Public works frequently get a bad rap. Ever since Congress and pundits debated the economic recovery legislation that President Obama proposed in January, bipartisanship collapsed. Among their many complaints, Republicans railed against the program as a classic big government spending measure that would fuel pork-barrel projects without doing anything to stimulate the economy or create good jobs. No Republicans voted for the House bill and few have been enthused in the other chamber. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned: "We would like, on the spending side, obviously, to avoid funding things like mob museums or water slides." This is what conservatives often reduce public works to. Back in the 1930s, Republicans lambasted public works as "boondoggle." And often they have some very good examples, such as the notorious "Big Dig" in Massachusetts.
This kind of criticism focuses on examples of public works spending that was wasteful or corrupt while ignoring the enormous contributions that these programs have made to the overall health of the economy. The best places to look if we want a realistic assessment of public works programs are the New Deal and World War II, when federal investment in the public infrastructure created a rock-solid foundation for economic growth in the coming decades. Though FDR's programs had many problems, they were very often free from the shortcomings that public works critics have talked about.
Jason Scott Smith's Building a New Deal Liberalism offers a fascinating history of New Deal public works programs. Based on extensive archival research, Smith challenges conventional arguments about the problems with public works. He shows that through the Public Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration, and Federal Works Administration, FDR and the Democratic Congress promoted a vision of federal investment in economic development that bolstered the health of the economy and remained central through the rest of the century. According to his book, historians have underestimated the importance of these programs to the New Deal. Approximately two-thirds of emergency spending, he writes, went toward the projects. New Dealers built on a tradition, often forgotten, that dated back to nineteenth-century projects such as the construction of the Erie Canal.
Smith offers a catalogue of accomplishments from public works programs in the 1930s. In his chapters on the Public Works Administration -- usually considered the stingiest of these New Deal programs -- given that it relied on contractors rather than government employees and used a self-liquidating model of finance that required programs to pay for themselves -- we learn that the PWA built and repaired streets, roads, schools, flood-control and reclamation projects, public buildings, sewer and water projects, and more. The benefits were immense. The nation's public health was well served, as the PWA constructed over 780 hospitals in the 1930s. The Works Progress Administration -- a more highly regarded agency than the Public Works Administration -- was responsible for the creation of almost 480 airports and 78,000 bridges, as well as 572,000 miles of rural high ways and 24,000 miles of sewer lines. While public works did not end mass unemployment, Smith writes, "these agencies performed impressively, bringing roads, schools, courthouses, post offices, airports, and other improvements to almost every county in the nation. They helped to spur dramatic advances in economic productivity, carving out a middle way between advocates of laissez-faire and proponents of national ownership of industry." The reason that opponents of the New Deal had difficulty curtailing these programs was that "localities wanted their WPA projects" whether Democratic or Republican. These agencies and their projects continued into WWII, during which the Federal Works Administration played an important role in wartime projects and into the Cold War in the 1950s, when the government launched the Interstate Highway Program.
Public works were far from perfect. Smith offers a balanced analysis, uncovering how the staff at PWA was often grossly inefficient and how some divisions of the PWA performed poorly. Additionally, we see with the WPA how political interests were influential in the program.
As we grapple with a potential new era of public works under President Obama, the history of the New Deal offers ample evidence about what federal investment can accomplish during bad economic times and when conditions are stable. The government has a role to play, not just in fixing broken economies or helping persons who lack employment, though those are valuable functions. Rather, the New Deal proves how public investment has been essential throughout American history at creating the infrastructure that a vibrant economy needs.
More soon from the academy.... Julian E. Zelizer is professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" (Harvard University Press) and is completing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II that will be published by Basic Books. For more information, see www.julianzelizer.com