A Lesson for Obama from FDR: What America Needs Is Jobs–and Leadership

I published this piece yesterday on a site called Reader Supported News. It might provide some food for (wishful) thought as we prepare to listen to Obama’s State of the Union speech.

With the unemployment rate still hovering above 10 percent, the bailed-out financial sector is rewarding itself with bonuses instead of making the kinds of solid investments that might produce jobs. The time clearly is at hand for the Obama administration to push the banks aside, and plunge in to shape the economic recovery on its own terms. That means using federal monies to employ out of work people in rebuilding infrastructure and launching new projects –public employment in the public interest.

The model is Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corp. FDR’s idea – hardly a revolutionary one–was to replace relief with work, employing destitute young people in useful, low-skilled labor that would serve the public good. What makes the program seem even more relevant to the present day is its focus on environmental conservation: planting trees, preventing soil erosion, reducing flood and fire risk, and building infrastructure in National Parks. “I call your attention to the fact that this type of work is of definite practical value,” Roosevelt said in announcing the plan in March of 1933, “not only through the prevention of great present financial loss but also a means of creation future national wealth.”

The CCC idea was accompanied by proposals for a Public Works Administration to employ older people in large-scale projects involving a lot of planning and skilled labor. These latter projects would take many months or years, while the Civilian Conservation Corp could be implemented right away. The story of the CCC, writes Jonathan Alter in “The Defining Moment,” an account of FDR’s first 100 days, is “a tale of mobilization so rapid and so competent it almost defies belief for later generations.”

This, despite the fact that the proposal for a Civilian Conservation Corps immediately met with considerable resistance from all sides. The labor unions said Roosevelt’s proposed low wages would turn the nation into a forced labor camp, and amounted to fascism, Hitlerism and Sovietism, all rolled into one. It was attacked from the left by Huey Long, who called it a “sapsucker’s bill,” and from the right by conservative members of Congress who said that the economy would sort itself out in the long run without so much government spending. To one such remark, FDR’s aide Harry Hopkins replied: “People don’t eat in the ‘long run’ Senator They eat every day.”

The Roosevelt administration got the bill creating the CCC through Congress less than a month after his inauguration on March 4, 1933. Members of his own cabinet protested the idea was impossibly ambitious, but the president accepted no excuses–he wanted a quarter of a million young men put to work by summer. He then proceeded to manage the plan himself, delving into bureaucracy that ran the public lands–which then, as now, made a third of the nation–pulling in members of Congress, debating wage levels, making charts, writing up plans. When the mobilization still seemed too slow, he ordered in the army to help. “By April 7,” Alter writes, “only 34 days into the administration, the first corps members were enlisted. By July 1, less than four months after Roosevelt made his outlandish demand, he exceeded the quarter million goal. Nearly 275,000 young men were enrolled in 1,300 camps across the country, supporting their families and undertaking much-needed projects.”

The benefits of the CCC went beyond their impact on the economy or the environment. A friend whose father served in the Corps told me he recalled it, to his dying day, as one of the happiest times of his life. A kid from an immigrant ghetto in upper Manhattan, his idea of wilderness was no doubt limited to Fort Tryon Park–but the CCC sent him to work in Washington state’s glorious Mount Ranier National Park. And instead of the hopelessness that came with unemployment and desperate poverty, he had a place to live, three meals a day, and the pride of sending money home to help his single mother and younger siblings.

In its time, Alter writes, the mobilization of the Civilian Conservation Corps exceeded all prior efforts in the nation’s history–“and it has not been matched since.” Over nine years, more than 3 million men were provided meaningful work. The CCC would inspire numerous other programs–the Job Corps, Peace Corps, Vista, and AmeriCorps. It succeeded in the same spirit of solidarity and national service that would soon help win Second World War.

Roosevelt’s bold experiment in federal job-creation demonstrated that government can work–and more than that. It showed that there are times when leadership must come not from the states or localities or the slow-moving Congress, but directly from the White House. It provides a stark lesson for the Obama government, which remains mired in a swampland of political bickering while it pursues the illusion of bipartisanship, triangulates corporate special interests, and naively supports big banks in some revamped version of trickle-down economics.

The current word on the political street is that the Obama administration is bent on “going populist” in the wake of recent political defeats. And since his opponents long ago branded him a socialist (if not the anti-Christ), it seems he has little to lose. A good beginning would be to tax the $45 billion in bank bonuses at the utmost possible level, using the return to jump-start a federal government sponsored, government-run program like the CCC to employ men–and this time, women as well. Through a federally funded jobs program, they can be put to work to rebuild the nation’s rotting infrastructure; to spark public enterprise in the new energy industries, from autos to solar and wind powered electric utilities; to lay railways that criss-cross the nation and build the engines, coaches, and freight cars that will travel over them; and to construct and the staff community health centers that might fill in for a failed health care reform effort.

Some version of this plan has been proposed many times during the current financial crisis, and always ignored or shoved aside because of opposition from powerful industries and their supporters, who argue that such dramatic federal action would disrupt the free market or override local initiative. Well, the market, such as it is–never really free, and usually greased to serve corporate interests–has not done the job for the millions of Americans who remain unemployed. It’s time for the president to step in and do his.

I encourage you to check out the rest of Reader Supported News, an up-and-coming progressive news site.

2 responses to “A Lesson for Obama from FDR: What America Needs Is Jobs–and Leadership

  1. Pingback: Obama’s Disappointing State of the Union « Unsilent Generation

  2. Excellent article. Business laid off their older workers and are hiring new workers right out of college. The older workers cannot find a job and are in a financial crises. Government should step in and provide a temporary job for these people, which will give them self respect and a small pension when they retire.

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