“The country demands bold, persistent experimentation. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something!”
-Franklin Delano Roosevelt
There have been a number of news articles over the past week, e.g. CBS News’ FDR’s New Deal Blueprint For Obama, that liken Obama’s economic recovery plan to the Work Progress Administration (WPA) founded as part of FDR’s New Deal in 1933.
Some details and background about WPA from Chip Reid’s piece for CBS News:
The WPA lasted 8 years, from 1935 to 1943, and left a mark on America that is still visible today. It spent $11 billion dollars, employed eight and a half million people.
New roads were built – 650,000 miles of them. And new airports, including New York City’s Laguardia Airport.
But it wasn’t just about things. The public school lunch program got its start with WPA dollars.
“Attendance increased,” Taylor said. “It was something that raised the health of the country.”
FDR thought people needed places for recreation. So, the WPA repaired and enlarged the national park system, but Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins, the man who headed the WPA, knew there was more to life than bricks and mortar.
“The great thing that Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins recognized was that it made no sense whatsoever to take an excellent violin player and put him to work building a road,” Taylor said. “He could provide, or she could provide, entertainment to people. And enlightenment! And that’s why the WPA had an umbrella over arts projects as well as construction.”
In 1941, Woody Guthrie was paid to write songs for a month as he visited the new dams under construction along the Columbia River in Washington State.
The WPA financed 225,000 concerts, with audiences of 150 million Americans. Actors appeared in stage productions all over the country. Artists painted murals on countless public buildings, like those at LaGuardia’s Marine Air Terminal in New York.
The WPA financed almost a half-million pieces of art. Some are on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.
Much of what Obama is proposing–building infrastructure, roads, bridges, schools, transportation systems, green technologies, etc.–replicates FDR’s infrastructure improvements (not sure about the arts expansion…). I’m not bringing this up to start a political discussion about whether there should be a New Deal 2 or how large a stimulus package Congress should actually agree to–that’s a completely different debate for a different set of bloggers or politicians. My interest here is in why Obama wants to allocate these funds–75 years later–just as FDR did in 1933?
Today’s world is dramatically different, namely, we are a connected society that has all information available at our fingertips. Expanding and improving brick and mortar infrastructure and access to traditional entertainment–though truly necessary in many parts of our nation–at the same time sounds a bit like a throwback from a previous era.
So the question that I have for Obama is this: what are and should be today’s, 21st century, Work Progress project equivalents? What capabilities and skill sets could Obama leverage to simultaneously strengthen morale, our economy, and our American culture for today, just as Roosevelt attempted to do in the 30’s and into the 40’s? What does digital work progress look like?
Social media tools and Web 2.0 technologies are enabling innovation in ways and scale never before possible. Connected individuals and organizations are collaboratively solving problems and creating products, services and processes that are transforming our country in awe-inspiring ways.
Though improvements and construction of physical roads and bridges are certainly still critical for our country, Obama might find that investing in virtual roads, bridges, educational solutions and information transportation systems that leverage the tremendous power of social networking can have exponential return-on-investment.
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