The Upcoming Stimulus Package: A Warning From Harry Hopkins

Virtually everyone says that the Obama Administration needs to create a huge stimulus package. Most of them think that it needs to be focused on public works. All very well and good, in my view.

But let’s not underestimate the political backlash that will inevitably follow. The source here comes from the man who should know: Harry Hopkins, who ran the Works Progress Administration in the 1930’s. The WPA is the subject of a readable new book by Nick Taylor, who relates the following conversation:

Hopkins was on a train trip with Hallie Flanagan, one of the pioneers of American experimental theater, who eventually ran the WPA’s Federal Theater Project. Hopkins’ warnings are directed toward the theater, but they apply toward any works project:

Can you spend money? It’s not easy. You can’t care very much about what people are going to say, because when you’re handling other people’s money, whatever you do is always wrong. If you try to hold down wages, you’ll be accused of union-busting and grinding down the poor; if you try to pay a decent wage, you’ll be competing with private industry and pampering a lot of no-accounts; if you scrimp on production costs, they’ll say your shows are lousy; and if you spend enough to get a good show on, they’ll say you’re wasting the taxpayers’ money. Don’t forget that whatever happens, you’ll be wrong.

Whoever runs any public works program from the federal level had better be an excellent administrator, and have political nerves of steel. Even if any stimulus is run through state and local governments–especially if it is run through state and local governments–it will be a favorite topic every night on Fox News.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.