As the financial bailout fiasco worsens, President Obama may want to consider a do-over of his whole approach towards economic stimulus. Instead of lurching haphazardly in search of a "new" New Deal symphony, perhaps he should adapt parts of the original score.
Nothing makes more sense, for example, than reviving programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), started in the 1935, as well as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), begun in 1933. These programs, focused on employing young people whose families were on relief, completed many important projects – many still in use today – while providing practical training to and instilling discipline in an entire generation.
Unemployment today may not be as extreme as in the 1930s, but for whole segments of the population – notably young workers under 25 – it is on the rise. Already young workers with college educations suffer a 7.7% jobless rate, while employment is nearly twice that among young workers overall. Hardest hit, in fact, are young people without college educations, whose real earnings already have dropped by almost 30% over the past 30 years, according to one study.
Tapping the energies of this new "millennial" generation – those now entering their teens and early 20s – would make enormous sense both for economic and social reasons.
Not only do they need work, but also, as their chroniclers, authors Morley Winograd and Mike Hais have demonstrated, many share an interest in community-building in ways reminiscent of the last "civic generation" in the 1930s.
In contrast, the current stimulus, rather than inspiring a new generation, has focused on bailing out failed corporations, few of which will generate much employment. Many of the "new" jobs will be going to the already entitled: highly paid, big-pension-collecting, unionized government workers and well-educated people working in federal and university laboratories.
Also getting short shrift has been the kind of construction projects that drive fundamental economic growth and competitive advantage. These include roads, freight rail, electrical transmission lines and water services that boost productivity in agriculture, manufacturing, high-end business services and technology. The Chinese are currently targeting their spending on precisely the steps that would aid these sectors.
This is where a New Deal revival would help. The WPA and the CCC were all about building useful, tangible things that made the country stronger and more competitive. Overall, these and other New Deal programs amassed an amazing record – finishing over 22,000 roads, 7,488 educational buildings and over 7,000 sewer, water and other projects.
These efforts put to work over 3 million workers. (Compare that to the mere 250,000 slated to work in the expanded AmeriCorps program.) Their earnings helped support 10 million dependents. The WPA also employed 125,000 engineers, social workers, accountants, superintendents, supervisors and timekeepers scattered in every state and community. Ultimately, notes political economy professor Jason Scott Smith, the New Deal intimately touched the lives of more than 50 million people – out of a total U.S. population, in 1933, of 125 million. Now that's stimulus!
Critically, the WPA and CCC also left behind useful things for the next generation. As historian Gary Breichin has pointed out, we unknowingly walk, drive and ride through many structures built by these agencies.
These projects did not act as "lures" for the elites, cognitive and otherwise – as so many of our current efforts do – but rather served a broader purpose for the public. The University of Washington's Richard Morrill notes that the WPA bequeathed "an enduring legacy" around Seattle: bridges and retaining walls and drainage systems, parks and playgrounds, roads and trails, sewers, recreational facilities, airports, streetcars, low-income housing, as well as programs for musicians, artists and writers.
The WPA and CCC left a similar mark even on the most remote parts of rural "red" America. In places such as Wishek, N.D., notes native Delore Zimmerman, few people recognize that it was the New Deal-sponsored WPA that built the still-used local pool and the community center. Nor do farmers, many of them rock-ribbed Republicans, readily acknowledge that the windbreaks and other conservation projects started by the CCC helped preserve the land from devastating erosion.
A public works agenda today, of course, would include different things, like expansion of broadband Internet access and a greater emphasis on private financing and skills training. Yet a neo-WPA would still focus on upgrading and expanding our basic infrastructure, which, by all estimates, is generally in sad shape.
If this is such a good idea, why is no one else promoting it? Among Republicans and conservatives, of course, nothing done by Franklin Roosevelt – except, perhaps, winning the Second World War – could ever hold much merit. They certainly can argue, with some justification, that it was the war, and not the New Deal, that finally got us out of the Great Depression.
But this is narrow thinking. America's post-war boom owed much to the work of WPA, CCC and other New Deal programs. Our late 20th-century expansion required travel along their roads and bridges; their energy plants and transmission lines powered our industrial growth, extending it to formerly poor regions like the South. Water and conservation projects undertaken in the agricultural heartland precipitated a revolution in productivity that has fed much of the world.
