1941-Morning Quarterback

“What if Napoleon had a B-52 at Waterloo”?

It was uproariously funny (to a seventh-grader) when John Belushi asked it on “Weekend Update” in 1976.

When applied to modern-day crises? Not so much.

Bob MacNeal does more or less the same thing, trying to apply the “Works Progress Administration” – FDR’s immense socialized Depression-era make-work program – to the current putative downturn in the economic cycle, in this Sunday Strib op-ed.

Are one-time tax rebates the only way to cure our sputtering economy?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats have pushed for a rebate given to most of us who, if you believe the naysayers, would spend it on lottery tickets and beer.

I’d like to thank the “naysayers” for leaving out “NASCAR tickets” and “lap-dances”.

President Bush, House Republican Leader John Boehner and others in their party have sought more handouts for their elite-class cronies and tax breaks for corporations — which, if you again believe the naysayers, would widen the gap between the rich and the rest of us.

Do “those naysayers” have the initials “BM”?

Just curious.

I digress:

Most Americans, rich or poor, don’t care about silly, ineffective tax cuts and paltry rebates.

At least, “most Americans” who are “naysayers” who think the average American will be lined up at Superamerica with his/her refund check buying Powerball and Old Milwaukee, don’t care.

Those of us who pay attention notice that tax cuts – big, sweeping ones – have a pretty good record of setting the national economic blender on “puree”.


What Americans want, and what the U.S. economy sorely needs, are jobs.

And, as luck would have it, most Americans have jobs! The Department of Labor showed that unemployment was “up” to 5% last month, even though the economy added 18,000 jobs. Granted, that is a slowdown, and there are signs we might face a recession – which is both a problem and, as it happens, occasionally necessary.

We need living-wage and decent-paying jobs. What if these jobs had the unifying goal of rebuilding our country?

“Rebuilding our country?”

Germany in Japan in 1945 needed to be rebuilt. Everything was broken! We had bombed their infrastructure back, almost literally, to the stone age.

Poland and France and Italy and the Netherlands and Luxembourg and Belgium needed to be rebuilt. Having five armies pound each other to bloody shreds in their front yards played havoc on every part of those nations.

The United States? Well, a twenty-year “urban renewal” fad did leave our inner cities blighted and in many cases nearly abandoned. Forty years of “Great Society” programs have left us with a permanent welfare underclass and an assumed obligation to subsidize poverty, rather than lift people out of it. The federal takeover of the public school system has led to collapsing performance and ballooning costs. And both helped create a forty-year-long “war on drugs” that has killed more Americans than Vietnam, and – combined with the detritus of Urban Renewal, the War on Drugs, the collapse of education, has left parts of the US – including the Near North and Phillips neighborhoods in Minneapolis – blighted, decaying free-fire zones. Oh, yeah – and decades of government subsidy have left healthcare hideously expensive, made college unaffordable except through great wealth or government aid, and helped cause the near-complete collapse of the private agricultural sector the subsidies intended to prop up.

But other than those policies – which are all legacies of precisely the same stifling statism that MacLean seems to want more of – the US is doing pretty well.

Let’s get back to Mr. MacLean. I’ll confess a certain fondness for tinkering with hypotheticals. In my mind – and occasionally on paper – I’ve designed entire societies, hypothetical perfect nations or theoretical redesigns of existing ones; nations sprung from the ether or rising from the ashes of older ones or wrenched from some descending tyranny or another. It’s fun .

It’s also something I pretty much keep in my “time wasters” folder on my computer. It’s where they belong.

And maybe Bob MacNeal will figure this out.

Let’s use the $150 billion currently proposed for rebates and corporate welfare to instead fund an 18-month infrastructure and government-efficiency initiative. This initiative — call it IGE — would be a contemporary version of the indisputably successful WPA program launched in 1935 by presidential order to cure economic depression.

The WPA was very disputably successful. Oh, the program – which put hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Americans to work on the government dime on all manner of infrastructure projects – did put unskilled and semiskilled workers to work. Grossly ineffecient work at, nonetheless, a subsistence wage, but work.

Bear in mind, it was the unskilled and semiskilled that suffered the worst during the Depression. People who actually produced things fared OK (although it was a wrenching, awful time for the whole nation).

MacLean may or may not know the history of the WPA (and the history he knows may or may not be the media’s orthodoxy on the subject) – but he certainly seems to be completely adrift as to the uses and realities of such a program:

Employment by IGE would target underfunded infrastructure and thwart government inefficiencies.

Didja catch that? Creating a huge government make-work program with 150 billion in funding would thwart government inefficiency?

How? By sending platoons of unemployed people through government offices, holding summary trials and giving out pink slips for inefficiency?

Some 70 years following the WPA, isn’t it time we inspected our gusset plates

Other than the people who currently do inspect them, what would Mr. MacNeal propose? Taking unemployed mortgage brokers and dry-wall installers – the people who are most affected by the current slump – and send them out to crawl around the nation’s bridges?

ENGINEER: OK, so you’re the new IGA workers. Hi.


ENGINEER:  …whatever.  So your job is to…what?

UNEMPLOYED MORTGAGE BROKER: Inspect the gusset plates.

ENGINEER: OK. You, um, know what to do?



ENGINEER: It’s those little plates that cinch those beams together, way up there.

UNEMPLOYED MORTGAGE BROKER: We’re gonna need a big ladder!

UNEMPLOYED DRYWALL INSTALLER: So what do we do? Look at them?

