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Revamping the WPA

When the recovery began 2 years ago, the rate of unemployment was 9.5 percent. Today it’s 9.1 percent. Think about that for a minute. Doesn’t that prove that the market isn’t really self-correcting after all? I mean, if the market was self-correcting then unemployment would have gone down by now, right? But, it hasn’t. Why?

There’s a long answer for that, and a short answer. The short answer is that unemployment can stay high forever if the wrong policies are in place. If you don’t believe that, then vote Republican in 2012 and watch what happens when they start hacking away at public spending. Unemployment will soar to 15 or 20 percent in the blink of an eye.

So, it’s the policy that matters not the market. And when the wrong policies are implemented, then demand weakens, people get laid off, and the economy goes into a funk. The good news is that we know how to fix the problem and get the economy revved up again. But the bad news is the politicians are not interested in doing what it takes to put people back to work. In fact, unemployment isn’t even on their radar. Maybe that’s because some of their bigshot constituents aren’t bothered by high unemployment; in fact, they kind of like it. It crushes big labor and puts pressure on wages. Maybe that’s why they haven’t been griping.

Look, the economy is just a reflection of the ideas of the people in power, right? That’s why economics can’t be separated from politics, because it is politics. And, it’s totally agenda driven. There’s no economic theory that’s not agenda driven.

There’s no reason why a recession has to drag on year after year. Everyone knows what needs to be done; it’s just a matter of doing it. But, of course, that’s not possible because “what needs to be done” conflicts with the objectives of the people who run the system. So the slump goes on and on and people get madder and madder until, finally, something snaps and the crowds pour out onto the streets and and start burning stuff down. That’s how it works, isn’t it? Have you checked out Athens, lately? How about Madrid, Lisbon, Dublin, or Reykjavik? People are pissed. And they’re not pissed about the recession. They’re pissed because they’re getting reamed and they know it. They’re pissed about the policy.

So, is that where America is headed; massive public demonstrations and street violence?

Could be. It’s hard to tell. If the politicians stick with the same policies that created the recession and high unemployment, then we’re headed for trouble. But if they make a course correction and fix the situation, then things will improve. It’s up to them.

Think back to when Barack Obama first took office. The administration quickly slapped together an $800 billion stimulus package and rushed it through congress. What does that tell you?

It tells you that policymakers aren’t really dopes, after all. It tells you that when the lights are blinking red they know what they need to do and they do it fast. The Obama stimulus stopped the bleeding (The economy was shedding 750,000 jobs per month when Bush left office) and gradually turned the economy around. It took a long time, but the patient finally started showing signs of life.

At the time, no one talked about the budget deficits because they knew that avoiding another Great Depression was more important than a little more red ink. And, no one suggested that we forgo fiscal stimulus and try to stop the downward spiral by purchasing trillions of dollars of government bonds (QE) in an experiment that may or may not work. No one said anything like that, because they already KNEW that the traditional tried-and-true Keynesian methods of reversing the plunge would work. And they did work.

So what does that prove?

It proves that the people in power actually know what to do, but they pretend otherwise so they can pursue their own agenda. All this deficit hawkery and QE2 is just agenda-driven gibberish. It has nothing to do with fixing the economy or putting people back to work.

So what should we be doing to reduce unemployment and get the economy back on track?

Well, we should do what we did in the ’50s, 60’s and 70s when the economy was growing and the middle class was at its apex. We should implement the policies that focus on job creation and wage growth. Here’s an excerpt from “The Crisis of Capitalism: Keynes Versus Marx” by Robert Skidelsky which sums it up perfectly:

“Keynesianism dominated the political economy of developed economies from the 1950s through to the mid 1970s. As Thomas Palley argues, ‘economic policy was designed to achieve full employment, and the economy was characterized by a system in which wages grew with productivity. This configuration created a virtuous circle of growth. Rising wages meant robust aggregate demand, which contributed to full employment. Full employment in turn provided an incentive to invest, which raised productivity, therefore supporting higher wages’.” (“The Crisis of Capitalism: Keynes Versus Marx”, Robert Skidelsky)

