generally earmark it for a specific purpose. If it is used for anything else, even in a sewer emergency, the municipality will not be given any more state money.

I don't truly like the idea of "creating" jobs out of nothing. But even more I do not like the idea of stupid and meaningless jobs being created because they are "fulfilling" when we desperately do need infrastructure repair. And when I say desperately, I'm not exaggerating. Speak to some public works directors and city managers sometime. Pipes have a shelf life, roads have a shelf life, bridges, sewer plants, and power plants need upgrades to keep working. And they haven't been getting them so that the local schools can have a few more computers that the kids use to access MySpace and yahoo chat.

Of course, laying sewer pipe isn't fulfilling...

Posted by: airforcewife at January 22, 2009 02:36 PM


Posted by: tim at January 22, 2009 03:20 PM

"completely public wireless Internet access; a shorter commute on newly decongested highways; "

Yes, because everyone knows that the government taking away our money, juggling it for a while and then spitting some of it at unneeded and inefficient public sector jobs is EXACTLY how innovation and technological improvement come about.

*blink, blink*

Posted by: Lissa at January 22, 2009 03:33 PM
It's only day three of this administration? I'm going to have a heart attack.
Is this a good time to mention that I've been working on developing a rather [...hmm, perhaps "Soviet" is a good word...] sense of humor, with a mind toward what's coming? Honestly, if I can't laugh about it, I'll cry, among other things! ;-)

AFW makes a good point, too - the projects could and should at least be of some benefit and maintain the obligations we've been "gifted" with by previous generations.

And I still object to the "eat the rich" class warfare policies that will pay for them.

Posted by: kannie at January 22, 2009 03:37 PM


Great Leaders like me always have a better sense of priorities than selfish capitalists who only think about themselves. Take my idol Mao, for instance. Instead of wasting money on properly maintaining dull, shoddy dams that endanger millions, he spent it on the Bomb. Blame the Americans. If they didn't terrify the world with their weapons, there would have been no need for the Chairman to defend himself at great expense. If you were in his shoes - or Ahmadinejad's (Barack bless him) - you'd do the same thing.


Remember, al-Gore invented the Internet. And behold the technological might of the Soviet Union! You know you'd love to drive a Communist car instead of a Gaia-defacing SUV. In MiG Pilot, John Barron wrote about how Americans were shocked to learn that the MiG-25 Foxbat still used "primitive" vacuum tubes. Obviously, they were in denial about the might of collectivist creativity.


A Soviet sense of humor is a must. Even you will learn to laugh at the deluded free marketers. Or else.

Enjoy the eOn! Over a thousand more days to go! Every day is Obama Day! OHHHH!!

Posted by: kevin at January 22, 2009 04:08 PM

Sigh...I give. The battle is uphill and I'm tired, give one those blankity, blank green jobs. I'm climbing on the O-wagon.

Posted by: Pamela at January 22, 2009 04:40 PM

It's going to be a very long 4 years. Let's just hope the American people get their collective heads out of their collective a$$es and take control of Congress away from the Dems in 2010... Unfortunately, I think a lot of damage will already be done by then...

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at January 22, 2009 10:36 PM

Here's my job-creation program:

the elevator safety and economic opportunity act of 2009

Please don't show this to anyone at Newsweek or anyone in Congress, because they'd probably like it and it might actually get done...

Posted by: david foster at January 22, 2009 11:53 PM

Too late, David. We sent the URL to our miniOns in cOngress (94-2 for Hillary - yay!). You people just can't help but support us. First airforcewife's poem. Now your proposal. You thought it was clever satire. Will you laugh when it becomes policy?

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea has a TV show depicting the noble service of an elevator womyn.

When will the US become as advanced as the DPRK? Even the US-occupied puppet state of Japan has elevator girls and other useful proletarians.

The Waste has so much to learn from the East!

Long live the Dear Leader!

김정일 지도자 동지 만세!

Posted by: kevin at January 23, 2009 03:10 AM

Actually, regression analysis of economic data shows that our economy is usually depressed/regressed in the years prior to any war, but recovers and is on the upswing prior to the outbreak of war. The vast spending that goes on during wartime increases recovery time, until the boys all come home and the job market is re-filled to bursting.

Posted by: Chuck at January 23, 2009 07:17 AM

Once upon a time, Chairman Mao thought that local communities should be more self sustaining, and that with public service and hard work, the peasants could collectively outproduce the industrialized nations of the world.

Steel! With good steel one can build almost anything. Steel production became a priority for every village, and they built local furnaces to extract iron from ore to create this steel.

Problem was, nobody knew how to make steel. It was a lot easier to melt down anything that was of steel construction and make bars out of that. When Chairman Mao came long to see how well the peasants were doing, they would present him with the refashioned artifacts. Pleased with their efforts, he asked then to do even more.

Alas, steel products became in short supply as they were converted to girders and shipped elsewhere. These products were things like plows, so there were only hand tools in which to bring in the crops. Famine resulted.

Rather than tell Dear Leader that this idea wasn't working as intended, they kept up their efforts by displaying the same steel girders over and over, moving them from village to village to be presented for inspection. And so the sad process continued, with Mao never knowing any better until it was far too late. But that's OK, because it was only the peasants that were starving.

So yes, let us take the useful fruits of our labor and convert them to useless things! Those in power will never know the difference, and will feel good about themselves, while the rest of us...well, I suppose I just didn't say "yes we can" with enough vigor.

Posted by: deskmerc at January 23, 2009 10:37 AM

deskmerc...the Chinese steelmaking story reminded me of a sad but funny story from the old Soviet Union...I posted it along with an almost (but not quite) as bad story from the capitalist US:


Posted by: david foster at January 23, 2009 11:14 AM

Thanks for all the stories, David and Deskmerc.

The only story I have that comes even close is that our manager at the craft store has to waste precious time every week counting individual bandaids in the first aid kits for "inventory" purposes. She has FAR more important things to do in the store, but someone has decided the store needs X number of bandaids, by golly.

Also, the new CEO of Michaels apparently hates the color red, which was the official color of the store and logo, so they're spending Lord knows how much money to change the colors from red to black. But they laid me off from my knitting job because *I* was costing them too much money, getting a paycheck of $50 per month. Sigh.

Posted by: Sarah at January 23, 2009 03:45 PM