A Digital WPA

Earlier I suggested that that we offer unemployed people jobs that could be done from home:

A 21st century jobs program would pay people to stay home and isolate, support people without work, and produce some useful output all at the same time.

Instead of paying people to dig and then fill ditches we could pay people to help train machine-learning apps, enter data, subtitle videos. take surveys, maybe even fold proteins to disrupt viruses.

Writing at Brookings, Apurva Sanghi and Michal Lokshin provide some more ideas:

Another high-potential area is document digitization: Only 10 percent of the world’s books are digitized. Even with the current level of optical character recognition (OCR) technology, for a book to be digitized, an independent person needs to check it for errors, problems with tables and images, tagging, and oversee the look of the resulting text. Handwritten documents, images, and tables, even in printed books, require manual processing, proofreading, careful checking, and quality control. A person would receive scanned images of, let’s say, old letters to decipher and type into the electronic document. Comparing the results of several independent people working on the same document would assure the quality of transcription.

I want to add one more item to the list: contact tracing. In addition to tracing apps, we are going to need hundreds of thousands of people doing contact tracing and most of it can be done with email and phone from home. Two birds, one stone.


Set armies of people typing haphazardly. Apparently they'll produce new Shakespeare plays.

That only works with monkeys. Humans will just get bored and start hammering out Fan Fiction.

Or worse. Scientific papers containing statistical analysis of something or other.

Maybe this could employ another cohort generating random noise. For analysis of course.

"Or worse. Scientific papers containing statistical analysis of something or other."

That's just a highly stylized form of Fan Fiction.

Even econ 101 predicts it's the inverse.

Highly underrated take.

Makework jobs like these that could be done at home by an American could also be done at home by a Filipino at one tenth of the wage. If the work has any value, it would not make sense to have Americans do it.

There is more value to work than just the wage. This misconstrued arbitrage / race to the bottom for cheap labor ignores the wealth generated by MBA ‘thinking’.

If you're not concerned about wasting resources as you're getting work done, that's a signal that the work isn't very useful.

Alex is talking about right now while many jobs have been annulled as a result of the Pandemic. The "best of all possible worlds" rules you cite do not apply to this situation. If it's a choice between millions of people doing nothing while being given subsistence payments and millions of people doing something while being given those payments the latter is the better option.

I think the point is to get some value, rather than just passing out welfare money. Furthermore, Filipino's, Indian's, Chinese, etc don't speak the language as well and don't know the culture and probably wouldn't do as good a job. There's a reason that a lot of call center operations were moved to India and then moved back despite Indian labor being much cheaper.

For someone normally so concerned with IP theft, it is hard to imagine seriously suggesting the mass piracy of copyrighted material.

He didn't suggest mass piracy of copyrighted material. But that was obvious. So, I'm assuming this was just trolling.

If only 10 percent of the world’s books are digitized, and this is not intended to be a huge upscaling of Project Gutenberg/archive.org, then this is a government funded gift to copyright owners?

Take your pick.

"Take your pick."

Or maybe you didn't consider that there were more than two options? Not every book that's out of copyright has been digitized. A reasonably smart person reading Alex's comment would assume those are the works he's referring too.

Unfortunately your desire to make snarky comments overrides your ability to reach a logical conclusion.

"Around 80 percent of all the books published from 1923 to 1964 are in the public domain"


"For several decades from 2019 onward, each New Year’s Day will unleash a full year’s worth of works published 95 years earlier."


There are still large numbers of books who's copyright has expired (or will soon) that aren't digitized.

"Another could be for governments to subsidize the dissemination and provision of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to make them freely and readily available."

That was my idea, shared here previously. And pay the student for completion!

"In addition to tracing apps, we are going to need hundreds of thousands of people doing contact tracing and most of it can be done with email and phone from home. Two birds, one stone."

There is no chance that this will happen.

Oh right, like I'm really going to give personal info over the phone or e-mail to someone claiming to be a "contact tracer?" I'd rather help out some rich NIgerian prince or that MIcrosoft tech-support guy.

