Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Deal Art: "Four-Mast Bark"

Above: "Four-Mast Bark," an oil painting by Cedric W. Windas (1888-1966), created while he participated in the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, 1934. The Los Angeles Maritime Museum has a Cedric Wilford Windas Collection. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Marriner Eccles on unemployment

(Marriner Eccles, 1937. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
Marriner Eccles, chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1934 to 1948, spoke to Congress in 1933 on the problem of unemployment:
"It is a national disgrace that such suffering should be permitted in this, the wealthiest country in the world.  The present condition is not the fault of the unemployed, but that of our business, financial, and political leadership. It is incomprehensible that the people of this country should very much longer stupidly continue to suffer the wastes, the breadlines, the suicides, and the despair, and be forced to die, steal, or accept a miserable pittance in the form of charity which they resent, and properly resent." 

Unfortunately, we didn't get many statements like this from our government leaders during the most recent recession. New Deal leadership was often bold and frank. Modern leadership, by contrast, is often lethargic, restrained, and ambiguous. Perhaps the latter is inevitable, in a plutocracy.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Since 2001, we've spent at least $1.5 trillion on military operations in the Middle-East. For $168 billion, we could have had a new WPA and modernized our infrastructure.

(WPA workers building a sewer system in St. Paul, Minnesota, ca. 1935-1943. All across the nation, WPA workers installed 24,000 miles of new storm & sanitary sewer lines. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.)

According to the National Priorities Project, Americans have spent at least $1.5 trillion for military operations in the Middle-East. Currently, in Afghanistan alone, American taxpayers are spending about $4 million per hour. What do we have to show for all of these expenditures? Well, we've propped up corrupt regimes; we created a power vacuum that created ISIS; we've had hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military equipment & armament stolen by enemy forces; many of the soldiers & police we've trained aren't very motivated to fight; there is no end in sight--nearly 15 years later--for our complete exit; and so on. (Oh yeah, and oil didn't pay for the war, as the war hawks told us it would back in the early 2000's.)
Earlier this year, Doug Bandow of the right-leaning Cato Institute wrote: "American foreign policy is controlled by fools. What else can one conclude from the bipartisan demand that the U.S. intervene everywhere all the time, irrespective of consequences?... Not only has virtually every bombing, invasion, occupation, and other interference made problems worse. Almost every new intervention is an attempt to redress problems created by previous U.S. actions. And every new military step is likely, indeed, almost guaranteed, to create even bigger new problems. Which will spark proposals for new interventions likely, indeed, almost guaranteed, to generate new problems, messes, crises, and catastrophes. Which then will yield another round of suggestions for wars, drone strikes, occupations, aid transfers, invasions, diplomatic pressure, and other forms of meddling."
It's hard to dispute Bandow's observation. However, American policy doesn't have to be this way.

From 1935 to 1943, the New Deal's WPA spent about $10 billion on infrastructure. That's about $168 billion in today's dollars (the WPA spent an additional, but much smaller amount on non-infrastructure projects, e.g., theater productions, artwork, research studies, and the production of clothing for low-income Americans). With that now-$168 billion, the WPA built or improved 650,000 miles of roads, worked on 124,000 bridge projects, installed 16,000 miles of new water lines, created or renovated 8,000 parks, and much more. (Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-1943, 1946, pp. 98-136.)      

We could have replicated the WPA experience over the past 6 years or so (and perhaps it would have cost a bit more, for a variety of reasons), but we didn't. And while defense contractors and their wealthy owners, executives, and investors might be happy about foreign spending stomping out domestic spending--since war makes them rich--our infrastructure surely isn't happy. Since 2001, our infrastructure has received letter grades of D+, D, D, and D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Spending trillions on war (don't forget to factor in the money we'll be spending to treat tens of thousands of wounded and disabled veterans), while pretending that infrastructure doesn't need to be repaired and improved, has real consequences. This isn't just about that pesky pothole at the end of your street. For example, "The federal Department of Transportation estimates that obsolete road designs and poor road conditions are a factor in about 14,000 highway deaths each year" ("Human Cost Rises as Old Bridges, Dams and Roads Go Unrepaired," New York Times, November 5, 2015). And remember all those dams in South Carolina that recently failed? Well, what do you think is going to happen when sea temperatures continue to rise, creating more and more extreme rain events? 

We could have used a new WPA several years ago, when unemployment was sky-high. We could still use a WPA today, to modernize our infrastructure. We could also use a WPA in the future, for the next business cycle slump. But... we didn't get a WPA, and we're not currently thinking about a WPA, and we're most likely never going to see a WPA in the future either.

