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February 04, 2008


There have been many reference to FDR and his New Deal programs of late and I must confess that I did need a refresher. Thank you.

You are so correct. It is time that we quit seeing government programs as ineffective and a waste of taxpayers money as many times the opposite is true.

Case in point the massive waste inside the contractors' programs in the military.

In the early days of the invasion I was flabbergasted to read that private contractors were suppling meals, doing laundry, and driving. Why?

One wonders if the argument that big government is wasteful and inefficient isn't a smoke-screen to introduce a wasteful and corrupt private contractor who is willing to do the same job for 4 times the cost as the government could provide the same service for.

I am not advocating that some government programs aren't wasteful and poorly managed but in many cases its the management/oversight and not the programs which is the source of the waste.

Thanks for this diary.

These facts were a part of my education (I'm 63) but so many people today don't seem to be aware of our history. I don't know if these things are purposely being left out of the education system or not, but the lack of basic historical knowledge in our general population is breathtaking.

The "March of Dimes" model that so many disease-focused philanthropies embrace is only half (or less) of the story. In fact, as someone who needs funding from agencies like this, I'm often critical of their narrow focus. While they play a critical role in the food-chain of research funding, they act at a very late step -- translating basic discoveries into medicine (and one line of criticism here is that that's a step the private sector is already quite good at). But in the larger view, and to borrow Sara's analogy, it would be as if FDR had taken that 50% who hadn't graduated high school and tried to directly train them for high-skilled jobs. Much better to improve the situation at the lower (high school graduation, college entry) level than to try to jump too quickly from the low end to the highest. In good times, the NIH takes care of the low end -- developing the basic advances that these disease-focused groups can translate into medicine -- but it's not enough, and particularly in the last 7 years the basic efforts have been stagnating. Yet the disease-cure funders haven't stepped in sufficiently to cover the loss of basic research, and in fact many are moving more towards a pharmaceutical-like model where they set very strict goals and discourage exploration.

In the case of the polio vaccine, Salk received funding from the March of Dimes only after establishing solid basic results in working with cultured polio virus. And in fact, his efforts there (as the Salk Institute site linked above highlights) were enabled by other researchers, including John Enders, who had figured out how to grow viruses (particularly poliovirus) in tissue culture -- which is to say, in cells growing in dishes rather than in whole animals. The ability to culture viruses, and what we learned from it, garnered Enders, Weller and Robbins a Nobel in 1954. As usual, the Nobel tends to be awarded for opening up new fields of study and making major basic advances. By contrast, Salk's vaccine did not win a Nobel for medicine (though Salk did receive a Peace Prize, for its effects).

There is no question that public money is well spent on the public good. But, as usual, there's More Than One Way To Do It. My bias is to favor investment in fundamental infrastructure (in medicine, that means basic research; in education, it means teacher training, not salaries or student testing).

EP -- FDR did spend big time on K-12 education during the 30's, but it was a different program. (you have a zillion alphabet soup programs to learn about once you take up learning about the New Deal)

The NYA -- National Youth Administration was a work-study program for High School Students, it paid students about 7 dollars a week for 10 hours work, so they would stay in school. We had, in those days, far too many 14 year olds dropping out and trying to join the labor force, which had far too many unskilled worker competing for too few unskilled jobs. NYA, and some additional programs, took youth out of this competitive market, and kept them in school. Between about 1935 and 1940 the number graduating began to dramaticly increase, and in 1940 for the first time, we graduated more than 50% of our potential 18 year olds. You could also earn a GED through the CCC program, and many did.

But you must understand these programs were more about taking potential competitors for jobs out of the Labor Market, because of the need to raise wages as part of the overall program for re-inflating the economy. One doesn't see FDR's logic as to what programs to propose unless you see all of them against the rough economic strategy for dealing with an economy in collapse.

One can read all about NYA in Robert Caro's first volume about LBJ. LBJ got his start in Politics be being administrator of NYA in Texas.

