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The kind of imagination we’re going to need

Written By: - Date published: 9:43 am, April 2nd, 2020 - 29 comments
Categories: art, capitalism, Social issues, us politics - Tags: ,

Rather than go back to The Sugarbag Years or start quoting W. B. Sutch’s The Quest for Security at us, I thought I’d use an analogy.

Nothing like a time so tough that you no longer take for granted the many programs, public facilities, and social policies as part of our everyday lives – in local communities as well as our nation – these were created by the New Deal generation. The analogy is the United States.

It’s the early 1930s. America is in trouble. Out of work, out of luck, hard down. Imagine yourself as one of many typical Americans in 1932. All of your hard-earned money is deposited in a bank that has just closed its door. And it’s not just your bank – banks across the entire country are closed. Without access to money, how will you care for your family? Or you’re a teenager forced to quit school to find some job, and there aren’t any. Your family needs kerosene to light the lamps at home and you can’t even afford that.

And then good politics happened.

More was achieved by and for Americas throughout the Franklin D. Roosevelt era than ever before or since in American history.

Social security, bank deposit insurance, widespread rural electricity, the right to form a union, whole sustainable towns, youth training programmes, massive dam projects that transformed both countryside and cities, and parks and monuments across the land, are just some of the visible but taken-for-granted New Deal treasures that they still enjoy today.

Here’s a couple of snapshots.

1. The Civilian Conservation Corps

Here’s one they started: the Civilian Conservation Corps:


It was only for people 18-25, from a poor family, be between 5’6” and 6’6” and in short a good strong body for the work ahead. They planted three billion trees (now estimated to be worth nearly $2 billion in reforestation and erosion control); built 46,854 bridges and 205 lodges and museums; restored 360 Civil War battlefields; built Camp David (the presidential retreat still in use today), 138,000 miles of trails and roads; and fought fires for 6 million worker hours. Also 27,000 miles of fencing, 5,000 miles of water supply lines, and 18,650 drinking fountains.

2. The Federal Art Project

Here’s a little example of what they did.

It was in 1939, and what they did was set up a competition for the best mural design for a post office in each of the states. Over three thousand entries were submitted. Most of these murals are still in place today. You can still see them in Stafford Arizona, Los Banos California, Conyers Georgia, Hickman Kentucky, Leland Mississippi, Flandreau South Dakota, Delhi New York, and in every other state.

Below is a big mural for the Dining Room at Ellis Island.

And here’s the 1936 mural Recreations at Long Beach:

3. The Federal Writers’ Project

John Steinbeck, Studs Terkel, Saul Bellow, Conrad Aiken, john Cheever, Eudora Welty – they all cut their teeth among the 6,660 writers who took part in the Federal Writers Project (FWP). Their experiences on the project gave many of them superb inspiration and material for their own books and columns.

Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Grapes of Wrath published in 1939 is the iconic book of desperation and hope in America’s Great Depression, and it’s the strongest example of a New Deal book.


if not for the nurturing he received through his New Deal project, could Ralph Ellison have crafted Invisible Man, the 1953 National Book Winner?
It helped artists step out into other realms. Eudora Welty for example was a photographer for Mississippi’s state guidebook as well as its writer, and Studs Terkel made a name for himself in the Federal Theatre Project in Chicago.

4. The Federal Music Project

We don’t have to figure that times were tough for musicians. Few had money for a decent meal and fewer still anything else left for entertainment or culture.

The image by Russell Lee from 1940 notes that these children walked eight miles to their music lessons .

They gathered musicians together into orchestras, and plenty of those concerts were free:



There was a theatre version called the Federal Theatre Project, in which a very young Orson Welles cut his directing teeth at the Harlem unit of the FTP. His Black Orpheus received accolades. Welles and associate John Houseman bought radio’s Mercury Theatre, and did a great production of H. G, Welles’s War of the Worlds.

Now, of course Federal arts always gets tempted towards patriotism, but this didn’t stop critique either:


The Federal Government used their powers to fund and organise artists to put powerful expression into all kinds of cultural expression.

There’s more of course, nearly a century ago.

I could have given headings like:

• Social Security Administration
• National Parks
• Rural Electric Cooperatives, including of course the TVA
• The National Labor Relations Board
• Federal Deposit Insurance
• Vast construction programmes that you can still see today

They are monumental national treasures that were created at a hard time when we may have been our best as a nation.

What I’m asking the government to do is this.

Look if you’re going to put $50-$60 billion of debt funding about, for God’s sake use your creative imagination and rebuild a nation in style. That’s why when FDR died, the New York Times said:

Men will thank God on their knees, a hundred years from now, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the White House.”

Now there’s a test for us and the fullest extent of our civic imagination – and for all countries damaged through this.