But one day, you can be certain, there will be hell to pay - in terms of failed dams, floods, washed out roads, and lives. These things are already happening now of course - but it's going to be much worse in the future, when our infrastructure is older and our weather worse.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

New Deal Art: "December Trees"

Above: "December Trees," a lithograph by Grant Arnold (1904-1988), created while he participated in the WPA's Federal Art Project, 1935. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Friday, December 25, 2015

New Deal Art: "Winter Afternoon"

Above: "Winter Afternoon," an oil painting by Georgina Klitgaard (1893-1976), created while she participated in the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, 1934. The D. Wigmore Fine Art Gallery has an interesting biography of Klitgaard here. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

New Deal Art: "Mid-Hudson Bridge, Winter"

Above: "Mid-Hudson Bridge, Winter," an oil painting by Cecil Chichester (1891-1963), created while he participated in the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, 1934. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

New Deal Art: A farm in winter

Above: This oil painting was created by Henry Carter Johnson (1908-1996), while he was in the WPA's Federal Art Project, 1939. According to the Henry Ford Museum, Johnson went on to serve in World War II and then became a well-known photographer and glass artist in Michigan. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

New Deal Art: A winter landscape

Above: This oil painting, depicting a winter landscape, was created by Martha Levy while she was in the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, ca. 1933-1934. It seems like an appropriate painting for today, the first day of winter. Not much is known about Levy, but according to the website, "Like many artists in the 1930's, Levy fell on hard times." So, like it did for many other artists, the Public Works of Art Project helped Levy maintain her career. The Slate Valley Museum in Granville, New York has a mural she painted while in the WPA's Federal Art Project: "Men Working in Slate Quarry," and states: "Research about Martha Levy and the mural will be ongoing projects at the museum." Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Monday, December 21, 2015

An old water main broke in Hollywood Hills, and caused a mudslide. A new WPA could have prevented that.

(In the video above, we see the results of a broken water main in Hollywood Hills this past Saturday. YouTube link:

Two days ago, a water main broke and caused an eight-foot mudslide in Hollywood Hills, California. The break and mudslide cut off water service, closed a road, and heavily damaged (perhaps even ruining) two homes. The cause? "Officials blamed the break on an aging cast iron pipe, one that was installed in 1952" ("2 Homes Heavily Damaged In 8-Foot Hollywood Hills Mudslide," CBS News, December 19, 2015). 

One resident of Hollywood Hills called the break, mudslide, and damage "crazy." But actually, it's pretty commonplace in modern America. Each year, we have about a quarter-of-a-million water main breaks.

A new WPA could prevent a lot of these breaks. For example, in California, WPA workers installed 1,200 miles of new water lines between 1935 and 1943. (Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-1943)

Of course, we're not going to get a new WPA. Why not? Because most super-wealthy Americans don't want one, preferring that jobless Americans remain jobless if they can't find work in the holy "private sector" (see page 57, table 5, here).  You see, many super-wealthy Americans like having a large pool of jobless & desperate workers to use & abuse. To them, it's a nifty way to keep wages down and investment returns high. And they also don't care about infrastructure too much. "Water main break? No big deal, I can just truck some water in! Power outage? No problem, I have a $14,000 Generac to keep me warm! Potholes? No biggie, I'll just fly over them in my private jet! Bridges? Well, um, I don't have any bridges on my private island!"

(Here's some money we could have used to improve our infrastructure. Instead, we just sort of let the "job creators" stash their money wherever they felt like it, didn't we? Because, you know, they're the "job creators," and they're really good at creating good middle-class jobs! Yippee!! Oh, wait a minute, see "The Middle Class Has Gotten Smaller In Every State Since 2000," Huffington Post, March 19 2015, and "For most workers, real wages have barely budged for decades," Pew Research, October 9, 2014. Image courtesy of
Because of the aging water pipes in Hollywood Hills, as well as the rest of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is proposing utility rate hikes. Yep, that's how we do things today. Instead of asking millionaires & billionaires to pay more at the federal level (and then providing more federal aid to states for infrastructure), and instead of cracking down on tax evasion & avoidance by Corporate America and the super-wealthy, we impose regressive taxes, tolls, fees, fines, and utility rates at the state & local level, thereby ensuring that the less you make the more you pay. As the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy has highlighted, "Virtually every state tax system is fundamentally unfair, taking a much greater share of  income from low- and middle-income families than from wealthy families." In other words: American-style capitalism in all its splendor.

Amazingly though, even as Americans are disproportionately taxed, and even as they suffer from a plague of water main breaks (and many other infrastructure woes), and even as their highway funds are stolen to preserve tax breaks for the wealthy, many of them are still ready, willing, and eager to vote for Republican politicians who will completely ignore infrastructure and hand out even more tax breaks to the wealthy. Isn't that amazing? See the video below for my reacton.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Once upon a time, Puerto Rico had a New Deal. Today, it has finanical predators, regressive taxation, Republicans, and the Tea Party.

(A new public water fountain, funded through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), ca. 1934. Photo from a FERA report.)
During the New Deal, great investments were made in Puerto Rico. The CCC reforested the land, the WPA offered jobs to unemployed men & women, the National Youth Administration (NYA) helped young Puerto Ricans graduate from high school & college, and agencies like the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Public Works Administration (PWA), and the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA) built up Puerto Rico's infrastructure. With respect to the latter, a researcher at the City University of New York recently concluded that the PRRA "made lasting contributions to local social and economic life" and that it increased life expectancy, improved the "built environment," and limited "the private corporate control of Puerto Rico's natural resources." The president of a business consulting firm in Puerto Rico recently noted "that the island's [now-crumbling] infrastructure was one of the factors that led to Puerto Rico's economic growth for most of the 20th century..."
But, in an amazing display of collective amnesia, U.S. citizens and the U.S. government have completely forgotten that any of these things ever happened. And that amnesia (plus a large dose of public apathy) has dire consequences for the island. As Puerto Rico struggles with heavy debt, crumbling infrastructure, and high unemployment, a New Deal is nowhere to be found. For the island today, there are only financial predators, regressive taxation, Republicans, and the Tea Party.
Financial Predators:
There are a lot of super-wealthy people using Puerto Rico as a tax haven. At the same time, there are a lot of super-wealthy people demanding that middle and low-income Puerto Ricans pay more taxes, and receive less education & medical care, in order to pay off debt to scavenging financial firms - firms that bought up the island's debt on the cheap, or lent money on usurious terms, but are demanding full payment. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren summed up the situation. She highlighted that these super-wealthy people "want Puerto Rico to raise taxes, cut health care, fire teachers, cut pensions, sell off $4 billion worth of government buildings, privatize public ports, close neighborhood schools and cut support for the University of Puerto Rico, all so these vulture funds can squeeze out more profit."

