Scott Myers-Lipton's address to the Social Innovators Series
I would like to thank Working Partnerships for hosting this event, and PG&E for sponsoring it. I also want to thank the co-sponsors: Assembly Member Jim Beall, Catholic Charities, CET, PACT, Sacred Heart Community Services, and Somos Mayfair.
Today, I am going to address 4 issues: First, I will address the economic and infrastructure CRISES facing the United States. Second, I will discuss how Civic Works is a SOLUTION to both of these crises. Third, I will explore how the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act is pilot project for a public works initiative. And fourth, and finally, I will discuss what LESSONS the New Deal and GCCW has for an American Civic Works Project.
First, the Current Economic Crisis: Today, there is growing consensus among social scientists and policy experts that the deregulated market is at the center of our economic crisis. Even the architects of the conservative philosophy that guided our nation these past 30 years have admitted that this aspect of free-market ideology was flawed.
At a congressional hearing in October 2008, Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve stated, “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.”
This “flaw” in Greenspan’s thinking and conservative ideology about markets, regulation, and the limited role of government has led to the almost collapse of our economy, with the working people of the U.S. paying heavily for this mistake. To date, this “flaw” has cost the American tax payer $3 trillion dollars to bailout the banks and insurance companies, while at the same time, it has led directly to the loss of 8 million jobs, leaving our unemployment rate at 9.7% overall, and at 12.6% for Latinos ad 16.5% for African Americans.
Importantly, our economic crisis is connected to our infrastructure crisis, since it was the same conservative philosophy that deregulated the markets that also limited social spending on public projects. Because of this conservative belief in the limited role of government, US spending on infrastructure has declined by 50% since 1960 as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product.
Today, the US spends about 2% of its GDP on infrastructure, in comparison to Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, which spends about 5% of their annual GDP on infrastructure, and India and China, which spend 8% and 9% respectively on infrastructure.
Our crumbling infrastructure can be seen in our structurally deficient bridges, weak levees, poorly maintained dams, and dilapidated schools.
Let me give a few examples: Today, 157,000 bridges are deemed structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Not surprisingly, the I-35W bridge, which is on the cover of my book, was rated structurally deficient by the federal government.
Another example of our crumbling infrastructure is with our levee and dams. Today, almost 150 levees are in serious risk of failing. Remember, it was the levees which caused the drowning of the Big Easy, as the levees broke in 53 places. In addition to our weak levees, 4,095 dams have been deemed deficient, with 1,819 dams considered to be of high hazard of failing, with 687 of these high hazard dams in California.
At the same time, our transmission grid system is in need of modernization, so as to avoid “bottlenecks” and blackouts, like the one experienced in the Northeast in 2003, where 3,700 square miles lost power affecting 55 million people. And as many in this room know, our K-12 schools are in desperate need of new construction, additions, and renovations.
Each year, the American Society of Engineers releases a “report card” rating American infrastructure, and in 2009, it gave the U.S. an overall rating of a “D”, and they estimated it would cost $2.2 trillion during a 5-year period to repair our public infrastructure.
Surely, most Americans can agree that the U.S., the richest country in the world, should have a public infrastructure that is worthy of a great power. Our nation’s economy depends on having good roads, efficient airports, an effective power grid, and well-maintained schools. And our nation’s health and well-being depend on clean water and good public parks. It is time to Rebuild America!
The solution I am suggesting to do this is Public Works, or what I am calling, Civic Works. First, let me say that public works is an American solution that has been used for over 100 years to deal with economic crisis. It was used in the 1880s by city governments to alleviate unemployment, and of course, it was used by the federal government to alleviate unemployment during the Great Depression.
In the 1930s, the US created such public works programs as the CWA, PWA, WPA, and CCC. This alphabet soup of programs injected $336 billion in 2008 dollars into the economy and hired over 10 million people.
In combination with other New Deal initiatives, unemployment was cut from 24% in 1933 to 14.6% by 1940, and if the unemployment statistics included public works jobs, the unemployment rate would have been 10%. This decrease in the unemployment rate was one of the greatest decreases in American history.
In addition to reducing unemployment, New Deal public works built or repaired over:
• 2,500 hospitals
• 9,000 parks
• 43,000 schools
• 125,000 bridges
• 1 million miles of roads
• they stocked 1 billion fish into our rivers
• and they planted 3 billion trees
Public works literally built the infrastructure we utilize today.
