07/05/2010 03:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Time for Another WPA

There's no sense beating around the bush: We need another WPA. And it'll probably have to be more or less permanent.

I can already hear the Republican leadership beating the drums. After all, if they'd rather court a double-dip recession than extend unemployment benefits, they'll never let a massive federal jobs bill get past them without a fight. Even if it is a matter of life and death for millions of unemployed Americans.

A new WPA is against everything Republicans say they stand for. But that's just another example of how they put party before country.

So I say, let them do it. If Republicans want to make the November election a national referendum on the Democratic Party, I say make every Republican look hopelessly out of touch. Force them to insist there are plenty of jobs for everybody, while keeping one foot on the necks of unemployed, dispossessed, middle-class Americans.

Because the truth is, there aren't enough jobs for everybody now, there won't be enough jobs for everybody in the future, and we're going to have to get used to it. There are just more people than jobs in this country--about the same number of jobs now as there were in 1999, but with 28 million more of us.

It's called structural unemployment. And it's not going away.

The Commerce Department, for instance, says the economy has to grow by 3 percent a year just to keep up with population growth, but grew only 2.7 percent in the first quarter. To lower the jobless rate by one percentage point, the economy has to grow 5 percent for a full year.

That's just not reassuring; in case you hadn't noticed, the economy's slowing, and barely creating any jobs. But so what? Even when the economy looked to be improving, the Fed said it would take more than two years of recovery to cut unemployment by only 2.5%. Meanwhile, most economists say we won't be anywhere near healthy employment until at least 2014.

America just can't wait that long, whether it's a matter of fairness, making money, or dodging blood in the streets.

This is especially true because we're living in an age when almost no job can't be eliminated by a computer. If, for instance, a guy sitting in a Houston cubicle can bomb targets in Afghanistan with a drone, how long will it be before the same guy is flying 747s from the same cubicle? It probably wouldn't appeal to passengers. But shareholders would love it.

And the same applies for almost every other job. After all, we're on the lip of what's called The Singularity -- an era in which ordinary people will be competing with half-human, computer-enhanced, virtually immortal cyborgs.

Whether going down that road is a good idea is a conversation worth having: But anybody who thinks the idea's a prescription for full employment is just not in touch with reality.

So the question for the country is: How do we deal with an America that just won't have enough jobs to go around--when not having a job is at least as likely as having one, many citizens will be left in the cold, and we're busily building an enormous underclass?

Recognizing this reality isn't so much an ideological thing as it is a conceptual one. After all, part of the idea of America is that we're a country where anyone willing to work can find a job.

But that's a holdover from the Industrial Age, when most jobs were unskilled. We have to come to grips with the fact that in the world that is, some people are frozen out of the job market now, won't be returning to it later, and can't be left at the curb.

Meanwhile, we face serious structural problems that the private sector has displayed no interest in solving -- but that we have to solve, if we want to stay in the global game.

When you land in an airport in Europe or Japan and head for town, you're driving on a first-class road. The bridges and tunnels are solid. Traveling by rail is a pleasure. The infrastructure, in other words, is in good condition, and as a result, the national machine works pretty well.

You can't say that about this country, which has been starving its governments of funds for years. And the result can be seen on every road, airport, and port facility from sea to shining sea.

As anybody in Minneapolis can tell you, bridges are beginning to collapse on us. Most of our airports are more or less obsolete. And the state of many of our public buildings is a disgrace.

This, in what's supposed to be the greatest nation on earth. But the worst thing about it is that it makes the national machine inefficient, so it's harder for us to compete in the global economy. In other words, it costs private sector jobs.

We have to fix that. And as it happens, the last time we put any serious effort into repairing or building the infrastructure was when FDR begat the WPA (Works Progress Administration), which gave Americans work and dignity when the private sector simply couldn't.

The best news for today: The WPA didn't just give people jobs and -- not incidentally -- transform an army of unemployed Americans with nothing to lose into citizens with a place in the mainstream.

It was cheap

That's right. Before the right wing noise machine cranks up another set of lies about how expensive another WPA will be, listen to this: Between 1935 and 1941, the WPA provided almost eight million jobs at a cost of $11.4 billion.

Adjusted for inflation, that's about $144 billion today--$20.57 billion a year for seven years, $14.4 billion for ten. By comparison, the 2010 Defense budget is $663.8 billion.

Okay -- you knew that was coming. But aside from jobs and useful projects, that money has a multiplier effect that means a major stimulus to the economy. It keeps people in their homes, buying stuff and creating other jobs. It will help the economy when it needs help. And a permanent WPA -- or whatever it would be called -- would do that year in, year out.

Is it socialism? Self-interest is more like it. From a purely political perspective, and without raising all those messy questions about ethics and morality, it would defuse the explosive danger of having millions of people running around the country, permanently unemployed and with nothing to lose. That's worth something.

America is passing through a serious crisis, a crisis as much of faith in the American idea, as it is a simple economic one. That idea survived the Depression, when -- until FDR was elected -- unemployment was 25 percent and people were on their own. The idea of America can survive this one, too.

But to do that, we have to reject the idea that we don't owe each other anything; that's a crude and immature way of looking at the world. We're individuals, responsible for our own lives, sure; but we're also members of a community. So when we walk away from each other, we walk away from ourselves.

If anything pulled us out of the Depression, it was that idea that we're all in this together. That may have been an illusion. Maybe filmmaker John Cassavetes was right when he said, "Maybe there never was an America in the thirties; maybe it was all Frank Capra."

But I'll take it; there are worse things in life than Frank Capra's America.