During the last great economic upheaval in America, in the 1930s, there were a lot of people out of work, hungry, without decent places to live, without access to meaningful educational opportunities, unable to afford spending on the goods and services that make our economy and our society function.
Then, unlike now, we had a leader, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who ably articulated a path forward based on American principles. We would spend, he said, on projects that would put our fellow Americans back to work. We would build things of lasting social benefit, like roads, schools, dams and bridges. We would create public art. We would write books and plays that would enrich our lives. And we would get benefit, not only from the specific things these projects created, but from the renewed ability of presently unemployed people to again take full part in both the economy and the society.
And the result?
We got highways we still use, dams that still generate power and divert water to agriculture and cities, schools that still educate our young people (I went to a Depression-era school myself, San Francisco’s George Washington High.), plays that ennobled and entertained, murals and other art still recognized as exemplars of their age, running water and electricity extended to millions who otherwise would have done without (Are you listening, my friends in Texas? This is how farms in your state got electricity.), and bridges, including what is one of the best known and most beloved landmarks in the world (its picture, below).
And even more, we enabled our fellow Americans, our fellow human beings, to feed their families, to regain some measure of dignity and self-respect, to achieve some measure of engagement with their own country. We stabilized our middle class. We made our economy, not to say our society, functional again. We avoided many of the class warfare difficulties felt in Europe during the same period.
Now, facing similar economic disruptions, where is the leader who is willing to buck the “free market” tide (that got us into this mess to begin with)? Where is the leader who is willing to say that we need more public sector spending, not less? (Employment is now growing, by the way, except in the public sector.) Where is the leader brave enough to conceive of and communicate an agenda as audacious as Roosevelt’s? Where is the leader who has enough confidence in American principles, and the American people’s sense of fairness and rightness to even say this out loud?
Where? Sitting silent and afraid.