Meteor Blades has already written a well-researched and authoritative article on the job summit. So consider this one the completely personal, off-the-cuff alternative cup o’ free advice to our president and everyone else involved in trying to find ways to connect Americans with paychecks.
1. Drop the word “infrastructure”
I spent years as an enterprise architect. My father did decades more as a city manager. I can tell you that whether you’re talking about database servers or sewer pipe, the word “infrastructure” is the first step in either putting your audience to sleep or making your project seem too abstract to be relevant. If you mean “let’s build highways,” then say “let’s build highways.”
2. Don’t build highways
Sure, it’s popular. No one likes to sit in traffic. No one wants to ride some twisting lane spotted with sad makeshift crosses. Politicians love new highways because they always come with ribbon-cuttings and signs that remind people who their governor is, plus if you build enough of them odds are they will name one after you. The trouble is, the cost of a highway isn’t in the building. Why does America have one quintillion failing bridges and six light years of crumbling highways in need of repair? Why is it easier to build a new ring of ex-ex-exurbs than deal with the issues of cities? Because generations of politicians couldn’t think of any better way to create jobs than to pave more earth while saddling future generations with the world’s largest system of asphalt white elephants.
3. Do big things with small companies.
Conservatives are always going on about how some bill will hurt mom and pop by taxing billionaires. Sometimes mom and pop even start to believe them. But hey, they’ll believe this a lot quicker — deal directly with mom and pop. Make your deals with companies that have fewer than a dozen employees. Hire them even when its for something they’ve never done before. Hire them especially when it’s something they’ve never done before. Hire solo acts. Hire start ups. Hire retirees who want to put their experience to work and teenagers with enthusiasm. For once, just once, let it be Halliburton and the Carlyle Group and all the rest of those guys that are left pressing their noses against the glass, whimpering that they’re not in on the deal.
4. Don’t be afraid to do it yourself.
If you can’t find a small business to do something, don’t sweat it. Do it yourself. Grab people off the streets and out of the 7/11 parking lot. Put them to work. Give them training. Give them encouragement to dream up their first company and take this mess off your hands as fast as possible. Be a school, be an incubator, be America. And hey, don’t hire the big guys. Because the one thing that kills small business like nothing else is big business. You want to come out of this with the next generation of American companies ready to take on the world, not with the last generation only fatter.
5. There’s no such thing as “make work” jobs
Work has consequences that are bigger than the thing being worked on. It doesn’t matter whether it’s cleaning trash along the highway or building rockets for NASA, work itself is a net positive. Besides, what turns out to be important is hard to predict. All those jobs that people complained about as “make work” seventy years ago? Those jobs built things like the gorgeous Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood. The splendid stone bridge at Cumberland Mountain State Park in Tennessee. Beautiful paths, lodges, shelters, cabins, and camping areas at hundreds of state and federal parks — along with more than 3,000 fire towers to watch over those parks. Many of the structures created by the WPA and the CCC have far outlasted contemporary structures built by people doing “real jobs” and have done so elegantly, wonderfully, in a way that’s uniquely and perfectly American. Which brings me to…
6. My Secret Plan to Put America Back on Top
Beauty. Whether you believe in God, “providence,” or simple good fortune, there is no doubt that America is blessed with some of the most spectacular places to be found on Earth. We don’t just have the Grand Canyon and the astounding landscapes of Yellowstone, we have the literally matchless diversity of the forests along the Appalachian Mountains. We have the tropics of the Everglades and the glacial valleys of Alaska. Deserts? We got deserts. And lakes, and rivers, and seas. All of them, , would benefit from (here’s that word again) infrastructure that doesn’t turn them into blurs along the roadway, but delivers us to them (and them to us) in a way that helps us appreciate every inch of what we have. If there must be a bridge across a river, let it be a glorious bridge. Where there’s a road, let it be one that complements the landscape, sets it off, like a ring to a jewel. Don’t replace miles of ugly blacktop with uglier blacktop, replace it with something achingly excellent. Hire people to be artists and architects. Train them for it. Harness America’s two greatest resources — creativity and diversity. While you’re at it, don’t stop with restoring the beauty of the natural landscape. Let’s preserve some perfect small towns, and some city blocks that have a beauty as dignified as mountains. You know that one neighborhood near you that used to be run down, but which came back to life when artists moved in and turned shabby to chic? Let’s call that neighborhood America.
Nature. Hard work. Small business. Art and beauty. That ought to do it. If you want to hire some folks to cook a few hot dogs and serve up apple pie, that would be a nice bonus.
Oh, and I’m serious — no more roads. Unless, of course, they’re lovely.