Nostalgia is an essential ingredient in class reunions, wedding anniversaries and Baseball Hall of Fame inductions. But it’s a poor source of guidance for public policy. Often, rose-colored memories serve to obscure dangers and cloud judgment.
In January, President Joe Biden issued an executive order directing Cabinet officers to create a Civilian Climate Corps. The $3.5 trillion budget plan unveiled by congressional Democrats Wednesday includes funding to expand the initiative. It’s a self-conscious emulation of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which has attained mythic status in our national lore.
Much of the original CCC’s reputation is deserved. It enlisted some 3 million unmarried men — and almost no women — to plant trees, clear trails, and build roads and lodges in national and state parks and forests. You can still see the results in parks across the country.
But FDR was acting in the midst of the worst economic collapse in our history, with 25% unemployment, a meager safety net and starvation stalking the land. The crucial justification for the CCC was to furnish employment for people who couldn’t find work and were willing to take arduous jobs far from home.
Today, the problem is a bit different. The economy is roaring back; the unemployment rate has nosedived; and workers are feeling optimistic enough to quit their jobs at the highest rate in more than 20 years. Employers say their biggest problem is not finding customers but filling vacancies. Nationally, there are 9.2 million job openings, which is almost exactly the number of people looking for work.
But Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who are sponsoring legislation to create the new CCC, want it to employ 1.5 million people over five years. Starting a massive public jobs program in this economic environment, however, would be unnecessary and harmful. It would siphon workers from operations that cater to consumers and assign them to bureaucratically determined functions that may not justify the cost.
Corps workers may not gain all that much from short-term employment that isn’t geared to preparing them for permanent jobs elsewhere. In our increasingly tight job market, the project would probably have trouble finding enough applicants.
A thriving private economy is the key to long-term prosperity — not to mention a healthy tax base. But Biden’s CCC would undermine it, just as employers are recovering from the beating they took during the pandemic.
In the eyes of some advocates, the negative effect on the private sector is not a regrettable side effect but a worthy purpose. The Sunrise Movement, a leftist environmental organization, envisions a program in which workers would be “getting paid a living wage, having access to healthcare, and getting apprenticed to continue their career, instead of working a s— job at Amazon making Jeff Bezos richer.”
The contempt for capitalism is telling. But Amazon couldn’t have become the second-biggest employer in America if it didn’t offer wages and conditions that a lot of people find appealing. Its founder couldn’t have gotten so wealthy if Amazon didn’t keep customers happy — including the 147 million Americans who have signed up to be Amazon Prime members.
The Amazon job conditions, by the way, compare favorably with those in the old CCC, whose members lived in rustic barracks under near-military discipline, did arduous manual labor and earned just $30 a month, in addition to room and board — $600 or so in today’s money.
They were allowed to keep only $5 of their monthly wages, with the rest sent home to their families. If those workers had been transported to a modern fulfillment center, they would have thought they’d gone to heaven.
Planting trees and restoring wetlands are valid tasks, but we already have state and federal agencies charged with protecting natural resources. The logic of bypassing their experience and expertise is mysterious. Besides, the real work of combating climate change won’t be done by workers wielding axes and shovels. This isn’t 1933.
Revamping the economy to reduce carbon emissions is a broad, expensive task requiring specialized skills. It will be done by an array of companies installing solar panels, erecting wind turbines, developing electric vehicles, improving battery technology and devising methods of carbon capture. It’s a far cry from building campgrounds in national forests.
FDR’s CCC was a useful program given the grave historic crisis he faced. But it’s an idea whose place is in the past.
Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveChapman13.
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