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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Still Shining, A Beacon of Hope from the New Deal, March 27, 2008
William R. Neil (Rockville, MD United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal (Social Problems and Social Issues (Univ of South Carolina)) (Paperback)
March 27, 2008

Emerging from the evening twilight of the Conservative Era is this gem of a book by Robert D. Leighninger, Jr., about what the New Deal of the 1930's built, and how it was done. No matter which facet the reader holds up to examine - style, insight or inclusiveness, the work shines forth as a model of historical writing. It will also help illuminate a way out of our current troubles.

Although I doubt the author could have known, since he worked on it for many years, present economic circumstances have set a dramatic stage for a book that should be read widely by policy makers and the general public - a setting for it as dramatic as the Red Rocks amphitheatre near Denver, Colorado, which the Civilian Conservation Corps, the fabled "CCC," helped construct. After all, 2008 is the 75th anniversary of the inauguration of FDR (and the New Deal and the CCC - in 1933.) Since the great Wall Street crisis began in August of 2007 the "frame" used to describe the calamity in mortgages and the collapse of the "new financial architecture" has, over the months, increasingly taken us back to 1929-1933.

The author has two main purposes for the book: to "uncover" the enormous physical reality that the New Deal built, and then to "begin a reappraisal of this investment." But this is no mere exercise in list making. The first chapter, "Public Works in American History" gives us the big picture on what the government built in the 19th and early 20th century and the shifting ideological perspectives used to justify the activities - and how they were paid for. Then, chapter by chapter we are given gracefully written summaries of each of the major New Deal public works agencies, starting with the CCC. It could have been dry, like much of the "alphabet program" coverage in other texts, but it's not: we get succinct and illuminating portraits of the major guiding personalities - from the well known Harold Ickes and Harry Hopkins to the lesser known Robert Fechner, who directed the CCC. And we get a sense of what made the architecture unusual (and outstanding, in some cases) for its time - and enduring, because much of what was built continues in public service today, three quarters of a century later.

So what did they build? Here's just a brief glimpse of the massive efforts: from the CCC: 46,854 bridges...3 billion trees planted; 204 lodges and museums...3,980 historic structures restored; from the Works Progress Administration: 572,000 miles of roads; 78,000 new bridges; 8,000 new parks; 226 hospitals; 2,700 firehouses....350 new airports and on and on for other agencies.

Here's one of my favorite passages, to give you a sense of the author's style, a description of just one project from the 2nd chapter: "Monuments of our Spanish colonial heritage were returned to our notice by the CCC. La Purisima Mission near Lompoc, California, was lovingly rebuilt brick by brick using original adobe construction. Members of the company, `a bunch of Brooklyn toughs,' cried when they left it."

The book has surprises for every reader, of every political persuasion. Try some of these on for what the New Deal left us: from the WPA: San Antonio's River Walk; Timberline Lodge, Mt. Hood, Oregon; from the PWA: Central Park Zoo & Triborough Bridge in New York, the Cow Palace and Bay Bridge, San Francisco; at the Citadel military school in Charlestown, S.C., a chapel, a barracks building and officer's quarters...; the Orange Bowl in Miami, Fort Knox, the Key West Highway; and yes, with a great deal of irony, the terminal building at Washington National (now Reagan) airport in DC; and the carriers whose names would be etched in memories of the Pacific naval war to come, USS Enterprise and Yorktown; from the CCC: the beginnings of Camp David, Maryland and the full Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway, with some help from other New Deal programs. And on and on they go...places familiar to every ear...but whose origins seem to have been forgotten.

There is no drop off in clarity in the second half of the book, with its chapters on the "reappraisal" of what had been built, looked at through the focus of a surprisingly contemporary policy lens, as suggested by the titles: Economic Stimulus, Public Jobs, Federalism and the Paradox of Pork. Whether lay citizen, professional historian or economist looks at these chapters, they will not be disappointed. Leighninger tells us in the final one that since the 1930's there have been only two other comparable public works projects, and both were justified by national defense rationales: Ike's interstate highway system and the space program of JFK. He comments that "no other program of public building since then has involved the nation as a whole and taken place in the public eye. As local public works were split from a sense of national purpose, another division developed - a political one. Conservative leaders, while continuing to support defense spending, became increasingly hostile to domestic spending." And even more hostile to the concept of public jobs, the title for Chapter 11.

Chapter 11 ought to be required reading for the 2008 Presidential candidates, as well as the press corps which questions them so shallowly. Leighninger takes his New Deal job discussion right up to the present, covering CETA and Job Corps and subsequent green conservation corps "variations." His most penetrating insight is this: "when unemployment is seen as everyone's problem, its economic aspects take prominence" over its social ones, and acceptance of public job programs rises. "When unemployment is seen as a problem for certain groups different from the rest of us..." then public support vanishes. I don't think I've ever read such a cogent and fluid public employment analysis done in just 14 pages.

It's a given that one of the attack lines from conservatives is that public works invite corruption - despite the fact the Hopkins and Ickes did a great job in making sure that these New Deal programs were largely corruption free. That's a story in itself inside this book. And well told. The New Deal managed to give federal guidance, oversight and funding while preserving local input and direct participation for an amazing array of infrastructure projects, everything from water treatment plants to murals in new post offices. Comparing the sorry tale of federal involvement in Katrina and the Gulf Coast in 2005 to Hopkins' and Ickes' guidance in the 1930's - I'll take the old New Deal anytime.

