As the largest stimulus package in world history winds its way through Congress, the critics are already out in force. Republicans, such as Kentucky Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, think it's too large and doesn't contain enough tax cuts. Liberal Democrats, such as New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman, think it needs to be more far reaching. And others see the bill as just the usual grab bag of goodies — only exponentially larger.
But the real problem from a political standpoint is that the package doesn't come close to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs in one essential aspect: it is utterly lacking an inspirational component to sell to the American people.
When times are tough and you're spending that much money, there has to be something wonderful and tangible to show for it. Yet that's not been the Obama approach, which has been more along the lines of "spend it or else." On other occasions, we've been reminded that the stimulus plan will bring us great (if boring) benefits — better computerized medical records, smarter electrical grids, more high-speed Internet, school modernization, and better wastewater treatment.
This may fire the imagination of abstract-thinking economists everywhere. But for most of us the reaction is, "This is what I get for almost $1 trillion?"
That wasn't the FDR approach. Sure, New Deal and Depression-era spending contained its bits of arcane improvements. But it also offered a lot of tangible projects that people could see, and thus that people could rally around as part of national recovery — tunnels, pipelines, bridges, playgrounds, airport runways, roads, post offices. The Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, even the Empire State Building, which was built before FDR took office but which captured the world's imagination so much that the makers of King Kong staged their climactic scene there. (Unfortunately, much of that building remained unrented in the early years because of the economic crisis — but we still had the building to admire.)
In his Depression-era history Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California, Kevin Starr wrote how through "the power of public works . . . millions experienced the healing symbolism of collective action in a time of great social crisis." Even water engineering emerged "as a compelling imaginative ideal, a way of evoking and making possible the that could be."
Former LA Times columnist Bill Boyarsky has written similarly how the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam inspired folk singer Woody Guthrie to write, "Your power is turning our darkness to dawn. So roll on, Columbia, roll on."
Hard to imagine a Bruce Springsteen song about computerized medical records.
It's part of our heritage to build big "impossible" things — the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad, the Panama Canal — though it's worth recalling that even the Egyptian Pharaohs who wanted to be remembered built large new pyramids, rather than improving "infrastructure" — a lackluster Harvard intellectual's word if there ever was one. And of course there are basic improvements needed in less exciting areas. But it's those big, creative kinds of things that Obama and his team need to develop to market the program to the country. Sure, there are more environmental and labor regulations to consider than there were in 1935. But they're not insurmountable. After all, we're the nation that put on a man on the moon.
What could the new administration offer? Well, speaking of the moon, a new space program is one. Conservative pundit Jim Pinkerton has already written eloquently how space exploration captures the imagination, as it also develops new markets and new technologies. "The historical record shows that high-tech space work is good for the economy," he recently wrote. "[T]he list of spinoffs from NASA, spanning the last half-century, is long and lucrative."
Another approach would be to create a massive series of new high-speed rail lines on the East and West coasts, across the country, and through the Midwest and Texas. It's said Americans won't ride the rails any longer, but it may simply be that they won't ride the current rotten rails we have. And alternative mass transit certainly makes environmental sense.
Or Obama could announce massive new Peace Corps and Vista-like programs to recruit the young and the old (as well as the newly unemployed) for teaching, day care, and other human needs, and send them into every community and corner of the globe.
The point, of course, is to give people something tangible in which they can believe. In times like these, we need poetry, not prose. If you propose to build something important, they will come.
To read the Stark Ravings blog, go to thePhoenix.com/starkravings. Steven Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.