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Put 15 Million Back to Work Fixing $2.2 Trillion in Infrastructure: Resurrect the Works Progress Administration

(Photo: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times) Perhaps all is not lost for the republic's economic future, even as its leaders let this nation hurtle toward the abyss of the Great Depression II. An immensely successful, sensible and practical solution is being signaled by increasingly thunderous shout-outs from prominent people: pundits Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, Rich Lowry, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, filmmaker Michael Moore and two new web sites[1] – not to mention millions of voters with long memories and the friends and families of the nation's 15,000,000 unemployed.

Perhaps all is not lost for the republic's economic future, even as its leaders let this nation hurtle toward the abyss of the Great Depression II. An immensely successful, sensible and practical solution is being signaled by increasingly thunderous shout-outs from prominent people: pundits Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, Rich Lowry, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, filmmaker Michael Moore and two new web sites[1] – not to mention millions of voters with long memories and the friends and families of the nation's 15,000,000 unemployed.

Their solution? Resurrect the phenomenally successful Works Progress Administration (WPA) of 1935-1943. It put food on the table, kept a roof overhead and put spending money in the pockets of nearly nine million jobless. They built everything from roads, bridges, dams and utility systems to schools and hospitals. They staffed libraries and taught more than a million adults and 90,000 draftees how to read.[2]

Also see: “The President's Jobs Plan (Not)

Why not a WPA-II? We do have that civilian army of 15,000,000 unemployed, which could tackle the $2.2 trillion dollars of vital work needed by 2014 on our ramshackle infrastructure system.

Unlike the untold billions spent today – almost unquestioningly – on foreign wars and occupations and economic aid and infrastructure, the WPA's annual $2 billion budget was scrutinized by bitter enemies in Congress for every nickel it squeezed from the Treasury and for any whiff of abuse.[3] But today, 72 percent of Americans are demanding the US get out of Afghanistan altogether and 84 percent oppose getting further into the conflict in Libya. The US Conference of Mayors voted on June 20 to stop funding wars and “bring war dollars home” to meet crucial domestic needs such as infrastructure.[4] If the administration and Congress wants to win in 2012 – and obey these anti-war, anti-empire-building commands – charity could finally begin at home.

Because President Obama could scarcely ignore the eye-popping 10.2 percent unemployment rate back in 2009, he did what every nervous, overwhelmed leader does to either stall a politically dangerous action or look blameless if that action goes awry: he appointed a blue-ribbon group to study the problem.

His White House Jobs Summit was a “listening” session for ideas from 130 distinguished invitees: corporate and small-business owners, four big-city mayors, union leaders and academics. They were promised he would “immediately” push the best suggestions. One of the six recommendations was for instant pump-priming by hiring the jobless to fix infrastructure.[5] Obama ignored it, proving to House black leaders, progressives, national columnists and millions of unemployed that the Summit was a “publicity stunt” and his soaring, seemingly sincere words were hot air.[6]

In other calamitous eras, Roman emperors warded off unemployment riots by conscripting youth and sending them to far-off, endless, foreign wars and by providing grain and bloody circuses, to keep the jobless diverted from life's unspeakable realities.[7] These leaders had no compunctions about dipping deep into the treasury to fund monumental public-works programs to save their thrones. Their senates might have grumbled, but most wanted to retain power and money – and their lives.[8]

America now stands on the same brink Rome's emperors and senators did, but its president and political leaders are fiddling away the solution that could prevent the nation from plummeting over the edge. And they are doing so thanks to the same kind of financial cabal that counseled President Herbert Hoover that “prosperity was just around the corner” – right up to the Crash of 1929 and Hoover's 1932 defeat by Roosevelt.

