Friday, December 7, 2012

Part V: A People's Government

Part I
My dad likes to describe himself as a NRA Democrat, but he jokes that he's referring to one of the earliest creations of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" called the "National Recovery Administration". I think one of his favorite possessions is a portrait of FDR made in the 30's given to him by my great aunt. What makes that portrait special is that it also has a tiny NRA sticker in the bottom right corner.
           I've only recently come to appreciate the portrait, for more than its historical value anyway. Through my last 2 years in high school and my first year in college, I was a firm Libertarian. I despised social safety nets and so called "welfare-queens", believed firmly in "that government is best which governs least" and thought that only a totally unregulated market could bring about economic prosperity. I can picture seventeen year old self fuming over Prof. Krissman's claim that three main "isms" (Imperialism, Colonialism, and Capitalism) are responsible for so much cultural devastation. But ever since the recession started, I've drifted away from my laissez faire philosophy and since then I've adopted a very different political and economic outlook. It's hard to argue with the case of Brazil (RCA p. 46-47) or with the sad history of Malawi (C&C Ch 17). But, I can feel the lingering libertarian inside saying "No! This is what happens when government gets involved with the economy! That's why things are such a mess!"
             So, rather than read about faraway places and stay in this fog, I want to see how these kinds of policies affect us here. I'd like to talk to business owners in downtown Arcata and see how they're doing during this terrible recession, stop by city hall and learn what they did with money given to them by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (enter your zip code to see the projects in your area!) and above all, see the mechanics of these policies in action and how they affect my neighbors. I want to have a more detailed understanding of these economic policies and though I'm fairly confident in my own current position, I'm eager to review it and learn more. I don't want to give the impression that I don't anything about these issues, only that I know my knowledge is superficial at best. Should be interesting!

