Designing a New America: The Origins of New Deal Planning, 1890-1943

Designing a New America: The Origins of New Deal Planning, 1890-1943

Designing a New America: The Origins of New Deal Planning, 1890-1943

Designing a New America: The Origins of New Deal Planning, 1890-1943


IN THE UNITED STATES, the idea of national planning has long been understood as a product of the Great Depression, part of the more general expansion of federal authority that characterized the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Yet as Patrick D. Reagan shows in this well-researched study, the origins of New Deal planning reach back much further than that. Beginning as early as 1890, a combination of intellectual and institutional developments -- from the emergence of the social sciences as a guide to rational management to the reform efforts of the 1920s -- prepared the way for the creation of the National Resources Planning Board (NRPB) in 1933.

Reagan centers much of his analysis on the careers of five individuals who served on the NRPB during its ten years of existence: city and regional planner Frederic A. Delano; political scientist Charles E. Merriam; economist Wesley Clair Mitchell; business leader Henry S. Dennison; and philanthropic manager Beardsley Ruml. Drawing on their experiences in Progressive politics, mobilization for World War I, and the reform initiatives of the 1920s, these men steadily expanded the scope of national planning as advisers to the Roosevelt administration. During the Depression they joined in key debates over economic policy and executive branch reorganization, and during World War II they helped with plans for economic mobilization and proposed a vision for postwar America.

Although abolished by Congress in 1943, the NRPB remains a symbol not only of New Deal hopes and ambitions but of an enduring if ambivalent American faith in professional social and economic management.


We do not have to suppose; we know that these speculations will be met by a superior smile of incredulity. The funny thing about it is that the groups are actually beginning to form. As yet they are scattered and amorphous; here a body of engineers, there a body of economic planners. Watch them. They will bear watching. If occasion arises, join them. They are part of what H. G. Wells has called the Open Conspiracy.

Why should Russians have all the fun of remaking a world?


IN JULY 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed the first and only national planning agency in U.S. history. Over the next ten years, Roosevelt's planners used their individual experiences, professional expertise, and institutional connections to engage in one of the most revealing episodes in the history of American public-policy making. In a short historical span of one decade, FDR's planners created a bank of public-works projects that could be drawn upon as a countercyclical tool in response to downturns in the business cycle. This early economic policy was expanded in the debate over the adoption of compensatory spending policy in the late 1930s that is usually credited to Keynesian economists. The New Deal planners established regional planning boards in New England and the Pacific Northwest, founded state planning boards in a majority of the states, and engaged in some of the most extensive land-use planning experiments in the nation's history. By the late . . .

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