Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Getting It Done

How relevant this article is today, even as it discusses a 1930’s era government program. Let us view the themes that apparently recur in the ways Americans govern themselves:

Contractors, contractors, contractors.

the PWA tackled unemployment indirectly by spending money largely through private contractors.
Structurally, the CWA was much better able than the PWA to mobilize quickly because it could avoid the cumbersome process of putting contracts out to bid and all the other obstacles to swift action that arise with public-private partnerships. (Government by contract was popular then, and remains so today, because it allows a politician to create the semblance of government action without expanding the government work force. It also caters to the public's belief that the private sector is more capable, an illusion punctured by recent scandals surrounding Blackwater and other U.S. contractors in Iraq.)

What kind of people are running the show? Do they have the courage needed to actually manage projects?

The CWA moved more swiftly than the PWA in part because of the difference in temperament between Hopkins and Ickes. Ickes was so fearful that the PWA would appropriate funds to an unworthy or scandalous project that he dotted every I and crossed every T before spending a nickel...Hopkins' anxieties were focused on the prospect that the CWA would fail to provide a sufficient number of jobs to the people who desperately needed them. Better to get the money out the door, Hopkins believed, and to address any irregularities immediately as they came up.

Quality Control. Where are the folks who make sure things that need to be done are getting done? Where are the folks who oversee the spending of public money and make sure it isn’t wasted or corrupted away?

The CWA's field investigators, who included journalists Lorena Hickock and Martha Gellhorn, helped keep Hopkins on the right track. The CWA's programs were further scrutinized by Roosevelt's friend Frank Walker, who as president of the National Emergency Council supervised all the president's new alphabet agencies, and by Army Lt. Col. John C.H. Lee (at the direction of the War Department). Both men were deeply impressed by Hopkins' leadership.

Efficiency. Are you using the tools at your disposal correctly?

Hopkins enjoyed immediate carte blanche to apply directly the apparatus of the federal government. He shifted staff from the federal relief program he'd headed up, seized tools and equipment from Army warehouses, and cut checks through the Veterans Administration's vast disbursement system.
This was achieved with a remarkable minimum of overhead. Of the nearly $1 billion—the equivalent today of nearly $16 billion—that Hopkins spent during the CWA's five-month existence, 80 percent went directly into workers' pockets and thence stimulated the economy by going into the cash registers of grocers and shop owners. Most of the rest went to equipment costs. Less than 2 percent paid for administration.

Results should speak for themselves.

The CWA laid 12 million feet of sewer pipe and built or made substantial improvements to 255,000 miles of roads, 40,000 schools, 3,700 playgrounds, and nearly 1,000 airports (not to mention 250,000 outhouses still badly needed in rural America). Most of the jobs involved manual labor, to which most of the population, having been raised on the farm, was far more accustomed than it would be today. But the CWA also provided considerable white-collar work, employing, among others, statisticians, bookbinders, architects, 50,000 teachers, and 3,000 writers and artists.

How many miles of sewer pipe could we use in New Orleans? How many miles of roads? How many renovated schools? How many playgrounds? Throw in the two airports, a few outhouses (City Park’s could use a thorough cleaning…), a levee system refit, some public space rejuvenation and some folks to recreate a community policing program, some coastal restoration, and do all that while putting locally unemployed people to work? Employing some of our writers and artists would be gravy at that point.

To do all that in a matter of months instead of years? Priceless.


1 comment:

patsbrother said...

First of all, I believe you are aware from your previous posts that this has long since ceased to be an infrastructure bill; it's now a Christmas list of unnecessary spending with a few infrastructure projects holding on.

Second, I am opposed to federal money going to pay writers (as you and I know that term) unless it's to perform non-viewpoint specific civic projects like taking down folk histories from large numbers of people.

I am opposed to federal money going to pay artists (as you and I know that term) unless it is to paint representational murals on government buildings like the ones on the Fine Arts Building or Terry, or craft representational sculptures of civic importance.

But really: if we don't have a pressing need for any of these things luxuries, I'd rather not have to foot any part of that bill for people to do what they would love to do rather than what they would have to do if we didn't create jobs for them.

If you're going into debt to pay for the bacon and the biscuits, you probably shouldn't say, what the hell, let's go for gravy.