Friday, February 13, 2009

Take a Ride on the WPA

It's good to see that not all Americans have lost perspective and common sense in the wake of the Obama tsunami. In fact, not even all liberal commentators have lost what little perspective and common sense they had in the pre-Obama era (it already seems like so long ago, doesn't it?). It's finally starting to dawn on a substantial percentage of media types that the “bailout” may have been nothing but a gigantic scam, and that the “economic stimulus package” has very little to do with its stated goals. Which is another way of saying that when you give bureaucrats and the “business” community more money than they ever dreamed of, with no accountability required, they start dreaming mighty fast... and their dream quickly turns into your nightmare. Ever had one of those dreams where you were looking for something and couldn't find it, and the harder you looked the more frantic you got? Well, this is precisely what's happening with the “bailout” money... and think, it's only half spent (so far). Is the second half going to undergo the same disappearing act? No reason to think it won't. After all, the people who engineered the crisis in the first place are some of the most talented con artists the world has ever seen... compared to whom, all the king's horses and all the king's men, i.e. the Obama administration and Congress, are a bunch of slack-jawed idiots -- or at least acting that way. It doesn't take much more than sheer brute force to get money out of the taxpayers... but it does take a little more cleverness to get all that money, in turn, away from the government and into one's own pocket. And yet that is what has been done – in plain sight and in broad daylight – and everyone in the administration and Congress seems totally helpless to do anything about it.

In any event, the predominant complaint about the “economic stimulus” money is that it won't go toward any real jobs – i.e. immediate employment for ordinary, out-of-work or underemployed, people. It will, rather, go for “pork”, pet projects, pet rocks, stuff that has been sitting there ready to be funded for years, in some cases. Now, in the first place, does this violate my cardinal rule that every government program is a jobs program? Not at all. The economic stimulus program is stronger proof than ever that the rule is correct, because job creation is the only widely-advertised benefit of the program; any other benefits that might accrue would be considered fringe benefits. The advertised purpose of the program is, in other words, job creation per se, with no concern as to what those newly-created jobs are intended to accomplish. In this, the program resembles the New Deal's WPA, which was a blatant, overt make-work program. It was designed to get people – mostly young men – off of unemployment lines, off the streets, and productively engaged in... “whatever”. The custom was to hire them first, then think up something for them to do later on. As it happens, a significant portion of WPA work was in places like the national parks, and if you've ever used a picnic shelter or hiking trail in most of our national parks, you've been the beneficiary of the work of the great, low-tech, low-skill “ant army” that was the WPA. Are there comparable projects today, waiting to be done? That remains to be seen. There are fewer jobs available now than there were in 1933 for people who “don't know nuffin” and who were voted "most likely to be unemployed" by their third-grade class. Even the proverbial “ditch digger” has been replaced by a “heavy machinery operator” -- and you don't just hop into the cab of one of those things and start making it do tricks; it takes training.

But let's say there are sufficient numbers of low-skill or no-skill jobs to justify resurrecting the WPA concept. In which case, there is no reason why the current stimulus package couldn't be organized in much the same way. If the idea is to get the maximum number of people into paying jobs.... well, obviously you can create more low-paying jobs than high-paying jobs with the same money. And if the “product” of said jobs is of little or no concern, we can eliminate that as a factor. And who knows, some of them might actually produce something in terms of goods and services, the way the WPA did (although at a higher cost than if all those park benches had been gold-plated).

So... given these obvious points, and the fact that there is actually a historical precedent, is the stimulus program following, or even attempting to follow, these guidelines? Of course not. Oh sure, it definitely has to do with job creation, but the jobs created won't constitute “the greatest good for the greatest number” -- rather, they will represent countless preferences – insider deals, political favoritism, social engineering, payback for political contributions, and so on. It won't be pure job creation because it will not optimize the number of jobs created... and it certainly won't be job creation based on any objective priorities, either short- or long-term. It will, rather, represent a kind of bottomless pit that remains bottomless no matter how much money is thrown into it. And because of its lack of focus, there will never be a point at which anyone – in this administration or any other – can point and say, “See? This is what the economic stimulus plan accomplished.” The most they will ever be able to say is that it kept things from getting worse... and that is absolutely impossible to either prove or disprove. Like the bailout, it resembles the old story about the magic spell to keep the elephants away. When asked whether the spell worked, the magician said, “You don't see any elephants, do you?” It will be the same in this case.

