Amazing things get done during depressions

Amazing things get done during depressions

What do all of these have in common? The Arlington airport, Forest Park’s Floral Hall, Paine Field, the Issaquah fish hatchery, Mt Baker’s Artist’s Point, the Green Mountain fire lookout, Seattle’s Woodland Park and Green Lake Park, Deception Pass Bridge and Mt. Hood’s Timberline Lodge.

The list is a sampling of regional assets that sprang from FDR’s efforts to lift us out of the last Great Depression. They were completed by the two civilian armies President Roosevelt organized to put men to work. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) took on labor-intensive development and construction projects aimed at building infrastructure and even put artists to work. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked from military-type camps to improve access to national parks, forest lands and built a range of public facilities. The CCC and WPA were staffed from my father’s generation. I can recall Dad’s buddies reminiscing fondly about their years in the camps Like some hitches in the Peace Corps or military, they spoke of those years as the best of their lives. That generation is gone now.

During the mid to late 1930s they built 125,000 public buildings, 7,000 bridges, an interstate highway system, 8,000 parks and 800 airports—34 of them in Washington State. Critics mocked them as shiftless shovel-leaners but look what they accomplished. Of the public funding, 67.8 cents of every dollar went directly to their wages! That left only 32.2% to account for planning, accounting, tools, camps, supervision and materials. Nearly all of the overhead dollars were paid out to engineers, bookkeepers, hardware merchants and camp-builders who spent the money in the marketplace.

Is such an effort needed today? Much of Snohomish County’s infrastructure is crumbling. A new ferry landing needs to be built. Here and there, schools need massive remodeling. The rail line connecting Everett with Canada is such that trains move at a snail’s pace. The entire Puget Sound Corridor is in dire need of a mass transit system. And we have a growing out-of-work labor force standing ready to do whatever it takes to get a pay check.

It’s an idea that won’t work exactly the way it did in the 1930’s. The WPA and CCC functioned in a labor-intensive time. They used hammers, not nail-guns. Shovels, not track-hoes. Wheelbarrows, not concrete pumpers. A trench that one machine now digs in a day took twenty-five men two days or more. But hold on to the idea. There are still projects and ways to do them that might employ a great number of workers, projects that could pay out the bulk of their budgets in wages.

If I ran the zoo I’d call in the governors, lay down some rules and send them back get input from county commissioners about what projects could be addressed and a measure of the local labor force that could be tapped. How many men would be needed to build a needed sewer line along the east shore of Hood Canal? How many jobs would be created if we re-built the shaky rail bridges spanning the Snohomish River’s estuary? What would it take to remove the unsightly sunken hulks from where they have been abandoned along the sloughs? Or to cleanse the county’s by-ways of junk cars and trash? Installing tidal generators would pay dividends far into the future. To keep things honest, newspapers would report project-by-project figures to show how much of each federal dollar was being paid out in wages.

Is today’s so-called Economic Stimulus Package overpriced? Census figures and dollar values from 1935 and 2009 help to shed some light. FDR’s New Deal programs of the 1930’s spent an estimated $500 billion on a population of 123 million. That’s $500 billion in 2009 dollars, not 1935 dollars. President Obama proposes spending $800 billion to head off a new depression for 304 million Americans. If the two recovery packages are compared on a per-person basis, Obama would have to spend over $1.2 trillion to equal FDR’s spending.

We can’t leave it all up to federal spending. People with money can’t just shut down spending around Marysville. The story about a preacher who lectured his congregation about not having given enough for a new church roof fits well here. He said, “I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that we have enough money for the roof. The bad news is that it’s still in your pockets.”

So it is. My first reaction to the economic melt-down was to minimize personal spending and curl up into a fetal ball. Then it occurred to me that I am not flat broke and that life goes on. The choice before me is, do I let the down-turn dim my prospects for a reasonably happy 2009 or do I step back into the action, spending as I can and giving when needed. Like the preacher said, the bad news is that the money is still in my pocket and that doesn’t help the economy.

The notion that it might be best to loosen up my purse-strings a little came from four realizations: (a) The time-window for doing what I’d like to do (think bucket-list) is narrowing for people of my age. (b) You only go around once. (c) It looks like I might actually have a little more than enough to get by, and (d) there are a lot of merchants and wage earners out there who need it more than I do.

Comments may be addressed to: rgraef@verizon.net.

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