Not many people I’ve known who lived through the Great Depression recall it fondly. I suspect most of them would be perplexed to hear how Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, described the new administration’s trillion-dollar infrastructure plan: “It will be as exciting as the 1930s.”
Americans have accomplished some remarkable things in times of widespread economic disaster.
Exciting or not, it’s true that Americans have accomplished some remarkable things, and created some inventive new options, in times of widespread economic disaster. Social Security, the Empire State Building, and the gorgeous stretch of California’s Highway 1 through Big Sur all date to that period. But one less-celebrated accomplishment might be particularly instructive if the Trump administration is serious about bringing jobs and pride back to left-behind parts of the country.
I’m referring to the rise of rural electrification—how we got the lights on in communities off the beaten path, from the Rocky Mountains to the Florida Everglades. At the start of the Great Depression, much of the U.S. countryside had no electricity, even after most cities and towns had been electrified for decades. Power companies refused to make the investment, which would furnish lower profits than urban projects; some even claimed, astonishingly, that rural communities were better off in the dark. I don’t think that my grandfather, who grew up on northern Colorado beet farms without electricity, would have agreed.
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