Dorothy van den Honert: A modern version of WPA



If Mommy and Daddy make X dollars between them, the kiddies can’t spend more than that. Everybody knows that. It is a simple fact of family finances. If people try to use the same family plan for national finances, it doesn’t work. This is what the tea partiers and solid Republicans are doing when they get bent out of shape over raising the debt ceiling. A little history here is interesting.

When FDR was faced with the extreme poverty of the Depression that Hoover left him, he hired thousands of people for various jobs the country needed. It was called the Works Progress Administration (WPA), among other things, and the Republicans were nearly violent with rage. The hatred that was expressed toward him was so vitriolic that I even remember hearing how people talked when I was a little kid. In fact, my Democratic father, who had been an editorial writer for the Baltimore Sun for years, finally quit his job because the owners of the paper wouldn’t let him publish anything that was even polite toward Roosevelt!

Why were they so furious? Because Roosevelt had to borrow the money (sell bonds) to pay the workers’ wages. But of course the jolt of spendable money for the millions of jobless gave the economy the boost it needed to get going again.

Fast forward to World War II, at the end of which Europe was smashed into rubble with people dying of hunger and nothing left of its infrastructure. Secretary of State George Marshall devised what we call the Marshall Plan to lend Europe whatever money it needed to rebuild itself. He was smart. He put a time frame on the loan and made strict rules about how it was spent and how it was repaid. And miraculously the world recovered. Nor did the US go broke. In fact we did quite well after the war with industry booming, and babies popping up all over the place. I remember. We had five.

Or backtrack a little to the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. As a war hero, he could have gotten away with almost anything after the war. He figured that the dilapidated state of our highways would not allow troops to be transported around the country quickly in the event of a foreign invasion, so he devised his enormous federal highway system. It is a beaut. Works just fine.

Now why didn’t each of these monstrous projects leave us broke? Because the economic health of a country doesn’t depend on how much money it has in its coffers, it depends on how fast the money circulates. The faster the cash goes around, the better off we are. If someone gets a job, he buys things, then other people get jobs making the things. Then they all pay taxes, and it goes round and round. It’s not a bit like your family finances.

I believe there is a huge project that the United States needs right now. First of all we could use a lot more jobs to give the economy a poke. With global warming producing stronger and stronger storms, we need to protect the electrical grid from the increasing ferocity of tornadoes and hurricanes. Interruptions to electrical power can become catastrophic as the world relies more and more on electricity.

So here’s one answer. Put the entire electrical grid underground, as it already is in Europe and various cities in the United States. No more telephone poles, wires, cables, overhead lines, or even huge generating stations. I can hear the tea partiers now screaming about raising the national debt. But the fact is that there would be compensating savings in money as well as reduction in human suffering.

Beyond that, I have no idea how to finance it. But I do know this: Eisenhower managed to produce his entire federal highway system without raising the national debt by a penny!

Dorothy van den Honert is a regular Eagle contributor.


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