Regressive Taxation:

To a large degree, the Puerto Rican government has complied with the wishes of the financial predators. A clear example of this can be seen by the islands decision to raise its sales tax, its fuel tax, and its public transportation fares. These are all forms of regressive taxation that disproportionately impact the middle-class & poor.
One thing that would greatly benefit Puerto Rico is a chance to restructure some of its debt through the same bankruptcy tools available to the states. But, in a recent spending bill, Congress refused to grant this equality. Puerto Rico's nonvoting representative in Congress said: "Despite our best efforts, the omnibus does not include language empowering Puerto Rico to restructure any of its debt, as every US state is empowered to do. Honesty requires me to note that the objections to this provision came exclusively from Republicans."
The Tea Party:
Ah, and now we come to the Tea Party - that great misinformed organization that the super-wealthy love to use as a shield against increased taxation, common sense regulation, and law enforcement. The super-wealthy have reached out to the Tea Party on the Puerto Rico issue and have asked them for propaganda assistance. And the Tea Party, knowing that their creation and continued existence was/is reliant upon selfish millionaires & billionaires, are only too happy to comply. As recently highlighted in the New York Times, "To block proposals that would put their investments at risk, a coalition of hedge funds and financial firms has hired dozens of lobbyists, forged alliances with Tea Party activists and recruited so-called AstroTurf groups on the island to make their case."
So, in speaking out against bankruptcy protection equality for Puerto Rico, the national coordinator of the "Tea Party Patriots" said that it was "nothing but a backdoor, taxpayer-funded bailout for Puerto Rico." But when asked what taxpayer funds she was referring to, she gave the typical Tea Party response: "I don’t know that I can answer that."
Cruelty & policy discrimination, based on misinformation. That's what the Tea Party has to offer Puerto Rico. Oh, how the hedge funds must be crying tears of joy and thanking the heavens, "Oh, thank you! Thank you for these pawns!"
(A WPA poster promoting tourism in Puerto Rico. New Deal policymakers saw Puerto Rico as a beautiful place, and saw Puerto Ricans as a people who just needed a helping hand. Unfortunately, many millionaires & billionaires today--in a pathetic display of human relations--view Puerto Rico as a place to financially exploit, the people be damned. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)
Puerto Rico Needs A New Deal:
Puerto Rico could use some of the same type of assistance that President Franklin Roosevelt and his fellow New Deal policymakers gave it back in the 1930s and 40s. Unfortunately, as long as Americans remain in a state of amnesia and apathy, the island will only get more financial attacks from cold-blooded millionaires & billionaires, more regressive taxation, more mean-spirited Republicans, and more Tea Party foolishness.

Perhaps, one day, Americans will say "enough is enough" and demand a New Deal. Because it's only a matter of time before the financial industry comes for the rest of us too - and even more voraciously than they did the last time.

"The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism... We believe in a way of living in which political democracy and free private enterprise for profit should serve and protect each other - to ensure a maximum of human liberty not for a few but for all." 
--FDR, April 29, 1938

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Austerity and aging infrastructure has caused lead poisoning in Michigan children. A new WPA could have prevented it.

(WPA workers installing a new water line in Annapolis, Maryland, 1938. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

In Flint, Michigan, children have been poisoned by lead due to austerity and aging infrastructure: "The problem began when in April 2014 the city of Flint temporarily changed its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save money. The different chemistry of the river water corroded the city's old pipes, releasing huge amounts of lead into the drinking water" ("Why Pediatricians Are So Alarmed By The Lead in Flint's Water," Huffington Post, December 18, 2015, emphasis added).

Austerity--in the modern world at least--means protecting the fortunes of the super-wealthy (for example, protecting their illegal tax evasion), raising taxes on the middle-class & poor (for example, raising regressive sales taxes), and cutting funding for the common good (for example, reducing investments in infrastructure). And this is exactly what's been happening in America these past many years. And that's why, in 2013, our nation received a D+ letter grade for its infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

During the New Deal, things were different...far different. For example, WPA workers (formerly unemployed and constantly insulted - just like today) installed 16,000 miles of new water lines, built 276 new water treatment plants, made 420,000 water consumer connections, and constructed 7,000 new water wells, storage tanks, and reservoirs. In Michigan, WPA workers installed 700 miles of new water lines. (Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, 1946, pp. 132-136). We could do the same today, and even better with today's technology.

