On Fixing Things

There are not many alive who remember the thirties and the Great Depression. Not many can tell us how it felt and how it really looked and even of how it smelled and sounded to live through those hard times day to day, year after year. Those of us now in our sixties – all of us, one by one, stepping back from the hurly-burly to cash in our chips, if we have any left, and finally do what we want, now that we can’t – have only what our late parents told us of those times. And we know the best history is in the personal stories, in the tall tales and anecdotes, even if it’s not the whole picture. Studs Terkel knew this – that oral history is where the truth lies – not in the big overall picture from the history books, which is all conclusions, and thus secondary. The big picture – a concept and not fact – is made up of all the little pixels that are the actual facts of the matter. Specific things happened to real people, and they did what they did in response. And any personal account of that is disappearing. We’re left with pictures of pictures of the dustbowl migrants and the hazy memory of some story one of our parents reluctantly told us many decades ago, if they did. And there is the cultural debris – old Busby Berkley movies – the Forgotten Man and We’re In the Money – and Fred and Ginger dancing in the dark. That’s about it.

But some things are more solid. They don’t disappear. Down the hill at Melrose and Gower the old RKO Globe is still there, above the studios where Fred and Ginger danced in an imaginary foggy London and an imaginary sunny Rio – it’s now part of Paramount and where the Star Trek shows and movies were shot and now where they tape Doctor Phil being all earnest about your problems. But it is still there.

But what really lasted was the WPA stuff. Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Project Administration was the government’s response to the collapse of the economy. With tens of millions unemployed, perhaps a quarter of the workforce or more, people needed jobs – or they’d starve. And too, if no one had money to spend we’d never get out of this mess, would we? Hey, there’d be no point in making anything if there is no one able to buy what you made, so why make anything? The economy had come to a dead stop.

So the idea was to build things – roads, bridges, libraries, schools, dams or whatever. The government would foot the bill for all this, and yes, that meant massive deficit spending. But at least this would unlock the paralyzed economy – no one else would dare ramp up and hire people to make things, as at that time no one could buy much of anything. And we’d get good stuff that would be quite useful and last a long time – along with new millions of working folks with some money in the pockets, who’d buy things. And that would mean others would make things for them to buy, and the private economy would finally return from the dead.

It was an interesting theory – classic Keynesian stuff – when pure private capitalism collapses under its own weight and dies, well, you do this kind of socialist thing. The government steps in and acts as employer of last resort. And it also is, due to the circumstances, the only possible customer for goods and services left standing. So the government steps in and plays both those roles until at least some money is flowing through the system again and making commerce of any sort possible. Then the government slowly steps back and lets private enterprise, now beginning to function again, barely, regroup and rebuild and gather momentum until it snowballs into an avalanche of wealth and prosperity for everyone. At that point everyone says government is stupid and oppressive, and private-enterprise capitalism is golly-gosh wonderful and should be left to work its magic to make us all happy and rich, and free from ham-handed big government doing things it shouldn’t be doing.

Then it all collapses again and we go though the cycle again. We’re getting good at this. And we’re in that point in the cycle where we’re hearing the first sounds from the golly-gosh cheerleaders for pure private enterprise. The government is stupid and oppressive and it’s time to let us have the keys to the car again. And of course Obama is resisting:

So after they drove the car into the ditch, made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back, now they want the keys back. You can’t drive! We don’t want to have to go back into the ditch! We just got the car out! … No!

It might be better just to point out the WPA stuff still standing – like, out here, the cool astronomers up at the Griffith Park Observatory or even a snazzy swimming pool down in El Segundo. There are tens of thousands of such things all around the country. Each is a quote solid rebuke of the idea the government is good for nothing.

But we never went full-on WPA this time, we just got the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus bill – the idea we’d spend seven hundred billion on infrastructure projects and education, energy, homeland security and law enforcement. The Republicans protested, saying big government is stupid and oppressive and the only thing that ever worked to stimulate the economy was big tax cuts so private enterprise had all that extra money to run their businesses – and FDR was a fool who made things worse and actually created the Great Depression. So Obama said fine – half of the seven hundred billion will be tax cuts. In the end the whole thing was a compromise that wouldn’t do much.

But out here it took an odd turn, and they warned us about it last New Year’s Eve:

The Sunset Boulevard “strip” has not been repaved since the thirties. So it’s possible there may be gum deposited there by movie stars who once frequented the Strip, like Humphrey Bogart, Greta Garbo or even regal Shakespearean actor and unlikely gum-smacker, Sir Laurence Olivier.

Beginning on Monday, the city of West Hollywood will begin giving the Sunset Strip – its roadway and sidewalks – its first face-lift since it was converted from a dirt road.

City officials and business owners say they hope the touch-up will not only spiff up, but also help enliven a boulevard that has been challenged in recent years by outside competitors and the tattered economy.

“It’s the heart of rock ‘n’ roll,” said Mikeal Maglieri, the owner of the Whisky a Go-Go and the Rainbow Room. “This is sort of a revitalization in tough economic times. I think it’s good for business. It’s a face-lift. It’s a rejuvenation. It needs to be done.”

