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Seeds of Tomorrow: Why Not a 21st-Century "WPA"?

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The Works Progress Administration was created in the 1930's to address the problem of mass unemployment, help with some unmet social needs, and create a new spirit of hope and optimism. The WPA set people to work on the nation's declining physical infrastructure, helped create new works of art, taught the young, and generated a new sense of purpose in many people who had been in the grips of despair.

The problems of the 21st Century are radically different, and government can't be the entire solution. Since then we've seen what entrepreneurial vision can accomplish, too. So why not create an agency that's designed to address today's challenges - on a smaller, more tactical scale that's designed to become economically self-sustaining?

Problem

First, a definition of our national/global challenge:

  1. Global warming is an existential threat. Going "green" enough to make a difference feels overwhelming to many, if not most, Americans.
  2. Some regions of the United States are in decline. These include the industrial belt, the farm belt, and the Gulf.
  3. The government has allowed much of America's physical infrastructure to fall into decline.

These problems haven't resulted in an economic Depression our country, or for that matter a psychological one. But if we're not in a "depression," then our country is certainly in a kind of "dysthymia." That's a form of low-grade but ongoing sense of hopelessness, which a lot of Americans struggle with as they consider the massive efforts needed to fix our many national and global problems.

Meanwhile working Americans are excluded from the good times that have come to the wealthy, and that needs to change.

Unemployment isn't the massive problem it was in the 1930's, but it is a problem. We face a more focused and more complex set of issues. We're not seeing bread lines with hundreds of workers waiting for a handout. Instead we're seeing worry lines on the faces of many working Americans, and pockets of intractable unemployment in different communities and groups.

Why?

  1. We have a subset of longer-term unemployed people, some of whom are college-educated. There's a problem with chronic under-employment in some demographic groups.
  2. Outsourcing represents a threat to an entire class of workers, including white-collar service workers and programmers.
  3. A sense of job security is a thing of the past for many. Few Americans have the sense of secure employment than much of the nation once enjoyed.
  4. There is a sense that innovation and entrepreneurship are not the thriving forces they once were in our country.
  5. Conservative ideas for inner-city redevelopment like "Free Enterprise Zones" have been creatively but economically problematic. Others have failed to offer or publicize equally creative and less problematic counterproposals in the same innovative spirit.
  6. Job retraining programs have not provided much benefit, and have tended to degrade unemployed Americans by chastising them for not having the "spunk" to "sell themselves."

(See Louis Uchitelle's fine book, The Disposable American, for more information on the unemployment problem.)

Opportunity

Meanwhile, we have no shortage of great ideas. For an overwhelming compendium of brilliant thinking about green living, there's worldchanging.com and their fine book of the same name. There you'll find ideas on everything from slowly making your house "green" - one room at a time - to creating a complete hydrogen-based economy.

There are plenty of brilliant entrepreneurial ideas out there, too. For 'angels" who want innovative and socially conscious investment opportunities, or companies looking for funding, there are groups like Investors Circle. (Conflict of interest note: I once submitted a funding request to Investors Circle, although it's no longer current.)

And this week a group of the world's most innovative thinkers is meeting at TED2007 to germinate yet more new ideas, mostly - I suspect - in random social encounters. Speakers will discuss everything from "imagined future" to lateral thinking. (I think I'd prefer sessions on "lateral futures" and "imagined thinking," but that's probably just me.)

Solution

Create a new government agency (call it Seeds of Tomorrow, until someone comes up with a better name) that has four branches - the Investment Fund, the Service Group, the International Development Fund,and the Research and Development Fund. The agency's core mission would be to revitalize the U.S. economy in targeted areas of need; promote new technologies and businesses that address pressing environmental and social concerns; and promote education and research to design and create a working United States for the 21st Century.

The agency would operate as follows:
  1. Use the Investment Fund to germinate entrepreneurial businesses that will help address the national and global challenges outlined above, and those that have a good chance of reinvigorating the lagging sectors of America's economy.
  2. Act as an investor, so that profits from successful businesses can be re-invested into the fund.
  3. Use the R&D Fund to work on those ideas, however seemingly impractical, that are approved by the a research board.
  4. Use Investment Fund profits and government grants to support the Service Group, which will finance and manage those types of needed activities that can't be turned into self-sustaining businesses - e.g., rebuilding decaying bridges, tunnels, and buildings.
  5. Use the International Development Fund to finance multinational programs that meet the agency's core mission.
  6. Merge the Service Group with VISTA and other volunteer programs designed to support education, inner city development, and other critical yet chronically underfunded activities.

The best cure for dysthymia is a strong dose of hope. Personally, I'd find reason for hope if I knew that my country was engaged in a major effort to address some national and global problems, address the new dimensions of our unemployment problem, and reinvigorate our economy, without breaking the bank to do it.

It's time for a more visions of leadership that moves beyond criticism of what's been done wrong, and generates new ideas and new initiatives on a national - even global - scale.

Feedback

There's more that I could say, but for now I'd like to hear from others. Obviously this is just a top-level sketch of the problems and one aspect of the potential solution.

If you have any thoughts, let's hear them.

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