So, why didn't we create a new WPA when the recession hit several years ago and unemployment was sky-high? Well, for several reasons: 

First, many Americans don't know their history, and have never even heard of the WPA. 

Second, Republicans prefer to use the unemployed as political punching bags. They know that if they can demonize the unemployed (just like they demonize immigrants and Muslims) they can whip up fear, anger, and votes. 

Third, Republicans want most public spending to go towards middle-eastern affairs, not domestic affairs. You can see this during the Republican presidential debates, where infrastructure is never mentioned. The conversations revolve around terrorism, Muslims, building up the military, the need for ground troops in various parts of the middle-east, and so on. 

Fourth, Republicans prefer austerity to infrastructure spending. 

Fifth, the Democratic Party, like the Republican Party, has become a servant of Corporate America and the super-wealthy - and they know that Corporate America and the super-wealthy do not want a new WPA (see table 5 here for example). That's why, when the late U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced legislation in 2011 to create a new WPA most Democrats (including President Obama) gave him no support. Lautenberg's bill ended up dying a lonely death in committee. 

Sixth, the fanatical belief, held by many, that the "free market" (as channeled through the holy "JOB CREATORS" of course) will solve every problem.

And seventh, millions of citizens are completely disconnected from current events and the political process. They don't pay attention, they don't inform themselves, they don't vote, and they don't care - basically, apathy on steroids.

To sum things up: Thanks to a toxic stew of historical amnesia, Republican politics, a preference for austerity over the public good, a hyper-concern about middle-eastern affairs, Democratic weakness, a fanatical belief in the "free market" & the holy "JOB CREATORS," and public apathy, "adults and children of every age were unknowingly exposed [to lead], including formula-drinking babies and the unborn children of pregnant mothers."

What does this ultimately mean? "The long-term consequences of lead poisoning are dire for children, according to the World Health Organization. While a lead-poisoned infant or toddler might not show any outward physical or mental signs of damage, their developing brains are already damaged...Once kids reach school age, cognition problems, including lower IQ and ADHD-like symptoms start to show up. Lead exposure has been linked to physical problems, such as anemia, kidney dysfunction and high blood pressure, as well as behavioral problems, including aggressive behavior and problems with the criminal justice system."

We need a new and even stronger New Deal to modernize our infrastructure. Unfortunately for America's children, as long as the seven points highlighted above remain true, we're not going to get one. Instead, we're going to get more water main breaks, higher & regressive water utility rates, and lead. 

"We need funding and we need resources. It's an infrastructure crisis for us, so we know that's going to be a tremendous cost and burden on the city of Flint that we can't handle by ourselves." --Flint Mayor Karen Weaver (link)

Friday, December 18, 2015

New Deal Art: "Christodora House"

Above: "Christodora House," an oil painting by M. A. Tricca (1880-1969), created while the artist participated in the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, 1934. Christodora House was a settlement community in New York City that provided shelter, education, and social services to people in need (e.g., low-income immigrants). The 1928 building still stands today and, according to its Wikipedia page, has had a colorful history since its noble origins. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

New Deal Art: "Realization"

Above: "Realization," an oil painting by Joseph Vavak (1891-1969), created while he participated in the WPA's Federal Art Project, 1938. I don't know what Vavak's motivation was, but this painting makes me think of the millions of Americans for whom the "American Dream" will never come true: The college graduate mired in debt and making pathetic wages at a job outside of his/her chosen field; the homeless person labeled as worthless; the unemployed person considering suicide and criticized by society as "lazy"; the parent working two jobs but still unable to take a vacation and still unable to provide a good life for his/her child; and so on. The person in the painting above seems to have "realized" something like this. Of course, it could also be something like the loss of a loved one, or abandonment. Or, perhaps Vavak intended his painting to be open to multiple interpretations.
On a more positive note, let us hope that some future generation of Americans will embrace President Roosevelt's Second Bill of Rights, so that such despair will be less widespread. Roosevelt told the American people:
"We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. 'Necessitous men are not free men.' People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed. Among these are: 
The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation; 
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation
The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living
The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad; 
The right of every family to a decent home
The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; 
The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
The right to a good education
All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being."   
 (Image above courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

New Deal Art: "Black River Country"

Above: Looking like a scene from one of the The Lord of the Rings movies, "Black River Country" is a wood engraving by Fred Becker (1913-2004), created while he participated in the WPA's Federal Art Project, ca. 1937-1938. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Monday, December 14, 2015

James McEntee on the need for a permanent Civilian Conservation Corps

(James McEntee, right, after being sworn-in as the new director of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), March 7, 1940. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

James McEntee was the second and final director of the CCC (the first director, Robert Fechner, died at the end of the 1939). McEntee, "who did a remarkable job as director" (see the reference at end of this blog post), advocated for the CCC to be a permanent organization:

"This conservation program is not 'made work.' The work the CCC boys are doing is of great importance to the nation. Much of it is so extremely important that it should be done during boom times as well as bad. The
contribution which the Civilian Conservation Corps is making to the nation in the way of improving the health
and national defense usefulness of young men during the current international crisis is just as important or even more so than the Civilian Conservation Corps' work and training activities. The size of the Corps should depend upon national need. If private industry were to start running full blast and offer to employ and pay high wages to every unemployed, able-bodied person, the CCC might be reduced somewhat, but it should not be abolished. We should continue to carry forward much of the work and the training that the CCC is doing under any and all circumstances. The Corps should be permanent, varying in size with the needs of the times." (James McEntee, Now They Are Men: The Story of the CCC, 1940, p. 68)

