Politics and Public Works

Paul Krugman wonders why we don’t just do direct public works like in the WPA:

You can make a pretty good case that just employing a lot of people directly would be a lot more cost-effective; the WPA and CCC cost surprisingly little given the number of people put to work. Think of it as the stimulus equivalent of getting the middlemen out of the student loan program.

So why aren’t we doing this? Politics, of course: government is the problem, not the solution, even when it is, you know, the solution, and cheaper than running things through the private sector.

Possibly the best way to think about this would be as an alternative to the repeated extensions of unemployment insurance payments. Instead of saying to people whose UI benefits are about to expire “just kidding, here’s an extension” we could say “you’ll keep getting checks but you need to show up at such-and-such a place and pick up trash in parks.” This would be somewhat more expensive than a UI extension — you’d need to pay for garbage bags and supervisors — but it would have less of a disemployment effect than UI extensions and we’d also get cleaner parks in the bargain. It’s a little bit perverse to be paying people to do nothing when there’s work that could use doing.


But a problem modern advanced economies have in advancing this sort of scheme is that the people already working in the public sector don’t want to be squeezed out by facing competition from quasi-unemployed engaged in public works schemes. In other words, the key stakeholders on various different sides of the equation prefer the inefficient choice of just cutting checks — it involves less debt for the “centrists,” less competition for public sector unions, and less arduous demands on the unemployed.