A new New Deal, Tennessee style
In late 2008, much of Obama's recovery rhetoric was based around the idea of stimulus-based job creation. At the time, the President-elect indicated that the country would ride back to solvency on the back of "the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950's." At the same time, Obama promised "the most sweeping effort to modernize and upgrade school buildings that this country has ever seen." From health care to education to broadband, the answer to the country's ills seemed to lie in new jobs.
For many Americans who had lost faith in the market as a means for job creation, Obama's words inspired an exuberance that often bordered on the irrational. Some proposed a re-creation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that would, presumably, hire artists and inspire them to create the sort of turgid, stiff, Stalinist-style work that was the stock-in-trade of the original WPA. Other prognosticators speculated about the re-emergence of New Deal, demi-Keynesian mad-scientist schemes like hiring people to decorate fire hydrants and make fish chowder. In other words, as so often is the case, some predicted the emergence of a perfect new order, while others predicted the end of Western civilization.
Of course, neither occurred. Rather than quickly developing, job creation has slowly begun to bear fruit. While statistics released by Congress yesterday suggest that the number of jobs "created or sustained" by the stimulus more than doubled between May and June, unemployment continues to rise, a trend that the President has called "sobering."
Recently, Tennessee offered a potential solution to the unemployment malaise. Using welfare funds allocated by the stimulus plan, state officials directly subsidized 300 new jobs in Perry county, one of the state's worst-stricken areas. The new jobs, which are estimated to cost $3-$5 million dollars, have reduced unemployment in the area by up to 40 percent.
Granted, these jobs are not permanent and are of questionable necessity. However, while one could probably criticize the idea of hiring people to clear brush, make apple turnovers, or paint murals, it is difficult to criticize the effects of the program. Last year, when a local auto-parts factory closed its doors, unemployment shot up to 27 percent; currently, it is hovering around 22.1 percent.
Tennessee's method, unfortunately, doesn't seem likely to work for all municipalities. In the case of New York, for example, any resident who has watched the ground zero site over the last eight years could easily attest that a combination of ineptitude, corruption, and bureaucratic inertia is capable of stalling city-based development or community outreach almost indefinitely.
This is a pity; there are precious few American communities that couldn't benefit from structural repairs or subsidized commercial work. Across the country, roads need to be repaved, gutters need to be repaired, and litter needs to be removed. While critiques of America's infrastructure generally focus on bridges and roads, there are few public works -- from sewers to sidewalks -- that couldn't benefit from a little attention.
And, for that matter, there are plenty of hands that stand ready to do the work. While part-time, short-term public improvement jobs are hardly a substitute for the high-paying positions that the job market has lost, even a small paycheck is a significant improvement over no paycheck. Moreover, given that much of the stimulus was allegedly aimed at supporting out-of-work consumers, programs along the Tennessee lines could show immediate profitability, if only by reducing the burden on other stimulus expenditures.