29 comments on “The kind of imagination we’re going to need ”

  1. Paaparakauta 1

    It might be relevant to quote Aotearoan / Nouveau Zelandic examples from that time as well as more recent creative programs nurtured by government and community groups.

  2. pat 2

    "Men will thank God on their knees, a hundred years from now, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the White House.”

    Sadly 90 years on the lessons he taught have been forgotten or dismissed rather than celebrated but who knows , maybe history will be revisited…and maybe NZs FDR wears a skirt.

  3. mikesh 3

    One thing they didn't do was to implement the 'chicago' plan.

  4. millsy 4

    If today's Democrats were in charge back then, FDR wouldn't have won the nomination nor all those programs mentioned above would have been implemented.

    • Ad 4.1

      That's about as stupid as saying that Jacinda and Grant are mere career centrists with no capacity for structural reform.

      And how wrong that was.

      • millsy 4.1.1

        The Obama Administration tried to sell the Tenneesee Valley Authority, which by the way, the USSR and China (as well as their client states in the Third World) used as a template for their public works project.

        Something that went under a lot of people's radar.

        • Ad 4.1.1.1

          Selling off 49% of New Zealand's previous state-owned power generators didn't go unnoticed by anyone here.

          I proudly campaigned to keep them 100% in New Zealand public ownership, but those pricks in National went hard against public opinion and sold them off.

          People like Wayne said the sale was all mandated by an election – well they just look like the selfish post-hoc justifications now.

          We would have been a lot stronger as a government and as a nation if Key and Englilsh had not needlessly sold off our electricity generators and all the income they would have provided the state.

          • KJT 4.1.1.1.1

            Now that we are going to have to spend billions keeping things going, so overseas owners don't shut necessary infrastructure down

            Sometimes, it just seem like continuous reruns of the same idiocy.

            • Ad 4.1.1.1.1.1

              It's the worst event in nearly a century.

              So far there is no signal of risk from the Electricity Authority.

              We have about a year to rebuild the entire country, let alone the government.

          • millsy 4.1.1.1.2

            Not too sure what prompted you to comment on our scenario, as it is comptely irrelevant?

  5. Blazer 5

    The usual suspects opposed FDR….his response …

    'Some people will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing. Sometimes they will call it ‘Fascism,’ sometimes ‘Communism,’ sometimes ‘Regimentation,’ sometimes ‘Socialism.’ But, in so doing, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and very practical… Plausible self-seekers and theoretical die-hards will tell you of the loss of individual liberty. Answer this question out of the facts of your own life. Have you lost any of your rights or liberty or constitutional freedom of action and choice?”

  6. Stunned Mullet 6

    Perhaps a grand statue of Shane Jones in Hokianga harbour as per the Colossus of Rhodes ………or the Winston Peters Touring Symphony Orchestra playing at a racetrack and livestreamed at your local TAB ?

    • Incognito 6.1

      Te Papa could start a new Exhibition of Stunned and Stuffed Trolls. Note the absence of an emoticon.

      • woodart 6.1.1

        comicbook guy hunched over a filthy laptop "worst politician EVER!"..hah!

      • Stunned Mullet 6.1.2

        Would that be before or after the Exhibition of The Righteous and Honourable Sychophants ?

  7. KJT 7

    Good post Ad.

  8. I hope we are on a major reset of thinking about our society.. It is going to be interesting , politically.

    Winston is probably very hopeful (aside from funding investigations).

    The ACT person is strangely non twerking.

    The taxation union does not appear to object to "business" getting beneficiary handouts at tax payers expenses.

    There appears to be an acrid smell of self interested hypocrisy in the air.

    Farmers , and big business loved Labour back in t he thirties. Once Labour gave them what they needed they shat on them, have continued to do so.

    Greed is the only thing that matters to the natz.

    Apparently the starving do not matter, only shareholder profit.

    Why does a shareholders interest matter more than a homeless person?

    Farmers and businesses are turning up (big time) for govt handouts.

    Where are the self entitled arrogant play ground bullies in all of this?

    (Apparently they are promoted as Media Commentators who know much more about what is important than anyone else.)

    Choose your favourite!

    Martin Devlin about covid 19 is so insightful.

    The media is so reliable???

    • new view 8.1

      Peterlepaysan

      Are you the self absorbed ignorant misinformed pathetic individual that you seem to be portraying. The finance that keeps you alive and your family fed comes from those business and farms. The Government is not a bank and never has been. It has no money of it's own. when those businesses go broke so does the Government. It can borrow for a while to fill the wage gap that businesses can't fill at present, but sooner or later there is no money. There are no hand outs for farmers that I'm aware of. The big difference between now and the depression of the 1930's is that the work force was capable of real work, manual work. Like the work we get Pacific Islanders to do because we refuse to do it. Because a lot of people refuse to do anything that requires effort. Most shareholders lose the value of their shares in bad times. Have you Looked at your Kiwi Saver recently. You seem to be so wrapt up in your anti National bullshit that you can't see the real world only the world that you want to serve your purpose what ever that is.