Worse for Obama's overly optimistic re-election plans are his rote, fatuous statements that only private industry and small businesses – given grants or a few tax incentives – can solve America's unemployment crisis. His theatrical earnestness has become as unbelievable as his June 13 declaration to workers at a North Carolina lightbulb factory, where he called joblessness the nation's “single most serious economic problem” – and then continued, with a straight face:

I won't be satisfied until working families feel like they're moving forward again, that they're progressing again. That's what drives me every day when I walk down to the Oval Office – you, your families, your jobs, your dreams and everything it takes to reach those dreams.

Reich called it “fluff:” “Doesn't the White House get it? The President has to have a bold jobs plan, with specifics … a WPA …”

The president, however, could retort that he was trying. He'd set up yet another blue-ribbon group, the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. He said it had a board of “leaders who have decades of experience in running some of America's best businesses,” plus union leaders and academics. None were from the ranks of the jobless or staff from unemployment offices.

Interestingly, it's entirely possible that one of the sticking points in Obama's pallid July drawdown from Afghanistan of 5,000 troops – instead of the expected 100,000 – has been concern that any reduction of the military anywhere will only add thousands to the unemployment lines. Too many people remember 1975, when unemployment was at 8.5 percent – almost 8 million people. Or 1983, when it was 9.7 percent, or over 10.7 million workers. Thousands of Vietnam veterans were in those lines, either because they couldn't find work or were emotionally unfit for the workplace.

Today, thousands of civilians are in the same physical and emotional shape as those despondent Vietnam and Gulf War veterans – and entertaining deadly remedies (alcohol, drug addiction, suicide, violence) as they become the latest statistics from the Bureau of Labor.

Nearly 14 million Americans are unemployed and 8.5 million are desperately clinging to part-time work. The worst hit, accounting for 822,00 people, are in their 40s and 50s. After fruitlessly pursuing any kind of job for over two years, they have given up on looking – and on any future.

Most can't spare dwindling savings for trade schools or college to change fields or upgrade skills and they know that even recent graduates can't find jobs. Those deciding to start a business have been unable to get small start-up loans because banks are either hoarding reserves or fearing inexperienced, first-time entrepreneurs may cost them collateral if they fail.

Fortunately for Obama and law-enforcement legions, nobody has begun to organize the army of unemployed into overthrowing an unresponsive government, as was beginning to happen when Roosevelt became president in 1932. Nor have the unemployed turned ugly individually, perhaps because they're told to be perpetual optimists, or because of learned helplessness about “fighting the system.”

While unemployment was earning ho-hums from Obama and political leaders within and outside Congress, so was the nation's rapidly disintegrating infrastructure. It seemed the problem would continue to be ignored unless the very floors of the White House or the Capitol collapsed or the runways at Washington's airports cracked.

The latest report from the nation's premier engineering experts, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), estimated that such Congressional disinterest has caused damaging consequences so extensive that $2.2 trillion will be required by 2014 just to meet current demands. That estimate was prior to the June tornado that tore up an estimated $75 million worth of roads, bridges and public structures in Joplin, Missouri[9] and the rampaging Mississippi and Missouri rivers wracking up $4 billion to $9 billion in repair work.[10] Communities affected by Katrina and the BP oil catastrophes still await billions for infrastructure work – and this year's hurricane season has just started.

The ASCE gave the nation's infrastructure an overall grade of “D.” Its report cited cracking levees, a quarter of the nation's existing bridges sagging, leaking pipes losing billions of gallons of drinking water per day, aging sewers releasing human waste into rivers and lakes, horrendous traffic congestion and air and water pollution. Paramount among the report's five major solutions was increasing federal leadership in infrastructure.

Obama and most of Congress have ignored the report, even though ASCE furnishes much of the structural engineering expertise for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Worse, Congress is actually mulling a long-term, 31 percent cut to infrastructure appropriations. The terrible irony is that billions could be available to cover that $2.2 trillion for infrastructure without depending on the political whims of a president or Congress.

