Before the current financial crisis ends we are going to first see the US Treasury blow somewhere between $1 trillion to $3 trillion trying to restart America's engine. The money has already been flowing but, up til now, the lion's share has gone to the pinstriped suit crowd in New York. Soon we will see another humongous chunk going to three dinosaurs from Detroit.
So far the first batch of free money being handed outcomes to around $750 billion, leaving up to $2 trillion to go. And, oh yes, they will hand it out. Because the only the elected officials want is to, as Mel Brooks put it in Blazing Saddles, “keep our phony baloney jobs.”
So, how would you spend $2 trillion?
The answer to that question will determine whether America uses this crisis to leap forward into the 21st century, or tries to recreate America's post-war industrial glory days -- which is a bit like trying to return America to our 19th Century agrarian past.
Instead we can make lemonade out of this lemon of a fiscal meltdown. Here's how I would spend the rest.
Out of Jail and Into the Woods
State and federal prison systems are overflowing with non-violent criminals, most convicted of minor drug-related offenses.
Since the late 1970s, the prison population has increased sixfold, and the number of people on probation or parole has also skyrocketed. The overall correctional population (either in prison or on parole) has grown during this time from 1.8 million to well over 7 million people. Another 4.3 million ex-convicts live in the US. According to The Sentencing Project, drug arrests have more than tripled in the last 25 years, to a record 1.8 million arrests in 2005. The so-called war on drugs has pushed the number of incarcerated drug offenders up by 1,100 percent since 1980. During this same period, rates of drug use declined by half. (Full)
The expense of housing so many prisoners – with more being added every day -- is breaking already strained state budgets. Besides, putting druggies in jail doesn't work, any more than putting alcoholics in jail would. Most of these minor-league criminals serve their time, get out, and return months later.
We have a rare opportunity to break that cycle, while also relieving prison overcrowding and the skyrocketing costs.
During the last Great Depression my father and his brother helped support their Italian immigrant parents by joining Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corp, the “CCC.” (CCC workers in those days weren't prisoners, but simply young unemployed men.) They were sent to our state and national parks to clear brush, build roads, plant trees, clean rivers and creeks, etc.
So, why not convert non-violent inmate's sentences to stints in a new CCC? Besides free room and board, pay them $8 an hour, 90% of which is held in an interest bearing account until their release, so they have a grubstake with which to begin a new life. If they screw up during their CCC stint, they go back to prison.
The money spent on such a program would not only relieve prison over-crowding, but gives taxpayers something in return. Our long-neglected public lands and parks will get cleaned up and kept that way, for a change. And these minor criminals get even more. Most of them are inner city kids whose entire concept of the world has been bracketed by the boundaries of their urban turf. A couple of years in the woods can only help – not to mention the benefits of trading a Glock 9mm for a five-foot rake or shovel.
Re-educating White Collar Wusses
My second proposal is to revive another Roosevelt program, the Works Progress Administration, (WPA.)
And what better moment to do it! Last month another half million workers joined the ranks of the unemployed.
The economy has lost 1.9 million jobs so far this year as payrolls dropped for 11 consecutive months. U.S. companies eliminated 533,000 jobs in November, the most since 1974, and the unemployment rate increased to a 15-year high of 6.7 percent, the government said last week. (Bloomberg)
While the official unemployment rate is reported to be around 6.8%, that does not reflect the number of people who have simply given up looking for a job. Experts say when those folks are added in the real unemployment rate is somewhere between 12-15%. That's just 10% below where the unemployment rate stood when Roosevelt created the WPA.
Do we really have to wait until things get that desperate before we put Americans willing and able to work can find work. And in so doing produce something more of value rather than an unemployment check stub? Unemployment insurance systems across the nation are going to come under enormous strain if we don't provide jobs for millions. So, with the creation of a new WPA jobs should be provided to those who can work, reserving unemployment checks for those who cannot work.
A new WPA would benefit everyone involved, including taxpayers, just like my CCC proposal. Our crumbling infrastructure would benefit, our towns and cities would benefit, our tax coffers would benefit, our social fabric would be renewed.
