Bring Back the WPA?

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 2:11 PM EST

Channeling Paul Krugman, Matt Yglesias wonders why we don't fight unemployment by essentially bringing back the WPA:

Instead of saying to people whose UI benefits are about to expire “just kidding, here’s an extension” we could say “you’ll keep getting checks but you need to show up at such-and-such a place and pick up trash in parks.” This would be somewhat more expensive than a UI extension — you’d need to pay for garbage bags and supervisors — but it would have less of a disemployment effect than UI extensions and we’d also get cleaner parks in the bargain. It’s a little bit perverse to be paying people to do nothing when there’s work that could use doing.

I think this is more difficult than it sounds.  Matt admits later that public sector unions would — with good reason — oppose the idea of bringing in unemployed workers to do their jobs, but the problems go way beyond that.  The WPA didn't just send people to parks to pick up trash.  It was a huge bureacracy.  It was a program set up to last for years.  After all, there was a Depression on.

But that's not what we have today.  Nobody thinks the current recession will last for five years, and by the time a government bureacracy was up and running to provide jobs it probably wouldn't be needed anymore.  Like it or not, hiring people takes longer than it used to, building roads and post offices requires years of design and preparation, and there just isn't that much easy makework available.  It's a different era.

I might be missing something obvious here, but unemployment insurance can be extended instantly (barring Republican game playing, of course) and the money gets out to workers and then into the economy almost instantly too.  Conversely, creating useful jobs of some kind would take, I imagine, an absolute minimum of six months, and probably more like a year or more.  By then they wouldn't be needed.

It really does seem more efficient to write checks to the private sector, as well as to state and local governments, and let them hire people.  The federal government is good at writing checks!  But, at least in the 21st century, not so good at creating nationwide jobs programs, I suspect.

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