For years, billions have been lavished on foreign economic aid – principally infrastructure – especially in this last decade. From 2001 to 2009, taxpayer monies have been spent on economic aid to 161 countries, including Uganda (over $2 billion); Somalia (over $7.3 million); and, incredibly, Russia (nearly $6.7 billion). Media coverage showcasing foreign road-and bridge-building projects and state-of-the-art schools and clinics has begun to outrage American audiences stuck with broken-down counterparts in their own backyards.

Another federal big spender in those countries has been the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), whose chief function has always been to open foreign doors for American business – a mission that should, seemingly, be the job of those businesses or of the US Chamber of Commerce.[11]

Then, there's the mother lode of foreign-aid outlays delivered almost unquestioningly to Iraq and Afghanistan. By April, the wars/occupations alone had cost taxpayers over $806 billion and $444 billion, respectively, according to the Congressional Service Report. Unaccounted billions of that $1.3 trillion have been spent, allegedly, to win the hearts and minds of the locals for repair and replacement of infrastructure destroyed by American air and ground power. Nobody at the Pentagon or Department of State seemed to remember that the guilt-driven and expensive effort in Vietnam – the Strategic Hamlet Program – didn't win either objective. The thousands of Peace Corps projects, like those military goodwill deeds – from schools and clinics to water systems – require the locals have the time, money or interest to operate and maintain those public works. Most don't.

What Roosevelt wouldn't have done for a fraction of such largesse for the WPA.

To understand the current enthusiastic drum beating to resurrect the WPA requires a brief history of the program during the Great Depression.

Roosevelt faced the same double dilemma Obama faces: vast unemployment and fractured infrastructure. But Obama is not facing Roosevelt's fear that agitators would organize the nearly 25 million unemployed to bring off a Russian-style revolution more destructive than the original. Like those practical Roman emperors, Roosevelt saw that a huge and vitally needed public-works program would be cheaper and more constructive than stamping out bloody riots around the country. Millions of workers would instantly boost local economies and, subsequently, provide welcome tax revenues to municipalities and states.

And so, on May 6, 1935, Roosevelt faced down opponents in Congress, leaders of both parties, the rich and powerful and business and industry. He signed Executive Order 7034, immediately launching the WPA with a well-prepared team. His aides arm-twisted Congress into providing the initial $1.4 billion, hinting that it would stop the Socialists and Communists because millions would rush to join the WPA's minimum-wage jobs. Most governors were delighted because, for a token participation sum, they got to select projects that their states desperately needed, but could not afford.

Roosevelt was proved right about the economic boost to workers, towns and states.

In the seven years of the WPA's existence – at a cost of $13.4 billion – almost every city and hamlet received some kind of project. It was to become the largest public-works program in history and it exemplified the greatest economic turnaround the world has ever known. A sampling of the WPA's accomplishments for those seven years is staggering. Among them were:

  • 3,300 storage dams, as well as Montana's Fort Peck dam
  • 651,000 miles of roads and streets paved and repaired
  • 78,000 bridges
  • 9,000 miles of new storm drains and sewer lines
  • 800 airports and 280 miles of runway
  • 20,000 miles of water mains
  • Upgraded flood-control systems throughout the United States, including part of the Tennessee Valley Authority
  • Dozens of levees in Louisiana and New Jersey
  • Hundreds of upgraded port facilities
  • Dozens of upgraded waterways
  • Water conservation taught to thousands
  • Renovation of US Navy's Algiers station in Louisiana
  • 325 new firehouses and 2,384 existing firehouses renovated
  • 8,000 new parks, hundreds of others repaired
  • Hundreds of rural electrification systems
  • Hundreds of sanitation programs
  • 4,383 new schools, repairs and additions to 30,000 others
  • 130 new hospitals, repaired and upgraded 1,670 others
  • 5,800 mobile libraries, staffed hundreds of libraries
  • 24 million trees planted
  • 2,500 sports stadiums built or upgraded
  • 3,000 tennis courts
  • 103 golf courses
  • 30,000 women trained for domestic work
  • Large quantities of clothes and bedding produced
  • Literacy classes for one million civilians and 90,000 Army draftees
  • 1920 US Census indexed
  • Hundreds of grave-registration systems
  • Malaria control
  • Dozens of fungus pests eradicated
  • Marl fertilizer introduced and produced
  • Thousands of children's summer recreation programs [12]

