The Economy in Two Eras of Democrats

Egregious as the bonuses being given the AIG crowd are, they are a miniscule part of the bailout and while they need to be dealt with, we shouldn’t obsess over them.

Politicians and the media love to get us in a furor over minor segments of a much larger problem, in part because they can understand bits and pieces while the real crisis leaves them and others befuddled.

Far more serious problems with the bailout include the inordinate amount dedicated to ineffective tax cuts, questions concerning the larger bank bailout, the elitist bias of some of the measures (epitomized by four times as much for high speed business class rail riders than for ordinary coach riders and little at all for bus riders), the low level of aid to high job producing small business, and – perhaps worst of all – the small number of new jobs anticipated – even by the Obama administration.

In fact, Obama’s job projections are about the same as has occurred under the average Democratic administration since the 1940s. While this is approximately twice as many as Republican presidents have been able to produce, it falls far short of what is needed during the worst economic disaster since the great depression.

Why so few jobs?

It doesn’t seem so much a political matter as a cultural one, a massive shift in our ability to solve problems as American life has become more institutionalized, technocratic and layered with bureaucracy.

Franklin Roosevelt managed to fight the depression with a White House staff smaller than that Mrs. Clinton’s when she was First Lady. He fought World War II with less staff than Al Gore when he was vice president.

During the Clinton years, on the other hand, Lars-Erick Nelson wrote in the New York Daily News, “On Friday, I telephoned the Pentagon press office and told the colonel who answered the phone that I needed information on duplication in the armed forces. He replied: “You want the other press office.”

A decade and a half later, it’s just gotten worse. A National Park Service official explained to me how his agency was reacting to the stimulus. One problem: if you start a new project you have to go through a lengthy environment review, so you put many of these aside for the time being and concentrate on things like repairing park watch towers – things that are already there that no one has to approve.

In late summer of 1933, when it appeared that the National Recovery Administration would not be able to provide adequate employment, FDR aide Harry Hopkins began laying the groundwork for a jobs program. Hopkins — who had pledged to himself to put four million people to work within four weeks — fell somewhat short. In the first four weeks only 2.8 million workers were put on the government payroll. Hopkins didn’t reach the four million goal until January.

In other words, Harry Hopkins got the same number of people employed in four weeks as Obama has promised within two years.

It was a different time in other ways. For example, Democrats didn’t apologize for the federal government as June Hopkins explained in Presidential Studies Quarterly:

“One hot summer day in 1935, federal relief administrator Harry Hopkins presented his plan for alleviating the effects of the Great Depression to a group of shirt-sleeved Iowa farmers, not noted for their liberal ideals. As Hopkins began to describe how government-sponsored jobs on public projects would provide both wages for the unemployed and a stimulus for foundering businesses, a voice shouted out the question that was on everyone’s mind: ‘Who’s going to pay for all that?’ . . .

“‘You are,’ Hopkins shouted, ‘and who better? Who can better afford to pay for it. Look at this great university. Look at these fields, these forests and rivers. This is America, the richest country in the world. We can afford to pay for anything we want. And we want a decent life for all the people in this country. And we are going to pay for it.”

With the capitulation to the vocabulary and values of the right under Clinton, the Democrats have lost their capacity for progressive policy and action. Today, Obama is far more interested in what the GOP thinks than in what imaginative progressives in Congress and elsewhere might be advocating. A post-partisan depression has settled in. Worse, the solutions that come out of this approach tend to ones that no one really wants.

To use the archaic language of the party’s earlier days, we need jobs and business – not stunningly non-specific stimuli and fiscal packages, but things people can see and feel, leading them to invest in America again as well.

Because the New Deal understood this, not only did it create employment it built or repaired 200 swimming pools and 103 golf courses, 3,700 playgrounds, 40,000 schools, 12 million feet of sewer pipe, 1,000 airports, 2,500 hospitals, 2,500 sports stadiums, 3,900 schools, 8,192 parks, 15,000 playgrounds, 124,031 bridges and 125,110 public buildings, and thousands of miles of highways and roads. Add to that the programs for youth and for artists and writers and the result was something it is hard for us to even imagine today.

And it wasn’t just the New Deal. Among its opponents was Governor Huey Long of Louisiana who thought Roosevelt too conservative. Long, in one four year term, reports Wikipedia, increased the mileage of paved highways in Louisiana: “By 1936, Long had [doubled] the state’s road system. He built 111 bridges, and started construction on the first bridge over the lower Mississippi. He built the new Louisiana State Capitol, at the time the tallest building in the South. All of these construction projects provided thousands of much-needed jobs during the Great Depression. . .

“Long’s free textbooks, school-building program, and free busing improved and expanded the public education system, and his night schools taught 100,000 adults to read. He greatly expanded funding for LSU, lowered tuition, established scholarships for poor students, and founded the LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans. He also doubled funding for the public Charity Hospital System, built a new Charity Hospital building for New Orleans, and reformed and increased funding for the state’s mental institutions. His administration funded the piping of natural gas to New Orleans and other cities and built the seven-mile Lake Pontchartrain seawall and New Orleans airport. Long slashed personal property taxes and reduced utility rates. His repeal of the poll tax in 1935 increased voter registration by 76 percent in one year.”

FDR got his pressure from the left; Obama gets his from the right thanks to the unwillingness of progressives to push him. FDR could take action without a gang of media manipulators telling him to be careful. There wasn’t an inordinate pyramid of bureaucracy chipping away at every decision before it went into action. Liberals had more passion than status and really cared about those at the bottom of the American heap.

Are we trapped forever in this contemporary paradigm? Or can we face what has happened to us and start to change it? Can liberals once again represent the ordinary American or can such Americans only expect a few nods in their direction? Can we condemn a whole class of citizens because of what we fear some rightwing Republicans will say if we do something real to help them?

This is a time when status, style and semantics won’t save us. Reality has entered the house of America without knocking. It can’t be spun away. And time is running out.

SAM SMITH is the editor of the Progressive Review, where this column originally appeared.


Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review.