WPA’s main goal was to make people useful. WPA gave poor people a meaningful way to use their existing skills for money. Men without existing skills learned a marketable skill while building schools and parks and dams.
WPA also taught new skills to adults who already had jobs. The Dust Bowl was caused by poor farming skills. Three new techniques made all the difference.
When FDR took office, he had to fix two parallel legacies of the booming speculative 20s, both of which caused busts in the 30s. There were cross-ties between the two legacies, so he couldn’t fix either one by itself. He had to fix them in a cross-linked way.
One boom was initiated by huge government purchases of food in WW1. Bankers encouraged inexperienced farmers to buy useless land to take advantage of the demand. When the demand quickly disappeared, the farmers were left with a mortgage and no way to make enough money to pay it. They abandoned the farms after plowing off the (already poor) topsoil. When a fairly serious drought hit in 1930, the land took flight, covering up everything in its path.
Even competent farmers on good land had been using improper methods, allowing wind and water to carry off the soil. Millions of tons of topsoil were ending up in the Gulf of Mexico.
The other boom was the stock boom, which needs no introduction.
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FDR’s administration used similar methods to solve both problems.
In the context of soil:
When the wind comes whistlin cross the plain, a line of trees can redistribute its energy. The air has to twist and turn between small leaves and branches. Part of the force is thus turned aside and spent in mechanically thrashing the leaves and branches, and part is spent in the whistlin.
And when water comes rushing across a sloped field, a dense planting of grass can redistribute its energy. The water has to twist and turn between the stems and flat blades. Water that stops for a moment in front of a grass blade has a chance to penetrate the soil. Without grass, the water moves freely and begins to pick up soil particles. As it gets more gritty, its scraping ability grows exponentially until it’s a muddy flood.
But you can’t leave everything planted to grass all the time if you’re trying to grow profitable crops. So you have to use two other methods. Crop rotation allows part of the farm to be in grass in any one season; and contour plowing insures that the plowed rows serve as mini-dams to force the water down instead of across.
What’s the common factor here? Angular momentum. Stopping a flow by using reactance instead of resistance. Breaking up massive linear motion into small circular and angular moves, so the air can feed the trees and the water can feed the plants.
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In the context of economics:
Speculators are like the linear force of wind and water. They advertise a seemingly unstoppable linear expansion. Buy now! Prices are going straight up, and prices have to keep going up up up UP UP UP UP UP UP!!!!
Join the flood while you still have a chance! Become part of a mudball that will help to gather other soil particles! Become a nail that can bounce against the side of a house and loosen up other nails to join the blast! Isn’t that attractive? FUN FUN FUN!
FDR redistributed the linear momentum of money into more useful angular momentum.
Glass-Steagall and bank reform provided a windbreak and a contour. Speculators were halted, forcing money to pause and thrash around in the same place. When money had to stay in the same place, it had a better chance of penetrating local soil and feeding local business. Bank reform allowed money to stay securely in the same place, decreasing the temptation to join big floods.
WPA was like a field of dense grass. Money stored in government clouds was rained onto real workers, who then produced real value and spent their money in local businesses. Real labor created real irrigation systems and real windbreaks and real dams, nicely closing the circle of my analogy.
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And to close off the series, here’s a quote from Aubrey Williams, head of the NYA and author of the report I cited earlier. In response to the usual We Piss Around crap, he said:
To fill his bitter cup to overflowing, he has been ridiculed by thoughtless and cruel people as a loafer. But his day is coming, when all the barbs that have been hurled at him bounce back from the good, honest masonry of the things he has built to increase the wealth and happiness of the whole nation.
AMEN. The WPA quite literally and simply BUILT AMERICA. Nothing else could have moved forward without the MASONRY (and wood and wiring and plumbing and plowing and forests and dams and training and skills) built by WPA. Even now, after 40 years of grotesque environmentalist and Randian OBLITERATION. the stonework of WPA is still our foundation.
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Credit footnote: This set was inspired by Marjorie Barton’s book ‘Leaning on a Legacy’ about WPA in Okla. Online sources are Baird’s pictures and WPA by County, listing the historical landmark documents.
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Poser footnote: Released at ShareCG 3/20/22.