Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Legacy of the WPA

Tonight I attended a talk at the LA Public Library between David Kipen, who wrote the introductions for some newly-reissued WPA guides to Los Angeles and other cites, and Gray Brechin, an historian who has created an internet repository of material related to the New Deal. Professor Brechin's slideshow brought home the enormous legacy of the WPA, the PWA, the CCC and other New Deal programs in Southern California, reminding us how many of the dams, the roads, the bridges, the schools, the airports, the courthouses, the post offices, and the artwork we owe to that period, much of which is still standing today.

The talk couldn't help veering into contemporary political history, as there are so many parallels between the situation confronting the Roosevelt administration in 1933, and the one confronting the Obama administration in 2009. Some of the ideas behind the Obama stimulus can be traced back to the WPA. In both cases, the plan included re-employing people on lasting public works projects. These days, however, modern construction techniques do not require the massive employment that public works projects provided in the 1930's. Obama's stimulus was therefore more of a Keynesian fiscal stimulus than a large-scale employment project. Roosevelt's projects were more fully paid for, by maintaining and even increasing tax rates. Brechin told how William Randolph Hearst, originally an FDR supporter, turned against Roosevelt because Roosevelt insisted on taxing the rich. This made it a little more difficult for Hearst to finish his grandiose San Simeon projects, and caused resistance similar to what we hear today to the supposed wastefulness of public works spending. (It's kind of ironic that the people of the State of California today own that massive private boondoggle known as Hearst Castle.)

It's hard to think of all the gorgeous public buildings and massive infrastructure projects built in the 1930's as boondoggles, considering how much benefit we have obtained from them for so many years. And it's tragic to think how the political resistance, even more fierce than in Roosevelt's time, to public works spending, will harm future generations, considering how much of our infrastructure is in urgent need of repair or replacement. If we knew our history better, perhaps we might better appreciate the need for a new program of improving public works, such as what President Obama has been proposing for many months.

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