One of the programs that emerged from the Great Depression was the Works Program Administration (WPA). The Government set wages at the local average and paid the long-term unemployed to build projects for the community: schools, parks, bridges, museums, libraries. Infrastructure that still supports civic life today. Infrastructure that major corporations, which are taxed at a minuscule rate, benefit from.
For as much real good as the WPA did for our country, the federal government isn’t likely to agree to a similar project in this climate. The GOP has been slavishly pursuing ideology over pragmatism and people for decades, and the Dems are functionally useless at this point, but like a zombie kept alive by funding, they keep stumbling around and knocking over any upstart idea that might make a difference.
But just because the federal government isn’t going to save us – no matter who you voted for, you probably know that to be true – doesn’t mean that the promise of the WPA is unavailable to us on a regional and local level.
The federal government is out of the sphere of influence for most individual Americans. It responds to lobbyists and corporation and itself. Maybe that’s okay, because if the fed were to sweep in and try to solve a local problem, they’d do it with experts from elsewhere and solutions that may or may not make sense because unless you’re living right there, you don’t really understand the problem.
There are a lot of us, and we have a lot of time on our hands. Retirees who don’t (and shouldn’t) buy into the notion that retired = irrelevant. People with disabilities that limit their movement, but not their common sense. The long term unemployed who might be just as angry about a loss of purpose as they are about the loss of a paycheck.
Where is all that time and energy going? Right now, no where. We’re buried in Facebook with a hundred friends and not one person to invite over to dinner. We’re glued to the TV consuming an endless cycle of news that goes absolutely nowhere, and accomplishes nothing but building frustration and helplessness at the same time – a mix that is toxic to ourselves and our families and our communities.
So what’s holding us back? What’s standing between us and taking back our communities, not from people who don’t look like us, but from helplessness and decay?
Destruction is easy. All it takes is an idiot and a sledgehammer. Construction is hard. Making something, renewing something, that takes a lot of work. I don’t know how to turn any of this into a paycheck, but I know this can turn into purpose. If your local building codes keep your community from doing common sense things to solve community problems, get everyone you know with real expertise in building and challenge your city, your county, your state to rewrite the codes. Hell, do it for them. Find counties with sensible building codes and make the argument. Take those mofo’s on.
The secret of “the system” is the secret of bullies and society in general: someone says “I have authority here” and people look around and notice that he’s standing in front of the room on a crate, so everyone says “well, it looks like that guy is in charge.” All authority requires an agreement. You can take away that agreement. You can challenge authority. Just because someone says “you have to do things my way” doesn’t mean you have to agree. You can still form a union, create a collective, make the will of the community known to get things done. The bigwigs might have money, but you have time and a lot more people behind you than they do. You don’t have to wait for a boss or a politician to give you permission to make your life better by improving the community. You can start your own WPA, right where you are. You’re smart, you have practical experience, you have a library card and access to the internet… If you’re waiting for permission, here it is. You have permission to find purpose in improving your community for yourself and your neighbors. You have permission to make America great again, starting with your neighborhood.
Please note: when I say make America great again, I don’t mean by engaging in the mean-spirited notion that a great America is a white America. The greatest part of being an American is the idea that anyone can achieve anything if they are willing to put in the work. The “you aren’t the boss of me” attitude can be helpful when it isn’t turned to coal-rolling and is instead employed challenging the authorities that make common sense complicated with a 20 volume book of building codes. Or whatever the bureaucratic idiocy of the day is. America at its greatest builds, fixes, solves, innovates, includes, improvises… America at its worst is petty, judgmental, small minded, paranoid, selfish, and mean. Pursue great America, not America at its worst.