A WPA for Professional Historians…Could this be a Teachable Moment?

“[In] communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can be accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing to-day and another to-morrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming a hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.” – Marx and Engels, The German Ideology (written 1846 published 1932).

What we want to do, and what others want from us, is one way to articulate the economic problem. Historians, no less than members of any other discipline, profession or trade, would love to believe that there can never be too much of what they produce. This is in essence the position of a curious post by Eric Loomis at the progressive blog Lawyers, Guns, Money.

Loomis is calling for a new national WPA program to put unemployed PhDs in history to work. The American Historical Association, he believes, should make it a priority of its Congressional lobbying efforts. Many of the responses to his post recognize the political weaknesses of the AHA. Loomis himself recognizes this difficulty, but I am struck by how many actually think it is a good idea in principle.

They have not considered the economic problem. It is the problem of what they want versus what others want from them.

The powerful allure of Marx and Engels’ vision was also its failing. Marx and Engels concerned themselves almost entirely with the first part of the problem and left the second part to be worked out by vague references to “society” or to modern methods of production and technology. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just do what we wanted to do, when we wanted to do it?

Admittedly, Loomis is speaking of the desire of a vast pool of nontenured potential faculty in history to specialize in a specific area of their choosing. Marx and Engels were speaking of breaking the “tyranny” of specialization. But in point of fact, both Loomis and his socialist brethren are contending for the “freedom” to be what you want to be, when you want to be it.

Loomis’ concern is that a large number of people want to be academic historians, but now cannot. He is bitter that an elite few have obtained their appointments to the exclusion of the rest. He wants the rest to organize to get what they desire from government, which means from the rest of us.

There was a Federal Writers Project once. It was a small component of the original WPA under the New Deal. That portion of it having to do with historical work employed somewhere in the number of just over 300 writers. The aim was mostly archival–to preserve the life stories of various groups throughout the US. It made some important contributions to our historical knowledge. The narratives of ex-slaves is an excellent example. Each state had its own federally funded project. I am particularly fond of the collection of COWBOY AND RANCHING REMINISCENCES AND LORE of Texas. But should it have been done this way?

At its height, the WPA employed some 3.3 million in the Fall of 1936. The idea was to inject money into the economy and create jobs. It had a small impact on the jobless rate, but each time the administration attempted to curtail the program, the rate simply popped back up. People apparently would not voluntarily pay for the things the WPA produced. The program was not self-sustaining, and money had to be continually taken from somewhere else to do the work. With private investment already strained, that meant even less for private sector job creation.

At best, such government spending kept people where they were, but because it had no real mechanism for deciding anything other than what was politically possible, it could not address the second part of the economic problem.

What I want as Joe producer, is not necessarily what I want as Joe consumer. To look only at the first part of the economic problem ignores the constraints of scarcity as well as the reality of diminishing returns. These do not go away when we turn to government. What are the limits then, Mr. Loomis? I might get lots of western folk lore—as much as I like. It might mean that you get too much. And I suppose eventually it might get to the point where I say enough is enough. But who is to decide?

Of course, the original WPA was meant to be only a temporary source of assistance with some useful things done in return. But the problem with this idea applied to historians today is that the unemployment rate for historians well predates the current economic slump by two or three decades. In this context, Loomis’ idea is not so much temporary aid as it is a hope for a going concern.

Loomis forgets that higher education has received lots of public monies over the years and not all of it is dominated by elite private universities. Much much more of it goes to state institutions who get their share of federal spending. Who will manage this WPA, and who gets to decide who will be its beneficiaries?

A former president of the AHA recently wrote in Historically Speaking that “the ideas for reform are out there. All it will take to bring them into being is that elusive thing called political will.” This seems to be a common way of thinking about the economy these days. It is incumbent upon those who would advocate such reform activity, however, to spell out how they intend to make them work. Who will really call the shots? Or will the constraint simply be the limits of personal desire?

Manna from heaven, anyone?

One thought on “A WPA for Professional Historians…Could this be a Teachable Moment?

  1. You nailed it. Talk about creating moral hazard and wasting resources. It is also a shame that historians have ruined so much about the field given their marginalization of the most interesting areas of history (diplomatic, military, and political history).

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