The death of America’s can-do attitude

On Sunday night, thousands of San Franciscans and other Bay Area residents peered up at the clear, dusky sky as fireworks burst brilliantly overhead. They had gathered at the waterfront to mark the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge’s opening, a grand birthday celebration for the city’s renowned landmark.

Leonardo Pallotta

The Golden Gate Bridge as seen from Marin County, Calif.

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As recognizable as it is, the bridge’s historical significance is often overlooked. It was financed and constructed in the midst of the Great Depression — a time when the nation, suffering from 20-percent unemployment and yearning for the prosperity of the decade prior, had been dealt an economic body blow.

In many ways, today’s circumstances are similar. Although our economic crisis has been milder, the hit to our collective confidence has arguably been worse. The Depression coincided with an unprecedented explosion of public works projects and public investment that reflected the can-do spirit of the time, and that laid the groundwork for future prosperity. The aftermath of the Great Recession, by contrast, has been marked by dramatic cuts to necessary government spending, an outgrowth of the do-nothing attitude that has permeated public discourse in recent years.

The long-term consequences of these cuts have yet to be fully realized, but given the sorry state of U.S. infrastructure before the crisis, they may well be severe. From schools and universities to roads and bridges, the public infrastructure that turned America into an economic powerhouse has been gutted. While some contend that this is a matter of necessity, a natural result of lean economic times, major projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Hoover Dam, and other symbols of Depression-era investment suggest it’s all an attitude problem.

In 1933, the worst year of the Depression, the San Francisco Bay Area alone saw construction start on the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, two landmark accomplishments without which it is difficult to imagine where the region, and its economy, would be today.

Yet if several of our leaders had been around in the 1930s, these projects and many others like them never would have been undertaken. Consider a project as mundane but necessary as the Hudson River tunnel in New Jersey, which was shelved when the state’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, refused to pay for it. As a rising star in today’s GOP, Christie couldn’t afford to be seen raising taxes or supporting government spending, no matter how crucial to the long-term health of the local economy. He’ll have long-since cashed in politically by the time he can be held to account for the economic cost of his decision.

It is certainly debatable how important the public works projects of the 1930s were in reviving the economy — and how much they would alleviate today’s immediate jobs crisis. Nevertheless, the attitude motivating those projects was clear and admirable: The nation and its leaders refused to accept the status quo and saw fit to do anything and everything that might provide desperately needed relief. There was a sense of urgency to the economic problems of the time, as well as a recognition that, whatever the merits of government spending in a depressed economy, one more bridge, dam, or road couldn’t but help in the long run. Even if the government couldn’t do anything in the short term, it could at least lay the groundwork for future growth and prosperity.

This is an attitude that is sorely missing today. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, an array of pundits, leaders, and academics have insisted that the nation’s economic problems are purely structural. Because our problems are structural, they say, the government can’t help the economy; stimulus would merely underwrite the worst trends of the last decade and sow the seeds of another crisis. The government, they say, should instead focus on long-term problems like the deficit and let the economy sort itself out.

Ironically, this advice, which often calls for savage cuts to public investment, would undermine future growth even as it derails the recovery in the short term. It is a lose-lose solution. But this is not surprising, as the structural argument for some is really just a convenient excuse to do nothing, a way to absolve themselves of the responsibility to act. And for others it is merely a bludgeon with which to beat down the public sector and anything associated with it.

Seventy-five years after the Golden Gate Bridge opened, Americans can rightly take pride in the landmark. It was a truly remarkable achievement. But it was remarkable in part for the spirit it reflected. Americans, from San Francisco to New York, should ask themselves: Do we still have that spirit today?

Alexander Hudson is co-founder and Senior Editor at Partisans. He was previously a Fulbright Scholar to the United Kingdom, based at the University of Oxford. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley.