Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Reconsidering the varying faces of infrastructure and their sometimes competing imperatives 9: the New Deal and infrastructure development as recovery 3

This is my 10th installment to a series on infrastructure as work on it, and as possible work on it are variously prioritized and carried through upon, or set aside for future consideration (see United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID), postings 46 and following for Parts 1-8 with its supplemental posting Part 4.5.)

I have, up to here, made note of and selectively analyzed a succession of large scale infrastructure development and redevelopment initiatives in this series, with a goal of distilling out of them, a set of guiding principles that might offer planning and execution value when moving forward on other such programs. And as a part of that and as a fifth such case study example, I have been discussing an historically defining progression of events and responses to them from American history:

• The Great Depression and US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and related efforts that he envisioned, argued for and led, in order to help bring his country out of that seemingly existential crisis.

I began this line of discussion in Part 7 and Part 8, focusing there on what the Great Depression was, and with a focus on how it arose and took place in the United States. And my goal here is to at least begin to discuss what Roosevelt did and sought to do and how, in response to all of that turmoil and challenge. And I begin doing so by offering a background reference that I would argue holds significant relevance for better understanding the context and issues that I would focus upon here:

• Goodwin, D.K. (2018) Leadership in Turbulent Times. Simon & Schuster. (And see in particular, this book’s Chapter 11 for purposes of further clarifying the issues raised here.)

As already noted in the two preceding installments to this series, the Great Depression arguably began in late 1929 with an “official” starting date usually set for that as October 29 of that year: Black Tuesday when the US stock market completed an initial crash that had started the previous Thursday. But realistically it really began as a true depression and as the Great Depression on March 13, 1930 when the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act was first put into effect. And Herbert Hoover was president of the United States as the nation as a whole and much of the world around it, spiraled down into chaos.

There are those who revile Hoover for his failure to effectively deal with or even fully understand and acknowledge the challenges that the United States and American citizens and businesses faced during his administration, and certainly after his initial pre-depression honeymoon period in office. And there are those who exalt him and particularly from the more extreme right politically as they speak out against the New Deal – and even for how its programs helped to pull the country back from its fall. All of that, while interesting and even important, is irrelevant here for purposes of this discussion. The important point of note coming out of that is that unemployment was rampant, a great many American citizens had individually lost all of whatever life savings they had been able to accumulate prior to this, and seemingly endless numbers of business, banks and other basic organizational structures that helped form the American society were now unstable and at extreme risk of failure, or already gone. And the level of morale in the United States, and of public confidence in both public and private sector institutions was one of all but despair and for many. And that was the reality in the United States, and in fact in much of the world as a whole that Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced as he took his first oath of office as the 32nd president of the United States on March 4, 1933.

Roosevelt knew that if he was to succeed in any real way in addressing and remediating any of these challenges faced, he had to begin and act immediately. And he began laying out his approach to doing that, and he began following forward on that in his first inaugural address, where he declared war on the depression and where he uttered one of his most oft-remembered statements: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Roosevelt did not wait until March 5th to begin acting on the promise of action that he made to the nation in that inaugural address. He immediately began reaching out to key members of the US Congress and to members of both political parties there to begin a collaborative effort that became known as the 100 Days Congress, for the wide ranging legislation that was drafted, refined, voted upon, passed and signed into law during that brief span of time (see First 100 Days of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Presidency.) This ongoing flow of activity came to include passage of 15 major pieces of legislation that collectively reshaped the country, setting it on a path that led to an ultimate recovery from this depression. And that body of legislation formed the core of Roosevelt’s New Deal as he was able to bring it into effect.

• What did Roosevelt push for and get passed in this way, starting during those first 100 days?
• I would reframe that question in terms of immediate societal needs. What were the key areas that Roosevelt had to address and at least begin to resolve through legislative action, if he and his new presidential administration were to begin to effectively meet the challenge of this depression and as quickly as possible?

Rephrased in those terms, his first 100 days and their legislative push sought to grab public attention and support by simultaneously addressing a complex of what had seemed to be intractable challenges that included:

• Reassuring the public that their needs and their fears were understood and that they were being addressed,
• And building safeguards into the economy and into the business sector that drives it, to ensure their long-term viability and stability.
• Put simply, Roosevelt sought to create a new sense of public confidence, and put people back to work and with real full time jobs at long-term viable businesses.

Those basic goals were and I add still are all fundamentally interconnected. And to highlight that in an explicitly Great Depression context, I turn back to a source of challenge that I raised and at least briefly discussed in Part 8 of this series: banks and the banking system, to focus on their role in all of this.

• The public at large had lost any trust that they had had in banks and in their reliability, and with good reason given the number of them that had gone under in the months and first years immediately following the start of the Great Depression. And when those banks failed, all of the people and their families and all of the businesses that had money tied up in accounts with them, lost everything of that.
• So regulatory law was passed to prevent banks and financial institutions in general, from following a wide range of what had proven to be high-risk business practices that made them vulnerable to failure.
• And the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was created to safeguard customer savings in the event that a bank were to fail anyway, among other consumer-facing and supporting measures passed.

The goal there was to both stabilize banks and make them sounder, safer and more reliable as financial institutions, while simultaneously reassuring the private sector and its participants: individuals and businesses alike, that it was now safe to put their money back into those banks again. And rebuilding the banking system as a viable and used resource would make monies available through them for loans again, and that would help to get the overall economy moving and recovering again.