And that's why this book is so important. It's hard to pick up a major paper today in 2008 without encountering calls for increased infrastructure spending, much of it centered around a new green Apollo-type project to fight Global Warming, including a proposal by James Galbraith for a National Infrastructure Bank. Many are saying: enough with the pyramid schemes and hedge funds on Wall Street - give us the investments that actually build what we need. And on that note, here's how the author closes out his remarkable book:

"The New Deal, in a very short period of time, contributed a tremendous amount to the nation's public life in the form of physical and cultural infrastructure. That investment paid dividends for many decades thereafter and in many cases is still paying back. That should be remembered in times when commitment to public life ebbs and belief rises that we simply cannot afford to invest. There was a time in our history when people found ways to combat despair by building for the future. The evidence is all around us."

Perhaps that time is here again.

William R. Neil
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enduring physical accomplishments of New Deal recovery programs with sage thinking for todays Economic Stimulus policymakers, December 12, 2008
Roger H. Anderson (Brimfield, MA, USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal (Social Problems and Social Issues (Univ of South Carolina)) (Paperback)
Why has this book not been given more publicity given today's economic mess? It could not be more timely nor more targeted to what needs to be considered as part of a new Economic Stimulus package. Although the title - rather bland - and the authors background, a sociologist and academic from a western university (read not Harvard, Princeton et. al.) may have contributed to this, there are simply too many nuggets of wisdom enclosed for contemporary public policymakers not to take it seriously (note to President-elect Obama who I support completely: Economists don't have all the answers, and a multi-disciplinary view is essential in today's silo infested but intractably tied-in world).

Mr. Leighninger reviews all the major New Deal job and infrastructure programs and accomplishments in well-written layman's terms, avoiding the data analysis laden presentation that puts most readers to sleep. He is honest about the mixed record of several of the programs, but doesn't aim for a detailed review of these, including the politics, preferring to cover the essential bases and move on (if the reader wants some hairy details, I recommend Robert Caro's seminal work on Robert Moses, The Power Broker). In part one, he is very effective in demonstrating how the programs wrought long-term physical and other benefits that most of us never associate with them. Clearly, the New Dealers gave us much more than the short-term recovery policies that they were mainly targeting.

Where the book really shines, however, is the part two discussion of policy issues germane to the New Deal programs and those federal government efforts targeted to public sector job creation/retention and general economic stimulus since then. If anyone were to sit down with a blank sheet of paper to create an economic stimulus package for today's economy, it would behoove them to read and take careful notes of past efforts as lessons learned. Sure, things are more complex today, and information technology, energy and the environment play a role that never had the same weight or impact before. Government structure and interrelationships, legal issues, economic laws, politicians and politics, and social/economic pressure groups, however, haven't really changed that much, (to use the lyrics from As Time Goes By: "It's still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die").

What are the lessons learned applicable for today? The dozen points listed below represent my best efforts to summarize Leighninger's reasoned assessments of public program and policy stimulus history: 1) Boldness is preferable to hesitancy, and a willingness to experiment, even knowing than some things won't work out, is desireable; 2) In times of national economic stress, stimulation of consumption is priority number one; 3) In times of economic stress, supply side economic carrots or moral suasion to financial and business entities don't really provide much of an impact because they are too risk adverse to plow much money into investment and production until they see consumption start to recover; 4) Tax cuts to middle class, debt-laden consumers, likewise, aren't likely to stimulate much either, it being preferable to get money into the hands of the lowest income segments who will spend it immediately rather than pay off debts or save; 5) Lowest income consumers must be reached by means other than tax cuts, since many don't pay taxes to begin with, hence job programs; 6) Only government spending is the sure way to stimulate demand in economically stressful times; 7) The GI Bill of Rights, which had tremendous impact on post-war American society, is an applicable model to consider, in modified form, to non-veteran groups; 8) Stimulus programs enacted have to be allowed to run for awhile for people involved in them to really be positively impacted, thus design for short-term and longer term benefits; 9) Stress the economic and national security benefits of stimulus programs rather than the social and political ones; 10) Haste in assembling and executing stimulus programs will result in undesireable social, economic and legal costs (ie. inefficiency, graft, potential competition with existing public and private sector jobs, make-work aspects), and this accountability expectation must be built into the stimulus equation; 11) Cooperative federalism with state, local, and public authority entities, all with financial and other commitments to stimulus programs, and fiscal centralization combined with administrative decentralization, seems to work best (Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway is a private sector model); 12) Publicly appointed commissions delegated from Congress with real authority and responsibility, such as those used to determine military base closings in the 1990's, are very effective in providing openess to the process, and keeping some control on the use of political earmarks and pork-barrel spending, largely hidden from public view.

I highly recommend this book to anyone - lay or official policymaker - who is interested in this topic.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Puts New Deal Public Investments in Historical Context and Shows the Payoffs, April 6, 2009
This review is from: Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal (Social Problems and Social Issues (Univ of South Carolina)) (Paperback)
The New Deal investmented considerably in the infrastructure, and this book details the incredible number of various projects and the long-term payoffs. This is probably the best book for the subject and has valuable lessons for today.

This book also makes the point that public investments have long been a part of the American tradition, including canals and bridges in the early days, education, and the Interstate Highway system.

Other interesting books to consider on the general subject include:

Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956

The New Dealers: Power Politics in the Age of Roosevelt

The New Deal and the West

The Roads That Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System

American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work.
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