JASON SCOTT SMITH. Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. 300. $29.99. Paperback. ISBN: 9780521139939.

Building New Deal Liberalism is the first book written by Jason Scott Smith, Associate Professor of History at the University of New Mexico. Smith uses the lens of political economy, with an emphasis on government spending statistics, to re-interpret the history of federal public works programs during the long New Deal era. The book’s contents span from the “prehistory of public works policy”—ending with Hoover’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation and Emergency Relief and Construction Act in 1932—to Philip Fleming’s postwar Federal Works Agency in the late-1940s. For Smith, the FWA is the final incarnation in a mostly honorable lineage of New Deal, public-works policies that evolved from Harold Ickes’ Public Works Administration (f. 1933) to Harry Hopkins’ Works Progress Administration (f. 1935). As such, the PWA and the WPA receive the lion’s share of the book’s attention. Not only does Smith list the architectural achievements of these two programs, but he narrates the arguments for their opposition (wasteful public spending, political bribery), their major differences (force-account vs. cost-plus contracting, self-liquidating vs. Keynesian philosophy) and challenges faced by their architects (graft, political patronage, and state debt limits for federal borrowing).[1]

Smith’s primary goal in New Deal Liberalism is to revive the historical reputation of New Deal public works, which he believes has suffered from scholars consistently portraying them as impotent by over-emphasizing the undeniable fact that public works programs failed to solve the issue of mass unemployment during the Great Depression. Smith argues that the legacy of public works was not in failing to fix unemployment, but in revolutionizing the United States’ physical, political, and economic landscape. Smith credits public works with everything from saving capitalism and democracy to perfecting modern liberal philosophy. He claims public works achieved unprecedented success by connecting the nation and fostering economic development through infrastructure and appropriations, uniting the political system across class under an effective liberal philosophy of “tax and spend,” and harnessing the country’s natural resources. Moreover, he argues the successes of New Deal public works could be felt decades after the PWA, WPA, and FWA dissolved. He claims “the mixed economy of the New Deal,” based on using “public investment to spur economic development,” contributed to the growth of the GDP between 1940 and 1973 and the Federal-Aid Highway Act. Most importantly, Smith argues that the effects of public works were felt on the ground by everyday people in American’s counties, all but three of which received federal monies for a diverse range of building projects.[2]

Smith’s economic chapter on “New Deal Public Works: People of Projects?” fulfills the promise of his introduction largely on its own. An accompanying chapter on everyday peoples’ reactions to public works projects in their cities and counties would have complemented this argument perfectly with a cultural component. Unfortunately, several of Smith’s other chapters are awkward, unnecessary, and confusing. Those which dwell on rhetorical conflicts among elites and critics—such as one chapter that discusses the arguments for and against “Boondoggling”— muddle the alleged focus on a Schumpeter-style of stripped-down, political economy. The strangest chapters are those which attempt to trace a conservative backlash against the New Deal, a roll back of the welfare state, and a turn of public works toward unbridled, private contracting. Here Smith becomes an apologist of the liberal New Deal state. He implies that political threats from Democratic organizers of the WPA were not real problems because 90% of the employees wanted to vote Democratic anyway. He observes that the War Relocation Authority and Executive Order 9066 were products of the public works era, but that they were not really public works in the true sense because they were corrupted by private interests and the emphasis on “economy and efficiency.” He acknowledges the shortcomings of public works in regards to environmental degradation, racism, and gender exclusion only at the end of his narrative. Finally, he encourages the creation of a modern, public works program without articulating any reason why one is actually needed in today’s society. This is strange considering his first chapter clearly explains why extraordinary conditions made New Deal public works an historical necessity.[3]

[1] Jason Scott Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 23.

[2] Ibid. 262, 19, 53.

[3] Ibid. 173.