Economic Stimulus: Not a Spectator Sport

Long before President Obama signed the stimulus bill into law, municipalities across the United States had already begun salivating, and understandably so—the bill promises to spread CRAZY moolah across this economically-troubled country. Unless you’ve been on an extended camping trip, of course, you already know about the stimulus bill.

A variety of websites have emerged lately to solicit stimulus project suggestions and feedback from the masses. Stimuluswatch.org, for example, aggregates specific projects that are candidates for funding via the bill while acting as a forum for discussing their merits and drawbacks. As Catherine Rampell puts it, the stimulus is being crowdsourced. This is a manifestation of civic involvement that no one could have envisioned in the New Deal era. We can only hope some folks in Washington take a look at the message boards.

It may seem silly to nitpick about where the stimulus funds go, as long as they create jobs. Your city wants to secure the biggest chunk of cash it can get, and it wants project proposals that will attract that cash. During another economic upheaval, the Great Depression, Robert Moses demonstrated the pitfalls of that mentality in New York City. Moses noticed that Washington was handing out New Deal money and that few cities had projects on which to spend it. By catching on to this before many others did, Moses managed to almost single-handedly execute public works projects like the Triborough Bridge while elevating himself to an autocratic level of power in New York. Many of the New Deal projects he oversaw helped to choke the five boroughs with automobile traffic, and his influence—good and bad—is still felt in New York City today.

An individual with the power Moses had is unlikely to appear again in a U.S. city, but his legacy reminds us that large-scale federal funding enables the kinds of mega-projects that induce seismic change in cities. Under the guidance of mere mortals, those projects have the potential to harm cities just as easily as they can help them. As your city works to secure its stimulus money in 2009, examine the use of that money with a critical eye.

(Photo from Flickr user Tracy O.)

1 comment:

Dave Brown said...

Let's not get too pessimistic--this presents an incredible opportunity--will any American Sergio Fajardo's step up to the plate? I hope that the stimulus money will result in some incredible legacy projects that will inspire us for years to come. Fajardo's example is inspiring because the beautiful libraries and schools that his administration built to transform Medellin, Colombia were built in the most problematic neighborhoods with really positive results.

But of course you're right--we do need to look out for the Dead Tree projects!