Martin Bright

The Other Side of the New Deal

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Apologies for missing a day of blogging, but I've been hard at work trying to figure out how my idea for a New Deal of the Mind might work in practice. There seems to be some momentum growing around the concept of harnessing this country's celebrated talent for creativity and innovation during the downturn. We are at severe risk of losing a generation of intellectual capital if we don't turn our attention to deciding what the army of unemployed will do during the recession. They can't be allowed just to sit it out.

Like everyone else it seems, I have been reading up on Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s. I can recommend Anthony J. Badger's The New Deal: The Depression Years 1933-1940, which contains a brilliant chapter on welfare. Although Badger is a liberal, he is a sceptical voice, who recognises the scheme had massive failings.

I believe there is much to learn from the legacy of the New Deal in the current circumstances. I have written before about the cultural legacy of the Work Progress Adminstration and I remain convinced that the brown government should launch a similar programme. I was talking to D.D. (Don) Guttenplan, the London correspondent of The Nation about this today and he agrees. He also reminded me that it's important not to forget what New Deal designers, architects and urban planners did in term of shaping the roads, parks and public buildings that formed the more obviously visible face of the WPA. I am very much looking forward to Don's biography of journalist and New Deal evangelist I.F. Stone, which is published in June.

However, I was struck by a rather brilliant article in yesterday's Times arguing against the New Deal. Helen Rumbelow's piece, Be Warned: A New Deal Can Shatter Dreams, is a challenge to those of us who have a tendency to get dewy-eyed about Roosevelt's great project. She tells the story of Maggie Louise, the daughter of a cotton farmer, whose family's hopes were raised by the subsidies of the New Deal only to be shattered by new technology and synthetic fibres.  She argues that the present-day bail-outs of the car industry are likewise doomed to failure. It's a sobering read.