Another story that illustrates how public programs work has to do with a decision FDR and Winston Churchill made in 1940. The British Isles were being bombed, and the Brits had great fear the factories producing their "secret survival weapon" Radar might get lost. So FDR got MIT to offer to organize factories in Mass. to make component parts for Radar sets. MIT spun it off (It became Raython) but had huge difficulty finding workers skilled enough to produce the Radar parts. Ultimately the MIT folk let FDR know about the problem, and FDR solved the problem by finding young men who had been in CCC camps where hobby radio clubs had been on offer -- yep, those guys had the basic skills to build radar sets. Thus you have a little story about how sending out a search memo for graduates of the CCC program, saved the British Empire!!! And it illustrates so much more. Among other things, a President with enough mastery of detail to actually solve real problems.

As to Medical and other Science research during FDR's years, it is important to realize that in those days, except in the Military, the US Government sponsored virtually no research. The Military did what was supportive of missions -- it had supported Yellow Fever Research, because the mission of building the Panama Canal required healthy workers. The Military signed off on a large number of German Jews and anti-Nazis for special visas over the quotas, if they could do key research -- Rayon and Nylon at Dow and Union Carbide needed organic chemists -- the Rubber Companies imported nearly all of their synthetic Rubber researchers from the same pool of organic chemists. The US University just didn't produce them, in some measure because there were few jobs in the field until about 1934 when FDR and Marshall had a little conversation about what would be required of American Industry should war come. And even if war did not come, FDR thought Synthetic Rubber and Nylon might be interesting technologies to add to the US inventory. It is all these little details, small in themselves, that were the pieces of the economic strategy for re-inflating the economy. Congress which was actually quite conservative in those years (Remember it was the Southern Senators who dominated all the committees) was not at all interested in buying into Science and Research -- FDR had to do it in a different way, which meant a few carefully selected people in State, Francis Perkins at Labor, and Military in the War Department who could sign manpower requests for strategic materials work.

All in all, the core of it is belief that Government could improve the lives of people by addressing real problems. Sounds simple -- but we are coming off thirty years of propaganda that Government can't do anything well. That's why I hope we can get all these sorts of examples back into the hands of Americans interested in their own history -- and defeat the propaganda.

Yes, research in the first half of the last century was largely funded by the military. In fact, on the Salk bio page I linked above, it says that after working as a physician at Mt Sinai here in NYC, Salk "joined his mentor, Dr. Thomas Francis, as a research fellow at the University of Michigan. There, he worked to develop an influenza vaccine at the behest of the U.S. Army." That was in the 1940s. I believe it was you, Sara, who told me that even today the best route to advocating for research funding is in terms of national security! And I think that makes a lot of sense.

My recollection was that investment in basic research in this country really took off after WWII, when it became clear to the public that technological superiority = national security and global superiority. (That argument needs to be made again more soundly.) Old radio programs I still listen to as podcasts support this, from shows like "Adventures in Research!" (imagine a show like that today anywhere other than the discovery network) to the amazing post-war broadcasts written by Norman Corwin: "God and uranium were on our side. And the wrath of the atom fell like a commandment, And the very planet quivered with implications."

FYI, here is a table of NIH budgets going back to 1938: section two, with budget totals. Unfortunately I don't think it's inflation-adjusted, but you can see the explosion from the mid-40s to mid-60s.

Sometime I'd like to confront a "government is the problem" conservative with the words of Republican A. Lincoln: "government of the people, by the people and for the people". If it's our government, how can it always be such a bad thing? How can it be something apart from us? But then, I don't think they believe in democracy either.
I also remember the FDR days and polio drives. I think the press may actually have been polite (gasp!) enough to give him a little privacy. That's different from hiding his disability. Now they don't allow any privacy, they're just overly polite about policies.

The Smyth Report -- a very detailed study of the Manhattan Project was released in August, 1945 -- and one impact of it was to make Nuclear Researchers, Physicists, Chemists, Metallergists, and all the rest absolute National Heroes. As some would put it in later years, the Nerds who actually Won the War. The report noted all the University Research labs that were part of the project, and they got additional glory. I was told years afterwards that for weeks after the Smyth report came out, people were drawn to Stagg field, where the first Nuclear Pile had been built and taken critical. Nothing to see there of course, but people just wanted to associate.

