Rhode Island Boondoggle Revisited

A piece in The New York Times revisits all those stimulus package "boondoggles" - a skate park in Warwick, included - that provided rhetorical flourishes for the Republican opposition. What appears to be a boondoggle, the piece suggests, can look quite different from a local perspective.

The $14.7 million for a new airport on an Alaskan island that averages only 42 flights a month. The half-million dollars for a new skateboard park in unemployment-ravaged Rhode Island. The $3.4 million for fencing and tunnels to keep Florida turtles from becoming roadkill.

Those proposals for spending federal stimulus money were all criticized by cable news commentators, Republican officials and, in the case of the airport, the inspector general of the Transportation Department. But they have something else in common, too. They are popular locally. And they underscore a truth that has been evident since the New Deal: sometimes the boondoggle is in the eye of the beholder.

Indeed, there was heavy criticism of New Deal "make-work" projects. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt saw some utility in the mocked and derided.

“If we can boondoggle ourselves out of this Depression,” Roosevelt said, “that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of the American people for years to come.”

With patience wearing thin on our current experiment in stimulus, though, progressives in Rhode Island and beyond need to be concerned about political backlash. Indeed, as we saw with the anti-Bush wave of 2008 that ushered several local Republicans out of office, national politics matter.  

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