Roosevelt and his people recognized that a half-dozen privately built projects would consume the $1.4 billion appropriation wrested from Congress for 1935 alone.[13] Private contractors also meant intensive lobbying pressures, time-consuming bid analyses, perhaps bribes and graft – and cost overruns so immense that Congressional bean counters would throttle the WPA in its cradle.

And so, WPA projects were designed and supervised by the US Army Corps of Engineers. They taught construction skills to those raw recruits, mostly by on-the-job training. WPA-ers would work 120 hours per month for wages that were more than federal relief checks, but far less than union scale wages or a locale's prevailing pay. The unskilled were to earn $26-55 per month (today's $408-865); the skilled, $44-85; professionals, $48-94; regional directors, $417; and Harry Hopkins, the WPA's first administrator, $835. Congress had to approve any salary over $5,000 per year.

Seven months after WPA's birth, the hard-nosed, laconic Hopkins could tell newsmen that 3,541,000 were on the rolls – one member per family. Best of all, thousands of WPA workers began finding other jobs – Hopkins estimated an 8 percent monthly drop-out rate by spring of 1938. Those vacancies were instantly filled by a new crop of the unemployed.

Yet, by the end of the WPA's first year, several in Congress, many prominent conservatives and the well-off (who wanted the unemployed to disappear permanently), were complaining endlessly that projects were make-work jobs for the lazy and, thus, were “breaking the morale of the people.” Hopkins hooted: “That is ridiculous … absurd! How can you break the morale of somebody who is busted – who hasn't got anything!” To critics charging that the WPA was being run “extravagantly, wastefully and inefficiently” by legions of shovel-leaning loafers looking for “three hots [meals] and a cot,” Roosevelt and his team knew the proof always lay in the thousands of high-quality projects visible all across America. They also knew the money squeezed from Congress was scrutinized by Scrooge-like financial overseers, such as the one who ordered that pencils be worn down to the last nub of lead.

Now, let's imagine that the president and Congress decide to resurrect the WPA – especially considering the 2012 election. That they quickly inaugurate WPA-II and split it into two divisions: deployed military and able-bodied civilians. That they follow most of the blueprint below for operations:

Projects: Roads, bridges, tunnels, dams, ports, waterways, water-sewage and drainage systems, levees, flood control, rail beds, rural electrification systems, fisheries, hospitals, schools, libraries, national/state/local parks and recreation systems, adult literacy programs etcetera. New projects would involve finishing repairs from Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill. Others systems would include light- and high-speed rail, solar/wind/water-based energy, erosion control, environmental protection, energy conservation, earthquake-proofing house foundations for the poor and disabled and dismantling/cleaning up decommissioned nuclear energy plants.

All projects would be requested by state governors in conjunction with advice from infrastructure experts from the ASCE.

Mission/Participants: Like the original WPA, WPA-II would not use private contractors. The major reason? Chiefly, the Iraq track record of contractors' prohibitive costs, significant overcharges, substandard quality, unfinished projects, poor accountability systems, deadline failures, closed hiring practices, administrative red tape, graft, bribes, theft of equipment/materials and poor public relations with local citizenry. Among the culprits are Halliburton's $1.4 billion “unreasonable and unsupported” overcharges and Kellogg Brown Root's (KBR) “questionable or unsupportable” $3.2 billion charges.[14]

Administration: As with the first WPA, the administrator would be an experienced Department of Defense engineer. Supervisors, also experienced military engineers, would be responsible for projects in five regions: Northeast, Midwest, Northwest, Southwest, Southeast. Department of Defense (DoD) inspectors-general would conduct monthly monitoring of all projects to ensure quality and timely performances – to be followed by quarterly reports on findings.