British economist John Maynard Keynes knew that capitalist economies perform best at full employment because the additional spending leads to widespread prosperity and stronger growth. But, as Skidelksy points out, the government has a role to play in sustaining employment to ensure the economy operates at maximum capacity. Here’s more from the same article:

“Public Investment & Full Employment

Keynes’s answer … is for the state to ensure enough investment and/or consumption in the economy to maintain continuous full employment…..The key to any restoration of a Keynesian political economy is thus the rehabilitation of the state as an instrument of the public interest….”

So the government should be directly involved in maintaining full employment. That means that fiscal stimulus has to be provided at various points in the business cycle to keep things running smoothly. But, as Professor Alan Nasser points out in a recent article in CounterPunch, there are two kinds of fiscal stimulus; one that works, and one that doesn’t. It’s an important distinction that needs to be clarified. Here’s an excerpt from Nasser’s article:

“…Closing the employment gap requires a specifically targeted stimulus, intended to stimulate not merely aggregate demand, but “effective demand”. This was the kind of stimulus Keynes had in mind as his remedy for chronic unemployment. Aggregate demand stimulation is not authentically Keynesian. Keynes was explicit that the goal of macroeconomic stabilization policy is “a closer approximation of full employment as nearly as is practicable.” (The General Theory, p. 378-379) He was unambiguous as to the principal effective means of accomplishing this goal: direct government job creation through public works projects….

If boosting effective demand is the explicit goal of fiscal policy, then work projects and the jobs they require must be provided directly by government. A resurrected Works Progress Administration is what will do the trick.” (“Putting People to Work; The Kind of Stimulus We Need”, Alan Nasser, Counterpunch)

Bravo, Professor Nasser. That’s exactly what we need, “direct government job creation through public works projects”. Another W.P.A.

Full employment is not a pipedream. In fact, it’s an easily achievable goal if we’re willing to use state resources. The problem is that big business opposes public works programs because they encroach on a potential source of profits for private industry. So, the corporate bosses usually mount expensive public relations campaigns lambasting WPA-type programs as “inefficient” or wasteful “make work” projects in an effort to sway public opinion. The propaganda has had a damaging effect on people’s perception of government workers and the vital services they provide.

Still, there have been times when progressives have made real headway on the issue of full employment, like in 1978 when The Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act was finally passed. Here’s an excerpt from an article by Nancy E. Rose in the Monthly Review:

“Support for a permanent jobs program resurfaced again in the 1970s with the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act. The original bill promised to “establish and guarantee the rights of all adult Americans able and willing to work to equal opportunities for useful paid employment at fair rates of compensation.”…..Its centerpiece was a countercyclical public service employment program. The government would serve as employer of last resort for people unable to find jobs through the labor market, establishing a program that would go into effect when the unemployment rate rose above 3 percent. Wages would be set at “fair rates of compensation,” the highest of prevailing local wage rates, the minimum wage, or wages specified in existing collective bargaining agreements.” (“Lessons from the New Deal Public Employment Programs”, Nancy E. Rose, Monthly Review)

If the government is expected to be the “buyer of last resort” for all manner of dodgy mortgage-backed assets (owned by the banks), then why can’t the government be the “employer of last resort” for the millions of people who–through no fault of their own–can’t find a job?

Humphrey-Hawkins doesn’t encroach on the potential profit centers for big business, (The bill explicitly states that the government should rely on private enterprise whenever possible.) but it does give the government the ability to create a “reservoir of public employment” if the private sector can’t keep enough people working.

Isn’t that what progressives really want; a “permanent jobs program” that spares people the indignity and desperation of being unemployed?

It’s all there in Humphrey-Hawkins. It just needs a little dusting off and a mobilized left that’s willing to do the heavy lifting.

Mike Whitney lives in Washington state. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com

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MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.

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