McEntee also highlighted the character-building aspect of the Civilian Conservation Corps:

"More than two and a half million boys have been enrolled in the Corps. Two and a half million girls will get better husbands because of the CCC training that these youths have received. As men, they will be better
workers, better neighbors and better citizens. Already more than two million of them have had their baptism of real work and training in the CCC. Now they are men!" (McEntee, p. 69)

In many parts of America today, we have great numbers of youth who have no jobs and no hope. But we do have a prison-industrial complex waiting for them if they slip up - in fact, it's the largest prison-industrial complex in the world (yes, existing in the supposed "land of the free"). We have no CCC for our youth, only sarcastic remarks for them to get a job at McDonalds or Walmart. You see, it takes some energy, thought, and concern to create a CCC, but it takes none of those things to utter a few words, snicker, and go about one's day in an attitude of superiority. (See, "McDonald's Job Applications Dumped On 'Occupy' Protesters By Chicago Board Of Trade," Huffington Post, November 5, 2011, and "It’s Harder to Get a Job at Walmart Than It Is to Get Into Harvard," Time, March 31, 2014.)

People like James McEntee certainly had energy, thought, and concern. Unfortunately, too many people today only have lethargy, sour comments, and the fanatical belief that the "market always knows best!" And so, America's youth sits on the sidelines and watches the "American Dream" slip away - while Corporate America and the supposed "Job Creators" put their profits & fortunes in tax-evading foreign bank accounts.

(Here's some money that could have been used to create a new CCC - a CCC that could have hired millions of young Americans to address the multi-billion dollar maintenance backlogs that exist in our state & national parks. Image courtesy of
***The "remarkable job" quote near beginning of this post comes from Perry H. Merrill, Roosevelt's Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1943, 1981, p. 6***

Saturday, December 12, 2015

New Deal Art: A Selection of Animals

Above: An oil painting by Winthrop Duthie Turney (1885-1964), created while he participated in the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, 1934. According to an exhibit label, "The artist hoped that this painting of animals grouped around a lavender-tinted tree would become a large mural to adorn a school. The mural would show urban schoolchildren American animals from a variety of environments." Even after 80 years, it seems to me that Turney's painting would still be a great teaching tool for very young children, or a cheery piece of art to brighten a child's room. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Friday, December 11, 2015

New Deal Art: "Smithsonian Institution Building"

Above: "Smithsonian Institution Building," an oil painting by Charles Hoover (1897-1969), created while he participated in the WPA's Federal Art Project, ca. 1935-1943. During the New Deal, WPA workers helped the Smithsonian organize and preserve its historic artifacts, and also helped maintain the grounds. Judging by this painting, it seems they did a good job. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

New Deal Art: "Mrs. Simmons"

Above: "Mrs. Simmons," a water color and pencil on paper, by Samuel Joseph Brown (1907-1994), created while he participated in the WPA's Federal Art Project, ca. 1936. An obituary for Brown states that his art, "issued powerful statements of the African-American experience and were included in collections from the White House to the museums of major American cities..." The article further notes that Brown was once visited by Eleanor Roosevelt, and that he developed into a more highly skilled artist while in New Deal art programs. After the Great Depression, Brown went on to teach art in the Philadelphia school system for over 30 years ("Samuel J. Brown, Jr.; An Artist and Teacher," Daily News,, October 26, 1994). Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The recollections, and the wise & spirited words of Harry Hopkins - part 10: The Accomplishments of Unemployed Americans

Above: WPA administrator Harry Hopkins delivers a speech at the Louisiana State University (LSU) football stadium, on November 28, 1936, after WPA workers doubled the facility's seating capacity, and also built dormitories for 1,000 students under the new grandstand sections. Photo courtesy of of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

Above: The LSU band forms the letters "WPA," in honor of the formerly-unemployed workers who expanded their stadium. When was the last time you heard a public official praise the unemployed, or a community thank the unemployed, at a football game? It was a different world back then. Today, thanks to right-wing politicians & pundits, the unemployed are more likely to be treated with apathy and scorn. Note the WPA work sign, at the bottom right of the photo. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum and the New Deal Network.
During the Great Depression, New Deal policymakers decided that it would be better to give job opportunities to the unemployed, instead of insults. The exact opposite is true today, of course, where right-wing politicians, pundits, and Internet commenters make constant insinuations of laziness about the unemployed (see, e.g., here, here, and here), want to drug test them (see, e.g., here and here), routinely call them names like "moochers," and even question their right to be called Americans.
When Harry Hopkins made his speech at the LSU football stadium in 1936 (see photos above), he highlighted how opportunities-instead-of-insults had turned out to be the better approach:
"The things they have actually accomplished all over America should be an inspiration to every reasonable person and an everlasting answer to all the grievous insults that have been heaped on the heads of the unemployed" (Nick Taylor, American-Made, 2008, p. 235 of 2009 paperback edition, citing two New Orleans newspapers).
70 years later, author Nick Taylor elaborated on Hopkins's sentiment:
"Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins believed that people given a job to do would do it well, and the fact that their paychecks were issued by the government would make not a whit of difference. They were right. The workers of the WPA shone. They excelled. They created works that even without restoration have lasted more than seventy years and still stand strong, art that is admired, research that is relied upon, infrastructure that endures... These ordinary men and women proved to be extraordinary beyond all expectation. They were golden threads woven into the national fabric. In this, they shamed the political philosophy that discounted their value and rewarded the one that placed its faith in them, thus fulfilling the founding vision of a government by and for its people. All its people." (American-Made, p. 530 of 2009 paperback edition).

