Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Four-Fifths of a Nation

(WPA poster, image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

In January of 1937, President Roosevelt famously said, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”

A recent survey showed that “Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.”

As the U.S. moves further and further away from the New Deal, and towards more privatization, greater income inequality, and mindless budget-cutting, the “one-third of a nation” statement can now be adjusted to “I see four-fifths of a nation ill-employed, economically insecure, and abandoned.”

Monday, July 29, 2013

A New Deal for Museums

(Click images to enlarge)

When the Great Depression hit America, many museums struggled financially. Fortunately, the New Deal was there to help. 

(WPA poster advertising a museum exhibit, image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

“WPA workers assisted museums in the making of dioramas, models, maps, lantern slides, and other visual-aid devices for extension work in public schools. These workers also assisted museums in the rearrangement and modernization of exhibits, and in the creation of accurate miniature representation of scenes illustrating (for example) the use of garments, dwellings and implements by aborigines or prehistoric peoples. WPA clerical workers assisted in the classifying and indexing of art, archaeological, and historical materials” (Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, 1946).

(A WPA-created exhibit of Civil War weapons, created for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, 1937. Image courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)  

“…the implementation of New Deal programs had a major influence on the course of museum history in the United States, especially within departments of anthropology where generations of collecting left scores of materials un-catalogued, uncared for, and largely forgotten” (Samuel Redman, “The Hearst Museum of Anthropology, the New Deal, and a Reassessment of the ‘Dark Age’ of the Museum in the United States,” Museum Anthropology, Vol. 34, Issue 1, pp. 43-55, 2011. See article abstract here.)

(A WPA poster advertising an American Indian exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)  

“The museum is indebted to the Works Projects Administration for the substantial contribution of WPA employees to the work of almost all departments” (from a 1942 Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, cited in Redman article above).

(Some structures built by the WPA are now used as museums, such as the McKissick Museum in South Carolina, originally a library. Image courtesy of the University of South Carolina.)

WPA workers also assisted museums by “building new exhibit spaces,” cataloging “new accessions,” organizing “information for curatorial publications,” and translating “foreign documents.” Furthermore, “Laborers from the CWA, WPA, and Civilian Conservation Corps contributed to archaeological projects in 24 states over the course of nine years…result(ing) in new collections for the Smithsonian as well as numerous other museums around the country” (Redman, see citation above).

(If you have an interest in archaeology, consider reading the book Shovel Ready: Archaeology and Roosevelt's New Deal for America. Click here for a book review of Shovel Ready.)     

Today, many museums have problems associated with older structures, outdated utility systems, and lack of staff. Today, there are 27 million Americans who would like a full-time job but can't find one, and young adults are having more problems finding work than just one year ago. Unfortunately, there is no WPA, no CCC, no NYA, etc. Our political "leaders" are way too busy cutting funding for cancer research, cutting funding to prevent & fight wildfires, and looking for ways to kick low-income children and low-income seniors off food assistance programs to be bothered with American history and mass un- and under-employment.

(The WPA frequently offered art classes to children, and then displayed the children's art at museums. The clipping above is from the Baltimore Sun, September 25, 1938.)  

Friday, July 26, 2013

The foolishness and cruelty of austerity

"Ultimately austerity has failed because it is unsupported by sound logic or data. It is an economic ideology. It stems from the belief that small government and free markets are always better than state intervention. It is a socially constructed myth--a convenient belief among politicians taken advantage of by those who have a vested interest in shrinking the role of the state, in privatizing social welfare systems for personal gain. It does great harm--punishing the most vulnerable, rather than those who caused this recession."

--David Stuckler (Senior Research Leader, Oxford University) & Sanjay Basu (Epidemiologist, Stanford University), in The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills. New York: Basic Books, 2013.  

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The WPA and Zoos

Did you know that the WPA helped create, repair, and improve zoos? Additionally, WPA workers painted posters encouraging people to visit zoos, and even wrote a book about the zoo, "Who's Who In The Zoo." (Images below are courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

"Every time I go over to Central Park, I walk into the Children's Zoo. This was built during the Depression by WPA workers. It's an absolutely lovely place. I go into the park often. And I cannot help remembering--look, this came out of the Depression. Because men were out of work, because they were given a way to earn money, good things were created."

--Herman Shumlin, Broadway producer and director, in Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (Studs Terkel, 1970).

Sunday, July 21, 2013

American Indians, Alaska Natives, and the New Deal

(A WPA poster advertising an exhibition of American Indian art. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

The New Deal had a tremendous impact on American Indians and Alaska Natives. For example, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, sometimes called the "Indian New Deal," halted the loss of tribal land (for more information, see here and here).

Tens of thousands of American Indians and Alaska Natives found jobs in the WPA and CCC, often on their own reservations or ancestral lands. During the first six years of the CCC's existence "77,000 Indians had obtained work in the Indian Division. Accomplishments included developing 6,200 springs or small reservoirs, digging 1,350 wells, constructing 1,064 impounding dams and large reservoirs, and building 896 vehicle bridges, 51 stock bridges, 7,000 miles of truck trails, 2,500 miles of firebreaks, and 6,300 miles of telephone lines." When the CCC program was terminated in 1942, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier wrote, "The ending of a heavy, heavy the Indians, and to social policy in the United States." (Calvin W. Gower, "The CCC Indian Division: Aid for Depressed Americans," Minnesota History, Spring 1972, available for viewing here.)