More troubling may be why Democrats – often professed admirers of FDR and his work – have not been eager to revive these programs. One factor may be the enormous power of unions representing public employees. The power of organized public-sector workers, notes historian Fred Siegel, was a non-issue in the 1930s and 1940s.
Today, though, these groups are powerful enough to boost the cost of any government initiative – because often they require high salaries, costly work rules and, most important, pension benefits. The last thing these unions would sanction would be the mass employment of young workers on a temporary basis at living, but not union-scale, wages and benefits.
Secondly, there are political obstacles. This administration often appears, as one Democratic mayor from central California put it, like "moveon.org run by the Chicago machine." Its first priority seems to be to reward allies in organizations – whether in "grassroots" groups like ACORN or in the academy – who also share their political agenda.
Take, for example, the federal government's proposed expenditure of $500 million to $600 million for "climate change research." These funds are almost certain to end up in the pockets of high-end government workers and university-based zealots; as a scientific enterprise, it is likely to be as valid as asking the College of Cardinals in Rome to determine the existence of God. The ultimate result will be to provide new grist for Al Gore's – and the administration's – friends in the "green" investment banking world and Silicon Valley.
This green agenda itself may also constitute a third cause itself for WPA avoidance. Much of the environmental movement – committed largely to reducing the carbon footprint of 300 million Americans – doesn't want new bridges, roads, ports or much of anything that uses greenhouse gas-spewing concrete. They'd prefer to scale back agriculture and grow just enough organic produce to keep Alice Waters clucking happily in her kitchen.
A similar disconnect can be seen in energy policy. A new WPA could help build transmission lines to connect the energy-rich parts of the country to the major metropolitan areas. This would spur both industrial development in places like the Great Plains – rich in everything from fossil fuels to wind power – while keeping energy prices down for U.S. consumers and firms.
Yet so far, the energy program seems focused almost exclusively on providing rich contracts to Silicon Valley firms that are close to the administration. So don't expect a massive expansion of new transmission lines or any expansion of new, "clean" hydropower. The administration's green agenda seems to revolve not predominately around better or even cleaner energy, but less.
And, sadly, conservation is one place a new WPA would be most effective. One possible function for a modern WPA would be to go to neighborhoods – particularly poor and working class ones – and insulate houses. This would certainly save money over having government workers or contractors do the same work.
All this suggests a profound disconnect between the new administration and the real world.
The post-industrial educated class that now dominates Washington appears, if not scornful, profoundly detached from the problems facing productive industry. These officials also seem blissfully unaware that the public – as opposed to the academy and the elite media – cares more about jobs than about being green; by nearly three to one, according to the most recent Pew poll, they are more worried about the economy than climate change.
In many ways, this disconnect is inevitable. Products of the "information age," Obama's academically oriented backers seem to have trouble distinguishing between words and actual things. Virtually no one in the upper reaches of this administration has been tested by running a private company, manufacturing a product or bringing in a crop. This administration of "experts" from academia and government service appears to possess little tactile knowledge of the real world.
In this way, Obama's great strengths – he is a brilliant communicator and image-builder – are also proving to be a source of profound weakness. Right now, he is selling a post-racial kumbaya and a vague confection of 'hope." Financing for these good intentions is likely to ebb, however, as a result of a stunning redistribution of wealth from taxpayers to an expanded class of tax-takers.
Indeed, for all his communication skills, the president has failed to create an attainable vision of a stronger, wealthier America with better jobs, more wealth and improved infrastructure. Roosevelt and even Truman provided inspiration, too, but they backed it up with practical changes that promised improvements in the day-to-day lives of most Americans.
These hard times require tangible solutions to basic economic problems. Rather than worry about the generally clueless Republicans, the administration should focus on building a legacy as real and long-lasting as the one left behind by the WPA and CCC.
More than a mere matter of building roads and bridges and increasing access to cheap energy, the WPA was about restoring a collective spirit, a shared stake, in constructing the sinews of a more competitive, prosperous country. Unfortunately, amidst the confused priorities of this administration, such bold initiatives remain but distant possibilities.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History and is finishing a book on the American future.