Even limited-government icon Ronald Reagan agreed with Hopkins' assessment. In his 1990 autobiography, the former president wrote:

"The WPA was one of the most productive elements of FDR's alphabet soup of agencies because it put people to work building roads, bridges, and other projects... it gave men and women a chance to make some money along with the satisfaction of knowing they earned it" (Ronald Reagan: An American Life, 1990, p. 69 of 2011 paperback edition).

Today, of course, ignorance, apathy, and cruelty rule the land. Thus, we'll probably never see another WPA again; its amazing success and the wide-scale, continued use of its projects notwithstanding. 
What a shame that we don't heed the recollections, and the wise & spirited words of Harry Hopkins.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The recollections, and the wise & spirited words of Harry Hopkins - part 9: Two Hundred Thousand CWA Projects

(A CWA construction project in Wicomico County, Maryland, ca. 1933-1934. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

New Deal administrator Harry Hopkins (FERA, CWA, WPA) wrote the following in his book Spending to Save:
"Long after the workers of CWA are dead and gone and these hard times forgotten, their effort will be remembered by permanent useful works in every county of every state. People will ride over bridges they made, travel on their highways, attend schools they built, navigate waterways they improved, do their public business in courthouses and state capitols which workers from CWA rescued from disrepair. Constantly expanded and diversified to offer use for the special skills and training of different types of workers, the CWA program finally extended its scope to almost every kind of community activity. We had two hundred thousand CWA projects." (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1936, p. 120)
Hopkins was correct to highlight the value of CWA projects, but he was mistaken that people would remember.
Today, many Americans are unaware of the CWA's two-hundred thousand work projects, and are also unaware of the hundreds of thousands of other work projects completed by the WPA, CCC, PWA, NYA, and FERA. Many other Americans simply don't care. This, despite the fact that we still use many thousands of New Deal projects today, over three-quarters of a century later (and well past their intended lifespan). And this is one of the primary reasons why so many people are ignoring our crumbling infrastructure (which kills thousands of our fellow citizens every year) and are more interested in devoting more and more money (most of it borrowed) to middle-eastern affairs. (See, "Iraq War To Remain A Significant U.S. Debt-Driver For Years To Come," Huffington Post, March 19, 2013)
Voters, unaware or uninterested in the possible, settle for what they've become accustomed to - which is, perpetual & consequence-free war (there are consequences for the combatants of course, but the larger public is protected from a draft, protected from the bullets & bombs (for the most part, anyway), and "protected" from higher taxes on their holy "JOB CREATORS"). Of course, there are other reasons why there is more public interest in the middle-east than our own infrastructure - for example, fear & anger sells much better than road repairs.

In any event, Harry Hopkins and his fellow New Deal policymakers understood something that many of us do not understand today: Infrastructure is extremely important for a healthy economy and culture.

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.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The recollections, and the wise & spirited words of Harry Hopkins - part 7: Employment Assurance

