After the stock market crash of 1929, America spiraled helplessly into The Great Depression. This was the smothering atmosphere into which Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as President of the United States. Things were so bad that by the Spring of 1933, when FDR first took office, 25% of the US work force was unemployed and over two million Americans were homeless. The dire situation required direct, immediate government action in the form of relief, recovery and reform efforts.
The ‘relief’ part is obvious. People were suffering, starving, and needed immediate assistance. The ‘recovery’ comprised a large part of the New Deal’s rebuilding efforts, including FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) which provided federally funded jobs for millions of people all across the US. The primary goal of this agency was not simply to provide employment, but to rebuild as much neglected infrastructure as possible. To say most states and local communities didn’t have the money to maintain their infrastructures in the 4-5 years after the crash would be a collosal understatement. By the evening of March 4th 1933, 32 of the 48 states (including D.C.) had closed their banks.
In 2018, the Trump administration is crowing about how it’s going to ‘make America great again’ by making massive government investments in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. Those who have been paying attention will likely recall another 2016 presidential candidate who made that very same thing part of his platform, giving it extra emphasis very early on in his campaign. You might also remember how Trump tried to marginalize him by calling him a ‘crazy socialist’.
Now Trump is planning to do what Bernie Sanders had planned; to rebuild America’s roads, bridges, highways, and other infrastructure elements which have been badly in need of some budgeting love for far too long. The obvious similarity won’t be played up by the Trump administration, but the hugely historical precedent set by FDR (another ‘crazy socialist’ according to the political right), certainly will be. It wouldn’t be their first attempt to capitalize on the popular legacy of FDR. In fact, it’s already happening again.
But how is Trump going to square this with his right-wing base of support? You would think they’d rather him shut up about the hugely popular Democrat…the one whose footsteps Bernie Sanders walked in for nearly every step of his career. Never mind the fact the WPA employed 3 million people at its height, and forget about the fact FDR completely turned the economy around in less than a decade, building the US middle class back up from almost nothing.
But no, the comparisons are flying. You’d almost think someone wanted to sell something. Or something.
So the WPA was a raging success, so what? That doesn’t mean that Trump’s plan is doomed to fail, does it?
Well, no, but it doesn’t look good. The difference is in the third aspect of FDR’s efforts in 1933: Reform.
Roosevelt correctly isolated the cause of the problem and regulated against it happening again in the future. How do we know he was on the money, in not only his diagnosis but his treatment? We can see the results in the recovery of our infrastructure in the years during his unprecedented 4 terms as President, but in our country’s economic recovery as well.
That was in 1933. How do we know the problem is the same today? One way is to look at the New Deal reform efforts undertaken by the Roosevelt administration before his death in 1945. Of these, probably the most telling is the Glass–Steagall Act, which refers to four provisions of the Banking Act of 1933 intended to protect consumers’ deposits from the speculative risks banks were taking. It’s important to note that these same provisions, which separated traditional banking from financial speculation, were repealed by the Clinton administration in 1999. This decision allowed the reformation of ‘too-big-to-fail’ banks, like Citigroup, which would go on to dominate our political landscape for the next 19 years, even while directly causing a similar crash in 2008.
Although Trump talks about banking reform, even toying with the idea of reinstalling a ‘new version’ of the Glass–Steagall Act for 2018, Trump’s idea of ‘reform’ is literally to let corporations decide what to do with the money that’s budgeted to the rebuilding effort, which poor decisions by corporations necessitated in the first place. This ‘solution’ is tantamount to letting the foxes guard the henhouse. It’s reminiscent of when President Obama was supposed to restrict the risky activities of banks, or at least condemn them on some level, but instead bailed them out to the tune of $29 trillion, so they could continue growing bigger than before and make record profits.
I wonder which politicians they’ll buy with this new money?
Besides the clear conflicts of interest in Trump’s plan, the main difference between it and FDR’s plan is that the latter was heavily regulated to ensure the most value for each dollar invested. Even though private contractors were hired to do the work of divisions like the Public Works Administration (PWA), their work was judged by a standard other than their own. In contrast, the only regulations which corporations are likely to place on their own spending will be those which increase their profit margin. Their job performance and product quality will likely be judged by the same criteria. What once was a concerted effort to not only rebuild shattered lives, but educate and enrich them with well-built schools, hospitals, and invaluable amenities, will become a race for the best, most lucrative deals, to be fulfilled as cheaply as humanly possible.
As many in the US government have forgotten, our government is not a business. It’s not designed to make money, it’s designed to deliver a service to citizens. Yes, those services cost money, but today’s politicians view that as ‘losing’ money, even when the non-monetary returns speak for themselves. Trump could put in provisions that would regulate corporations in this endeavor, but he’s choosing not to. He’s letting them regulate themselves.
This will not end well.
So on a purely factual level, Donald Trump shouldn’t pretend to evoke FDR when discussing his corporate-giveaway infrastructure plan. On a more personal level, he should seriously avoid using the same foul mouth he uses to mock people with disabilities to even utter FDR’s name.