Congress, of course got no reflected Glory, because FDR (and at the end, Truman) totally hid the project from them. Slowly they began to react and eventually re-established a degree of authority with the Joint Commission on Atomic Energy (now part of oversight of Dept. of Energy). Looked at over perhaps 20 plus years, you can observe how congress gradually created a serious culture to deal with basic or fundamental research. The first real public challenge they faced from the public was in the early 60's and that over radiation exposure. It was a major deal to get congress to force the AEC to re-examine its rules with respect to radiation of the unsuspecting public. We are still seeing reports emerge that were sealed away in the 1950's.

This of course reveals something of the downside of Congressional partial ownership of research -- with some frequency bad outcomes have to also be owned up to, particularly if committees fail to do proper oversight. I believe this is one major reason that Congress has in recent years chosen to privatize basic research -- it is not just financial, it is about accepting responsibility for making and owning complex decisions. And Science is a decision area that requires serious study. (We don't really elect that many scientists to Congress -- and many congresspersons are anything but serious students.)

Aside from the Nuclear arena, the wake of WWII also made quite public some of the major advances in medicine that had been quietly made during the war, the most important to the general public being anti-biotics. Congress and the Roosevelt Administration knew about the advances, but plans to ramp up production and release these products to the Profession and General Public didn't exist. Again, how this was done, what the public was told about treating feared infectious disease -- all this is a window into looking at Government Culture regarding Science. In the case of anti-biotics, Government just gave away the patents for all the work done during the war, and let the private sector and the market evolve the policy. We are only learning now that was poor policy, what with inappropriate use (such as in chicken and beef feed) and the generalized evolution of drug resistance. Again -- my point is to look at this at the intersection of political and science culture. I suspect FDR would have indeed released these products, but he would have also tended toward a more strict regulatory approach -- something we can perhaps appreciate many years later. More likely, he also would have demanded much higher royalities for the Government as patent owner. He didn't do give-aways to industry, and tended to mind the Treasury's investment in things.

I wonder if folk have any idea how much we gave away at the end of the Cold War? In DoD we have a small organization called DARPA, (Defense Advanced Research Procurement Agency) that "buys" and then if promising, "assigns" technology patents to Defense Industry, and if applicable, to Civilian Industry. At the end of the Cold War they had whole vaults full of finished basic research (term advanced research usually means this), that for security reasons was just "on hold." For instance our GPS technology -- which we just gave to the Japanese. Why such was not provided exclusively to an American Company, with the widgets to be produced by American workers in State-side workplaces says volumes about current cultural thinking. Don't you think John Edwards Textile Mill workers could have been re-trained to make consumer GPS stuff? Wouldn't that be value added to an old mill town? Those are the sorts of questions voters, and yes at the point of the voter's pitchfork, the Congresscritters, ought to be asking. But that won't happen if people don't understand that Government does fund valuable research, such as GPS stuff -- and at the right time actually could convert it into a profitable industry.

More dramatic -- back in the 70's and 80's DARPA put out a contract to develop a battery operated car -- their interest actually was in using battery stored energy in Military Vehicles, but a mid-sized car was selected as the demonstration. The two benchmarks were 1) a Ford Fairlane could drive 900 miles on one battery that could be recharged with wind energy (battery exchange stations were invisioned) and 2) a Farmer could operate a large combine for one full day on one recharged battery, and the design required one person able to execute the battery exchange -- this assumed the wind generator would be on a farm. By 1983 the systems existed and had been tested, but because of "Big Oil" they were put on the shelf. Only now as US auto makers begin to roll out less oil dependent ideas are we seeing bits and pieces of this research that has been on the shelf for 25 years. But the Taxpayers who funded the research and development years back, don't know they have already paid for it. Journalists don't know how to look for such facts, Too many folk are too into looking at Brittiny's Spear's Naval to bother. But the fact that people are upset enough to be flooding voting registeration offices makes me think that if truth about some of this half tries, we can change the relationship between Government and many folk.

At an ecology fair a few years ago I met a man who had figured out how to run a car on a collection of batteries. It was impressive, but it highlighted to me that what has been happening in the Bush years is that we have left that kind of work up to individuals. People tinkering in their garage in their spare time can sometimes come up with useful inventions, but we ought to have intensive government funding for that sort of effort on an urgent basis. And leaders at the top of government have to really want it to succeed rather than wanting it to fail.

