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What's Wrong With Swimming Pools?

March 20, 2009

“Biden to Local Officials: Don’t Use Stimulus Money on Stupid Ideas.” I saw that headline the other day and said to myself, President Obama has found his Harry Hopkins. Hopkins was the head of the Works Progress Administration under Franklin Roosevelt. He was as famous in his day as Biden is now for the kind of impolitic off-the-cuff remarks that landed him in hot water with the press and political opponents. “Don’t use money on stupid ideas,” is just the kind of thing Harry Hopkins would have said.

But then Biden went on to say, “No swimming pools, no tennis courts, no golf courses, no Frisbee parks.” This even if officials can document that the project will create jobs quickly, generate revenue, and keep people working over the long term, according to David Alexander on Reuters.com. “It’s got to pass the smell test, folks,” he quoted the vice president.

Granted, the opponents of Roosevelt’s New Deal tagged spending on these kinds of recreational projects as “boondoggles.” They slapped the label on a variety of projects, including monkey islands that were then the current rage in zoo construction, a dog pound with an art deco façade, and park improvements in Chicago. But those projects, as well as the swimming pools and golf courses that Biden warned against, easily pass the so-called smell test.

Robert Moses, when he was New York City’s parks commissioner, used WPA money to build eleven huge swimming pools throughout the city. Ten of them are still in use seventy-some years later. Isn’t it good policy to build something that not only employs people, but also gives pleasure over generations?

And let’s look at the New Deal’s investment in golf courses. Of course they provided jobs to laborers who would spend the money quickly, stimulating the economy. But Hopkins took the business of building golf courses seriously, so much so that he hired the great Bobby Jones as a consultant and employed brilliant course architects like A. W. Tillinghast. The result was public courses that are some of the finest and most challenging in the United States, including the Black Course at Bethpage State Park on Long Island, where the U.S. Open will be held this year for the second time.

The WPA also built tennis courts, stadiums, ball fields, running tracks, ski jumps, and a host of other things that weren’t strictly necessary in the Great Depression, but that we wouldn’t want to live without today. They all provided jobs immediately and recreation in the long run, and in the process broadened Americans’ access to their own country.
Given the current state of political animosity in Washington, it’s easy to understand Biden’s wanting to avoid accusations that any of the stimulus money is going to earmarks, pork barrel projects, and “bridges to nowhere” – all synonyms for the aforementioned “boondoggles.” But Hopkins wouldn’t have backed away from defensible projects. The point of stimulus and infrastructure spending is to make sure plain vanilla work gets done, like maintaining an efficient and safe transportation network, building an electric grid that can absorb future demand, and making federal buildings models of energy efficiency. And it is to avoid funding silly projects that create no value. But that’s only part of it.

What the New Deal showed, to the everlasting consternation of its critics, was that government can create and innovate. The still-new Obama administration, with too many pots boiling over on the stove, has shown a credible commitment to correcting past practices and beginning new initiatives even as it takes drastic steps to stabilize the financial system and staunch the flow of job losses.

Next it has to argue better on its own behalf, not just to defend its economic recovery package or the money it’s pouring into damaged financial institutions to help them recover from their own mistakes. Obama needs to step up the argument on behalf of government itself as an institution that has the sense to tell the difference between golf courses and swimming pools and projects that are truly nonsensical and wasteful.

Joe Biden has potential. He’s got the chops as an AMTRAK rider to forcefully point out the value of public transportation. He’s got the gift of a quick and quirky tongue that makes him quotable but can also make him fodder for the cable pundits and the bloggers. Maybe he doesn’t want to be a lightning rod, or maybe the President doesn’t want him to be one. But whoever it is, Obama needs a Harry Hopkins to make the case for government in strong, sharp, and witty terms.

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