Ideally, the administrator would require someone with Harry Hopkins' steely spine, unflappability, total belief in the program, political independence and superb communication skills and clout with the president, Congress and the media. Other credentials would be the ability to command millions – military and civilians – knowledge of structural engineering, the capability to select trustworthy and able subordinates and to stay current about the entire program.

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Financial Management/Oversight: Internal Revenue Service (IRS) retirees and/or former IRS personnel would conduct monthly financial audits of all projects to prevent waste, fraud, theft and abuse of appropriations. They also would monitor use and maintenance of equipment, supplies, funds and personnel. Discovery of errors, theft, or abuse of funds would be reported immediately to the regional supervisor and administrator for prompt legal action.

Project Design/Implementation: Total responsibility would fall to the Army Corps of Engineers (as with the original WPA) and the US Navy's Construction Battalions (also known as the “Seabees”). The Seabees have a long history of producing WPA-like projects rapidly and reliably, from World War II and Korea to Vietnam, the Gulf, Bosnia and Iraq. In Afghanistan, they have completed 625 public works assignments: roads, bridges, causeways, schools, hospitals, orphanages, utility systems, community centers, upgrading airfields and ports, digging wells and sewers.[15] Specialists in base construction – including camps for 42,000 troops and galleys feeding 75,000 – they would also supervise construction of workers' housing and galleys.

Funding: With the winding down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a portion of Congressional appropriations to both the DoD and the State Department would be shifted to underwrite WPA-II expenses that previously were dedicated to foreign infrastructure and economic aid. This would include salaries of all DoD participants, including payroll for deployed military.

The State Department would shift funds from most of its foreign-aid programs and much of the $3 billion presently earmarked for the Baghdad Embassy security forces.

In addition, USAID would turn over its Congressional appropriations to the WPA-II and rely in future upon financial support from US businesses and industry and/or the US Chamber of Commerce to continue its global activities.

Remaining expenses would be covered by departments served by WPA-II operations. Among them would be the departments of Interior, Agriculture, Energy, Health and Human Services, Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Trade and Development Agency.

Major savings for WPA-II would come from the return of DoD hard goods from the Iraq and Afghanistan war theaters and other staging bases, such as Italy's Camp Darby.[16] This would include construction equipment, vehicles, materiel, prefabricated housing, communication systems, television sets, computers and printers, tents, stoves, plumbing, heating and cooling systems, bedding and toweling, clothing, galley equipage/supplies, MRE rations etcetera. New equipment and building supplies – including vehicle maintenance, gas and parts – would be largely furnished from DoD stockpiles in the US and foreign installations.

Qualifications for Civilians: US citizenship and documented unemployment for 16 weeks prior to enrolling, with priority given to those unemployed more than two years prior to enrolling. Ages: 18-65, passage of physical, mental and education examinations and a felony-free record. No more than one member of a family could join at a time. Members must be willing to travel at WPA-II expense to any project assignments.

Training: As with the WPA, training would take place on the job, the skilled teaching the unskilled. Personnel would have to be willing to master new skills. Most WPA-II workers would be learning to master state-of-the-art equipment and technological systems in new and fast-growing areas, such as environment and energy. Such experience will turn them into highly prized new hires for private industry in those fields.

Wages and Hours for Civilians/Military: Military personnel would continue to receive regular pay. Civilian wages will be determined by experience levels (skilled/unskilled/professionals/trade journeymen), but based on an increase of 5 percent more than unemployment compensation averaged from state rates. Wages would be paid monthly. Benefits would be limited to medical and dental needs sufficient to continue work and furnished by DoD medical and dental personnel. Civilian work time would be 140 hours per month.

Project Discipline: Service personnel will be subject to military disciplinary rules and regulations. For civilians, the original WPA rules and regulations would be upgraded as follows:

Three failures to carry out project assignments at prescribed deadlines or to follow orders will result in immediate and permanent discharge.