(Alaska Natives in the CCC, restoring old totem poles. Image courtesy of the National Park Service and the National Archives.)

The WPA helped find and preserve American Indian history through narratives and archaeological excavations. At least two New Deal buildings are used today to display American Indian artifacts (see here and here).   

(WPA workers assisting in an archaeological excavation near Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana. The photo's description reads, "From this site, archaeologists are unearthing evidence of an Indian culture which they believe is the oldest yet discovered in the Mississippi Valley. Image courtesy of the New Orleans Public Library.) 

(WPA poster displaying a Navajo drawing, and promoting the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

Considering the poverty that exists in many Indian and Alaskan communities, a new New Deal would be helpful. Unfortunately, Republican politicians across the country are more concerned with lowering the minimum wage, cutting off food assistance to low-income Americans, blocking job programs for unemployed veterans, barring low-income Americans from preventative health care, getting rid of Social Security, prohibiting Americans from having protections against corporate greed & crime, and making the poor pee in cups to prove they're not drug addicts. Thus, a new New Deal to lift up our fellow citizens, and our Indian & Alaskan neighbors, just isn't in the cards. What a shame.  

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Civilian Conservation Corps Opened Worlds

"To me, the experience in the CCC was the opening of my world, which, until that time had been limited and poor in so many ways. My parents died when I was six and (my) grandparents raised me and died not too many months before I went into the CCC. The camp life not only helped me physically but also psychologically. What a wonderful opportunity and blessing it was for young men in those lean years."

--Walter L. Mallory, CCC Alumni, in the book "Roosevelt's Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps," by Perry H. Merrill, 1981.

Today, unfortunately, we don't have a Civilian Conservation Corps. We do, however, have the largest prison-industrial complex in the world--endless rows of prison cells waiting for our disadvantaged youth.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Reverse New Deal: Letting our forests burn to balance the budget

(Above: A wildfire near Idyllwild, California that has caused thousands of evacuations, burned up thousands of acres of natural areas, and hurt businesses that rely on vacation & tourism dollars. See Idyllwild Fire In Southern California Mountain Grows. Original YouTube video link here.)

During the Great Depression, new deal work & construction programs (mainly the CCC & WPA) built thousands of miles of firebreaks, removed dead trees & vegetation, built roads to access remote areas (improving fire response), fought fires directly, and much more.

In other words, threats to our natural areas and the problem of unemployment were addressed simultaneously during the New Deal era.

During the current Great Recession, on the other hand, the unemployed are scolded and told that their salvation lies in low-wage McJobs with stingy--if any--benefits, and huge record-setting wildfires are burning across the country. Meanwhile, to make matters worse, Congress has cut the budget of federal firefighting agencies (see here and here).

Welcome to the Reverse New Deal: Where the big banks are making record profits after a taxpayer bailout, but we have to let our forests burn to balance the budget, and Congress turns its nose up at the unemployed (in September of 2012, Senate Republicans blocked a bill that would have created a new CCC-type program for unemployed veterans).

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

See America!

(WPA poster art, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

Another cool WPA poster! If the unemployed were (and are) so "lazy" and so "good for nothing," then why is that, for example, the works of the WPA artists are so treasured today, and why is that private sector businesses sell reproductions of their work? Maybe because jobless Americans aren't actually lazy or unskilled, but merely make easy targets for people wanting to score political points, and also by people who feel superior by belittling and cursing the less fortunate.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

No money for a new WPA or CCC, but plenty for bombs and prisons

Today, many states are spending more on incarceration than education (see, e.g., here). At the federal level, prison spending has increased one thousand seven hundred percent since the 1980s. And with respect to the military, the United States spends almost as much as every other nation combined, about six hundred fifty thousand million dollars (see interesting charts and graphs here).

Yet, if you bring up the idea of a national jobs program for the long-term unemployed--like a new WPA or a new CCC--you are likely to be scolded, and told, "Oh, we can't afford that!" or "That would be wasteful spending!"

Do you believe them? Do you believe the people who say we can't afford a national jobs program, even though we can afford the largest military-industrial complex in the world and the largest prison-industrial complex in the world?

I don't. I believe it's primarily a matter of choice.

For example, do we want investment on the tail-end of a problem?

Or do we want up-front investment?

I guess we've made our choice, but I sure wish we would have chosen differently.

(Prison cell image is in the public domain, courtesy of WPA poster art courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Orson Welles, Faustus, and the WPA

(Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

(WPA poster, image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)   

While in the WPA theater program Orson Welles played Faustus, a man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for worldly success and pleasure.  

Monday, July 8, 2013

A New Deal Quote vs. A Not-So-New-Deal Quote

Two competing political ideologies; one in the spirit of the New Deal and one not:

FDR: "We are going to make a country in which no one is left out."

