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Hey Buddy, Can You Spare a Billion?

By       Message Stephen Pizzo     Permalink
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Before the current financial crisis ends we are going to first see the US Treasury blow somewhere between $1 trillion to $3 trillion trying to restart America's engine. The money has already been flowing but, up til now, the lion's share has gone to the pinstriped suit crowd in New York. Soon we will see another humongous chunk going to three dinosaurs from Detroit.

So far the first batch of free money being handed out  comes to around $750 billion, leaving up to $2 trillion to go. And, oh yes, they will hand it out. Because the only the elected officials want is to, as Mel Brooks put it in Blazing Saddles, “keep our phony baloney jobs.”

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So, how would you spend $2 trillion?

The answer to that question will determine whether America uses this crisis to leap forward into the 21st century, or tries to recreate America's post-war industrial glory days -- which is a bit like trying to return America to our 19th Century agrarian past.

Instead we can make lemonade out of this lemon of a fiscal meltdown. Here's how I would spend the rest.

Out of Jail and Into the Woods
 State and federal prison systems are overflowing with non-violent criminals, most convicted of minor drug-related offenses.

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Since the late 1970s, the prison population has increased sixfold, and the number of people on probation or parole has also skyrocketed. The overall correctional population (either in prison or on parole) has grown during this time from 1.8 million to well over 7 million people. Another 4.3 million ex-convicts live in the US. According to The Sentencing Project, drug arrests have more than tripled in the last 25 years, to a record 1.8 million arrests in 2005. The so-called war on drugs has pushed the number of incarcerated drug offenders up by 1,100 percent since 1980. During this same period, rates of drug use declined by half.

The expense of housing so many prisoners – with more being added every day -- is breaking already strained state budgets.  Besides, putting druggies in jail doesn't work, any more than putting alcoholics in jail would. Most of these minor-league criminals serve their time, get out, and return months later.

We have a rare opportunity to break that cycle, while also relieving prison overcrowding and the skyrocketing costs.

During the last Great Depression my father and his brother helped support their Italian immigrant parents by joining Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corp, the “CCC.” (CCC workers in those days weren't prisoners, but simply young unemployed men.) They were sent to our state and national parks to clear brush, build roads, plant trees, clean rivers and creeks, etc.

So, why not convert non-violent inmate's sentences to stints in a new CCC? Besides free room and board, pay them $8 an hour, 90% of which is held in an interest bearing account until their release, so they have a grubstake with which to begin a new life. If they screw up during their CCC stint, they go back to prison.

The money spent on such a program would not only relieve prison over-crowding, but gives taxpayers  something in return. Our long-neglected public lands  and parks will get cleaned up and kept that way, for a change. And these minor criminals get even more. Most of them are inner city kids whose entire concept of the world has been bracketed by the boundaries of their urban turf. A couple of years in the woods can only help – not to mention the benefits of trading a Glock 9mm for a five-foot rake or shovel.

Re-educating Our White Collar Workforce

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My second proposal is to revive another Roosevelt program, the Works Progress Administration, (WPA.)

And what better moment to do it! Last month another half million workers joined the ranks of the unemployed.

The economy has lost 1.9 million jobs so far this year as payrolls dropped for 11 consecutive months. U.S. companies eliminated 533,000 jobs in November, the most since 1974, and the unemployment rate increased to a 15-year high of 6.7 percent, the government said last week. (Bloomberg)

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Stephen Pizzo has been published everywhere from The New York Times to Mother Jones magazine. His book, Inside Job: The Looting of America's Savings and Loans, was nominated for a (more...)

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