Public Works on a Vast Scale?

I spent the last hours of last night watching the PBS “Human Experience” episode on the Civilian Conservation Corps. A few million people put to work: for long hours, living in Army barracks, with all but $5 of their pay having to be sent home every week. Gosh, sounds just right as part of FDR’s Conservative First 100 Days.

The documentary makes a couple of things clear: (1) it kept about 3,000,000 people busier than they would have been otherwise* and (2) when the time finally came to enter WW II, those three million were in better shape than they would have been, and were prime volunteers without whom results might have been very different.

Even independent of what it produced, what’s not to like? No wonder it was the most popular Depression-Era program.

Doesn’t it seem like something the new Administration might have wanted to emulate? Well, it did…

In late March of 2008, Neil Maher, guest-blogging at The Edge of the American West, was clear: even as the crisis was growing, a New and Improved CCC would prepare the U.S. for the next fifty years, even as the old one prepared it for the fifty that followed it.

Brazil has recently begun looking back to Franklin Roosevelt’s CCC to help solve that country’s economic and environmental problems…The goal of Brazil’s CCC-like program, which the Nature Conservancy helped initiate, is to plant one billion trees over the next ten years across the country’s Atlantic Forest. Rather than funding the program by increasing taxes, Brazil will rely on novel market mechanisms including the sale of sequestration vouchers on the international carbon market, obtained through the program’s reforestation efforts, as well as the collection of water use fees in the reforested regions. Similar tree-planting programs reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt’s CCC are also now operating in China along the Yangtze River and through Wangari Maathai’s Greenbelt Movement in Kenya. Even war-torn Afghanistan has created its own “Afghan Conservation Corps.”

The United States needs to follow suit, and the upcoming election is a good place to start. Hillary Clinton openly calls for the creation of a “green economy” centered on a cap and trade system for carbon emissions that will help create five million new jobs. Barack Obama wants to develop a program that rewards those who plant trees, restore grassland, or undertake farming practices that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even John McCain, who claims fellow Republican and early conservationist Teddy Roosevelt as his hero, proposes to limit carbon emissions as president. A new and improved Civilian Conservation Corps, one which enrolls women as well as men and focuses its efforts on fighting global warming, would allow all of these candidates to turn campaign rhetoric into post-election reality.

Catching up on my blog reading today, I came across a recent Andrew Samwick post in which he reposted a link from December of 2008—just after the election—to this NYT article:

President-elect Barack Obama promised Saturday to create the largest public works construction program since the inception of the interstate highway system a half century ago as he seeks to put together a plan to resuscitate the reeling economy….

Mr. Obama’s remarks showcased his ambition to expand the definition of traditional work programs for the middle class, like infrastructure projects to repair roads and bridges, to include new-era jobs in technology and so-called green jobs that reduce energy use and global warming emissions. “We need action — and action now,” Mr. Obama said in an address broadcast Saturday morning on radio and YouTube….

It would cover a range of programs to expand broadband Internet access, to make government buildings more energy efficient, to improve information technology at hospitals and doctors’ offices, and to upgrade computers in schools.

“It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption,” Mr. Obama said. “Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online.”

Twenty months later, I can’t even find an outline of this in the policies proposed or passed.

Whither the New CCC? Whither preparation for competing with the Chinese in the mid- and late 21st century? Whither developing job skills to ensure that broadband isn’t just something Google sells to Verison? Who will be the people ready to maintain and repair solar cells?

*Let’s face it: it’s a difficult job, spent away from home and family, for basically room and board and a (very) little l’argent de poche. Not the type of job you keep if you get a letter from your spouse saying that the local Woolworth’s is paying $1.00/hour.

(cross-posted from Skippy the Bush Kangfaroo)

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