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Jobs of Meaning: Solving Free Trade with a New Works Progress Administration
Patrick Cullinan
Minnehaha Academy
Minneapolis, MN

There is no disagreement among contemporary economists that free trade is good for the U.S. economy (Wheelan 176). However, our government should not wholeheartedly embrace free trade without first addressing its major drawbacks. The first and more well-known of these is job loss. Free trade causes otherwise unnecessary layoffs. The second is that communities most affected by free trade layoffs often undergo a spiritual crisis that ordinary measures, such as retraining programs, cannot fix. Americans need not only jobs but jobs with meaning. This problem has existed as long as free trade itself, and the market has not and will never solve it. The solution is for the government to create these jobs. The solution is the revival of the Works Progress Administration.

By one estimate, U.S. trade with China alone between 1999 and 2011 cost the U.S. 2.4 million jobs (Acemoglu S146). The United States loses these jobs because other countries can do them more efficiently (i.e. with less opportunity cost). The result is that for all the indirect positive impacts of free trade, many Americans witness firsthand “a direct negative impact on competing U.S. firms and workers” (Baughman 7). The direct nature of this phenomenon is important: Many Americans are oblivious to the good free trade brings to their lives but painfully cognizant of the suffering it causes. A Carnegie Endowment account of jobs lost to free trade in Ohio reports that “for many, . . . [free trade represents] not just the loss of employment, but also the gradual unraveling of a de facto social contract that once existed between government, business, labor, and communities” (Ahmed 21). The impact of free trade lies not only in pecuniary catastrophe for thousands of Americans but also a collective psychological breakdown that tarnishes American politics and ruins lives. Researchers have found a direct connection between free trade-related layoffs and opioid addiction—worse than with other forms of job loss (Dean 1-2). Americans in this situation are encountering a spiritual crisis; they have lost a key source of meaning in their lives, and so they turn to new, often dangerous places to fill that void. Unfortunately, while job loss alone might seem easy enough to fix by simply reemploying people—indeed, retraining programs such as the Trade Adjustment Assistance program try this, with inconsistent results (The TAA program has only a 37% success rate)—fixing this cultural crisis is much more complex (Selingo). What these Americans need is not merely new jobs. They need purpose; they need to know that their government hasn’t abandoned them. The United States has faced such a crisis before, and just as the government solved it then, it can today. America needs a new WPA.

The Works Progress Administration was a crucial factor in revitalizing the U.S. economy during the Great Depression and building a significant portion of the United States’ infrastructure. One year after its creation, the WPA employed 3.4 million people. It famously was less interested in what people worked on than that they worked at all. The WPA spent billions paying Americans to work on projects ranging from roads and bridges to paintings and musicals (Newman 506). While the most immediate consequence of the WPA—the employment of millions—is remarkable on its own, its legacy should not be contained to this alone. Workers for the WPA created “over 22,000 roads, 7,488 educational buildings and over 7,000 sewer, water and other projects,” writes Joel Kotkin for Forbes. The multiplier effect of such a program is practically incalculable. Not only did the WPA put billions of dollars into the hands of ordinary consumers—and exactly the consumers with the largest marginal propensity to spend—it also resulted in an immensely more efficient infrastructure, facilitating the flow of money and further stimulating the economy. However, “More than a mere matter of building roads and bridges . . . the WPA was about restoring a collective spirit, a shared stake, in [the United States]” (Kotkin).  The man who ran the WPA, Harry Hopkins, explained its logic quite succinctly: “Give a man a dole, and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both” (Semuels). The revival of the WPA is the perfect solution to the problem of free trade. The government can simultaneously re-employ thousands, build up our infrastructure and economy, and give meaning to those Americans who need it most. 

The new WPA would, in many ways, be a reconstruction of the old one. Today, just as in the 1930s, U.S. infrastructure is badly in need of repair. In two of its latest quadrennial report cards, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure a D+. The ASCE estimates that if the government doesn’t make a change soon, the economy will suffer a loss of almost four billion dollars and more than 2.5 million jobs by 2025. The new WPA could work towards putting U.S. infrastructure on the right track. However, it could also put significant work towards other problems. By assisting local municipalities in pollution control and investing in the production of renewable energy sources, the new WPA could build not only a better infrastructure but a greener one. It has even been suggested that a new WPA could expand broadband internet access (Kotkin). The multiplying benefits of these projects would almost certainly allow enough economic growth to make up for the cost of the Administration.

Even better, in the long-term, the good that the WPA would do for U.S. infrastructure would increase productivity, giving the United States more of a comparative advantage for many commodities and improving its production possibilities. As a result, fewer jobs would be transferred overseas, and free trade would deal less of a blow to blue-collar working communities. Thus, the revival of the WPA would employ the free-trade-related layoffs of yesterday and set them to work on limiting the layoffs of tomorrow.

Works Cited

Acemoglu, Daron et al. “Import Competition and the Great US Employment Sag of the 2000s.” Journal of Labor Economics, vol. 34, no. S1, 2016, pp. S141-S198. 

Ahmed, Salman et al. “U.S. Foreign Policy for the Middle Class: Perspectives From Ohio.” 10 Dec. 2018. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.

“America’s Infrastructure Grades Remain Near Failing.” American Society of Civic Engineers. 9 Mar. 2017, Accessed 11 Apr. 2020.

Baughman, Laura and Joseph Francois. “Opening Markets, Creating Jobs: Estimated U.S. Employment Effects of Trade with FTA Partners.” 14 May 2010. Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.

Dean, Adam and Simeon Kimmel. “Free trade and opioid overdose death in the United States.” SSM - Population Health, vol. 7, 2019, population-health. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.

Kotkin, Joel. “Why We Need A New Works Progress Administration.” Forbes. 23 Mar. 2009, Accessed 26 Mar. 2020.

Newman, John and John Schmalbach. Advanced Placement United States History. Perfection Learning, 2020.

Selingo, Jeffrey. “The False Promises of Worker Retraining.” The Atlantic. 8 Jan. 2018. Accessed 12 Apr. 2020.

Semuels, Alana. “The Case for a New WPA.” The Atlantic. 14 Apr. 2016, Accessed 26 Mar. 2020.

Wheelan, Charles. Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science. W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.