Fast forward to 2006: A year after Hurricane Katrina, a group of students and I watched Spike Lee’s film, When the Levees Broke. We saw how 1,830 people died, 250,000 houses and 320 million trees destroyed, and 500,000 people displaced as a result of Katrina and the broken levees. And we saw the failed response by the government and the lackluster recovery efforts that followed.
After seeing Spike Lee’s video and studying the positive impact of public works, my students and I humbly proposed a modern-day “civic works” project to rebuild the Gulf Coast. We renamed public works “civic works,” since the body politic didn’t seem to be working for the people of Louisiana and Mississippi. And with the leadership of Congress member Zoe Lofgren, the GCCW Act was introduced in 2007 and again in 2009.
Today, 43 Congress members and over 250 regional and national organizations are advocating for the GCCW Act. House Resolution 2269 would create 100,000 green and prevailing-wage jobs and training opportunities for Gulf Coast residents and displaced citizens to rebuild public infrastructure damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and restore the wetlands.
The principles guiding GCCW are: democracy, equity, green jobs:
The GCCW Act allows for citizen participation in Local Advisory Boards so that residents are involved in the decisions about what gets built in their community.
HR 2269 supports equitable economic development by providing first source hiring, 20% apprenticeable jobs, and the protection of people of color, women, and immigrant.
3rd: Green Jobs:
HR 2269 would rebuild infrastructure in an environmentally sustainable manner utilizing green building technologies.
Importantly, we see HR 2269 as a model for the rest of the nation about how to rebuild infrastructure and create jobs by using a bottom-up model of community development.
This idea of Civic Works is catching on. Recently, Assembly Member Jim Beall introduced the “California Civic Works Act,” or AB 2004, into the Assembly. AB 2004 is a great first step. As with HR 2269, it calls on counties to support pre-apprentice and apprentice programs, and it encourages them to create civic works jobs. Assembly member Beall will address the specifics of this bill after my remarks.
So Where Do We Go From Here?: The economic and infrastructure crises we now face are bigger than just the Gulf Coast and California. It is nation-wide. Therefore, I see the next step as the development of a large-scale “jobs creation” bill….an American Civic Works Act.
But I am not naïve enough to think that this policy proposal has a chance of moving forward without a movement of working people pushing hard for it. As I see it, the only way an American Civic Works Act has a chance to be enacted is that there is overwhelming pressure on Congress and the President to act.
As I was preparing my remarks for this talk, I read this past Monday the following headline: “White House Braces Unemployed for Slow Job Rebound”.
So I guess the question for us is: should we be doing this? Is this the right strategy for working families? To brace ourselves for a slow job recovery….or in another words a job less recovery? I say no! I say, we create a movement to pass an American Civic Works jobs bill that gets people back to work REBUILDING AMERICA.
Now as you know….the devils in the details. From my research on the New Deal and my work in the Gulf Coast, I would suggest these details for a jobs bill: First, include in the bill the principles of the GCCW Act, which are democracy, equity, and green jobs.
Second, create both a contract model of public works, where private businesses can bid on contracts, but also develop a “public option” hiring model. If we look back at the history, the government hiring model was much more successful at hiring large numbers or workers. For example, during the New Deal, the contract model (PWA) averaged about 221,000 workers a year, while the government hiring model hired on average close to 3 million a year.
Third, the jobs bill needs to be large enough to match the unemployment and infrastructure crisis. Remember, the need is over $2.2 trillion dollars and over 15 million jobs. Of course, people will ask where will we get the money? But this money will come back several-fold as workers use their pay checks to buy goods and services, and pay taxes.
Fourth, expand the notion of civic works to include such areas as child care and elderly care.
In conclusion, the US can do better than just “brace” for a jobless recovery. Why is it that when the banks and insurance firms need a bailout, it is given within days, but when the working people need a bailout, we are told to “brace for a slow recovery.”
Seventy-five years ago, when we were faced with another unemployment crisis President Roosevelt created through Executive Order, three of the four major public works projects of the New Deal. In 2 weeks of signing an Executive Order, 800,000 Americans were hired. In just 2 months, 4 million were hired….and they did this without computers!
Why not ask President Obama to be so visionary?
With a movement encouraging President Obama and Congress to create an American Civic Works Jobs Bill, we could once again hire millions within weeks….and begin the process of Rebuilding America.
Thank you very much!