The Five Borough Report


Five Borough Report   June 2003


Towards a New New Deal?


Kim Phillips-Fein


In his new book, A New Deal for New York, Mike Wallace was inspired by New Yorkers' solidarity and compassion for one another after 9/11. It seemed possible that the collapse of the twin towers could focus national attention on the longstanding political and economic problems of the City. "By making chronic conditions acute," Wallace writes, the bombing of the towers "helped galvanize the will to confront them." The New Deal --which started as a response to another Wall Street disaster -- could serve as a model of a compassionate public sector.

What would a new New Deal look like? The New Deal's creators viewed the alleviation of poverty as an economic good. Improving the lives of the poor and the working class could make the whole economy grow. He wants a greater level of public involvement to preserve and nurture the urban economy.

The New Deal is quite a benchmark. By 1936, public works projects in New York City employed more than 246,000 people who constructed hundreds of parks, swimming pools, playgrounds and the Central Park Zoo, and almost 400 new police and fire stations. New Deal agencies hired artists, writers and actors. Out-of-work teachers founded the city's first public daycare centers. Thousands of workers in all kinds of occupations organized industrial unions. Especially in New York City, the New Deal contained the promise of a vision of a society driven by human need and collective purpose instead of private wealth.


The first New Deal was won only after a century of struggle. It bore witness to a vision of American society that would place labor and the well-being of working people at the center of the economy's productive power. It saw government as a counterbalance to the power of the private sector, protecting ordinary people from the ravages of the marketplace. New Deal Democrats did not make the New Deal alone. It was born of the men and women who sat down at Flint and streamed into industrial unions, who marched on Washington for sustenance and work. This near-revolution was fought bitterly in the 1930s by conservative businessmen, and its remnants are still under attack today -- in every supply-side tax cut, every antiunion campaign.

An egalitarian politics has yet to rise from the ruins of lower Manhattan. It seems clear that the primary effect of the war on terror has been to strengthen every conservative political force in American society. Instead of a program of public investment, we've gotten tax cuts and welfare cutbacks-not to mention a new federal agency free of unions, and the first invocation in a generation of the Taft-Hartley Act to stop a labor action. No politics that matters can hide beneath the sentimental unity of war. The Great Depression and the New Deal revealed deep conflicts in American society that had long been evaded and denied. No matter how remarkable the New Deal's practical accomplishments, its deeper political lesson is that we must to keep faith in the struggle for a better world, even as we are disappointed and frustrated with the current leadership of the Democratic Party.

            -- Excerpted from The Nation - December 30, 2002

June 2003

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