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On the side walk outside of my house in the Saylesville section of Lincoln, RI, is a copper emblem sunk into the concrete dating back to 1939. As you can from the picture, it is a tag for a job performed by the Works Progress Administration, the depression era public works project initiated by FDR to get unemployed people jobs during the depression.

I am sure there are hundreds, if not thousands, of these little copper gems planted in concrete across the State (feel free to share them in the comment section.) With the snow finally melting away from the side walk and the weather warm enough to take a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood, seeing this aging badge got me thinking about our nation’s current financial predicament. Three things came to mind:
more on the flip….

1. Look at the year on the badge.

The WPA was started by an act of Congress in 1935. It began in fits and starts, but with an initial $4.8 billion in cash from the Federal Government, the program was too big to fail (sound familiar?). But the badge in front of my house says 1939. This was about half way through the life of the WPA (it would continue until 1943 when it morphed into the larger war effort). By this time it was renamed the Works Projects Administration, emphasizing the public projects aspect of the mission.

But what catches my eye is the fact that by the time the WPA got to my street the program was four years old. How many people really think that any of President Obama’s plans will be given 4 years, never mind 8, to play out and make a difference? We are already hearing from critics that his plan is never going to work, and some, watching the Dow drop, have already declared it a failure. The lesson: patience… these things take time.

2. Again, look at the year on the badge

1939 was 70 years ago. The side walks around my house are holding up pretty well. Sure, some of them need work. But just the idea that a project built by unemployed workers, run by and paid for by the Government, is still around, and still useful in an everyday mundane never notice its there until its not kind of way is testimony to the work performed. These badges, emblems, whatever you choose to call them are the working class equivalent to the master’s signature at the bottom of a work of art. I get the sense that someone, maybe even still living in my neighborhood, could be out walking with their great grandkids and points down and says: “I built that.”

3. Are we doing it right this time?

My final take away is something that has been bothering me about the Obama approach. I agree with Paul Krugman, the amount of the bailout isn’t significant enough. But there is also a structural element missing. The whole point of the stimulus is to get the Federal Government to spend money because we as individuals are so spooked by the economy that we are holding onto as much of our cash as possible. This means the businesses we buy things from are not getting any money, which means they aren’t spending etc., etc., etc. You know how the circle works.

But what also isn’t happening is the creation of new ways of thinking or the fulfilling the needs of people in ways for which the free market has not yet found a way to do. Obama’s plan relies too heavily on a faith in the market not just for creating the needed jobs, but for taking the economy into the future. Sure, markets are great at innovation when it comes to products, but they fail at meeting needs unless there is a profit in it for someone.

Take my sidewalk again. There was no profit in building my sidewalk for anyone. Of course, it made it easier for the kids in depression era Lincoln to walk to school, which made it easier for them to stay in school, which made it more likely they could move beyond the bleachery jobs down the end of the street and into better paying, safer jobs that ended up making the middle class we all claim to cherish. Now I am not saying that someone thought it out to the point where they said if “I build a side walk, I build the middle class.” But that is precisely my point – a program of works and jobs that is NOT subject to market forces, specifically the market impulse for foreseeable profit, is the only reason we have a 70 year old sidewalk on my street in Lincoln.

The WPA was derided at the time as the “make –work program” and it seems the Obama administration has tried to make sure their stimulus package doesn’t get tagged with the same moniker. But ‘make-work’ is precisely what we need right now. The only way to quickly get people to work is to in fact, make work for them. Only a government agency, not strangled by the market’s current chokehold on credit and finance, could perform such a task. We need a 21st Century WPA that can construct the new sidewalks for places like Lincoln.

For sure, it will take someone smarter than me to figure out exactly what those projects are. Maybe it is something silly: like widening every road from Woonsocket to Providence by 10 feet, 5 on each side. But if our roads are currently too narrow to run fully developed mass transit on (which my green friends tell me is the case) then that sounds like a perfect job for WPA 2.0. If we as a people make the roads wider, I know there is some one out there that would say “now my design for light rail would work.” WPA 2.0 didn’t just make work….…it made a market.

A simplistic example, for sure, but you understand the sentiment. Sometimes markets fail – not because markets by definition are failures but because the conditions don’t yet exist for them to thrive.