• Banks and the banking system in general, can in a fundamental sense be seen as constituting the heart of an economy, and for any national economy that is grounded in the marketplace and its participants, and that is not simply mandated from above, politically and governmentally as a command economy. Bank loans and the liquidity reserves and cash flows that they create, drive growth and make all else possible, and for both businesses, large and small and for their employees and for consumers of all sorts.
• So banks and banking systems constitute a key facet of a nation’s overall critical infrastructure, and one that was badly broken by the Great Depression and that needed to be fixed for any real recovery from it.

This is a series about infrastructure, and the banking system of a nation is one of the most important and vital structural component of its overall infrastructure system, and for how banks collectively create vast pools of liquid funds from monies saved in them, that can be turned back to their communities and for such a wide range of personal and business uses if nothing else. But the overall plan put forth and enacted into law in the 100 Days Congress (which adjourned on June 16, 1933) went way beyond simply reinforcing and rebuilding as needed, banks and other behind the scenes elements of the overall American infrastructure. It went on to address rebuilding and expansion needs for more readily visible aspects of the overall infrastructure in place too, and for systems that essentially anyone would automatically see as national infrastructure such as dams and highways. Roosevelt’s New Deal impacted upon and even fundamentally reshaped virtually every aspect of the basic large-scale infrastructure that had existed in the United States. And to highlight a more general principle here that I will return to in subsequent installments to this series, all of this effort had at least one key point of detail in common;

• It was all organized according to an overarching pattern rather than simply arising ad hoc, piece by piece as predominantly happened before the Great Depression.
• Ultimately any large scale infrastructure development or redevelopment effort has to be organized and realized as a coherent whole, even if that means developing it as an evolving effort, if coherent and gap-free results are to be realized and with a minimum of unexpected complications.

That noted, what did the New Deal, and the fruits of Roosevelt’s efforts and the 100 Days Congress actually achieve? I noted above that this included passage of 15 major pieces of legislation and add here that this included enactment of such programs as:

• The Civilian Conservation Corps as a jobs creating program that brought many back into the productive workforce in the United States,
• The Tennessee Valley Authority – a key regional development effort that made it possible to spread the overall national electric power grid into a large unserved part of the country while creating new jobs there in the process,
• The Emergency Banking Act, that sought to stop the ongoing cascade of bank failures that was plaguing the country,
• The Farm Credit Act that sought to provide relief to family farms and help restore American agriculture,
• The Agricultural Adjustment Act, that was developed coordinately with that, and that also helped to stabilize and revitalize American agriculture,
• The National Industrial Recovery Act,
• The Public Works Administration, which focused on creating jobs through construction of water systems, power plants and hospitals among other societally important resources,
• The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation as cited above, and
• The Glass Steagall Act – legislation designed to limit if not block high risk, institutional failure creating practices in banks and financial institutions in general.

Five of the New Deal agencies that were created in response to the Great Depression and that contributed to ending it, still exist today, including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, the Social Security Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority. And while subsequent partisan political efforts have eroded some of the key features of the Glass Steagall Act, much of that is still in effect today too.

And with that noted, I conclude this posting by highlighting what might in fact be the most important two points that I could make here:

• I wrote above, of the importance of having a single, more unified vision when mapping out and carrying out a large scale infrastructure program, and that is valid. But flexibility in the face of the unexpected and in achieving the doable is vital there too. And so is a willingness to experiment and simply try things out and certainly when faced with novel and unprecedented challenges that you cannot address by anything like tried-and-true methods. A willingness to experiment and try possible solutions out and a willingness to step back from them and try something new if they do not work, is vital there.
• And seeking out and achieving buy-in is essential if any of that is going to be possible. This meant reaching out to politicians and public officials, as Roosevelt did when he organized and led his New Deal efforts. But more importantly, this meant his reaching out very directly to the American public and right in their living rooms, through his radio broadcast fireside chats, with his first of them taking place soon after he was first sworn into office as president. (He was sworn into office on March 4 and he gave his first fireside chat of what would become an ongoing series of 30, eight days later on March 12.)
• Franklin Delano Roosevelt most definitely did not invent the radio. But he was the first politician and the first government leader who figured out how to effectively use that means of communication and connections building, to promote and advance his policies and his goals. He was the first to use this new tool in ways that would lead to the type and level of overall public support that would compel even his political opponents to seek out ways to work with and compromise with him, on the issues that were important to him. So I add to my second bullet point here, the imperative of reaching out as widely and effectively as possible when developing that buy-in, and through as wide and effective a span of possible communications channels and venues as possible.

I am going to step back in my next installment to this series, from the now five case-in-point examples that I have been exploring in it up to here. And I will offer an at least first draft of the more general principles that I would develop out of all of this, as a basis for making actionable proposals as to how future infrastructure development projects might be carried out. And in anticipation of what is to follow here, I write all of this with the future, and the near-future and already emerging challenges of global warming in mind as a source of infrastructure development and redevelopment imperatives. Then after offering that first draft note, I am going to return to my initial plans for how I would further develop this series, as outlined in Part 6 of this series, and discuss infrastructure development as envisioned by and carried out the Communist Party of China and the government of the People’s Republic of China. And as part of that I will also discuss Russian, and particularly Soviet Union era, Russian infrastructure and its drivers. And my intention for now, as I think forward about this is that after completing those two case study example discussion, I will offer a second draft-refined update to the first draft version of that, that I will offer as a Part 10 here.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at Business Strategy and Operations – 5, and also at Page 1, Page 2, Page 3 and Page 4 of that directory. I also include this in Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 3, and also see Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory. And I include this in my United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID) directory too for its relevance there.

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