Job Insurance – Part 5 (Building the Shelf)

In Economic Planning, Economics, Full Employment, History and Politics, Housing, Living Wage, New Deal, Politics, Politics of Policy, Poverty, Public Policy, Public Works, Social Democracy, Social Policy, Welfare State, WPA on September 4, 2009 at 1:00 pm


To catch up on part 1 (national job insurance), part 2 (state job insurance), part 3 (the meaning of a work state), and part 4 (the experience of working on a Job Insurance project), take a look at the lovingly hand-crafted links above.

One of the vital elements of a job insurance system, indeed a vital aspect of any system of public works and public employment, is the development of a constant “shelf” of public projects so that you can always be ready to put any number of workers to work immediately without running into the problem of insufficient “shovel-ready” projects. This shelf of projects essentially consists of a number of fully-designed proposals, including budget outlines, engineering surveys and blueprints, and estimates of labor needs (and these days an environmental impact statement and the like), classified by type (roads and streets; housing and public buildings; bridges, tunnels, and highways; social services and surveys; public arts and education; etc.) and by region (not just state-by-state but also say the Tennessee Valley or the Mississippi Delta or the Northeast Corridor or the greater Chicago or New York or L.A areas, etc.).

However, it’s important to understand that creating a “shelf” is not an act of politically neutral technocracy  there is always a politics at work that has to be attended to if Job Insurance is to achieve all of our progressive goals.


An almost unnoticed part of the National Industrial Recovery Act allowed the Public Works Administration to set up a small government agency known as the National Resources Planning Board. Originally, the intent was to create an entity that would do nothing but plan public works projects, especially those relating to water power (dams and the like), land (reforestation and anti-erosion), and the like. However, the NRPB quickly expanded beyond its initial brief to become the central locus of planning within the New Deal, studying the state of planning at all levels of government, studying the different economic sectors, and especially during WWII, doing advanced planning for the post-war reconstruction of the American politico-economic order.

Its most famous report, “Security, Work, and Relief Policy,” in which the NRPB set forth a proposal for the creation of a “cradle-to-grave” welfare state in the post-war world, in which a permanent condition of full employment would be created through Keynesian economic policies (which would strive to maximize demand and thus private employment), and the establishment of the right to a job through the government as the employer of last resort. This report, which became the intellectual foundation and origins of the Wagner-Murray-Dingell Act and the Full Employment Bill of 1945-6, was perhaps the zenith of New Deal liberalism at its most expansive, imaginative, and progressive.

Today, we would need the establishment of a new government agency that could do both the original and later work of the NRPB. In the first place, we’ll need an institution that can draw up model plans for traditional “public works,” “light construction,” and social services projects. However, it’s also true that the Federal government is deeply in need of an institution whose job it is think about the future purpose and function of the government, to the kind of “big picture” thinking that was done in the 1930s and 1940s.

The creation of such an agency, however, would not alter the facts that planning is deeply political.

What Gets Planned:

The first thing that has to be understood about planning public works is that planning both reveals and shapes political priorities, ideologies, partisan impulses, and material interests. Even among expert planners, these considerations will make one differ from another – which is precisely why disinterested “scientific” analysis is necessary, but not sufficient for public works planning.

To give a few examples, if we look at the U.S Mayors Association’s “shelf” of public infrastructure projects looks quite different from that of say, the American Governors Association; the Mayoral projects are much more likely to favor projects that benefit urban areas as opposed to rural areas and they’ll tend to promote mass transit and the construction of city streets over highway construction, and so forth; the Gubernatorial projects, given the over-representation of rural interests in state governmental, are more likely to be the opposite. If the USMA was controlled by Republicans, as opposed Democrats as it is now, the list of projects deemed worthy would also be different, more directed at corporate and more upper class interests. Similarly, if we were to compare the list of projects deemed  most important by the American Association of Engineers and the list of the American Social Work Association, you would see different emphases (construction projects vs. social services).

What Gets Built:

The second thing that has to be understood about the public works planning process is that what gets built is entirely a question of political power. The question of targeting projects where they are most needed versus spreading them out to politically important districts is simply the most obvious way in which politics enters into it, but it’s not as simple as just a case of “special interests” versus the common good.

Rather, every decision about public works planning inherently involves different economic interests. Deciding whether to build new structures versus rehabilitating old buildings cannot help but affect the material interests of real estate developers versus cities; “infill” building versus building in undeveloped areas also have variable impacts on urban areas versus rural areas. Rather than trying to deny the existence of these interests, planners need to recognize these interests and engage with them politically.

Social Priorities:

The point of all of this is that building a shelf isn’t just a matter of engineering, it’s a matter of establishing social priorities and fighting for them politically:

  • Education,  Health Care, Child Care, and Other Social Services – although most public works are transportation-oriented, the record of the WPA shows that a “light construction”-oriented jobs program can create many buildings that offer social services to the public: the WPA built, expanded, or renovated 40,000 schools and libraries, 6,400 public office buildings, 2,550 hospitals, and 14,000 recreational structures. Similarly, building a shelf should to focus on building schools, health clinics and hospitals, child care centers, and other social services buildings; dealing with the transportation lobby will be difficult, but with a separate source of funding that doesn’t threaten existing transportation dollars, and funding some transportation projects, this opposition can probably be diffused.
  • Building Where People Aren’t Working – in the normal process of public works approval, politically-connected districts (i.e, districts that tend to be whiter and richer) tend to get more public works. However, in a jobs program, since you focus on jobs created versus the ultimate projects, the key is to target projects to where you have high levels of unemployment – and luckily in this recession, you don’t have to aim to hit them (which means fighting less against this force). Ultimately, however, this is going to have to be confronted – but it may be possible to judo-flip the political debate, by noting that the more jobs that are created in high unemployment areas (as opposed to politically-connected districts), the less demand there will be on social services (which benefits richer communities with lower taxation). It’s not going to be pretty, but it has to be done.
  • Construction Only vs. Construction and Social Services – when we think about government-created jobs, the archetypal image is that of a construction project. On one level, this makes sense – construction is work that the unskilled can do easily, if you eschew the use of heavy machinery and stick to hand tools, it requires and can make use of a lot of workers, it gives people work experience in a large (and, importantly, non-exportable) construction sector, and so on. However, as historians pointed out during the stimulus debate, this has usually meant hiring men, not women, as construction is a stereotypically male job. However, social services are one way of squaring the circle: many social services jobs are equally low-skilled, doesn’t require much besides labor power, and if you can design the right kind of projects (social surveys, for example), you can generate a lot of jobs, and it gives people more experience in both the public sector and in the service sector. Hence, balancing social services against construction is key to making sure that Job Insurance functions equally well for unemployed women and men, and that it provides more than just bricks and mortar. Again, the example of the WPA provides an answer – the WPA did huge amounts of social service work, including providing adult education to 413,000 people, millions of school lunches, and 73,000 tests and immunizations.


Regardless of what the shelf is, history teaches us one critical lesson. The NRPB was de-funded and disbanded by Congressional conservatives who feared that the NRPB empowered progressive thinking about government, and because they didn’t want any institution that could actually do the planning that the Full Employment Bill of 1945-6 would have required. Thus, if and when we establish a job insurance system, we need to defend the planners politically in every arena possible.

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  1. […] for “shovel-ready” projects is a bad idea. Having a Federal agency that can develop a “shelf” of projects, that can provide state and local entities with model plans and expertise, and that can actually […]

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