Of course the Senate Republican leadership put this particular project on its hit list. They said it was “a free million-dollar nose job from Uncle Sam.” Yeah, well, those of us who live here will attest this is a strange neighborhood. But the last time this bit of roadway was paved was when Los Angeles County replaced the original dirt road with concrete during the Great Depression. And we’re talking 1.6 miles of the Strip between Sierra Drive and Harper Avenue will be repaved and spruced up at a cost of about five and a half million, including a little more than a million in federal stimulus money, and no more than that. And it will be done in about six months, in time for the Sunset Strip Music Festival in August. It’s a pain – traffic is a mess and there’s a fine coat of dust on everything here by noon every day, but in the great scheme of things, this is no big deal.

But of course it’s the symbolism of the thing:

Beyond its commercial uses, the Strip has always had a strong residential component. The list of one-time residents is a who’s who of Hollywood: Paris Hilton was living on Kings Road in 2007 when she spent time in jail for breaking parole. Lindsey Lohan ran up a $1 million tab when she lived in the Chateau Marmont Hotel a few years ago. Clark Gable once lived at the Marmont, too. It was there that he romanced Jean Harlow while she was on her honeymoon. John Wayne lived in an apartment at the Sunset Tower, as did the gangster Bugsy Siegel until his arrest there in 1944 for bookmaking. Bette Davis spent her later years in the Colonial House Apartments on Havenhurst Drive. Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who was married to someone else, secretly shared a bungalow on director George Cukor’s Cordell Avenue estate. Marilyn Monroe rented an apartment on DeLongpre Ave. after her split with Joe DiMaggio. Cary Grant and Randolph Scott lived together on the Strip for many years in the 1930s. But hands down the most famous resident of the Strip has to be Ronald Reagan, who lived in three different places along the boulevard before, during and after his marriage to Jane Wyman.

Oh, the irony! And for the record, the congressman who represents the Strip is Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The Republicans hate him, what with all his wonky questions about who is cheating whom. And the senators involved are both Democrats – Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. But the key here is Laura Chick – and yes, that’s a cool name. Take it from someone who used to work for Candy Nunn. We do names right out here in LA.

But Laura Chick has been a big gun in LA politics, a longtime city councilwoman and the Los Angeles City Controller – she’s one smart chick. And when Obama signed the Federal Recovery Act, our Governor Schwarzenegger turned to her to be the first-in-the-nation Inspector General to oversee the more than fifty billion in economic stimulus dollars that California is receiving. Schwarzenegger may be a Republican, and a second-rate actor who specialized in playing that killer robot from the future, but this might have been a good move. She signed off on this.

But now she’s hedging on the effectiveness of this WPA-lite stuff. In the Washington Post, Harold Meyerson reports on that and why it hasn’t been possible to use public works to counter massive unemployment in construction, and wouldn’t have been possible even had more funds been appropriated:

What happened? Big government – spending, that is – ran into good government – regulation, competitive bidding, environmental safeguards, the works. “To be shovel-ready is much more complicated now than it was in 1933,” says Laura Chick, the former Los Angeles city controller (and a liberal Democrat) whom Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed as the state’s inspector general of stimulus spending. “Environmental-impact reviews, historic-preservation safeguards, unionization of government workers – these are good things, but they’ve changed the way government can operate. Plus which, the federal government said, ‘We’ll give you a ton of money, and we want you to spend it faster – and better.’ There are no exemptions from regulations that came with the stimulus funds. They didn’t waive the requirement for competitive bidding; they stressed competitive bidding.”

She continues, “You can’t just build a new bridge. You’ve got to do environmental-impact reports, you have to open up the decision to community input, you face potential lawsuits. I’m not saying concern for environmental impacts should go away, but it makes it harder to deal with an economic crisis.”

And Matthew Yglesias says there are two lessons to learn from this:

One is that I think we need some more real talk about environment-impact reports and community input – it’s good that we no longer do infrastructure projects with a total disregard for these things, but there’s a real need to transform these processes into something more streamlined that takes a finite and knowable amount of time.

The other is that we need to work much better on our automatic stabilizers. The paradox of ARRA is that even though the stimulus package was sort of enormous, in the aggregate there’s been no net public sector stimulus whatsoever once you take state and local government into account.

Ah, we don’t bail out the states, so even when we build things, eventually, the net gain is next to nothing, as they go broke:

What’s needed for future downturns is some kind of fairly automatic mechanism to prevent this state and local contractionary impact. Recall that this was also actually the big problem with the Roosevelt administration’s policy – for all the WPA-nostalgia that exists in some quarters there was almost no aggregate public sector stimulus until the World War II defense buildup.