Absenteeism beyond three consecutive days would be cause for immediate and permanent discharge. Three incidents of safety violations would be cause for immediate and permanent discharge. Criminal behavior, either on site or in adjacent areas, would be cause for immediate and permanent discharge.

WPA-II could be launched immediately, either by a presidential executive order or by Congressional leadership using Article I powers to declare a “war on unemployment and the nation's infrastructure crisis.”

Though critics have had to admit private businesses have never been the font of hiring millions of unemployed people, it's ironic that they resist public-works programs that do hire those millions. Nor do they concede that the wages instantly trigger business profits and pour new tax revenues into state and local coffers.

More than these are the physical and emotional benefits of being part of a public-works program. As WPA workers moved from region to region in the 1930s, they found a sense of purpose and creative pride in the vital and meaningful projects they produced for America – from coffer dams and high schools to erosion control and adult literacy. They also had a daily structure, square meals and camaraderie in their lives, along with the bonus of robust health and the opportunity to see America. It was a monumental departure from isolation, suicidal depression and starvation.

A cursory glance at the present crop of presidential and Congressional candidates provides little evidence that any of them are ready to wrest themselves from the grip of a powerful, wealthy minority to save the nation from a fast-approaching crash predicted to be worse than the 1930s.

Obama is a frail reed on which to lean for pushing anything of domestic consequence, judging from his feeble efforts to solve unemployment. Such disinterest was revealed by his shockingly flippant remark about the Bureau of Labor's grim report for May. He said there were “always going to be bumps on the road to recovery.” Considering that the bump is more like Mount Everest, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's team instantly launched a video ad pointing out that “long-term unemployment is now worse than in the Great Depression.” That statement was followed by footage of 12 unemployed people, each angrily declaring: “I'm an American, not a bump in the road.” That albatross will hang around Obama's neck until election day.

National Review editor Rich Lowry was outraged by the president's “cute vehicular metaphors about the state of the economy … [that] vastly understates the nature of our situation.” He warned all party decision makers about the unemployment's “unspooling social catastrophe,” noting that four million people had been out of work for over a year and that “the longer you are without a job, the harder it is to get one.” If nothing changes, he said, the 2012 election's major issue won't be about the national debt or health care, but the unemployed, because:

[Americans] were built to work. When we want to and can't, it is an assault on our very personhood…. So here is a wide-ranging blight that affects not just people's incomes right now, but their sense of self-respect and their futures. Yet it's often been an afterthought for the president. He has repeatedly said he was going to “pivot to jobs.” How could he ever have pivoted off of them?

Apparently, it's been easy. Obama's disinterested and do-little stance just might lead to someone in the wings who stands ready to roll up his or her sleeves, seize that role and make a WPA-II the nation's No. 1 priority right after the inauguration ceremony.

If the voting public senses that such a campaign pledge is genuine, a landslide election for that candidate may be entirely possible.


1. See here.
See here.
See here.
See here.
See here.
See here.
See here.

2. See here.
See here.

3. Jason Scott Smith, “Building New Deal liberalism: the political economy of public works,” 1933-1956 (2006) p. 87.

4. See here.
See here.

5. See here.
See here.

6. See here.
See here.

7. Juvenal, “Satires,” p. 80.

8. “Rome,” Macropaedia. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1957, 15:1068-69, 1013-14, 1019.

9. The Oregonian, 6 June 2011.

10. See here.
See here.

11. See here.
See here.

12. See here.
See here.
See here.
See here.
See here.
See here.
See here.
See here.

13. Jason Scott Smith, “Building New Deal liberalism: the political economy of public works,” 1933-1956 (2006) p. 87.

14. See here.
See here.

15. Daryl Smith, Michael B. Watkins, SeaBee Magazine, 2010, See here.

16. Personal observation, July 1991.

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