(WPA administrator Harry Hopkins, left, and PWA administrator Harold Ickes, 1935. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
Harry Hopkins understood something that many of his New Deal colleagues did not - and something that even many of today's liberals and progressives do not: The United States needs a policy of employment assurance (essentially, a permanent WPA-type program), so that when a person's unemployment benefits run out he or she is not thrown to the whims of the "job creators" or the vagaries of charity. As a member of the Council on Economic Security, Hopkins advocated for Social Security to include employment assurance. And, in 1936, in promotion of a permanent public jobs program, he wrote: 
"Until the time comes, if it ever does, when industry and business can absorb all able-bodied workers--and that time seems to grow more distant with improvements in management and technology--we shall have with us large numbers of unemployed...What is the outlook for these unemployed? First, workers must have unemployment insurance [not to be confused with "employment assurance"]. This is part of any social security program. An insurance benefit, however, will not tide a man through an indefinite period of unemployment. Nor will it take care of the annual net increase of over 400,000 workers who come of age each year, and the other young who have never had jobs" (Harry Hopkins, Spending to Save, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1936, pp. 180-182, emphasis added). 
Employment assurance did not make it into the final Social Security Act, of course, leaving us to imagine how life would be different today if it had. Perhaps employment assurance would mean, to those of us not born into wealth, that we would be less likely to face bankruptcy, dropping credit scores, harassing telephone calls from abusive debt collectors, employment discrimination, hope-crushing poverty, and homelessness, when we lose our jobs during economic downturns - downturns which are frequently caused (or worsened) by corporate greed, corruption, and crime.
The employment assurance idea did not come to fruition, it seems, for a variety of reasons, including: Conservative opposition to the cost of such assurance; resistance from the business and banking community - as well as their marionettes, e.g., the Liberty League; President Roosevelt's refusal to persistently fight for it; and the persuasion by Daniel W. Bell, the executive branch's budget director, to exclude it. (For a fascinating discussion about the attempt to include employment assurance in the Social Security Act, see June Hopkins, Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999, pp. 178-200.) 
Professor of Law Philip Harvey (Rutgers University) has suggested that a direct job-creation program (along the lines of a permanent WPA) is superior to Keynesian-style indirect job-creation strategies, e.g., President Obama's $787 billion stimulus package in 2009, because, among other reasons, it is faster and less expensive per job. But Harvey highlights an unfortunate reality:
"Sadly, the employment-assurance leg of the [Council on Economic Security's] overall strategy for securing everyone's right to an adequate income has languished, with progressives failing to even understand what their predecessors abandoned as a result of their pursuit of the seemingly easier path to full employment promised (but only rarely delivered) by the Keynesian strategy. The advantages of the direct job-creation strategy are so clear and so great that the attachment progressives continue to show to the latter seems almost perverse. It is long past time for progressives to shed their Keyensian bias and start learning from the New Deal" ("The New Deal's Direct Job-Creation Strategy: Providing Employment Assurance for American Workers," in Sheila D. Collins and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, eds., When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 173). Note: Harvey points out that direct job-creation is a stimulus program in its own right, but different from the stimulus programs preferred today, i.e., Keynesian-style indirect job-creation).
What all of the above indicates to me, is that Harry Hopkins was light years ahead of his time. If you don't agree, consider this: Hopkins facilitated the employment of millions of jobless Americans through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (1933-1935), the Civil Works Administration (1933-1934), and the Works Progress Administration (1935-1938). And, in doing so, he helped modernize American infrastructure on a scale not seen before or since. In light of these outcomes, he pushed for permanency. Now, compare that to today, where we have just gotten over a monstrous unemployment problem; long-term unemployment is still a problem; high unemployment rates plague African Americans, American Indians, and young Americans; the labor force participation rate is historically low; and our infrastructure is falling apart. Indeed, Hopkins was not only light years ahead of his time, he was light years ahead of our time as well.

In 1934, historian Charles Beard wrote of Hopkins and the Great Depression: "Hopkins has taken a realistic view of the appalling situation, has cast off all trivial cliches about the poor, and has acted with skill and promptness. With much justification, Mr. Hopkins may be called the most enlightened and realistic statesman in the whole administration at Washington, not excluding the President himself" (see June Hopkins reference above, p. 206). And when Hopkins died in 1946, Winston Churchill praised his passion for helping the downtrodden and wrote: "We shall not see his like again" (New York Times, January 30, 1946).

Judging by the anemic, neoliberal, and indifferent policies that occurred during the most recent recession, it seems Churchill's observation is, unfortunately, very true.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The recollections, and the wise & spirited words of Harry Hopkins - part 6: Spitting in the faces of the carnival-barking Thought Police

(Head of the WPA, Harry Hopkins, 1936. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.)

According to George Washington University, "The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was created in 1938 to investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the part of private citizens, public employees, and those organizations suspected of having Communist ties. Reorganized from its previous incarnations as the Fish Committee and the McCormack-Dickstein Committee and with a new chairman, the cantankerous Martin Dies of Texas, HUAC's strident attacks on the Roosevelt administration prior to the outbreak of the war did not suit the political mood of a nation that was largely in favor of FDR's leadership."

The Dies Committee, as it came to be called, was similar to other congressional actions that seek to ferret out "un-American" activities. It was, at its heart, patriotic grandstanding - an effort to tell the American people, "Hey, we're the real Americans here, and we're going to expose those who aren't patriots like us!" It was an effort to obtain power and votes, and an effort to prop oneself up as a sort of Super-Patriot. Further, it was an arrogant assumption of authority as to what was "American" and what was not - a type of Thought Police. By 1959, the HUAC had become so out-of-control, and so much of a witch hunt for so-called "subversives," that former president Harry Truman called it "the most un-American thing in the country today" (Jonathan Auerbach, Dark Borders: Film Noir and American Citizenship, Duke University Press, 2011, p. 4).

In 1938, upset with the racial integration they saw in the WPA's Federal Theatre Project, and fearful that it was spreading communism across the land, the Dies Committee began investigating it - sniffing around for anything they deemed "un-American." When WPA administrators began preparing for the investigations and testimony, Harry Hopkins said, perhaps only half-figuratively, that they could "go up and spit in the faces of the Dies Committee" (Nick Taylor, American-Made, Bantam Books, 2008, p. 423 of the 2009 paperback edition).

It seems that Hopkins had no patience for the political grandstanding of the carnival-barking Thought Police.

(During this time period, U.S. Senator Robert Reynolds (D-NC) summed up the feelings of many conservative members of Congress who were opposed to the WPA's Federal Theatre Project: "Through such material the cardinal keystone of communism--free love and racial equality--is being spread at the expense of the god-fearing, home-loving American taxpayer" (Susan Quinn, Furious Improvisation, New York: Walker & Company, 2008, p. 279).

