It’s Time for a New “New Deal”

New Orleans is destroyed, the Gulf Coast’sinfrastructure is in tatters and tens of thousands ofcitizens are without jobs as gas prices nationwiderise to record levels. Television sets brought thedestruction into all of our homes. But this WhiteHouse seemed unable to grasp the misery unfoldingbefore its own eyes.

Instead, President Bush treated the disaster as if hewere a loutish frat boy when he joked to Americansthat he had had good times partying in New Orleans asa young man and hoped in the near future to be able tosit on Senator Trent Lott’s rebuilt porch in Mississippi.

But to really understand what went wrong with theAdministration’s shameful response, we need to lookbeyond Bush’s blame-the-other, pass-the-buck andwho-gives-a-____ attitude.

The Administration’s ineptitude, as New York Timescolumnist Paul Krugman put it, was “a consequence ofideological hostility to the very idea of usinggovernment to serve the public good.”

The government’s failure was the result not of “simpleincompetence” in the Administration but “of a campaignby most Republicans and too many Democrats tosystematically vilify the role of government inAmerican life,” LA Times columnist Robert Scheerargued. And as the Financial Times observed, “For thepast quarter-century in Washington…US politics hasbeen dominated by the conviction that what was wrongwith America would be solved by getting government offthe people’s backs”–an attitude that contributed tothe criminal inaction on the part of the federalgovernment.

Indeed, you could see what the dog-eat-dog,antigovernment philosophy of the far right has reapedin the bloated bodies and raw sewage in New Orleans’sflooded streets.

That philosophy has attained new power under PresidentBush. While the Louisiana Army Corps of Engineersproposed $18 billion in projects that would haveshored up the protective levees, improved floodcontrol and perhaps prevented last week’s breaches inthe levees’ walls, none of these projects were funded.Instead, the White House cut the Corps’ budget andactually proposed a further 20 percent cut in 2006.

Which raises the question: What steps should we taketo repair the breach that has become so apparent inour social fabric?

Here’s one answer: Let’s seize this moment bylaunching a twenty-first-century New Deal–with programsmodeled after the Works Progress Administration,updated for these times. Why?

A modernized version of the WPA would help ournation to rebuild New Orleans and Mississippi’s GulfCoast, and repair the racial and class dividesthat we saw in such dramatic relief these past fewdays. It would rebuild and improve our nation’spublic infrastructure and (hopefully) alter the terms of ourpolitical discourse in the years ahead.

After all, Roosevelt’s New Deal was so much more thansimply a vehicle for providing economic relief tocitizens in need. It gave Americans a sense of solidarity, a new social contract, as well as the chance to go to work. It also helped bring the country’s infrastructureinto the twentieth century.

Take a moment to consider these statistics: The WPA, according to historian William Leuchtenburg, “built or improved more than 2,500 hospitals, 5,900school buildings, 1,000 airport landing fields, andnearly 13,000 playgrounds.”

When the hurricane happened the poverty rate in NewOrleans stood at 28 percent–more than double thenational average. Fully half the children of Louisiananow live in poverty, the second-highest child povertyrate in the country (its neighbor, Mississippi, isnumber one). And as if to underscore the poverty ofour politics, the same week the hurricane devastatedthe poorest regions the Census Bureau released areport that found the number of Americans living inpoverty has climbed again–for the fourth straightyear under President Bush.

African-Americans, who are two-thirds of the city’spopulation, suffered the most in the hurricane’s wake.As Professor Mark Naison wrote in a letter circulating on the web, this event is nothingshort of “a humanitarian challenge of unprecedentedproportions.”

It showed “how deeply divided our nation is and howfar our social fabric has been strained” by the Iraqwar and by “policies which have widened the gapbetween rich and poor.”

A post-New Orleans WPA could help to spark a new anddesperately needed moral struggle for economicrights. It could provide jobs to Louisiana andMississippi’s poor and promote the goals ofequality, justice and economic opportunity acrossAmerican society.

(Bush’s approach, in contrast, favors cronyism. Lastweek, Halliburton’s stock hit a fifty-two-week high,presumably because Dick Cheney’s former colleagues mayreap the benefits of this tragedy securinggovernment contracts to rebuild the Gulf Coast. Bush’sapproach has been a complete failure for the poor,elderly and largely African-American population ofNew Orleans.)

A WPA-style program could also begin to address therelated crisis of the inner cities–a crisis that, asthe Center for American Progress points out, thisAdministration has contributed to–as it has”repeatedly slashed job training [to the tune of morethan $500 million] and vocational education programs.”

The Milton Eisenhower Foundation has argued that thefederal government should fund 1.25 million public-sector inner-city jobs. (Its website lays out a series of “what work” programs.)

We need a twenty-first-century WPA to restore theinfrastructure not only in Louisiana and Mississippi,but in every state in America. As Representative DennisKucinich said this past week, the task ahead that is required torebuild New Orleans includes a need for “new levees,new roads, bridges, libraries, schools, colleges anduniversities and…all public institutions, includinghospitals.” The government’s highest priority shouldbe on affordable housing and public infrastructure,not on casinos and luxury hotels, which skewdevelopment and contribute to environmentaldegradation.

We’re “the only major industrialsociety that is not…renewing and expanding its publicinfrastructure,” the Eisenhower Foundation reported.Instead of pork barrel spending on absurd bridges like”Don Young’s Way” in Alaska, let’s have the federalgovernment spend our money wisely to modernize ourhospitals, highways, universities and otherinstitutions.

Senator Kennedy said in a Senate floor speech this weekthat “we can’t just fix the hole in the roof. We needto rebuild the whole foundation.” He proposedestablishing “a New Orleans and Gulf CoastRedevelopment Authority modeled after the TennesseeValley Authority in its heyday.” His good idea is to”plan, help fund and coordinate for thereconstruction of that damaged region.”

Finally, we must seek to upend twenty-five years of right-wingpolitical dogma that is responsible for what wentwrong in responding to this disaster.

We need a new politics of shared sacrifice and arenewed commitment to a politics of shared prosperity–with a federalgovernment playing a vital role in creating a fairer, more just,full-employment economy. These proposals are common sense ideas; how could they be considered heretical in the hurricane’swake?

This is a moment ripe to reshapeAmericans’ view of government. A twenty-first-century version of the WPA wouldhalt the dismantling and begin the rebuilding of our nation’scommunities, of lives enmeshed in deep poverty and squalor, and provide some hope that thehorrific abandonment by government ofthousands of citizens will be an aberration,not a nightmarish portent of what lies ahead.