At the outset, I admit that Franklin Roosevelt is my political hero and I've been enamored of The New Deal since I was first old enough to read about it. The public works projects are my particular fascination. In most every corner of Indiana, as throughout the nation, you can still see the tangible evidence of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Highways, parks, schools, hospitals, bridges, airports, courthouses, and post offices built by these agencies are everywhere. I've walked sidewalks in Terre Haute bearing the imprint "Built WPA 1936". The Student Union Building at my alma mater was constructed as a PWA project as was my high school gymnasium. Many of our beautiful state parks were preserved and made accessible by the CCC. There are mountainsides in the Sierra Nevada Range that my Uncle Lloyd reforested as a young man in the 1930s.
More important than these physical reminders, of course, is the reason for their being; government-sponsored efforts to regenerate economic activity in reaction to The Great Depression. Yet, The New Deal was more than public works projects. Social security, regulation of financial markets, recognition of labor rights and some progress on civil rights are products of the era as well. Ultimately, The New Deal was not, as many conservative critics have long claimed, the enemy of free enterprise and representative democracy but the savior of both.
The reaction of the present administration, ostensibly conservative, limited government ideologues, to the dreadful economic crises upon us appears to confirm the correctness of FDR's activist government approach. And now, be still my heart, our President-elect proposes a massive infrastructure-rebuilding program. Could it be that we are indeed on the verge of a second New Deal?
Conservatives have for 75 years resisted giving FDR credit for much of anything. The chief criticism always being that economic spending generated by World War II actually lifted the nation out of the Depression and not the programs of The New Deal. It is being made again in response to President-elect Obama's proposal. There is merit to this argument. There is data and historical fact to support it. But, presented as singular evidence that The New Deal was a failure and should not be repeated, it is overly simplistic and incorrect.
It is true that in 1937 there was an economic contraction equal to if not more severe than the 1929 crash. Again, conservative dogma holds this up as indication that The New Deal was a failure. This argument overlooks the facts that the Supreme Court had undermined several sound attempts at economic recovery and that Roosevelt overreacted with his ill-considered court-packing plan. That battle created political and economic crises that ultimately ended with conservatives checking FDR's political power but accepting that the role of government in managing the economy and protecting the welfare of its citizens was forever changed. Furthermore, it overlooks evidence of economic recovery in 1939 before the government began massive spending on the war in the following decade. And, it should be remembered, conservative isolationists in the Congress frustrated war preparation efforts before 1941. It's too easy and lazy to say that the Depression ended when the war began and The New Deal had nothing to do with it.
Some commentators describe The New Deal as more of a temperament than an organized, coherent program; reflecting FDR's inclination to "bold, persistent experimentation." In his excellent study of the era, Freedom from Fear, The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (Oxford University Press 1999), David Kennedy summed up The New Deal at the end of the 1930s; as war loomed and the nation's attentions shifted, effectively marking the end of the progressive domestic social initiatives of Roosevelt's administration. Kennedy writes:
In the yeasty atmosphere of Roosevelt's New Deal, scores of social experiments flourished. Not all of them successful, not all of them destined to last, but all shared the common purpose of building a country from whose basic benefits and privileges no one was excluded.
The Resettlement Administration laid out model communities for displaced farmers and refugees from shattered industrial cities . . . the Farm Security Administration maintained migrant labor camps that sheltered thousands of families like John Steinbeck's Joads . . . the Tennessee Valley Authority brought electricity, and with it industry, to the chronically depressed upper South.
The New Deal also succored the indigent and patronized the arts. It built roads and bridges and hospitals. It even sought a kind of security for the land itself, adding some twelve million acres of national parklands . . .it erected mammoth dams . . . that were river tamers and nature busters, to be sure, but job-makers and region builders, too.
Above all, the New Deal gave to countless Americans who had never had much of it a sense of security, and with it a sense of having a stake in their country. And it did all without shredding the American Constitution or sundering the American people. At a time when despair and alienation were prostrating other peoples under the heel of dictatorship, that was no small accomplishment.
I especially enjoy Kennedy's inclusion of a quote by the great columnist Dorothy Thompson, written in 1940:
We have behind us eight terrible years of a crisis we have shared with all countries. Here we are, and our basic institutions are still intact, our people relatively prosperous, and most important of all, our society relatively affectionate. No rift has made an unbridgeable schism between us. The working classes are not clamoring for [Communist Party boss] Mr. Browder and the industrialists are not demanding a Man on Horseback. No country in the world is so well off.
Kennedy goes on to explain that the infrastructure built by The New Deal was, quite literally in some aspects, the foundation for the economic recovery that followed. And yes, the first productive use of that foundation was preparation for World War II; however, that foundation was also there for production of consumer goods after the war on a scale previously unimagined. Power to supply factories, transportation systems for the movement of goods, workers able to buy homes and goods, economic activity generated by an aspiring middle class; these are the economic legacies of The New Deal. The singular criticism that the nation's industrial capacity, as preserved, sustained and developed by The New Deal, was first deployed in winning World War II pales into insignificance when weighed alongside all that was achieved.
Here we are in 2008 again facing the dual needs of rebuilding our infrastructure and putting people to work. Both needs are being fully explained and debated in this and other forums. My contribution is that public works projects are sometimes not the most efficient remedy for bad economic times. Nor should private enterprise become primarily dependent upon government subsidy. There are times, however, when needs match. [Note to Congressman Carson and Mayor Ballard: This is the time to seek federal funds for the northeast corridor light rail system.]
The President-elect appears to understand the present match of needs. The New Deal is the model for both what to do and what not to do. I am excited about the prospects. I want to live long enough to see an efficient and eco-friendly "bullet-train" system crossing the country, public power utilities that turn waste into energy, bridges that are works of art, schools treated as well as stadiums, cities renown for their libraries, museums and green spaces, New Orleans restored; all this and more, the tangible evidence of a 21st Century New Deal.