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Putting America to Work

How FDR continues to outrage the right

Mar. 5, 2008
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Byand large, historians have credited President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal for getting the United States out of the Great Depression. From time to time salvos are lobbed from conservative bunkers, such as Amity Shlaes’ anti-New Deal tome of last year, The Forgotten Man. But like so many other books of its kind, it failed to land a lethal hit, and meanwhile the ranks of New Deal defenders continue to be replenished.

The latest enlistee is Nick Taylor’s American-Made—The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work (Bantam). It is an admiring (and admirable) history of FDR’s main job-creation program, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Taylor, author of several other popular histories, has produced what is likely the most complete account yet of the much-written-about agency, just in time for the 75th anniversary of the New Deal.

Two related criticisms of the New Deal have been that (1) it did nothing to alleviate the Depression, and (2) therefore Roosevelt should have gotten out of the way to let the marketplace return us to stability, as it would do in the long run. But Taylor asserts that the first is a negative that has never been proven. And secondly, as John Maynard Keynes said, “Long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.” Fifteen million men and women were out of work, 34 million had no income whatsoever, and many were literally starving. Doing nothing was a failed policy.

Keynes, of course, was an advocate of deficit spending, a practice that the 32nd president seems to have embraced with less enthusiasm than our current leader. Nevertheless, Roosevelt was willing to have the country go into debt if it would get his countrymen back to work.

And that is precisely what the WPA did. Harry Hopkins, a former social worker, ran it tirelessly and honestly, guarding it—at FDR’s insistence—from partisan political meddling. It lasted eight years, from 1935 to 1943 (when burgeoning war work made it unnecessary), and during that period spent $10.5 billion and employed 8.5 million people. Its success can be gauged by the praise even today from families who were helped.

WPA workers built roads, schools, bridges and dams. They sewed clothes, stuffed mattresses, repaired toys, rescued flood victims, painted murals in public buildings, performed plays, played music and wrote guides to the 48 states. They did almost everything but direct military work, and even there they modernized neglected Army and Air Force bases. Despite its success, some people then and now bitterly condemned the New Deal because it represented a seismic shift in governmental philosophy: that the welfare of the people is a federal obligation.

This is the core complaint of its opponents, believers in a rugged individualism that says people pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, even when they have no boots (or feet). Taylor notes that the WPA was “the most excoriated program of the entire New Deal.” Its workers were labeled shovel-leaners, its projects boondoggles (a word that was born of the criticism), its entire operation a hotbed of communists.

For instance, the New York airport that WPA helped build—the city had no airport of its own then—and that was named for the mayor at the time, Fiorello LaGuardia, was derided as a colossal boondoggle. Yet it proved to be an enormous business magnet from the day its doors and runways opened.

Among the WPA’s many project cate- gories, the arts drew the most heat, especially theater and visual arts. Music employed the most people among the arts projects; just one of countless facts included by Taylor. American-Made is well written and helpfully structured with short chapters that keep the mass of facts from becoming overwhelming. Taylor intersperses individual stories to give body to stark statistics, such as that of Grace Overbee, who delivered books via horseback to grateful readers isolated in the hills of Kentucky.

Taylor is unquestionably on the side of FDR and the New Deal; nevertheless, American-Made is, to borrow a phrase, fair and balanced. The author admits WPA’s miscues and flops, its cronyism and corruption at the local level (but not at the top), and the ups and downs it experienced in raising employment overall.

He also notes that the WPA operated remarkably efficiently. Especially telling are its startlingly low administrative costs—4% of total spending. “The Roosevelt administration placed an extraordinary bet on ordinary people, and the nation realized a remarkable return,” Taylor writes. Indeed, as Roosevelt said in a 1932 campaign speech, it put its faith in “the forgotten man.”


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