And it may be that last thing that will prove to have the most lasting and significant benefit. During the immigration debates we heard many times that Mexican immigrants only take jobs Americans won't do. While that claim was always a bit of a sweeping overstatement, there was also a large element of truth there. I'm 63-years old, and over my adult life I held a lot lousy, hard and dirty jobs – including shoveling fresh cow crap every morning, seven days a week, 365-days a year.
In my time, my father's time, his father's time and as far back as we can recall, that was the common right of passage. It was the norm, not the exception. It was a form of paying ones' dues at the bottom of the job ladder. I'm not saying I like it, but I never felt as though I was being treated unfairly.
Once I climbed out and into a suit and tie, I started to notice that the youngsters coming up behind me had been “spared” this right of passage. I also noticed they complained a lot about things that didn't matter. Minor perceived slights became major affronts to their “self-esteem,” and violations of their sense of entitlement. Human Resources departments swelled, morphing into quasi psychiatric aid stations for bruised feelings.
A lot of those former young cubicle rats are now, or soon will be, whining to the folks in line with them at their nearest unemployment office. And let me tell ya, they will NOT be amused.
But what they will be is sobering up fast as they watch lifestyles they thought were constitutionally mandated dissolve before their eyes.
Enter the WPA. Gone will be soul-crushing office cubicles replaced by the great out of doors, rain or shine or snow. Paper jams and meetings, replaced by road and bridge work, cleaning city streets, and manning federally-financed daycare centers so working parents can take WPA gigs. Some will prepare or deliver meals-on wheels to the elderly, teach or aid teachers in the classroom. Their days will no longer be filled with “urgent” Blackberry emails about getting that bullshit sales report in on time or bitchy Tweets about the boss. Gone will be time wasted in long meetings, the sole purpose of which were to get “buy in” for a decision no one wanted to take personal responsibility for, least it go wrong.
Since these youngsters did not pay their dues, and instead moved straight from school to company cubicle, they are much like those inner city kids whose view of the real world is narrow and self-focused. They need to be sprung from their velvet cells and introduced to the rest of the world and life.
As with petty drug offenders sent off to the CCC to commune with nature – and their own inner demons, a stint in the WPA would reprogram an entire generation of white collar Xer's. They will pay their dues, and in the process become so much more valuable to themselves, their communities and their companies in the better years that follow.
Finally, Fund All Things Green
Conversion and start up costs are the one of the biggest reasons clean and renewable energy sources, like sun and wind, are uncompetitive with oil and coal. So let's use a hundred billion of this money to kick start as many large-scale green projects as we can. Because once things return to normal, interest in clean energy will again be shoved back in the closet. You and I both know that's true.
One last idea. Companies across the nation are swimming in red ink, much of which is from the burden of trying to provide their current and retired employees with some modicum of health care. This would be the right time to chuck the current failed private health insurance system for a government created, but public/private-sector managed, single payer system. One health insurer, one set of forms for doctors and hospitals, one company to negotiate with giant pharmaceutical companies. And one company to cover everyone, regardless of age, prior conditions or current medical condition.
We will be forced to go to a single payer system sooner or later, and what better time than now? It would not only erase the shame of nearly 50 million uninsured Americans but would take an enormous liability off the books of every company, or every size, from Tito the Carpenter to General Motors.
So, that's how I'd spend the money. Give the Detroit guys some dough then introduce them to their new boss, Auto Czar Jack Welch. Then wish them luck and stop the flow of money to companies and start pumping it out instead to American citizens – whose suffering is and will be a lot more personally painful than anything those CEO's will ever experience.
I know these suggestions will elicit screams of “socialism” from the right. But that's nonsense. It's like describing a detox center as a saloon because it houses alcoholics. Americans are not the socialist type. The proof of that is that, in spite of Roosevelt's massive government-financed work programs, as soon as Americans could again earn a buck the old fashioned capitalist way, they did.
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