Posts Tagged ‘Franklin Roosevelt’

How the New Deal created millions of jobs

May 31, 2018

Donald Trump promised a trillion-dollar infrastructure program that would create jobs. [1]  Bernie Sanders and other Democratic leaders are talking about a federal jobs guarantee.  Many Americans think this is utopian.

Eighty-some years ago, during the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration showed what is possible.

The Public Works Administration (PWA) put hundreds of thousands of people to work on a variety of heavy construction projects that gave a face-lift to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Roads, bridges and dams were repaired and upgraded. 

Rundel Memorial Library in Rochester, N.Y., funded by the Public Works Administration and completed in 1937

Scores of new schools, libraries, hospitals, post offices and playgrounds were built for an expanding population.  All of these projects were undertaken on a scale inconceivable, even in the most prosperous times.

In April 1935, Congress inaugurated the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which put nearly 3 million people to work, including semi-skilled and unskilled, on projects as diverse as building athletic stadiums, making books for the blind, stuffing rare birds and improving airplane landing fields and army camps.

In its first six years, the WPA spent $11 billion, three-fourths of it on construction and conservation projects and the remainder on community service programs. In those six years, WPA employed about 8 million workers. …

The New Deal paid special attention to the nation’s dispossessed youth.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) put approximately 2.75 million idle young men to work to reclaim government-owned land and forests through irrigation, soil enrichment, pest control, tree planting, fire prevention and other conservation projects. …

Thousands of unemployed writers, actors, musicians and painters were given an opportunity to earn a modest livelihood from their artistic talents (many of them to achieve fame and fortune in later years) and to enrich the lives of countless culturally-deprived citizens.  The productions of the WPA Theater Project, for example, entertained a phenomenal audience totaling 60 million people, a great many who had never before seen a play.

Through the National Youth Administration (NYA) the government made it possible for 1.5 million high school students and 600,000 college students to continue their education by providing them with part-time jobs to meet their expenses.

A monumental achievement of the New Deal was the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which produced and sold cheap electric power and fertilizer in a seven-state area (about four-fifths the size of England), whose farms were among the nation’s poorest and least productive, and where only a fraction of the inhabitants possessed electricity to light their homes and operate their equipment.

Source: Labor Educator

These were not make-work projects.  We still enjoy the benefits of these projects today.  Here is a summary of New Deal construction projects here in Rochester, N.Y., where I live.

  • Doubled the size of the Rochester International Airport (still in use)
  • Built a high school (still in use)
  • Built a post office with publicly commissioned art (still in use, art still there!)
  • Built a new Art Deco headquarters for the Rochester Fire Department (still in use)
  • Built a 40,000 square foot library (still in use)
  • Commissioned a variety of murals in high schools and public spaces, most of which still exist
  • Improved the local waterworks system
  • Set up a local Federal Arts Project center, that paid unemployed artists to create exhibits, run community art classes, and create art for public spaces.
  • Source: Jack Meserve, Democracy Journal.

What conditions exist today that prevent us Americans from doing what our forebears did then?

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The New Deal’s forgotten accomplishments

January 1, 2018

A widely accepted criticism of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal is that it never really ended the Great Depression.  It took rearmament, the military draft and the Second World War to bring about full employment.

Conrad Black. of all people, writing in The American Conservative, of all publications, pointed out that what these critics overlook is the millions of Americans put to work by the New Deal conservation and public works programs.

Between 5 million and just under 8 million workers were employed on New Deal projects during the 1930s, but, according to Black, they were not included in the employment statistics cited by most historians, including partisan Democratic historians.

Solid line counts workers employed on public works as unemployed; dotted line does not.  Source: The Edge of the American West.

Black, formerly a Canadian newspaper publisher, has written biographies of Richard M. Nixon and Franklin D. Roosevelt.   Reviewing Robert Dallek’s recent biography of FDR, Black wrote: —

He states that the unemployed stood at 10 million in 1940, when Roosevelt broke a tradition as old as the republic and went after his third term.

In fact, unemployment was somewhat under 10 million, but was declining in the run-up to election day by 100,000 a month, largely due to the immense rearmament program Roosevelt had initiated and to the country’s first peace-time conscription, which he called a “muster”.

But Dallek completely ignores, for purposes of calculating unemployment, the many millions  of participants in his workfare programs, who were just as much employed as, and more usefully than, the millions of conscripts and defense workers in the major European countries and Japan, against which Roosevelt’s record in reducing unemployment is often unfavorably compared.

[snip]  These programs kept between five million and nearly eight million people usefully employed at any time building valuable public sector projects at bargain wages for Roosevelt’s first two terms, until defense requirements and the public sector took over and completed the extermination of unemployment.