  9. Jackel 9

    Hi neoliberal capitalism meet my good friend reality.

    Imagination, humans are too neurotic for that. So a shopping list, a critique of something that doesn't need critiquing or a long winded story about something similar will just have to do.

    A crisis of liquidity that would require more borrowing than during the Second World War and the GFC combined to keep things at the same level. Now is that because of a fatal flaw in the basis of neoliberalism capitalism or something less fundamental? Accepting of course that a crisis of liquidity in the bank repo market has been running near parallel to the pandemic which has exacerbated it and hidden it.

    • georgecom 9.1

      Unlike 2008 the present crisis didn't start in the financial sector, it is not a direct result of neo-liberal capitalism engendering an economic crisis as 2008 was.* The present crisis is a real world and real economy one but yes totally agree it has exposed the flaws in the current economic paradigm. The interconnection of globalism has been shown to he highly fragile to a fast moving virus which in itself is not greatly more dangerous than influenza.**

      We already knew about many of the worst excesses of neo-liberalism, inequality of income spread/trickle up economics, environmental degradation, the race to the bottom mentality, the anti-democratic nature of the system to name a few off the top of my head. Few people I imagine had much clue about how quickly or dramatically a virus or contagion could disrupt global supply chains. And in that I do not just mean the distribution of physical goods, but also globalised services such as tourism and foreign education, destination events, trade fairs and conventions etc – goods AND people and how it flows around the world.

      I would imagine we are going to see a bit of a retreat from globalisation – not only because some of the infrastructure and demand will be missing, think the example of tourists and airlines – but also because we will want to ensure we have more control and resilience if/when another shock such as this one hits us.

      *(I still shake my head in disbelief at the neo-liberal apologists who tried to argue the cause of the GFC was a result of too much state regulation).

      **I suspect no where near as dangerous as the man flu however

      • Jackel 9.1.1

        Since about September 2019 the stock markets became more volatile responding to liquidity issues in the financial sector. Initially for the first couple of months January/February of the covid 19 threat becoming apparent the markets didn't respond. They responded instead to liquidity issues. Probably someone big had overcommited and was hemorrhaging. Only later when the virus and liquidity issues were were joined in traders minds did they panic about the virus.

        If I recall the GFC started in US housing market.

        You will make a bad call if you don't understand this.

        • georgecom 9.1.1.1

          yes the US housing market. One theory postulated which didn't get widespread coverage was the spike in the price of oil started a chain of defaults. That idea is premised in the idea of peak oil. The flow on effects to through the financial system where people had lent money they didn't own and others had borrowed money they couldn't repay. Post GFC of course the underlying problems in our financial system have not been fully rectified and the tools used by central banks around the world have contributed to price bubble economics. Sooner or later those bubbles would have popped, like the oil price in 2008 was the pin which pricked that bubble, Covid19 pricked the current financial markets

  10. mac1 10

    As President Trump prioritizes American companies over American lives, we should ask: what matters more? During the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave an answer: “It is an unfortunate human failing that a full pocketbook often groans more loudly than an empty stomach.”

    Millsy and others earlier in comments on this post said that FDR would not have been acceptable to modern Democrats.

    The quote above from FDR came from this article. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/how-fdr-would-have-handled-coronavirus-crisis-139802

    Its co-author is Howard Dean. Some Democrat leaders at least know about FDR's ideals and practice. Howard Dean, M.D. was the 79th Governor of Vermont, former Chair of the Democratic National Committee, and former candidate for President of the United States.

    BTW, the average life expectancy of US citizens increased during the Great Depression over the late Twenties. I have wondered why. FDR and his reforms may be part answer.

  11. R.P Mcmurphy 11

    as soon as the republicans got back into power they immediately tried to roll back every advance and where possible parcel anything and everything out to their mates.

  12. RedLogix 12

    Here is an off the wall idea.

    Given that air travel is going to take a huge hit for at least the next 2 -3 years this is what I'd do if I had the cash. (And the balls of a younger Richard Branson)

    One opportunity this crisis creates is that as passenger capacity plummets, the freight volume that always flies with it downstairs is going to vanish at the same time. And the modern world might be able to cope with much reduced people travel, but there is one hell of a lot of stuff (relatively high value tech goods typically) that still needs to move.

    Right now there are several hundred A380's sitting around doing nothing. They could be snapped up for a few 10's million each. I'd strip out all the seating and convert them into freighters. I'd buy most of them in one job lot to corner the market.

    At present no airline is a position to take this risk, but if perchance I was a govt who owned 52% of an airline …enlightened

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