Public Works Work

Over the past roughly year and a half, it's become cliché to bring out comparisons to the 1930s when discussing what has happened, what might happen, and what still needs to be done in this country. While some call for nothing short of a revolution in how we deal with the financial sector of our economy, others point to the mere audacity to lay a finger on the private market as an affront to freedom-loving persons everywhere. The popular narrative hasn't caught up with reality quite yet, but it's obvious to honest observers at this point that, short of showering money on banks, financial firms, and some needy car companies and state governments, we have yet to really see a “revolution.” The public still feels a day away from the edge of the abyss, if most polls (about 2/3rds say we're on the wrong track) are to be trusted. Of course, individual reasons for such pessimism are divided, but one thing is certain: few have much confidence in the the dead hand of the corporatist state currently emerging to rectify their lot in life.

With that said, I suppose it's once again cliché to ask the President, who still at least claims to want “real change,” to look back to the 1930s for at least part of his solution. Recently, it has become clear that the jobs problem is going to carry this leadership straight to the 2010 and 2012 graveyard. Whether for better or worse, the need for the ever-present “good paying job” is still at the cornerstone of human welfare in our current society. While we can press for a new vision for work in the future based on solidarity and human need, we can certainly develop a solid jobs program to put people back to work right now. The evidence for this lies in the New Deal and the various jobs programs that constituted it. The folly of the right wing opposition to such a program is in their short-sighted vision for what sort of jobs program we can make. They speak of how these “government jobs” add little value, are simply excuses to grow bureaucracy, and are inferior to the high-value adding jobs of the private sector. How soon they forget. I'm writing this in a spot about 5 miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway, a magnet for tourism and recreation (and I hear tourists and sportsmen carry disposable income for goods and services with them). Not far from here, the Tennessee Valley Authority oversees its vast energy generating operation which private contractors still sign on with for power provisions today, and which keeps power in this area below the national average. Oak Ridge Labs still drives East Tennessee, and as NASA goes, so goes Florida. I should also add that I really enjoy my job producing nurses and plumbers at the community college I work at. Public works work, and it's folly to not see how they add value instead of just consuming it.

If the leadership of this country wants to produce jobs that will surely spur an economy, produce value instead of simply consuming it, and at least look like they're trying to improve the common lot of the salt of the earth, they need look no further than the same cliché projects they claimed they'd wanted all along. Build a new TVA for wind and solar. Get that train system running Biden loves so much. The solution is right in their back pocket and they refuse to pull it out. The right will scream about how New Deal programs just ate up a ton of money and World War II solved the depression, but come on. We could have built all those tanks and guns and thrown them in the ocean. The economy picket up due to public works no matter how you cut it. In the process, the so-called “New Deal Coalition” was born. For a time, labor and a political party were natural allies who served each other, which isn't the case now as labor bosses give up radicalization for politics. Is it at all possible that such a program could result in poor white Southerners putting a Democratic president's portrait on the wall as many did with FDR (as opposed to Sarah Palin's)? Well, we won't know until we actually get serious about fiercely demanding nothing short of diverting money from Afghan buildup and AIG bailouts to putting people to work on goals that should have started a year ago. It might be too late to save the Democrats, but it at least might save some workers.

(Of course, they'd probably just contract all the work out and lose the money down a sinkhole like they did in Iraq, so maybe we should prepare a new labor movement prepared to seize factories to cooperatively build those sexy weatherization materials, but that's for another day.)

Andrew Williams is a YDS member who writes and produces video for the Star City Harbinger, Southwest Virginia's progressive alternative news outlet (currently on hiatus). He resides in Roanoke, Va.

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