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Was the New Deal too small?

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When Obama announced those "few key parts" of his plan on Saturday, he called them "the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s." That's when the federal government invested $25 billion and built more than 41,000 miles of roads, highways and bridges over a 20-year period. In today's dollars, that would be the equivalent of $197 billion investment.

How much Obama will spend on infrastructure is unknown. His economic team is still "crunching the numbers," in his words, on the economic-recovery package, which would include far more than infrastructure and could end up costing $700 billion or more. Much will depend on Congress.

But US governors say they already have $136 billion dollars in projects that are "shovel ready," which means they could be under way within months of the new administration taking office. Each $1 billion of infrastructure is expected to create 25,000 to 40,000 jobs.

Still, some critics point to the Depression and note that infrastructure spending did not create enough of a stimulus to revitalize the economy. It took World War II to get it back on track. Depression historians contend that's because the Roosevelt administration didn't spend enough.

"There was a kind of crude sense that generating economic activity was what you needed to do to get the economy going," says Alan Brinkley, a professor of history at Columbia University. "But they didn't spend nearly enough. They were constrained by all kinds of traditional ideas about balanced budgets and austerity."

There is a consensus today among economists, even many conservative ones, that the government needs to inject some Keynesian stimulus to keep the economy from spiraling further downward. But some conservatives do disagree.

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