It could just be a first approach where they ask you if you've had contact with the tracee. If so, they pass the info along to the appropriate local resources. They could just act as a first pass filter.

Mass tracing and tracking doesn't work when over 20% of the population has likely been infected. I doubt it works even when 5% have been infected.

True, but there are a lot of small towns that probably only have 1 or 2 cases. I think you could have some useful work at the margins. NYC is way past that point of course.

That's possible, but you wouldn't need anywhere close to hundreds of thousands tracking then.

Just assume that you are working 10 new cases per day for roughly 20 rural counties per state. That would be 10*10*50 = 10,000 new cases per day.

If each case involves 50 contacts, that's new 500,000 contacts per day. You could "employ" 100K people doing an initial filter on 5 contacts per day.

Do we need anything like that? I have no idea. But it theoretically could be a sizable task. And it would allow tens of thousands of trained medical workers to focus in on the flagged follow up calls.

Also that army of tele-tracers could be engaged in adding the contact trace route to online maps.

My understanding was the Google's largest difficulty in digitizing books was not character recognition, but dealing with copyright laws from a massive number of different countries, publishers and years. See here for more: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/the-tragedy-of-google-books/523320/

The WPA actually built things, such as the beautiful balustrade on the long stretch of Bayshore Blvd. in Tampa. Today, tech nonsense dominates everything, even useless tasks for the unemployed. https://tclf.org/landscapes/bayshore-boulevard

-1, woosh, rayward misses the entire point

The idea is to let people do something useful while they are stuck at home in lock down.

There's no lock-down for essential workers, like those who work at the grocery store or Amazon or the auto repair shop. The list is long, the pay is low for the essential workers. Give them something useful to do that they can do. America can't build stuff anymore because tech off-shored it. So tech is going to rescue us from the pandemic by having unemployed workers enter data into digital data bases from which tech will reap fortunes by selling advertising to companies that build stuff in China to sell to American consumers accessing the data base? How tender. Build a damn balustrade. Or a bridge. Or a highway. Or an armory. Or any of the other tangible things the WPA built.

I don't see where you engage the actual issue, which is to make use of millions of people that are in lock down and not working. This isn't applicable to people that are still working.

" America can't build stuff anymore because tech off-shored it."

Wall Street off-shored it. It was done so the stocks in your retirement account would go up in the name of "efficiency" and "fiduciary duty to shareholder". It's not something to do with tech companies.

Myopia is a pandemic. The millions of unemployed aren't tech workers, they are low paid workers whose only choice if they have one is the high risk job at the grocery store or Amazon. That Tabarrok couldn't see the irony in his suggestion is a reflection of the typical reader of this blog.

Re-read the descriptions. The contact tracer job is something anyone could do. Point, click, call, talk. The OCR is even easier. Scan and read. Neither of those require an Amazon level software engineer or a computer scientist.

Actually no. Calling people and getting information from them is not something "anyone" can do. It actually takes a special talent.

I am applying for the online carpenter job.

There is already Amazon Mechanical Turk. There: People crave to minimize the hours and exposure to the work rather than improving the quality or innovating. This is a sign of short-term-ism and labor distraction and extended periods away from maintaining and advancing other skills. At least gig economies are hyper-time flexible. Home work should be an extension of workplace work, where the key is to allow 25 - 50% time at home, doing reports, communication, etc., that would be done in a cubicle anyway, knowing that it is based on the essential tech and community at a workplace. So, maybe more about work distribution/sharing than replacement (add an extra division of labor/ recombination of labor as appropriate)

I could see some merit to this idea, but we can assume that a lot of the high value working remotely jobs are already filled. So, these would be very marginal cases.

Still if you can get some value produced for the massive amount of money flowing out of Washington, it would be useful.

Didn't Google already try the book project? And got into all sorts of hot water with authors and publishers over copyright? Maybe they will forget all that now that the end-of-the-world is nigh?

Google was deliberately digitizing all books regardless of their copyright status. Which was in a gray area of the law. There's no issue with digitizing works with an expired copyright.

60% of the program costs will go to 'administration', just like all our other social programs. It's makework, but for political friends.

