The High Value of Public Works

by Will on October 15, 2010

I’ve blogged in the past about how people tend to underrate the value of public works, and how some of the public works of the 1930s are still benefiting me and businesses I go to. Conservative Conor Friedersdorf made this same point recently:

The 1930s were an extraordinary era in California public works. Herbert Hoover was instrumental in getting the San Francisco—Oakland Bay Bridge built… Also federally financed, it was the largest bridge and the most expensive public works project ever built. The Golden Gate bridge, as beautiful as any on earth, was conceived and designed locally, and funded by bond issues in the counties it would serve. (The Italian immigrant who founded the San Francisco based Bank of America deserves credit for buying the entire bond issue despite the timing — the early years of the Great Depression). California’s first freeway, The Arroyo Seco, connected Los Angeles and Pasadena thanks to efforts in the two communities, and help from the WPA. And various New Deal agencies would poor [sic] untold millions into the state as much of the Dust Bowl’s poor migrated here.

So public works can create wealth for years beyond the lives of their instigators. But they have value even beyond that.

In the present crisis of high unemployment and idle infrastructure, the preference of right-wing economists has been to just throw out Milton Friedman’s ideas and instead say that the current problem is “structural”. That is, the problem is not that businesses don’t have the money to hire people, but that the people who are unemployed don’t have the right skills to get the jobs that are available. And so there is nothing that can be done.

Some people who are unemployed use the time to develop new skills. Others lack such foresight, and instead lose all ambition. When the latter occurs, there is a huge cost to society. That is a shame.

From the book I’m reading about Frances Perkins, a passage about the Civilian Conservation Corps:

But the program’s benefits were not wholly economic. The young men developed self-pride as they worked for the national good, planting trees, building bridges and fire towers, restoring historic battlefields, and beautifying the country’s National Park System. “Its more important service is that of giving immature youths, who stand at the threshold of their vocational years, valuable work habits and useful skills, while building them up physically, and providing, through satisfying achievement in an orderly camp environment, the elements of self-reliance, cooperation and broadened outlook which are important to good morale–either for citizens or for employees,” [CCC chief Frank] Persons wrote Perkins.

Sitting around unemployed isn’t good for people, whether they’re young people who have never worked or older people whose jobs have become obsolete. Paying unemployed people to do worthwhile stuff would give them some sense of purpose and self-worth. And it would also produce cool stuff that could make us wealthier. It might be a better idea than the current plan, just sitting on our hands and doing nothing.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Marsha October 17, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Will, There was a wonderful television show on PBS a couple years ago about the Conservation Corp. Besides talking about the history of the corp, they interviewed people that had worked for the Conservation Corps during the depression and basically they attested to the fact that this organization had saved their lives. It gave them confidence, skills, enough money to live on and most of them went on to live productive lives, never forgetting that the corps had changed their lives. . There are many places along California roads that I see wonderful works by the corps that are still holding strong, 80 years later. Mom

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Will October 17, 2010 at 10:26 pm

Exactly! The post was partially inspired by Grandma’s casually pointing something out as the work of the CCC while we were driving. And I’m mindful of the fact that her father had to turn to the WPA for employment in those years. Today, there’s still lots of stuff a similar agency could do that would improve our infrastructure, our cities, and our information base, that the private sector won’t do. There’s also tons of able-bodied persons with nothing to do, who would rather work. It infuriates me that I’m not hearing large-scale public works proposals, even from the Barbara Lees and Pete Starks of the world. I happen to think that such programs would be wildly popular, even among conservatives.

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