Unfolding the Map
Driving through tunnels inscribed with the date of 1936 high above the Columbia River on the Washington side, William Least Heat-Moon makes a passing reference to road building in a different time. I take the opportunity to compare the time when the highway was built with our situation today, and make a not-so-subtle reference to today's politics. I hope you don't mind. Please feel free to take a look at the map if you are tracking LHM's journey through these posts.
"At Skamania the road climbed so far above the river valley that barns looked like Monopoly hotels and speedboats were less than whirligigs. East stood Beacon Rock, a monumental nine-hundred-foot fluted monolith of solidified lava....
"....Volcanic bluffs along the highway were flittering with cliff swallows, their sharp wings somehow keeping them airborne. High ridges came down transverse to the Columbia in long-fingered projections perforated by narrow tunnels, some with arched windows opening to the river. Above each tunnel the same date: 1936. To drive state 14 in the snow would be a terror, but on a clear day it was good to find road not so safe as to be dull; it was good to ride highway Americans wouldn't build today."
Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 7
At Skamania, which is a rural, unincorporated community in Southwestern Washington, LHM chronicles the following as he traverses state highway 14 which cuts into the bluffs above the Columbia River:
"Above each tunnel the same date: 1936."
When LHM wrote that, he didn't explain why the date is important. It may be that in the early 1980s, people reading Blue Highways understood why dates from the 1930s were stamped all over construction. However, some 30 years after LHM's trip, I think that it might be helpful to return to the importance of those 1930s dates that we see on buildings, road dedication signs, bridges, sidewalks and other public works. I think that it might be important because as a nation in 2011 we occupy a similar place in history, and forgetting why a seemingly inocuous date on public works does not do our nation any good.
1936, if you'll recall from your history, was in the midst of the Great Depression. The United States, indeed the whole world, was reeling in the worst economic disaster of that century, perhaps many centuries. The Great Depression was brought on by overspeculation on Wall Street. Demand was not keeping up with supply but investors were pouring their money into overvalued stocks. When the bubble burst, as it always does, factories closed, and people suddenly found themselves out of work. The richest Americans, who squirreled away their money, were in a position to weather the economic storm but millions of middle class people were thrown into instant poverty. Banks, faced with a run on money, closed up and many Americans lost all their savings. A lack of money in society, especially in the hands of the middle class, kept demand low and discouraged investment and the opening of new business. It was a continuing self-defeating spiral.
The situation was desperate. There was a significant rise in the number of people who were unhappy and who were ripe to consider alternatives to capitalism, such as socialism and communism. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democratic president born into wealth and concerned that the Depression could threaten America's democratic values (and, some would say cynically, the position of the wealthy in society) put into place programs based on the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes (also from wealth). In a depression, Keynes argued, government is the vehicle to jump start the economy because government can print more money and spend it. Therefore, the government is able to, by developing programs, put more money into the hands of people who will spend it, thereby increasing demand and leading to the startup of new business to meet that demand. Roosevelt heeded these arguments, and put into place massive government sponsored work programs for the unemployed such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Over the next few years, the US upgraded its infrastructure. Roads were built or upgraded, bridges were constructed, dams erected, creating thousands of jobs that allowed many families to weather the worst of the Depression. The activity wasn't simply restricted to giant construction projects. Foresters planted millions of trees, and upgraded national parks facilities. Artists and actors were employed, creating new public works of art, massive photo collections, and commissioning important new works for stage and dance. Some give credit to Roosevelt's programs for perhaps staving off revolutionary activity, but economists today felt that Roosevelt was too timid in his deficit spending. Such government sponsored programs weren't the only way out of the Depression but they helped - when Roosevelt backed off on government spending in the late 1930s, the economy fell back into a morass. Ultimately, it was another stimulus of even more massive government spending, this time to build guns, tanks, ships, planes, and ammunition that reopened factories, put people back to work, and started an economic boom that continued for decades.
When you see these dates from the 1930s on public works, it was because of government-sponsored programs and the people they hired to build these works. When I was growing up, I noticed that most of the bridges along the Coast Highway were all built during this time. It took me a few years to connect the dots - when they were built and why. The fact is that most of those bridges are still being used. They have been patched up over the years, but are still in service. There have been media reports about the sad state of US infrastructure in the wake of government cutbacks, and lack of spending on these vital areas.
I also remember my grandmother, a social conservative but who voted Democratic, who thought Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest man ever. After all, his programs put my grandfather to work in logging during the darkest times of the Depression, allowing her family of four children to survive. You could say anything about any other president, but you didn't malign Roosevelt.
Today, we are faced with a similar situation. After economic speculation and a series of burst bubbles, we are in recession with really no clear answers on when we'll get out of it. Spending is down as the economy contracts, and businesses are in the process of downsizing. Arguments range from continuing to cut the deficit (in other words, doing just the opposite of what Keynes argued) to spending more money. However, unlike the 30s, society and politics is more polarized than ever, leading to government paralysis. Would putting into place massive government infrastructure projects, like in the 30s, help? I'm not sure. The US has become a much more diverse society socially and economically. Most adults aren't willing to do the labor jobs that people in the 30s would have jumped at.
Perhaps, in the age of information technology, constructing and upgrading the infrastructure for our information superhighway might serve as an alternative. Perhaps government injections of money into hi-technology projects, putting people to work as programmers and engineers might be the answer. It would also help maintain our security edge, which would appeal to people of all political stripes. Then, we may be able to get data connectivity on our cell phones and notebook computers in remote places even as we plunge off the crumbling 1930s-era bridges that are collapsing under us. What will it take, in 2011, to put people back to work and get money into the hands of the middle class so that our economy will revive? It will take action rather than finger-pointing, bi-partisanship rather than division, constructiveness rather than obstructiveness. Is it possible?
Loudon Wainright III has put out an album called Songs for the New Depression. The songs are in the style of those that were popular during the Great Depression, and some of them are actually from that era - though I must say I like the song on his album called Paul Krugman Blues after the liberal New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winner in economics. Enjoy, if you can, Times is Hard.
If you want to know more about Skamania
Next up: North Bonneville, Washington