A New ‘New Deal’ for the Old ‘New Economy’?

If any good came out of the recent terrorist attacks on this country, it was the galvanization of America. September 11 marked the first day in our lives that everyone in the country was on the same side of an issue. Imagine what could happen if that collective power could be harnessed? Maybe it can be.

That Tuesday, some 45 minutes before everything changed irretrievably, I voted in New York’s primary. The experience was pretty unpleasant. At the polling place, hand-lettered signs pointed the way — sort of — to voting machines. Pandemonium reigned as staffers squabbled about cards that had to be filled in manually. Voters were directed to the wrong lines. An official asked my name. By the time I could respond, she was speaking with other people about other things — then she admonished me for not stating or spelling my name.

I testily suggested this atmosphere contributes to voters’ reluctance to go to the polls. She retorted, “I can only take care of one person at a time,” asked my name (for the fifth time), and began to speak to people whose turn it wasn’t — yet.

A huge number of people I know are out of work. They’re an incredibly talented bunch of copywriters, designers, customer relationship management experts, information architects, communications pros, content managers, venture capitalists, corporate training experts — pretty much what you’d expect from the dot-com fallout. “They could fix this mess at the polls,” I thought.

I began mulling an idea for a tongue-in-cheek article advocating a new New Deal. What my polling place needs is information architecture, CRM, clear and informative graphics, an automated system, organizational structure. Wait — that’s what my unemployed friends do! Why not resuscitate the WPA (Work Projects Administration)? After all, the Depression-era federal program had put the unemployed — then 25 percent of the U.S. workforce — to work in jobs that served the public good, simultaneously conserving the workers’ skills and self-esteem.

Arriving at work as the first plane hit the World Trade Center, I thought an article promoting resuscitating a Depression-era social-welfare program was suddenly not such a hot idea. Or was it? The Depression and New Deal altered the relationship between citizens and the U.S. government in ways evident today. It formed our expectation that government be involved in the economy and in caring for the needy. Last Tuesday’s events refocused attention on the government’s role in dealing with crises — as well as the degree to which public support is critical to these efforts.

So why not a New Deal? Government, on federal and local levels, needs a lot of help. Record numbers of citizens are willing to help, many of them unemployed. So many that volunteers for everything from blood and food donations to rescue efforts were being turned away last week. Unemployment is increasing, and the physical and economic fallout of the recent attacks is swelling the ranks. New York may require federal assistance to meet unemployment insurance claims.

The government is facing challenges more daunting than ever, domestically (cleaning up the mess) and globally (potential war). And that’s before you look at smaller-scale problems: creating an atmosphere conducive to voting; the insanity of a snail-mail exchange I recently endured when summoned for jury duty less than a year after the last time I was called.

In the 1930s, the WPA built stuff: dams, bridges, roads, buildings, parks, airports. Now, the economy is service oriented. That’s where the dot-com unemployed come in. A new New Deal would remain committed to creating work to serve public goals, only this time our skills are needed more than our strong backs.

Obviously, I’m not suggested replacing Colin Powell with the nearest unemployed creative director. Instead, think of the interactive information that’s been created in just the past few days. New York City’s official home page posted dozens of links and built new sites for emergency information this week, covering everything from infrastructure and relief updates to information for victims and their families. All this represents only a minute fraction of how the Web has been involved in disseminating information about the tragedy.

The new New Deal wouldn’t only be about crisis management, of course. Before anyone coined the adage about thinking globally while acting locally, the original, federally administered WPA was doing just that — employing people in their hometowns to work on projects benefiting the local community.

My hometown is New York, and the recent disaster aside here are a few examples of where I could see my peers applying skills they’ve acquired at agencies and consultancies: the board of elections, the court system (that jury-duty thing), community boards (mine doesn’t have an online presence), local schools and universities (teaching and mentoring), visitors’ bureaus. It’s endless, when you think about it.

The financial rewards wouldn’t be overly lucrative, but probably better than a $400 weekly unemployment check. People could work, bolster resumes, even network. Not to mention garner a sense of pride that they’re doing something that matters, which many of us still employed have yearned for while performing chores that suddenly seem ludicrous and frivolous in light of recent events.

In the wake of the terror, we’re pleasantly bewildered finding ourselves awash in the milk of human kindness, united in common beliefs and altruistic spirit. Wouldn’t it be great if this bubble didn’t burst? That’s why we should bring back the WPA. It’s exactly the right moment.

In the meantime, volunteer.

Editor’s note: For more on the impact of the September 11 events on our industry, check the special section of internet.com’s E-Commerce/Marketing Channel, The Trade Center Disaster: Industry Response.

Related reading