Your Conservative Friend Is Actually a Big Pinko. Or: How We Got Out of the Great Depression.

10/12/2010 10:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If our Great American Recession were an illness, Republicans and Democrats would be arguing about whether to starve it or feed it. In the service of either argument historians and pundits love to bring up the Great Depression, and America's economy in the years afterward, as evidence for or against spending into this economic blight. As the only piece of real predictive evidence economists have to work with, the Great Depression is like Revelations at bible camp.

Progressives argue -- correctly -- that Roosevelt's New Deal was a huge force in getting America out of the Depression. Priming the economic pump by giving unemployed Americans jobs, and incidentally creating some of the 20th century's great works of art, literature and architecture, was a way to stimulate the economy from the bottom up, and simultaneously quell that great demon of purposelessness that is the root of so much social instability in any society.

Conservatives are quick to write off the New Deal as unhelpful in dragging America out of the Great Depression. America's recovery during the New Deal was too slow and shallow to draw a connection. World War II, they mince, is the reason we got out of the Great Depression. It was the mobilization for the war effort that got Lady Liberty back on her feet, not some sort of pinko public works project.

Which was it? Public works or war? As paradoxical as it might seem, both sides are right. A public works project did get us out of the Depression. It was a public works project called World War II.

Wartime America was about as socialist as this country has ever been, including the years of the New Deal. Nationalized manufacturing. Mandatory rationing. Full employment for men. Employment possibilities for women. Infrastructural investment on an international scale. An entire nation, literally and figuratively galvanized toward a single goal. World War II made the New Deal look like an austerity measure. A war is the most massive public works project a nation will ever have the misfortune to undertake.

Now the question: why can Americans unite so quickly and powerfully behind a spending and sacrifice spree in the service of conflict, but can't seem to rationalize public works for sake of our own improvement? If we took the infrastructural advances of the World War II Army Corps of Engineers, the innovations of World War II scientists, the diligence of World War II factory workers, and put all that grit to work in the service of our own victory rather than another's defeat, imagine the nation we'd have. Instead, our money and talent is charged with picking another nation and tearing it a new MASHole.

If the language of conflict is what we need, so be it. Make no mistake: We're fighting a war, but the enemy is our own shortsightedness. The pace of conflict is over a whole generation. And the terrain we fight for is the American Exceptionalism we've taken for granted.

How do we fight this war? By investing greatly and widely in the sciences, in manufacturing, and in the arts. By realizing that unemployment is not a personal problem but a national one; foreclosure is not a personal shame but a national one. By building, creating, inventing, teaching and yes, spending money to do so. Money that comes from taxes. Money taken from people who are 99% guaranteed not to be you.

How do we lose? By adopting the Republican strategy: by penny pinching, privatizing, and isolating our families and our problems, and doing so wearing the sheep's clothing of populism. Republicans, by fighting the straw man of the federal deficit in this time of hardship, are starving an already weak system. They are, in the words of Vietnam and Iraq commanders, not giving us the chance to win this war.

As with most modern conflicts, the enemy is abstract and the stakes are high. But the battle is easily winnable. If we fight this war on the Great Recession with full force, we stand to hold our ground as an exceptional and truly great nation. If we choose not to fight, we lose by default.