By Scott McMurray
As the local television affiliates scrambled post-Irene to capture shots of our beloved, broken ocean front boardwalk in Spring Lake, New Jersey, they missed a telling detail: many of the boards were twisted or missing. But the squat concrete supports remain undamaged. If the camera operators had ventured out onto the beach and looked back at the supports, they might have zoomed in on three initials appearing in sharp relief: WPA.
That’s right, the boardwalk was built with labor and materials funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) the historic Depression-era program President Franklin D. Roosevelt created in 1935 to put millions of Americans back to work. For those of us who take a storytelling approach to corporate and institutional histories, the narrative arc of the Great Depression, of which the WPA is a key chapter, is an American mother lode. The source of much of modern-day business and health and safety regulation that reshaped American life, it continues to resonate in the ways in which society and business interact decades later. Do those concrete supports on the beach have a story to tell?
Today we have persistently high unemployment—especially in construction and related trades—and a dearth of new jobs being created. And we have billions of reconstruction work to be done just to return to the status quo ante—Irene followed months of snow, fire, drought, flood and tornado damage just this year, which caused damage across the country. Significant improvements to the existing infrastructure will cost billions more. And, of course, we have trillions in government debt created over the past decade-plus to fight wars abroad and in response to the economic crisis that began in 2008 at home.
The polarizing chill of the 2012 election cycle is already hardening political positions in Washington and around the country when it comes to grappling with the economy. Indeed, government dysfunction was cited by Standard & Poor’s as an important consideration in its recent decision to downgrade U.S. government debt. The debate enters yet another stage with President Barack Obama’s speech to Congress on Thursday, September 8.
Government-funded infrastructure spending is being touted as an important component of the plan. Some of the administration’s political opponents are telegraphing just as clearly that they will oppose such spending if it at a minimum is not offset with spending cuts elsewhere. Corporate America by and large has been squarely in the cut, or at least don’t increase, the deficit camp in order to get the economy growing, much as it was during the Great Depression.
Tome-length histories are still being written on whether and to what extent the WPA and the rest of Roosevelt’s alphabet soup of government programs turned the economy around—don’t forget the recession of 1937 after he raised taxes! And note that the economy was rebounding in 1938 and 1939 well before World War II started in Europe!
Maybe Irene will prove to be a turning point in the current debate on infrastructure spending and unemployment. Small businesses in particular stand to benefit from government-funded spending focusing on infrastructure. Tens of thousands of contractors around the country can put tradesmen and women to work almost overnight to fix and improve the nation’s roads, bridges and railways. The ripple effect benefiting related industries happens almost as fast. Taking the steps necessary to spur employment in the small-business sector is highly likely to increase consumer spending and confidence, which drives demand for a broad range of corporate goods and services.
Did the people who approved the spending on the Spring Lake boardwalk supports in the 1930s realize that decision would play an important part in attracting millions of tourism dollars to the local and state economy in the decades that followed? Odds are, they were focusing on the immediate need to create jobs for the legions of unemployed in the area. The supports were a legitimate infrastructure project with a defined scope and clear purpose. It must have looked like a pretty good investment at the time.