Those unable to work received Social Security, unemployment and disability benefits from 1935 on.

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Wall Street as the co-government of the U.S.

June 23, 2015

I’ve written many posts about the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington, and how the U.S. government puts the interests of the financial oligarchy above the interests of the American public.

I’ve just finished reading a book that shows how far back in American history this goes.

 ALL THE PRESIDENT’S BANKERS: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power by Nomi Prins (2014) is a narrative history showing the interdependence of the Presidents and the Wall Street banking and financial community from the early 20th century to the present day.

Nomi Prins showed how American Presidents from 1910 to 1970 had to take the interests of Wall Street banks into account in implementing their policies, and then how, from 1980 on, the banks freed themselves from governmental restrictions to engage in ever-bigger speculations, from which they had to be bailed out.

Her story begins with the Panic of 1907 with President Theodore Roosevelt standing by helplessly while J. Pierpont Morgan summons bankers to his mansion and arranges a bailout to prevent financial collapse.

The Federal Reserve System was created in 1913 in order to prevent such a situation from recurring.

This was a major turning point in American history.  It gave the United States a financial stability and financial resources without which it could not have been a world power.  It made possible U.S. participation in the world wars, the projection of American global power and the great expansion of federal government activity—none of which could have been paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis or with foreign loans.

At the same time, it formalized the position of the great American banks as a kind of fourth branch of government.

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Looking back on the real New Deal

September 25, 2012

I picked up a 1984 book, The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941 by Robert S. McIlvaine, at the Bookends used book store in hope that the history of the Great Depression might throw light on the current Great Recession.

The most significant result of the Great Depression, according to Robert S. McIlvaine, was a change from the historic American individualism to communitarianism.  The New Deal was a response to this change and not a cause of it, he wrote.

Americans historically have regarded themselves as individually responsible for their own destinies, and economic misfortune as their own fault.  But during the Great Depression, the vast majority of the people were in trouble, including individuals highly respected by their neighbors.  If everybody suffers the same fate, people cease to regard themselves as personally at fault, and they look for collective action rather than individual enterprise.

Herbert Hoover represented the old American individualism at its best, McIlvaine wrote.  A person of intelligence and integrity, Hoover could not bring himself to respond to what the American public demanded, because he thought such a response would threaten basic American values.  He came to be hated as few if any American Presidents have been, before or since.  Franklin D. Roosevelt, a less admirable individual but a brilliant politician, understood public opinion and responded to it.

McIlvaine wrote that the initial Roosevelt policy was not a populist program, but rather an attempt to forge a business-government partnership, much as President Obama has tried to do. But when corporate business leaders turned against Roosevelt, and the American people turned against big business, Roosevelt lost nothing by saying, “I welcome their hatred”.  It was to Roosevelt’s benefit, McIlvaine wrote, that conservatives depicted his program as more radical than it was.  Most Americans today disapprove of the Wall Street bailouts, but we have nothing like the anti-business sentiment that existed back then.

Roosevelt had sympathy for the underdog, shaped by his personal struggle with polio and the important influence of his wife Eleanor.  But the main reason for the New Deal was the need to respond to popular discontent.

McIlvaine said historians have classified pro-FDR radicals, such as the Progressive Party in Wisconsin, the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California movement and the CIO (Committee for Industrial Organization, later Congress of Industrial Organizations) as left-wing and liberal, and anti-FDR radicals, such as Huey Long of Louisiana, the political radio priest Father Coughlin, and Dr. Francis Townsend, author of the Townsend pension plan, as right-wing and fascistic.  Historians ignore the Communists, who were more influential in the labor movement than liberals like to remember. But all these movements were in fact more alike than they were different.  They all reflected popular discontent with the status quo, the rich and the corporate elite.  This discontent, however, fell short of support of socialism.  The majority of Americans wanted to correct abuses of the capitalist system, not overturn it.

The New Deal era accomplished far-reaching reforms—Social Security, unemployment insurance, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Tennessee Valley Authority and other big hydroelectric projects, legislation recognizing labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively—until the Republican-Southern Democratic alliance crystallized after 1938, after which further change was blocked.  Over the next 30 or 40 years, the Republican Party absorbed its conservative Southern Democratic allies, and became more internally consistent and more disciplined.  President Obama faced the equivalent of FDR’s post-1938 opposition from the day he took office.

The most interesting chapters were about popular culture and public attitudes.  In the movies, rich people were often criticized not for being rich, but for being out of touch with American life.  An heiress would become involved with a penniless newspaper reporter, or a playboy with a chorus girl, and learn the true meaning of life.  Gangster movies were often implied criticisms of society.  Movie gangsters were depicted as victims of society or as examples of ruthless amoral greed.  But there was rarely if ever any questioning of the capitalist system itself.