Friday, December 4, 2015

The recollections, and the wise & spirited words of Harry Hopkins - part 5: People need jobs, not therapy

(WPA administrator Harry Hopkins, left, shows work relief needs to two congressmen in charge of appropriations, 1938. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

During the Great Depression, many Americans traveled the countryside, jobless and penniless, looking for any work that they could find. They were, for all intents and purposes, homeless. Harry Hopkins, and other New Deal policymakers, set up work camps for any of them who wanted to participate in available federal  projects (for example, a beach erosion control project in North Carolina). At the camps, they could receive shelter, a job, and a modest paycheck. In 1936, Hopkins made the following observation:

"Originally, there had been a strong disposition to view the transient as a man requiring 'casework techniques' and 'therapeutic treatment.' But some transients who stubbornly resisted the casework approach to rehabilitation emerged, under the more normal conditions of a work project, from sullen discouragement and inertia into highly effective workmen. There could be little doubt that what most of them needed was not casework but a job." (Harry Hopkins, Spending to Save, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1936, pp. 133-134)

It seems that some Americans who lived during the Great Depression--no doubt those who were spared the loss of a job--considered transient workers to be somewhat crazy. This is interesting because we see the exact same mentality today from those on the political right. They consider all homeless and unemployed Americans as suspect, for example, calling them "wild animals" and "lazy pigs," and demanding that they be drug-tested before receiving any government assistance. They have a naive belief that there are good-paying jobs for every American, as long as one works hard enough. Market failure? Job outsourcing? Recessions caused by multi-billion dollar bank frauds? These things mean nothing to the political right; to them, it's always the individual's fault.

So, who do you believe? Harry Hopkins? Or those who ignore corporate greed, corruption, and crime, and then gleefully point their accusatory fingers at the person who just received a pink slip?      

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The recollections, and the wise & spirited words of Harry Hopkins - part 4: A Reply to Hoover

(Harry Hopkins, top right, watches as President Roosevelt prepares to cut into his birthday cake, January 1943. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Herbert Hoover once claimed that the New Deal was leading the country towards fascism. WPA administrator Harry Hopkins responded by asking, "Is it dictatorship to try to operate a government for all the people and not just a few? Is it dictatorship to guarantee the deposits of small depositors, and keep phony stocks and bonds off the market? Is it dictatorship to save millions of homes from foreclosure? Is it dictatorship to give a measure of protection to millions who are economically insecure and jobs to other millions who can't find work? Is it dictatorship to try to put a floor under wages and a ceiling over working hours?" ("Hopkins denies relief waste in reply to Hoover on fascism," Washington Post, May 9, 1938.)

Like all political & social movements (e.g., conservatism, liberalism, libertarianism) fascism is complex, shares characteristics with other political movements, evolves over time, and is often contradictory. By the 1930s, fascism--which perhaps started as a less malevolent philosophy--had developed into a militaristic and racial movement, that viewed difference or weakness as rationale for subjugation or extermination. But, as Hopkins correctly pointed out, the New Deal was quite the opposite. It sought, among other things, to lift the downtrodden up and provide more economic opportunities for more people. Did it overreach sometimes? Perhaps. Was it fascism? Please.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The recollections, and the wise & spirited words of Harry Hopkins - part 3: Safety Pins and Dumb People

Above: WPA administrator Harry Hopkins visits Hallie Flanagan and her federal theatre actors in New York, 1936. Many people thought federal money for unemployed theatre workers was a waste of taxpayer dollars. Others despised the racial integration they saw in some of the performances. Still others thought that the WPA program, which included puppet shows for children and circus performances for the disabled, was a communist plot to take over the country. Conservative politicians--both Democrat and Republican--eagerly fueled this fear, hysteria, and irrational thought (much like they do today), and shut the program down in 1939. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.

Above: Disabled children enjoying a WPA circus performance in New York City, ca. 1936-1939. When conservatives shut the theatre program down, they "saved" these children from the "communist plot" of the circus clowns. And, no doubt, they thought the money would be better spent on tax-breaks-for-the-wealthy. You can see this same conservative philosophy today. For example, Republicans in Kansas have recently taken $9 million from their highly productive Children's Initiative Fund to preserve tax-breaks-for-the-wealthy. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.

One of the great character traits of Harry Hopkins was his fearlessness towards critics. Today, out of fear of political correctness, many politicians frequently backtrack on their statements, and many government administrators don't speak at all. There seems to be a sort of "hush hush, lest you lose your job" mentality. 

In April of 1935, Hopkins was asked to justify some federally-funded research projects, including a historical study of safety pins (probably funded through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration). He responded: "Why should I? There is nothing the matter with that. They are damn good projects - excellent projects... You know, some people make fun of people who speak a foreign language, and dumb people criticize something they do not understand, and that is what is going on up there, God damn it!... I have no apologies to make. As a matter of fact, we have not done enough..." (Henry H. Adams, Harry Hopkins: A Biography, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1977, p. 62).

Many people did not approve of Hopkins saying "dumb people." However, sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. Throughout the Great Depression, people scolded the unemployed as lazy-good-for-nothings, just like they do today. There was (and still is) a great tendency to lump all the jobless together, and then label them  "worthless." Harry Hopkins fought back against this discrimination and stereotyping throughout his years as a New Deal administrator. He thought it was dumb, so he said it was dumb.