Would “America Works” Actually Work?
Season 5 of House of Cards is just around the corner and I for one am feeling the hype. The Netflix remake of the British drama has managed to surpass the original in popularity and it’s not hard to see why. The Underwoods are among modern television’s most interesting couples and the show is able to stay relevant by drawing upon real life events.
In honor of the upcoming season premiere, I will be analyzing the program that Frank Underwood has made the focus of his presidency: America Works. Now, just as a warning, this article will likely contain spoilers if you are not caught up on the current seasons.
To start off our analysis, we need to go over what America Works actually is. Known as “AmWorks” for short, America Works is heavily inspired by New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Administration. Underwood intends to spend $500 billion on AmWorks. Unlike many proposals for new jobs programs, Underwood has determined how to pay for AmWorks: by cutting entitlements.
In the show, Underwood is able to launch a “test” of America Works without having to go through Congress by utilizing FEMA money after the Mayor of Washington DC declares the unemployment levels to constitute an emergency (a method which may not actually be viable, though this is disputed).
This scheme ultimately proves unable to last, as Congress leverages the power of the purse in the wake of an impending hurricane to force Underwood to halt his raiding of FEMA and fund relief for the hurricane. Despite this setback, Underwood centers his campaign for re-election in large part on bringing back America Works for the entire country.
For the purposes of this analysis, we will be overlooking questions of legality and instead focus on AmWorks’s viability as a program. There is one inherant problem: based on the track record of economic stimulus, it is extremely unlikely to meet its stated goals of full employment. Efforts to stimulate job creation via government spending have been tried before, albeit not in this scale.
Generally, the results are rather underwhelming. While AmWorks might be able to create some jobs, it is not going to achieve full employment as it was intended. Further, the sheer scale of jobs Underwood is seeking to create is unrealistic given the timeframe he has. Ultimately, America Works as a program is unlikely to achieve the goals it sets out to do, let alone in the available timeframe.
Further, there is the matter of cost. In the show, Underwood’s proposal calls for $500 billion in spending. However, this cost is unrealistically low. In real life, the 2009 stimulus package cost over $800 billion. Keep in mind that the stimulus package was passed in similar circumstances as AmWorks (during a deep recession) and AmWorks is a much more extensive program given that it is more in line with similar programs in socialist countries and consequently would likely cost well over the proposed $500 billion.
At minimum, costs can be estimated to be slightly higher than the stimulus, which would peg it at around $900 billion. This is by no means a perfect estimate and it could easily pass the trillion-dollar mark. This is especially true given Underwood’s implied intention of making America Works a long-term program like those implemented by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson (which are ironically on the chopping block to pay for Underwood’s program). AmWorks would cost even more given that it will be a permanent program.
There is another issue regarding AmWorks that is not about effectiveness but rather about likelihood of implementation. There is a key weakness that almost certainly would prevent any attempt to create AmWorks in reality: the payment method.
Underwood’s proposed method of paying for AmWorks is almost impossible to implement. Entitlement cuts, while ultimately a long-term necessity, are also extremely unpopular with most Americans. Even offsetting said cuts with a jobs program isn’t going to change the fact that most Americans oppose these cuts.
Additionally, cutting entitlements does come with costs for the people who use said entitlements. Without offsetting cuts, there are few options left to pay for AmWorks. One way would be inflation, which comes with a whole other set of problems. A second way could be tax increases, which will be hard to implement when over half the population thinks their taxes are too high and most of the rest think current rates are enough.
The final option is a series of debt increases, which will harm long-term economic health. Essentially, political considerations coupled with the weaknesses of the program itself will make AmWorks unlikely to succeed as a viable program.