Currently reading: The New Deal, the Real Estate Craze and the Mad Men Era

The economy has me reading about what exactly constituted the New Deal and its signature program the Works Progress Administration in Nick Taylor’s American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA (When FDR Put the Nation to Work).

Before this, I finished the sprawling late-’90s novel Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, which depicts the fall of a grandiose real estate developer in Atlanta. Lately, I have found that reading things from the late ’90s evokes an almost foolishly  optimistic and unaware time, and this book’s depiction of a developer’s gluttony and false sense of self is more cheerful than grim. It is still compelling to read about the seeds of the kind of avarice we are today accustomed to from the latest news reports on investment banks profiting from the foreclosure crisis .

I also just began Kitty Kelley‘s biography of Frank Sinatra, His Way, which gives the exhaustive, warts-and-all account that she is known for. I picked up the book after watching the somewhat vapid musical High Society, which Sinatra starred in opposite Grace Kelley and Bing Crosby. Frank’s marriage to first wife Nancy is straight out of Mad Men (well, Mad Men, more likely was inspired by marriages like theirs). He is a consistent philanderer who is rarely home, and she is a jealous wife who nonetheless acquiesces to her role and wants above all else to prevent Frank from divorcing her. It is the kind of dispiriting story that is best read without attachment to either person.

But back to the New Deal book. As Taylor says on his website, “The WPA symbolized an impulse of government that before the 2008 election was under severe attack. But that impulse toward generosity and human dignity is poised to make a comeback.”

American Made describes a program that was arrived at not only because the unemployment rate was 25 percent when Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered office in March of 1933 but also because he and the chief administrators of the program made no bones about the fact that the government would create a comprehensive jobs program. There was no love lost between them and those who FDR referred to as “economic royalists.”

Though it had its share of inefficiencies and infighting, the good of the New Deal and Works Progress Administration seems to far outweigh the flaws. It left the nation with national facilities, bridges, parks, schools, art and civic buildings that have sustained us since. Although I’m pessimistic a similar program will be enacted soon, what with the prevailing skepticism of powerful people toward the government’s role in job creation, convincing arguments have been made that no one else will.

Right now, the Obama administration seems to be averse to political risk. As Paul Krugman says in a recent blog post about Obama’s administration:

[T]hey have to propose new initiatives that might not pass, and be prepared to run against the do-nothing Republicans if the initiatives fail.

Now consider what FDR said during the 1932 election, as quoted in American Made:

The country needs and unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.


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