Public policy should be driven by a few essential questions: Who are we? What do we stand for? How do we want to be remembered; what is our legacy to the future? These foundational questions underpin this second essay on the jobs plan we need.
Before you dismiss this out of hand as absurdly idealistic, impractical, and altogether unreal, I ask you to consider where that response may originate. Take a breath and check in with yourself. That dismissive voice in my head is linked to a powerful visual image, one implanted in childhood: I see adult faces, wearing expressions of amused scorn, condescending to correct my childish views. "My dear girl," one of the voices says, dripping with sarcasm, "you have no idea what life is really about."
A valid purpose is not discredited because it will take a great deal of time and effort to attain. A valid purpose is a guiding star to steer by, a way to check our alignment with worthy moral and ethical principles, a goal to spur us on. Even if it takes a million steps to arrive, setting out to fulfill it puts us on the right path, bringing us closer each day. A valid purpose is a journey worth undertaking.
Yet few things are as sure to draw ridicule as the unironic assertion of higher purpose in public affairs. We are living in times characterized by widespread conviction that a truly humane society is impossible. We have been taught from infancy to believe that living in harmony with others, cherishing the planet and its gifts, and caring for those in pain and in need are laughably naive, unattainable aims. What's more, we have been taught that it is acceptable--indeed inevitable--for experts and leaders to determine our collective course based on altogether different criteria, most of which are never spoken aloud.
Tacitly, we accept that the profits of oil companies and war industries will weigh more in our policy calculations than the well-being of ordinary citizens. Tacitly, we accept policy parameters we had no direct say in setting: we've spent $1.25 trillion on wars since 2001. In mainstream policy discourse, that money is essentially an a priori allocation: when leaders say we can't afford adequate schools or housing or healthcare, they are implicitly asserting that we can, however, afford to spend $125 billion a year punishing our overseas enemies. When leaders say we can't afford environmental protection or cultural development, they are implicitly asserting that we can, however, afford to maintain the largest prison population and incarceration rate at the highest cost on the planet. (Oh yes, and we can't afford education, drug treatment, and rehab programs for the incarcerated, but we can, however, afford to guard SuperMax prisoners 24/7, just as often as a no-hope, no-mercy criminal justice system returns them to prison.) Tacitly, we accept the idea that continuous growth in profits is the only valid economic path, pursuing the bottom line, heedless of the cost to life on this planet.
Who are we? What do we stand for? How do we want to be remembered; what is our legacy to the future?
Of course, plenty of other questions come after those: What's the best way to accomplish our aims? How shall we pay for it? Have we fully considered the possible consequences? How will we reckon success? But those are details of the journey; our destination matters most. If our driving public purpose is not to husband our commonwealth; ensure the well-being of citizens and guests; live as good neighbors to the other peoples of the world; cherish mother earth; and knit the social fabric that holds us all, then we are on the wrong track, plain and simple.
In these times, those who stand for telling the story right, for doing the right thing, must be willing to risk ridicule. But as risks go, it isn't fatal, and once you get used to it, kneejerk ridicule fades to the background, like the buzzing of flies. Go ahead, take the risk, you won't regret it.
In the first part of this feature, I discussed the narrowness of official Washington's job-creation thinking, showing how concern for our damaged physical infrastructure hasn't been matched by concern to repair our cultural and social infrastructure. I explained that jobs are the engine of prosperity regardless of their nature. When they make a decent living and feel secure about spending, the money that teachers, police officers, construction workers, and community artists put into circulation helps equally to expand the flow of goods and services, creating other jobs and boosting the economy. Public-sector and public-benefit jobs multiply that impact when they are understood as investments in the public interest. They help individuals and families to survive and prosper, while simultaneously advancing public goals.
The jobs plan we need should extend into every aspect of public responsibility. I'm all for the creation of jobs that address physical infrastructure and conventional public provision, like those the President mentioned in his speech on Thursday. But every one needs to be matched by jobs that mend social and cultural infrastructure, and since the President didn't address that need, I will. As examples, I will focus on four humane, democratic public policy aims. Below each aim, I describe some of the need, and some of the job-creation initiatives that would address it. If as you read, you hear a voice in your head saying "we can't afford it," please consider the source of that sentiment. Despite voluminous propaganda to the contrary, redeploying just part of the public funding that now goes to reducing millionaires' taxes, subsidizing corporate profits, locking up vast numbers for crimes that ought to be treated as disorders, arming the world, and destroying the lives and homelands of distant enemies could pay for all this, and much, much more.
The jobs plan we need can take different forms: the container isn't as important as the contents. As in the 1930s, we can create a purpose-built program like Federal One, in effect, a new public-sector employer. Or we can mimic the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) of the 1970s, which set up pools of money open to application by public agencies and nonprofit organizations to underwrite employing people in public service. (Scroll down on this page to read a little about it.) Eventually, we can start adding to every public agency allocation an additional line-item for jobs like those I describe below--but at the beginning, we need special programs to highlight attention.
Imagine yourself in conversation with grown-up versions of the babies just now being born: how will it sound to say we couldn't find the funds needed to put people to work in the public interest, but we managed to scrape up trillions to spend on war, prison, and tax breaks for corporations and millionaires? Truly, we can't afford to find out.
Strengthening social fabric, promoting cross-cultural interaction and understanding
In times of exceptional economic and social pressure, scapegoating rises. People gaze at their neighbors and see unfathomable others. The kind of dog-whistle racism typical of Tea Party rhetoric reflects this, as does persistent anti-immigrant feeling, blaming newcomers for problems they did nothing to create or perpetuate. When cultural fabric is strong, a condition of true cultural citizenship pertains. As I've explained in many essays (this quote is from one I published last December):
Understanding cultural citizenship requires considering this question: how would the place you live be different if the same presupposition of full cultural citizenship--of heritage mattering, of voices counting, of entitlement to have a say in our collective future, of being welcomed, of feeling seen, of feeling at home--were given to every person as to its wealthiest and most powerful citizens? Seriously: every person. To the extent that we regard cultural citizenship as a privilege--treating it as natural and inevitable that some people will count far more than others--we enter into a damaging pact, as by keeping family secrets at the cost of well-being, of integrity and ethical alignment.
The warp and weft of a strong social fabric is shared stories, the opportunity to know each other despite barriers put in place by those who wish to divide and conquer. There are so many ways to advance this aim with public service jobs, I could list them forever. I will content myself with offering a few examples.
My friend Eric Booth has been deeply involved in bring El Sistema to the USA: El Sistema is an intensive program of musical study open free to children who commit to its rigorous expectations, and in return, experience mastery, loving support, and community. Here's how the El Sistema USA Website puts it: "A visionary global movement that transforms the lives of children through music. A new model for social change".33 years ago in a parking garage in Caracas, Dr. Jose' Antonio Abreu gathered together 11 children to play music. El Sistema was born. It now teaches music to 300,000 of Venezuela's poorest children, demonstrating the power of ensemble music to dramatically change the life trajectory of hundreds of thousands of a nation's youth while transforming the communities around them." Click here to download an essay by Eric on El Sistema in Venezuela, and here for one coauthored with Tricia Tunstall on "Batuta: The Colombian 'SISTEMA.'" Then imagine that every child in this country was given the same opportunity to engage in creative discipline under conditions of absolute equality and support.