DeanOr, we have invested through DARPA. We own the product if we will only learn about it and make a loud claim on it. This Great Society should not be dependent on garage tinkers when multi million dollar contracts have already accomplished -- the problem is knowing what is accomplished.

Thank you Sara for these history lessons. I need more refresher courses to understand why some programs and laws were created, and by abolishing them we are in such a terrible economic mess now.

Sara, this information is so fascinating. What books would you recommend to learn more about this? Have you written one? Where does one get the info about what studies are stored away and what research is given away?

The investment by the private sector is with rare exception going to be focused on something that will make a profit, and not on basic exploration. Of all places, Microsoft Live Labs is actually a big leader in basic, less product-directed research on the computer science side (they are separate from the main Microsoft campus). And in general, this decade has been good to physics, engineering and computers -- the NSF budget (which funds mostly physcial sciences) is undergoing a doubling while the NIH budget (which funds mostly biomedical) has been cut or held below inflation every year of the Bush presidency. But on the biology side, there really isn't much like Microsoft Live Labs or the old Bell Labs. The privatization there is aimed at drug development, and a lot of times that just means trying out a whole bunch of drug candidates, without going too deeply into underlying mechanism. Genentech puts some effort into basic questions, and there are always the private philanthropies like HHMI that have actually been creating new centers, but for the most part basic biomedical research hasn't been shifted from public to private this century -- it's just been cut on the public side, and those workers have been shifted to drug-development jobs on the private side (or teaching, or consulting, or...).

Carmen -- I taught 20th Century Political and Social History for about 20 years at the University. There are many excellent books on various aspects of the New Deal -- there are really three waves of publication. Late 40's and early 50's you get the autobiographies of the participants, the beginnings of political science analysis, and a wave of conservative criticism -- some of it tied into the rise of anti-communism of that era. Interest again grew during the 1960's with several multi-volume serious biographies (Frank Friedel and Kenneth Davis in particular) and with comparative studies given the Great Society programs of that era. This is followed by serious foreign policy studies -- emerging in the late 60's and early 70's when classified papers were released to scholars. The 70's also saw renewed interest in the literature and culture of the 30's -- many novels were reprinted, some of the Theatre revived, recordings re-issued -- a minor scholarly enterprise grew up around the whole interwar era, some of which still exists. Virtually the entire American Guide series was reprinted by state historical societies. In the 80's and continuning on till today, much serious biography has been published -- I try to keep remembering to buy the Cordell Hull bio (FDR's Sec of State) as well as one quite well reviewed on Sumner Welles. TH Watkins did a massive volume on Harold Ickes "Righteous Pilgrim" that summarizes in over a thousand pages the Ickes Diaries which run to many thousands of pages. The son of Harold Ickes by the same name is in the leadership of Clinton's Campaign.

Very recently, like late last year, a new single volume Bio of FDR came out by Jean Edward Smith titled just FDR, and it is just excellent. (Random House) and for someone looking for just one book, this is the one I most strongly recommend. Smith also did a new bio of Grant about ten years, and for anyone wanting to recover Civil War and aftermath, another recommendation. Something like Smith's FDR comes complete with an extensive bibliography -- so one can pick subjects as one reads -- follow the footnotes to sources, and then pick and choose.

Arthur Schlesinger of course planned a four volume New Deal Series, and wrote three of them. They are widely available, even in used book piles, and are something of the standard in University Classes. Schlesinger wrote early, and of course much was missed simply because he predated release of many papers, and arguments that emerged only as the range of publications increased. Robert Dallak did an excellent book in the early 80's on FDR's diplomacy particularly with Churchill in the lead up to the war with much new insight -- he wrote just as State and the British released the papers.

FDR had his own personal Karl Rove, Louis Howe who dedicated himself to making FDR President in 1911, and literally lived with the Roosevelts till he died in 1936. I'll read anything on Howe. I think he is sadly very overlooked. Howe is, in my mind, the way into how the Dem party really worked during these periods.

Anyhow there are so many dimensions of all this, this is of necessity just a small set of suggestions.

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