Duncan Black, from Philadelphia, also comments:

Yes certain kinds of projects were never going to happen with stimulus money, but there are plenty of on the shelf projects that could have happened if the money showed up. My local transit authority has plenty – not new SUPERTRAINS, just years of deferred maintenance projects (stations, bridges) – as does my local water authority. My local transit authority did get some stimulus money for projects, of course, but it could have gotten more. Maybe the money can’t get out the door quite as fast as we would like, but it can get out there fast enough.

But, regarding Yglesias saying let’s streamline things, see Dennis the Peasant here:

Isn’t it fun to watch a liberal weenie squirm when he is inconvenienced by the chewy goodness that is “good government.” Hey, Matty! You wanted this, and now you’re getting it. How’s that working out?

Yep, get rid of government. Then there’d be no problem. Yes, we’re in that part of the cycle when the golly-gosh cheerleaders for pure private enterprise are popping up all over.

But it’s all in how you see what will fix things. Steve Benen reports:

It’s been a little under the radar this week, but a key policy dispute is unfolding over federal aid to prevent teacher layoffs.

As states and municipalities continue to struggle with budget shortfalls, schools are being forced to let teachers go. Last year’s stimulus bill saved over 400,000 teaching jobs, but it’s a new year, and it will take another effort to prevent a massive number of teacher layoffs.

Estimates vary, but … we’re talking about 100,000 to 300,000 job losses in public schools nationwide.

Democratic policymakers are trying to prevent that – Benen notes Tom Harkin, and oddly, a Republican congressman from out here, George Miller, with the White House, all touting the Keep Our Educators Working Act – twenty-three billion in emergency support to preserve these jobs.

But House Minority Leader John Boehner will have none of that nonsense:

The American people recognize that Washington’s out-of-control spending is hurting our economy and stifling job creation, and they’re asking their elected leaders to make tough choices on fiscal responsibility. Unfortunately, the Administration’s call for another $23 billion to pad the education bureaucracy will only make state governments more dependent on the federal government and more vulnerable when the federal funding explosion disappears. …

Giving states another $23 billion in federal education money simply throws more money into taxpayer-funded bailouts when we should be discussing why we aren’t seeing the results we need from the billions in federal dollars that are already being spent.

Benen is not impressed:

Whether Boehner actually believes his own press releases is a matter worthy of debate, but either way, his arguments seem oddly detached from reality. Spending is “hurting our economy and stifling job creation”? In Grown-Up Land, spending rescued the economy and generated the strongest job creation in years.

Just as importantly, what does Boehner think the economic impact will be if 300,000 school teachers are forced from their jobs nationwide?

Well, at least none of them will be teaching evolution to anyone.

But something else is going on. Boehner’s emphasis is on this being a “bailout.” That’s the line Fox News is running with. Benen summarizes – “As Republicans see it, emergency aid to prevent teacher layoffs must necessarily be connected in the public’s mind with rescuing Wall Street with TARP.”

You want to win next time around, you call everything a bailout. People are dumb. They’ll say gee, we shouldn’t have bailed out those banks, but it’s too late to do anything about that now, but, to make up for that mistake, at least we can refuse to bail out these teachers. Screw ’em. The teachers are as bad as the bankers, somehow.

Are people that dumb? Of course they are. Boehner and the Republicans depend on it.

Are people that dumb? Ron Brownstein this week offered something that is hard to believe, and thus no one will believe:

If the economy produces jobs over the next eight months at the same pace as it did over the past four months, the nation will have created more jobs in 2010 alone than it did over the entire eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency.

What? Benen runs the facts and figures, with charts and all that, and says this:

Indeed, it went largely ignored at the time, but the Republican Bush/Cheney ticket sought a second term in 2004 despite the fact that it was the first administration in the modern era to go four years with a net job growth of zero. The campaign was largely about national security, so voters overlooked this painful detail.

And so it creates the dynamic that Brownstein describes. If job growth holds steady the rest of this year – by no means a certainty, of course – the U.S. economy will create a net gain of about 1.7 million jobs. From start to finish, the net gain under Bush was about 1 million.

But Obama did talk about that car in the ditch, and Benen adds this about the Obama administration:

It inherited an economy in freefall, and over 4 million jobs were lost in 2009 alone. Making up that kind of lost ground will take quite a long time, though the stimulus has obviously helped get us back on track.

But in some ways, that only helps make the Bush comparison worse – he inherited an economy with a 4% unemployment rate, a huge surplus, and sunny skies ahead. Worse, Bush/Cheney and congressional Republicans got exactly what they wanted in terms of huge tax cuts, but the economic benefits they promised never materialized.

Oddly enough, these same Republicans think the economy will soar if we just return to Bush-era policies and repeat the same mistakes they already made. Why anyone who hasn’t suffered trauma would find this credible remains a mystery.

And of course that loops back to what started all this. There are not many alive who remember the thirties and the Great Depression. Not many can tell us how it felt and how it really looked and even of how it smelled and sounded to live through those hard times day to day, year after year. Such folks would be useful now, to chat with Boehner and this crew of golly-gosh cheerleaders for pure private enterprise. All they have to do is shut up, sit down, and listen.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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