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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Fiscal Policy: The Legacy of the New Deal

This is probably Brad's territory - it's about a professor at Berkeley talking about and documenting the "largely forgotten ... public-works legacy of the FDR era" that is still all around us - but Brad's kind of a blogland wallflower and he may be too shy to promote things related to Berkeley, so I'll note it here:

New life for the New Deal, by By Barry Bergman, Berkeley News: When Gray Brechin set out to document the New Deal’s legacy in California, the mission seemed modest enough. Little did he know. What began as a two-person effort — just him and a photographer — has since morphed into a kind of community-based archaeological expedition...

“I liken it to coming across a ruin in a jungle and starting to dig and you find it’s not only a building, it’s a city, and then you find it’s an entire civilization that’s been buried and forgotten,” says Brechin, a widely known “historical geographer” who earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. at Berkeley and is now a visiting scholar here. “In this case it’s our civilization, it’s something that we did.”

Just 75 years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the oath of office in March 1933, Brechin believes America has largely “buried and forgotten” what the New Deal meant to a nation suffering mightily under the weight of the Great Depression — even though, as he’s discovered, we’re still reaping the benefits in the form of public art, park trails, golf courses, amphitheaters, school buildings, hospitals, bridges, streets, sewers, and aqueducts. During a 10-year period, millions of out-of-work men helped build physical infrastructure with the federal Civil Works Administration, Public Works Administration, and Works Progress Administration; “boys” age 18 to 25 did their bit for family and country by joining the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was dubbed Roosevelt’s “tree army.”

Much of that infrastructure has fallen into disrepair, and veterans of the CWA, PWA, CCC, WPA, and other alphabet-soup agencies are a rapidly dying breed. Meanwhile, the social safety net created in the wake of the U.S. economy’s 1929 collapse has come under increasing fire in what Brechin calls “a long war on the New Deal” dating to the Republican presidency of one-time FDR Democrat Ronald Reagan, and carried on today by proponents of further deregulation and privatization. “The goal was to essentially do away with the last vestiges of the New Deal,” he says, “and they’ve been largely successful.”

Enter the Living New Deal Project. ... To Brechin, a California native who’s written extensively about the state and its history, the lessons of the New Deal are unmistakable and deeply personal. In the wake of 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he explains, “I was just headed down the road to complete despair. This has really saved me. I want to give that to other people who are involved in the project. Because it gives you a glimpse of an alternate reality.

“It’s not utopia,” he’s quick to add. “We actually achieved this. And it’s astounding what we were able to achieve, and what you can achieve when you’ve got something we’ve forgotten about, which is compassionate and ingenious leadership. It’s been so long since we’ve had that, and most of the people who’ve experienced it are dying away.”

His lectures, Brechin says, “come as a thunderclap to students,” many of whom have grown up with little knowledge of the era or its accomplishments.

In that respect, they’re not unlike Brechin himself, who seems just as surprised by the magnitude of his modest dig through the New Deal’s bounty. “I’ve been learning from the moment I got started,” he says. “And it’s been the most wonderful and overwhelming experience of my life.”

To learn more about the Living New Deal Project — or to find the locations of New Deal sites in California — visit the project website at livingnewdeal.berkeley.edu.

    Posted by on Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 12:32 AM in Economics, Policy, Social Insurance | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (38)

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