Part II
It has occurred to me that I have chosen a rather daunting topic. Never mind that there are thousands of Economics textbooks on the market already (pun intended) along with the dozens of books on the separate subjects of The New Deal, The Fair Deal and The Great Society and that I'm just a lowly undergraduate anthropology student writing the equivalent of a term paper on these subjects! Potential information overload notwithstanding, I simply want know whether or not Obama's entry into this saga of government intervention in the economy was successful or not. But that depends upon who you ask. This isn't just a question of which side of the political aisle you happen to be on, but also on that old adage: cui bono? The drug traffickers benefit from the cocaine they import from Bolivia (C&C Ch 16) but the Bolivian people suffer for it (along with MANY others, but that's another paper topic). The rich benefit from the innovative medical treatments to combat disease and infection that our medical establishment invents but the poor don't (RCA p.48) because of the way our society is set up.
I'm not trying to lure the reader into a relativistic tailspin. I'm simply pointing out that when it comes to the subject of economics, there are many systems and scenarios that "work". It's just a question of who they work for: whose quality of life increases or decreases and what is the cost? Ever since the start of the Recession a few years back, I think it has become painfully apparent that total unregulated laissez-faire capitalism is designed to benefit those already in power and who already have money while the rest of the population gets gradually poorer and poorer (RCA Ch 3). After all, the time in American History with the least amount of regulation and government oversight of the economy is now called The Gilded Age. The Great Depression came on the heels of a decade dominated by financial recklessness and corporate greed. One could even argue that Ronald Reagan’s economic policies laid the groundwork for the current Recession.
Which this leads me back to the main focus of my project: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (usually shortened to the Recovery Act or the stimulus) and whether it "worked" or not. Once again, cui bono?
  • Create new jobs and save existing ones
  • Spur economic activity and invest in long-term growth
  • Foster unprecedented levels of accountability and transparency in government spending
  • Tax cuts and benefits for millions of working families and businesses
  • Funding for entitlement programs, such as unemployment benefits
  • Funding for federal contracts, grants and loans
An ironic part of the stimulus bill was that many on the Left wanted it to be larger so that it could invest in more companies and thus create more jobs! This directly contradicts the right wing propaganda that leftists just want to create a society of “welfare bums” who don’t want to work. This makes me wonder what the stimulus could have accomplished if it was as big as Paul Krugman  wanted it to be. So much for all the right-wing noise about Obama being a socialist.* 
However, while this project was able to convince me of the remarkable good that can be created as a result of the government and the people working together, the long term relationship between these two entities has been a rocky, sometimes violent, one to say the least. Reading over some sections of the textbooks (specifically C&C Part 4, RCA Ch. 2, 3) has often upset me. To plainly see just how loaded the dice are when it comes to upper 1% in this world and how they’re able to influence regulations and legislation in their own favor at the expense of everyone else is sickening.  
According to the website dedicated to monitoring the Recovery Act, it was supposed to do three things:
The stimulus provided $787 billion (later increased to $840 billion) in three main forms:
Punching in Arcata's zip code into the search bar, I found that $14,652,594 (!) was spent in this area and $1,631,112 on HSU alone! It's trickier to find out precisely what this money was actually "for" so I'm going to have to call around and (hopefully) find someone who actually knows what this money funded and whether or not it was effective. This means calling community health centers, elementary schools, Greyhound (no seriously Greyhound (in this area) got over a million.) and many of the other recipients of the stimulus money. Looking forward to it!
Part III
When doing the kind of fieldwork that I chose to do, there are certain stupid questions that I had to ask. The major one was: did you find the money useful? 
But wait, let me back up. I selected a number of businesses and institutions to interview about the grants they received from the stimulus act. Some never got back to me so my selection was more limited than I'd like. The two businesses I'm going to talk about are Ausland Builders INC. and Alchemy Construction. I wish I had gotten more variety but at least this way I'll be dealing with similar situations. There’s always the possibility of radically different interpretations (C&C Ch 3) but hopefully both the positive and negative comments will be based on a similar outlook which in this case is about what’s good for the business.
Ausland Builders (though they're located in Oregon) did some work in Humboldt County for the Forest Service. The grant they received was $ 1,015,649. I spoke with a representative of the company who said that the government hired them to add a second floor to a local Forest Service building. Up in Oregon, they were able to install a new heating system for the Three Rivers Elementary School and for the local high school (the buildings were heated using old fashioned and expensive oil, now they're heated through the use of wood pellets which is saving the school a lot of money). The representative said the project was very successful though getting paid was a bit of a headache since the state government was hard to work with. 
Alchemy Construction also praised the grant her company received ($348,618). The representative I spoke to was named Amy and she was very enthusiastic about the positive experience she had working for the government. Her company was hired to build "a large solar electric center" at the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Loleta. The building's hot water is now heated through solar power. They also built housing for the Refuge workers. In addition to this project, her company also upgraded a heating system for another building but the conversation moved on before I could clarify where exactly this project was located. 
Amy further elaborated that because they were working for the government, they got to pay their employees more due to the government issuing them a Payment & Performance bond. She ended the interview saying she'd love to work for the government again. Apparently she didn't have the payment problem that the other construction company had. While these kinds of projects can sometimes yield poor results or even be fundamentally wrongheaded (Moodle: Week 5: NPR “Brazilian Tribes Say Dam Threatens Way of Life), almost all of the projects of the Recovery Act have survived peer review (click around if you're skeptical). 
When I asked each of the representatives whether or not they found the money useful, there was a pause before they responded in the affirmative. I realized I had asked a stupid question but it was a stupid question that needed to be asked. It's easy to criticize the stimulus when you're just reading numbers on a screen but when you're a direct beneficiary of it and you see what the money is going towards, your perspective is bound to change ( unless you're Paul Ryan). Economies like ours typically deal with more abstract concepts (ex: stocks) rather than material goods (Moodle: Week 4: Economic Anthropology video). It's easy to forget that a complex "economic stimulus package" put together on the other side of the country will translate into jobs and services in our own neighborhoods. For many people, the stimulus package was just $787 billion being added to the deficit. I'm not saying that people who are against the stimulus or any other social program for that matter are all stupid or apathetic to other people's suffering. But I am sure that if more people could see the good that government can do, they wouldn't be so quick to condemn programs like the Recovery Act. But I'll save my wrap up for my final post. 
Part IV
Looking back on this project, I'm realizing that is was largely a confirming experience rather than a learning one, confirming that government can be force for good in the lives its citizens. During the course of this little project, I've mentioned that I've constantly been hearing the nagging voice of my former Libertarian/Social Darwinian self, whispering always that the government has no business helping the average worker, that the worker instead has to help him or herself and once (or if) they recover, they’ll be stronger for it.  I recognized a few years ago that this was a dogmatic and fallacious line of reasoning that was mostly motivated by my own prejudices rather than by a sense of empathy and understanding for those in need but old habits die hard. After completing this project however, I’m more convinced than ever about the baseless and, at times, callous nature of my former outlook. I'm also more firmly convinced about the good that government can do when it works for the people.
I also keep remembering all the really stupid questions I had to ask to the participants in this project, the main one being: were jobs that your company received beneficial to your company? Well, of course they were! They weren't hired to work for sub-standard wages like the grape pickers in California (Krissman's Week 4, 11 lectures) nor were they subject to any poorly planned, table tilted, environmentally destructive, or culturally oblivious policies from the World Bank or International Monetary Fund (RCA p. 73). They were simply receiving money from their government in exchange for work that needed to be done. This is far from government simply giving "hand-outs".
So, I walk away from this project with a very cautious optimism, not in the government, but in the power of an active citizenry that make government work for the good of everyone rather than the benefit of a few. This comes from hard work and dedication on the part of the people (the individualism of my semi-younger self) and on a well-established safety net on the side of government should the people need help. Maybe one day, we won’t have to talk about “the government” and “the people” at all. Maybe one day they’ll totally blend together to point where we can’t tell the difference any more. If that day comes, then it will represent the true birth of democracy. May it come soon.