A New Deal of the Mind: The Government's Job Creation Plans Are Inspired by FDR's New Deal. but Ministers Have Ignored Its Most Lasting Legacy: The Boost It Gave to Writers, Artists and Intellectuals

Article excerpt

Just before the Second World War, the Works Progress Administration, one of Franklin D Roosevelt's New Deal programmes, published a series of statistics about what it had done to get America back to work. In the previous three years the WPA had built 17,562 public buildings, 279,804 miles of roads, 29,084 bridges, 357 airports, more than 30,000 dams and 15,000 parks.

Although nothing on this scale has been considered for Britain as we head towards the second decade of the 21st century, the rhetoric of Labour's interventionist approach to the crisis is pure FDR. Ministers seem to be wavering between calling it a "Green" New Deal or a "HiTech" New Deal, but the centrally funded work creation schemes take their inspiration from Depression-era America. That much is certain.

The verdict of history on the New Deal is often harsh. Right-wing commentators in the United States are already warning President Obama that FDR's approach made the Depression worse. There is certainly a case to be made that the war was a more effective work-creation scheme than the New Deal. Even those sympathetic to the fiscal stimulus approach of Obama and Brown are sceptical of the New Deal's immediate impact on the US economy.

Writing in the New York Times, the economist Paul Krugman said: "Barack Obama should learn from FDR's failures as well as from his achievements: the truth is that the New Deal wasn't as successful in the short run as it was in the long run." Krugman goes so far as to argue that New Deal decisions to insure bank deposits and maintain social security have helped cushion Americans from today's economic collapse. His advice to the incoming president should also be taken to heart by those working with Gordon Brown today: "The reason for FDR's limited short-run success, which almost undid his whole programme, was the fact that his economic policies were too cautious."

Thus far, ministers have been surprisingly unimaginative in their approach to work creation. While the government is mining the New Deal for ideas for credit-crunch Britain, it should take a look at the less cautious elements of the programmes. Take, for example, the answer in the 1939 WPA pamphlet to the question: "What has the WPA done in the fields of education, the arts, and public recreation service?" The answers are impressive (even making allowances for the propaganda purposes of the document): library workers established more than 3,500 branch libraries and 1,100 travelling libraries, catalogued more than 27 million books and repaired more than 56 million; recreational workers operated nearly 15,000 community centres; educational workers conducted 100,000 classes a month, including those in US citizenship for recently arrived immigrants.

Meanwhile, the Federal Art Project conducted classes attended by 60,000 people a week and produced 234,000 works of art; the Federal Music Project gave 4,400 musical performances a month, with an average monthly attendance of three million people, and the Federal Theatre put on 1,813 plays. The Federal Writers' Project produced guidebooks to the American states and nearly 200 books and pamphlets. It also collated a collection of oral histories including the narratives of the last living slaves. Britain's leading expert on the New Deal, Professor Anthony Badger of Cambridge University, said: "The WPA was based on the principle that there was no point in putting unemployed writers to work digging roads. They were ridiculed at the time, and there were some ludicrous projects, but there were also some remarkable achievements."

The Prime Minister recommended Badger's most recent work, FDR: the First Hundred Days, as one of his books of the year, but there is a section in the professor's previous work, The New Deal: the Depression Years (1933-40), that should be required reading in Downing Street. The results of the various projects were inevitably mixed. Many on the right in the US also suspected the WPA of subsidising political radicals, and Robert Reynolds, a senator from North Carolina, denounced the "putrid plays" of the Federal Theatre that "spewed from the gutters of the Kremlin". …