ENGINEER: Er…no. You measure each of them in all three dimensions. You get the material specs for each of them – assuming you can find them, but they should be in the construction documentation archive – and calculate how much load each of them can bear, and compare that to the compression and expansion load they’re getting from the various beams to which they connect. Bear in mind, you have to calculate in three dimensions, because due to settling there is some unavoidable lateral shear! Also, keep in mind that you can’t rely on the original calculations, even if you do find them, because as you know, the loads have increased with the number of cars and several repaving projects. Now, the tricky part is that you have to also allow for deterioration, both visible deterioration through corrosion and metal fatigue. Now, part of that you can get through material specs, but some of it means you’re going to have to get test samples of a meaningful number of the plates. And that means that given all the factors above, you have to figure out what a “meaningful sample” is, and then figure out how to get the testing done, either destructively or nondestructively. Then, you can have some data, and start working on corrective action. Any questiions?


ENGINEER: I thought so.

If 150 billion is not enough, perhaps we should divert some of the black-hole money that fuels the continuing catastrophic failures perpetrated by U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

I don’t suppose it would be a Strib op-ed without a “black hole” reference to the Middle East, would it?

The old way of addressing government inefficiencies was budget-cutting that led, ultimately, to limited or poor taxpayer service. The new way is to use up-to-date business practices. IGE employment aimed at thwarting government inefficiencies could be implemented by hiring the country’s best business analysts, consultants and home-grown programmers.

MacNeal? Slapnuts? America’s best business analysts, consultants and programmers are already working! They are already earning a “living wage” times several!

And most of them – I am assuming this, but it’s an educated assumption – would rather gouge their eyes out than work a government gig, with its stultifying bureaucratic overburden and, paradoxically, low (for technical professionals) pay.

And what does Mr. MacNeal think – that a bunch of business analsysts are going to change the way governmemnt works?

These folks could institute contemporary business practices, upgrade hardware, and provide software automation and systems integration through all levels of government.

Americans are capable. WPA workers built 650,000 miles of roads, 78,000 bridges, 125,000 buildings and 700 miles of airport runways.

That MacNeal compares a huge make-work program for the unskilled to a fantasy about drafting armies of technicians makes me wonder – what does he do for a living?

Bob MacNeal, St. Paul, is a software consultant.


It’s a small market, but I don’t think I’ve met Mr. MacNeal.

But perhaps if he brings the insight, knowledge and logic to his consulting gig that he did to this op-ed, it’d explain why he wants a huge government make-work program for consultants.

13 thoughts on “1941-Morning Quarterback

  1. “Rebuilding our country”
    I have to wonder if these guys live in a parallel universe or they just hate Bush so much…never mind. Rhetorical question.

  2. “Rebuilding our country”

    Let’s start with a big ‘ol fence along our southern border.

  3. Mitch said:
    “Grossly ineffecient work at, nonetheless, a subsistence wage, but work.”

    The WPA generally paid “prevailing wages”, so as not to undercut local wages. The prevailing wage esp. for construction would be well above subsistence level. Hours worked were generally shorter thou.

  4. The prevailing wage esp. for construction would be well above subsistence level.

    Which, in the construction industry of the day, was pretty low. Since there was rather little work, especially for unskilled and semiskilled workers. Who were largely out of work.  It was better than nothing, and better than the dole of the day, and it worked out in an era when the “living wage” was vastly lower than it’s become today. 

    But we digress.  The point really isn’t to bash the WPA (that’d be a subject for another post), but to point out the gross stupidity of this letter to the editor. There is no huge pool of underemployed “analysts, consultants and programmers” sitting in squatters camps fomenting revolution that need to be put to productive work.

  5. Unemployed sheet-rockers providing software automation to government? Read The Mythical Man Month about adding even trained programmers to a software project, then tell me how great it would be to add untrained or even semi-trained ones to it.

    The FAA farked their last attempt at an upgrade to their systems when their incompetent management got involved in specifying the system, much less implementing it; the guys charged with implementing it cried for sanity and respecing the project, only to be shouted down.

    Well, it would dump a ton of money into the economy, but it wouldn’t add anything to gov’t efficiency.

  6. Pingback: Jay Reding.com — Failing To Learn From History… Correctly

  7. Oooh. Will the left put up with worker camps? Maybe they were a feature of the Youth Conservation Corps, but it was all part of the same idea of making work for the unemployed.

  8. “the gross stupidity of this letter to the editor. There is no huge pool of underemployed “analysts, consultants and programmers” sitting in squatters camps fomenting revolution that need to be put to productive work”

    Pretty much agree. If we do get a big housing recession, much of the construction side could be diverted into public infrastructure projects or manufacturing, but the loan officers and brokers are going to be tough. Given our huge trade imbalance we will eventually need to grow the export manufacturing sector, an area where government intervention is not particularly effective. (Of course, universal health care would be a huge boost to the export sector, but that is a conversation for another day).

  9. Of course, universal health care would be a huge boost to the export sector

    If what you want to export is doctors and nurses, yes it is. Just talk to all the Canuks who evacuated that joint after nationalization.

  10. Nerdbert:
    1. Where would we export them to?
    2. Canada has almost as many docs per person as the U.S. and far more nurses per person.

  11. Rick, fewer doctors per person, much MUCH more difficult to get a primary care physician (talk to the folks in Quebec sometime). And waiting lists that are killers for specialists. Look up the waiting time for an oncologist in Canada sometime. Here in the US it’s on the order of a couple of weeks, in Canada it ranges from 4 – 24 months.

  12. Nedbert:

    Back up cowboy. You said universal health care in America would cause us to “export” doctors and nurses. Are you backing off that claim now?

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