What I find remarkable is that people all across the political spectrum are already starting to catch on to this. What is _not_ remarkable is that this does not faze the administration or Congress one bit, and this is because they are getting what they want in any case – political power and money to spend any way they see fit. And there won't be another election for any of them until at least 2010, so they are insulated from the voters' wrath until then, at which time they'll dream up some other crisis even more scary than the present one, in order to keep themselves in office because the voters will be so petrified of “changing boats in midstream”.

To be fair, a few voices have, in fact, been raised in favor of the “WPA option”. One is that of Robert Reich, who has already sounded a stern warning that “white male construction workers” should not expect to be first in line – or in line at all – for “stimulus package” benefits. Rather, preference will be shown for “women, minorities, and the poor”, AKA “people who need jobs the most”. This is an interesting figure of speech, because I would say that a white male construction worker who is unemployed needs a job, i.e. income, just as much as anyone else. How many white male construction workers do you know who can consume a huge pile of food, like a snake, then live (outdoors) without eating at all once they become unemployed? As Ralph Reiland says in a recent column, “Reich wants to set up a numbers game based on alleged victimhood, a quota system that's designed to redistribute income rather than increase the productivity of labor, improve the level of American competitiveness in the global economy, or increase the efficiency of government spending.” Precisely. Productivity, competitiveness, and efficiency are of no more concern now than they were during the New Deal. Those qualities were simply not valued until World War II rolled around, at which point government planners acquired a strange new respect for productivity and efficiency – but still not totally at the cost of “business as usual”. But this was only a temporary aberration -- the war industries of the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq eras were, and are, notoriously apathetic when it comes to quality and efficiency – it's about jobs and profits, and nothing more. We managed to fight Germany, Japan, and all their allies for nearly four years in the 1940s and win. Now we can't even fight to a draw with a bunch of goatherds in Afghanistan, and a bunch of urban Islamic fanatics in Iraq. This is not simply a reflection of lack of national will, or pride – although it is that. It's also a reflection of the degenerate state of our war industries, which no longer even pretend to produce high-quality materiel in sufficient quantities to insure victory. They “deliver” on contracts in a desultory way, then go back to their main mission – which they're very good at – of bribing, er, “convincing”, our elected representatives and bureaucrats to give them even more money. (Too bad these aren't “declared” wars, or they could be brought up on charges of sabotage.) But the point is that government does nothing about this -- encourages it, in fact. So when a guy is caught out in the middle of the desert in Iraq with shoddy equipment built by the "low bidder" who was forced to make "affirmative action" hires, you know that quality, performance, and even winning wars is the last thing on the mind of this, or any other, administration.

So I guess what I'm saying is that the so-called economic stimulus plan is neither fish nor fowl – it's not an unabashed plan to create as many jobs as possible, regardless of their utility, nor is it a plan to stimulate the economy in another obvious way, namely by giving tax money back to people who just might be able to use it, rather than hoard it the way the banks are doing with the bailout money. And it certainly does not add up to a coherent program to, for example, get our infrastructure up to par... or improve health care... or education (heaven forbid! -- that's only about our future as a society)... or anything else that might be on the minds of typical Americans. It is, rather, a boon to special interests that have been feeling slighted by the usual budgeting process (which is, itself, an annual exercise in recklessness and delusion). If it's a metaphor you want, normal government spending is neurotic, whereas this “stimulus plan” is psychotic. It's totally detached from reality... it won't “solve” a thing... and everyone who doesn't benefit, or feels they have not benefited sufficiently, will be back for more before the ink is dry on the billions of extra, unbacked dollars that will have to be printed to make it all happen.

Well... no one can say that the world that we knew is ending with a whimper. The next sound you hear will be the “greatest economy in history” imploding like a black hole, and sucking everything in the near vicinity – i.e. most of the world's other economies – into it. I wonder how smart the Chinese are feeling right about now, since they have become “the” major investors in the U.S. Sure, they were happy as clams when things over here were just mildly messed up, because it meant they could pick up some bargains. But what happens when they find out that they're holding onto a mile-high pile of worthless paper? You think they're going to get mildly annoyed, and do something about it? This could be the next big story – i.e. the one after the black hole. Stay tuned.

No comments: