What Conservatives Don't Want You to Know About Government's Role in the Economy

Jun 28, 2011Jon Rynn

fdr-we-need-you-200If we don't learn the lessons from the Great Depression, our infrastructure will crumble, the recovery will stagnate, and our economy will be left behind.

The current conventional wisdom for many in the U.S. is that the less government is involved with the economy the better. But this is precisely the moment in history when more government is needed. Without government intervention, the recovery will continue to stagnate, the economy as a whole will remain off balance, and we won't be able to meet the challenges facing the country.

I have been proposing a different way of looking at an economy than the traditional, neoclassic one. In my view, each industry fits into a wider system, as say trees or deer or bears fit into a wider forest ecosystem. In the same way, goods manufacturing, machinery industries, service industries, infrastructure, and the myriad other parts of a functioning society -- including the health and education systems -- have to work properly in order for the economy as a whole to function, with manufacturing functioning as the central sector. All industries are co-evolving, dynamically growing, concentrated within discrete geographical regions. And it is the responsibility of government to help orchestrate this interaction, or else it can turn into an ugly riot.

But at the root of the neoclassical world view is the idea that the economic system is self-regulating, that is, if the economy is pushed off course by "external" forces, then it will become stable by itself -- without government interference. And yet we know that economies are constantly growing and changing -- that is, they are not stable -- and they are often under threat of recession and depression. That is why governments always have to be part of the solution. They are needed in order to support economic growth, maintain the right structure of the economy, and intervene when the economy goes bad.

FDR's presidency is the perfect example of this. When he became president, Herbert Hoover had just spent several years trying to reverse the Great Depression with market-based solutions, but FDR championed a set of governmental policies that turned the country around. To deal with unemployment, FDR established the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, which was not only designed to employ one fully able member of each household in which no one could find work, but also to build up the country's physical infrastructure. Building infrastructure is what governments do best. In fact, one could say that civilization started when the first governments constructed the irrigation and drainage systems that enabled agriculture to flourish. The United States, like every successful country, has a long and rich history of infrastructure building, without which the country would have very likely stayed poor. From canals like the Erie Canal before the Civil War, to the railroads after, from the dams that even conservative Republicans like Calvin Coolidge initiated, to the WPA that built libraries, schools, airports, roads, and other structures in virtually every town, to the Interstate Highway System championed by a Republican president, the United States has kept itself at the forefront of the global economy by making the building of transportation, energy, communications, water, education, and other systems the foundation of prosperity.

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Partly as a result of his interventions into the economy, FDR was able to lead the nation into World War II by fundamentally transforming the economy to produce military equipment. At its height, one third of the country's GDP was devoted to the war effort, with millions fighting overseas. That's five trillion dollars in today's economy. In other words, even assuming the continuation of a one trillion dollar military budget in the face of no wars of necessity, the economy has four trillion dollars left over to remake itself while providing for a comfortable standard of living for its inhabitants.

Instead of learning this lesson of history, however, our current political class seems determined to follow Herbert Hoover, not FDR. Meanwhile, the long-term domestic problems we face are worse than what FDR confronted. In the 1930s, the US was by far the leading manufacturing power and the top producer of oil; now the manufacturing sector is sinking fast, and not only do we import almost two-thirds of the crude oil we process, the global supply of oil is becoming harder to produce and is shrinking. In addition, we desperately need to eliminate the use of fossil fuels and transform agriculture and forest management in order to avoid the worst of global warming. The path forward is clear: we need an electric transportation system based on high-speed rail for long-distance travel, electric rail for freight, transit and small electric cars for intra-city movement, wind and solar power for electricity generation, recycling on a serious and massive scale, a densification of urban areas, and a more labor-intensive, localized, organic agricultural system. And these could provide the market for a revived manufacturing sector.

Only the government can build all of these systems in the time needed to both save the economy and save the environment. Incentives can go part of the way, but not fast or far enough. Taxing carbon or trading rights to carbon won't solve global warming or decrease the use of oil as quickly as we need them to; lowering taxes or reducing the deficit won't bring the manufacturing sector back. Government-as-builder does not mean government-as-warrior or government-as-Big-Brother. It is possible to have a strong government that is peaceful, democratic, and not beholden to our economic royalists, as we currently are. But maintaining democracy is never easy; the political system is no more a self-regulating system than is the economy. At least we can have a clear vision of where we are heading.

History doesn't care if the political conversation of the United States won't allow for talk about large-scale government intervention into the economy. The path to economic and ecological collapse is paved with "realistic" intentions. If the conservatives can be audacious enough to threaten policies that will further destroy the middle class and poor for the sake of the superwealthy, why can't progressives draw on a rich American history, from before FDR and after, to rebuild a once mighty nation and help the rest of the planet move toward a sustainable future?

Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.

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