Maybe we can build a fire, sing a couple of songs, huh? Why don't we try that?

Perhaps a project to increase the quality of blog comments?

I make my living
By commenting on this site,
Sort of like a YouTuber with no commercials
I have not been paid for awhile
Actually never.
It is a labor of love.

In the past one would have to be near a library to research, or you would need a secretary to transcribe dictation and arrange for the mailing of documents. You might have to interact with one or two persons down the hall, but not everyone.

Today, you can do all of this from home.

Beware, though.

Some employers will examine who you interact with at your firm. How many people go to you to ask questions or seek information. (A sign of being central in the work network), while others don't send out much and ask a lot, are not asked for information and have little to offer others, or have no external links to others (eg. customers) They are in peril from good AI software that finds and identifies critical people in the system.

And, what are you doing on this website. You are supposed to be at work.

Re: And, what are you doing on this website. You are supposed to be at work.

Lunch hour is still a thing if you're working, even for those of us working at home. And we're not going out for lunch. (The great majority of my comments on this blog, other than on weekends cluster around this time of day-- there's a reason for that)

Nothing new. I've been getting texts about opportunities to earn $500/day from home for years.

Taking as a benchmark the number of factual, logical, grammatical, and typographic errors in commercial news reports, I do not hold out much hope for this digital WPA effort to produce anything more than garbage.

There’s a lot of junked up lots that could be cleaned up (there was an example volunteer effort in Baltimore a few months ago, much derided by the local Democratic congressman).

However, I hear that de Blasio is hiring volunteer informers. I seem to recall that the STASI hired a pretty large fraction of the East German population as informers, albeit for way less than the $15 an hour minimum.

No, you don’t need hundreds of track and trace workers. Australia will be implementing an automated approach:

But since such a large portion of transmissions are in nursing homes, prisons, hospitals, and between family members already sheltering in place together, the potential net benefits of track and trace, if any, will likely be negligible.

Another make-work project would be building factories to produce no-touch thermometers and oximeters. Every household in the USA should have both and daily checking would not only detect cases but permit earlier oxygen treatment when it would do the most good.

Retrofitting HVAC systems with virus-defeating filtration and ultraviolet light treatment would also be a useful, high return activity worthy of government funding support.

Another WPA type program: have DOD and VA reprogram funds to initiate mask/PPE production so that they are self-sufficient. Probably a few thousand jobs as well as an improvement to overall defense standing.

You forgot to list a new job
Which you can do at home.

Become a
Fake News Reporter.

There is a great demand for confirmatory Fake News.
And, if you get good at it,
And get your own station or network
You get to call,
And have the
President call
Everyone else,
Except you of course,
Fake News.

Why pay people to digitize books when people already do it for free? People use captcha to train algorithms to do this job, they don't get paid for it. They do it to access their own stuff *cue John Mulaney joke*. So idk if that is viable.

Or, instead of giving money to banks with no strings attached, and hoping they then give some of that to people through the magic of whatever alchemy it is that banks supposedly do to turn big piles of cash for themselves into a bunch of smaller piles for everyone else....

You could just give money to directly people, thank them for staying home, and then let it be for a while.

People with experience and skills working at office jobs are struggling to make the transition to working at home, and their "managers" are freaking out because they can't "manage" them by monitoring seat time.

The people who have lost their jobs weren't doing this type of sit in front of a computer all day work, often for lack of desire and / or aptitude. The chances of most of them being able or willing to produce anything of value is close to zero.

We don't have tens of thousands of people doing contact tracing in Australia. I don't know how many people are working on it but if each new case has 100 hours of tracing work put into it then that would be about 200 people in the country at the moment. Of course our police, health, and social services represent a considerable pool of people who can be called upon to do the work.

While the current new infection rate in the US may look like it would require hundreds of thousands of contact tracers to put in that number of hours per case, it's probably not going to get that intensive until the Vigilance phase is entered. Also, if the US has the capacity to organize an army of 100,000+ contact tracers it can organize an improved public health response and halve the number of new infections roughly every 9 days, making the task of contact tracing a lot more manageable.

Comments for this post are closed