Mitt Romney: "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what...who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims. ...These are people who pay no income tax. ...and so my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

Which quote is more positive? Which offers a better vision for America?

(FDR quote in "The Roosevelt I Knew," by Frances Perkins. New York: Viking Press, 1946. Romney quote widely reported--and videotaped. See, e.g., "Mitt Romney 47 Percent Comment Chosen As Yale Book Of Quotations' Quote Of The Year." FDR image is in the public domain, courtesy of the Library of Congress and Wikipedia. Mitt Romney image courtesy of Gage Skidmore and Wikipedia, Creative Commons-Share Alike 3.0 license).

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Wildfires From Alaska To New Mexico, And Nearly 27 Millions Americans Can't Find Full-Time Work

And the wildfire problem is expected to get worse. One of the (many) problems is that there is a lot of wildfire fuel on the ground (e.g., dead trees and dried-out vegetation). The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, has cut the budget for fire prevention and firefighting. At a time when wildfires are destroying record amounts of land, and are forecast to destroy even more, our Congress--in its supreme foolishness--has reduced our ability to address the problem.

America did not always have to deal with a Congress incapable of action and rational thought. During the New Deal, the WPA & CCC employed millions of jobless Americans to fight fires, build fire towers, and remove wildfire fuels. Furthermore, WPA workers constructed over 6,000 miles of new firebreaks and CCC boys planted 3 billion trees to help reforest areas denuded by fires or excessive logging.

The New Deal connected the dots of unemployment and the needs of our natural areas. Our current Congress, on the other hand, ignores theses issues. House Republicans, for their part, are too busy figuring out ways to cut off food assistance to low-income families and children to be bothered with record-setting wildfires.

Of course, we're told that "we can't afford" to do anything about the country's problems, and that we're "spending too much." Meanwhile, taxes on the wealthy are historically low (even former Reagan adviser Bruce Bartlett has highlighted this), federal revenue is at a 60-year low (see columns to the far right here), we've lost $3 trillion in revenue since 2001 because of tax evasion, we're losing billions in revenue due to corporate tax avoidance (see here and here), and government spending (as a % of GDP) is about the same as it was during the Reagan years (i.e., it's not out of control or historically horrible, see columns to the far right here).

The fact of the matter is that we have record-setting wildfires at the same time that we have nearly 27 million Americans who can't find full-time work, over 6 million young adults who are "neither in school nor in the workforce", and over 4 million long-term unemployed Americans who are actively discriminated against by employers (some of whom may never work again because of such discrimination).

And our federal government can't figure out what to do.  Smiley

(WPA poster images courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Emoticon courtesy of

Friday, July 5, 2013

Giving Our Basic Human Needs to Profit-Seeking Corporations

(WPA workers installing water mains in Wicomico County, Maryland, in May of 1940. Image courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.

There is currently a steady pressure to privatize our water supplies; to give and trust our basic human need of water to profit-seeking corporations (see, e.g., here). But, considering the private sector's record in other areas of public importance, such as health insurance, air quality, and prisons, should we trust the CEOs of Corporate America with our water supply?

During the New Deal, the federal, state, and local governments of America connected the dots of unemployment and infrastructure needs, employing the jobless to install water mains and water connections all across the country. Much of that water-delivery infrastructure still exists today (as do earlier-built water systems). 

Privatization is not the panacea that many free-market purists claim it to be. In fact, even some Republican politicians know this, and have resisted the Obama administration's hints at privatizing the Tennessee Valley Authority

When it comes to water, food, health care, and other basic needs, we should not trust the "Captains of Industry," who are primarily concerned with profit, to give us the best outcome. We should create the best outcome ourselves. History is replete with instances of corporations reducing quality to increase profit. Do we want to risk that possibility with our water?     

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Day

(WPA posters, images courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Greatest Words Ever Spoken By A President

When Roosevelt and the Democrats took power in 1933, they had the "audacity" to embrace the spirit of the general welfare clause of the U.S. Constitution, and they helped non-wealthy Americans in a time of great need. Over the course of the New Deal there would be programs of direct job creation for the unemployed (the WPA), insurance against complete loss of one's bank savings (FDIC), protection against stock market fraud (the SEC), subsistence income guarantees for the elderly (Social Security), employment of young adults in the restoration & development of our forests & parks (the CCC), and much more.

Many (but not all) wealthy Americans despised this. They were accustomed to a federal government that did as they paid wanted it to. To them, non-wealthy Americans were merely economic cannon fodder. Unfortunately, the same mentality can be seen today, in the form of various austerity measures imposed by federal and state politicians who often have wealthy backers, e.g., budget cuts that reduce food assistance to low-income seniors, cuts to unemployment benefits, and the blocking of legislation to create a new CCC-type program for unemployed veterans.

With all this in mind, I submit that the greatest words ever spoken by an American president are in this 1-minute segment, spoken on October 31st, 1936, at Madison Square Garden:

Find the full text of the speech here: