Monday, December 7, 2015

The recollections, and the wise & spirited words of Harry Hopkins - part 8: Responding to criticism of federal projects

Above: WPA workers planting oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, off Crisfield, Maryland, in 1936. WPA workers planted over 8.2 million bushels of oysters in various parts of the country. Some people--for example people who don't eat oysters and are oblivious to their environmental benefits--might say, "Why the heck should my tax dollars go towards planting oysters?!?" Wasteful spending!!" Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.

During the Great Depression, New Deal work projects were frequently criticized as unnecessary, inefficient, and just make-work for a bunch of shovel-leaning good-for-nothings. But WPA administrator Harry Hopkins made an interesting observation about these criticisms:

"There is a curious thing about these operations which have been dotting the landscape of the United States for the past three years. Although they are attacked constantly in newspapers, people who visit them report that workers, public officials and citizens alike exhibit strong pride in them. Derision is reserved for projects elsewhere that they have never seen." (Harry Hopkins, Spending to Save, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1936, p. 169.)
We can see a similar phenomenon today, for example, when a person complains about federal assistance for a particular state (a state they don't live in, of course), calling it "pork," or when a person receiving one type of government benefit (e.g., a mortgage interest tax deduction on a second home, or preferential tax treatment for being wealthy) points his/her finger at someone else receiving a benefit (e.g., food assistance) and calls them a "taker." With respect to the latter, Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) may be the poster child. Despite prospering from federal government contracts, and despite collecting Social Security after his father died, and despite spending a lifetime receiving government paychecks, and despite demanding family time on the taxpayer dime, Ryan calls others who receive government benefits "takers."

All of the above--the criticism of federal work projects in other states & towns, Hopkin's observations, and Paul Ryan-style hypocrisy--indicates a very selfish culture. It seems that many people have the belief that anything for "me, me, me" is fine, but anything for "the other" is a waste of taxpayer dollars. And this belief, which appears to be very widespread, makes for a very rude and demented society.

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