McIlvaine thought the changes in attitudes brought about by the Great Depression were more significant than the actual reforms of the New Deal.  He saw the Ronald Reagan administration as an attempt to restore pre-1929 individualism and mistakenly thought this attempt had run its course in 1984.  Instead the Reagan administration was the beginning of a reversal of attitudes which has continued to this day, and which the Obama administration accepts as political reality.

The lesson of McIlvaine’s book for the present day is that if you want progressive change, it is not enough to pin your hopes on a charismatic leader.   During the 1930s, the labor union movement was a strong force that did not did depend for its strength on either of the two political parties.  There were third-party movements with the potential to draw votes away from the two major parties, and progressive reformers within both political parties.  Progressive change is not handed down from above.  It has to be demanded from below.

Did the New Deal work?

January 30, 2012

Currently a strong effort is being made to discredit the New Deal by opponents of public works, unemployment insurance and other government programs to revive the economy in recession.

The case against the New Deal is that unemployment never fell to pre-1929 levels until the coming of World War Two.  But by other economic measures, the New Deal was in fact a success.  The top chart above measures Gross Domestic Product in terms of by what percentage it was higher than its low point in March 1933.  The bottom chart above measures industrial production by what percentage it was higher or lower than in October 1929 when the Great Depression began.

The two charts showed that economic recovery began when President Roosevelt took office, and faltered only in 1937 when he decided that his economic recovery program had achieved its goal and did not need to be continued.  Full recovery came in the run-up to World War Two.

Now it is impossible to be certain to what degree recovery was due to the New Deal and to what degree it was due to the natural swing of the economic cycle.   The only way you could have proof one way or the other would be to have two timelines, one with a New Deal and one without, which is impossible outside science fiction.   The case for the New Deal is that economic recovery started to falter in 1937 with President Franklin Roosevelt started to curtail government spending and return to a balanced budget.  The only way you could convince me that the New Deal was futile would be to show me a nation that brought about economic recovery through economic austerity.

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President Roosevelt on fighting unemployment

September 30, 2011

Here’s what President Franklin Roosevelt had to say in a Fireside Chat on Sept. 30, 1934, about infrastructure improvement and unemployment.  What he said is just as true today as it was then.

To those who say that our expenditures for Public Works and other means for recovery are a waste that we cannot afford, I answer that no country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources.  Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance.  Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order.  Some people try to tell me that we must make up our minds that for the future we shall permanently have millions of unemployed just as other countries have had them for over a decade.  What may be necessary for those countries is not my responsibility to determine.  But as for this country, I stand or fall by my refusal to accept as a necessary condition of our future a permanent army of unemployed.  On the contrary, we must make it a national principle that we will not tolerate a large army of unemployed and that we will arrange our national economy to end our present unemployment as soon as we can and then to take wise measures against its return.  I do not want to think that it is the destiny of any American to remain permanently on relief rolls.

Click on FDR Chat 6 for the whole speech.

Hat tip to Fred Clark’s slacktivist web log.

A blast from the past

August 3, 2011

Listen to this 1936 re-election speech by President Roosevelt to get an idea of what a liberal President sounded like 75 years ago.

President Roosevelt won re-election by a landslide, with 61 percent of the popular vote, carrying every state except Maine and Vermont.  Today the Washington press corps and political establishment would consider somebody who used language like this a member of the lunatic fringe.

Click on Speech at Madison Square Garden on October 31, 1936 for the complete audio and transcript of President Roosevelt’s speech.

“Make me do it”

March 23, 2010

When you think of Presidents we consider great progressive reformers, they were all being pressured by grass-roots movements to do better than they were.

President Abraham Lincoln was constantly attacked by abolitionists for making compromises on slavery in the interests of preserving the Union.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the most pro-labor union President in American history, but leaders of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) did not cease to organize strikes just because they were politically embarrassing to FDR.  President Lyndon Johnson did more for civil rights of African-Americans than any other President except Lincoln and perhaps Grant, but that didn’t stop the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from speaking out against the Vietnam War.

There are stories, possibly true and possibly not, of President Roosevelt or President John F. Kennedy meeting with progressive reformers, hearing them out, and then saying, “I agree with you.  Now go out and make me do it.”

I keep changing my mind about President Barack Obama.  Sometimes I think he is the kind of nice guy who doesn’t win ball games.  Sometimes I think he is a witting or unwitting tool of the business and political establishment. Sometimes I think he is doing the best that is humanly possible to bring about positive change within a dysfunctional system.

But even in the best case, progressive reformers do neither themselves nor President Obama any favors by sitting back and trusting him to do things. Even if in his heart he wants to do the right thing, he needs pressure from the grass roots to make him do it.