I spent a few minutes in a local supermarket yesterday, and noticed a man in the cafe who was making himself busy by pushing in chairs, and straightening tables and napkin holders.
He had a bit of a "homeless" look to him. A cart full of stuff confirmed my impression.
Everyone else in the cafe was sitting in a chair doing whatever they were doing - eating, drinking, checking email, etc.
I thought about telling this man that his constant laps around the room were making him stand out. If he'd just sit still and read his book for a bit, he could enjoy the air conditioning, and wouldn't draw nearly as much attention to himself.
Today, outside the same store, I noticed this homeless man again near the bottle & can recycling center. A few minutes later he was back 'at work', picking up trash and pushing in chairs.
It occurred to me that the worst part of being unemployed, homeless and living on the street would definitely be the boredom.
One of the problems with the market economy is that a certain percentage of the population is basically unemployable, for a variety of reasons. Mental illness, health problems top the list, and others just never learned a skill that's marketable.
Make-work projects are those from which little value is created. The classic example of a make-work job program is paying one person to dig a ditch, and paying a second person to fill it in.
To me, a 'job project' is something that puts people to work doing things that ought to be done anyway. There are always weeds that need to be pulled, public structures that need a fresh coat of paint, graffiti vandalism painted over, etc. I imagine a program where the crew chief would take whoever shows up and put them to work doing whatever needs to be done.
There could be big jobs projects too. The maintenance and building of bridges and other forms of infrastructure is one possibility. The American Society of Civil Engineers grades the United State's infrastructure at a D- (just above failing).
On the other hand, direct government employment may be the only solution to some of our most serious long-term unemployment problems: structural unemployment.
... People who cannot find jobs because they lack relevant skills of any kind best fit the definition of "structural unemployment." It seems pretty clear that neither policies that change job search behavior nor policies that expand spending in general are very suited to this group.
Paying for it all...
Many people's first objection is probably about the cost: "Who's going to pay for this?",
As I alluded to in my recent letter to the editor, the government's most important job is managing the money supply.
While there is a case to be made that the government can't be trusted with something this important, practical experience shows that private banks have failed to facilitate an equitable distribution of money in the economy.
If the government were to create more of the money supply, this could be spent directly into circulation. Right now, the only fraction of the money supply that it creates are coins, which are purchased by the federal reserve at face value and distributed to the banking system.
Imagine having the money to do a task properly...
A few months back I saw a crew of two men spraying something into the blackberry bushes that grow between the creek and the trail. I said that I'd just moved to Oregon, and asked what they were spraying for. I learned that Blackberries are considered noxious weeds in Oregon, and that the city has to spray to keep the vines from completely overgrowing the trail.
After two weeks there was a band of defoliated blackberry vines about 3 feet thick. 20 feet of blackberries with green leaves were behind this band.
Instead of having the city pay to spray a large amount of herbicide on these bushes, why not have work crews completely clear blackberries out of the entire 20-mile trail? This is much more expensive than two guys with a herbicide sprayer, but the job would be done right.
The war against blackberries can probably never be won, but at least this section of trail would be blackberry free for a while.
Perhaps blackberry trimming isn't the greatest example of what could be done but for lack of funds.
Many existing jobs are actually make-work
The number of people incarcerated for victimless crimes has exploded in recent decades. While it's important to be able to segregate problematic members of a society, a large percentage of the prison population are more political prisoners than genuine potential hazards. The largest portion of these "political prisoners" were put there by the so-called "war on drugs".
Prison is extraordinarily expensive, much more so than any job project I can think of. The cost of a jail bed averages out to about $62/night. Eight hours of work at $7.25/hour (current minimum wage) is $58.
Much more value is created by putting someone to work than locking them up.
Rather than locking someone up for petty offenses (of which many are economically driven), society would turn a lose-lose situation into a win-win.
Education is another example of a sort of make-work program. While education itself is very important, the government currently spends $billions more educating children than it needs to.
Young people are currently subjected to entirely too much schooling. Accelerated learning methods allow just about anyone to make exponentially more years of progress in a single year than in the present system. See my recent post about the fellow who was trying to get a young man to care about school.
Putting people to work
An estimated 14-million people are currently unemployed, and millions more are working less than they'd like. The government needs to step to the plate, and provide money to put people to work.
Some final thoughts from someone with more certifications in Economics than I:
... Nothing could be more foolish right now than policies that reduce government spending or increase taxes. We have nearly 14 million unemployed people in the United States, a number that undoubtedly underestimates the true magnitude of the problem since it ignores discouraged workers and the underemployed. Despite this, Messrs. Obama, Ryan, and Geithner tell us that we need to make sacrifices. Seriously? The American people already have, and what they are asking us to do will simply make it worse.