The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.
FDR’s Oglethorpe Address
You have probably heard the saying that America has no ideologies, it is one. I always attribute the saying to the historian Richard Hofstadter, but like all great lines, it can roam and be attached to whoever first said it to you–if you take that person to be relatively clever. A corollary of the idea is that America, being an ideology, tolerates no others. This is why Socialism found shallow roots here and the seeds of Communism fell on rocky soil. While some of the most interesting social science has been written about the failure of class politics to take hold in the United States (Seymour Martin Lipset’s oeuvre comes to mind), the history of the American political mainstream is far more pragmatic.
Part of that pragmatism that revealed the bold, persistent experimentation that was the only ideology that Franklin Roosevelt seemed to have, was the New Deal program the Civilian Conservation Corps. If you don’t know what that is, I suggest that you take a trip over to American Experience to watch a really inspirational hour long program on the CCC. The program began in the opening months of the New Deal was one of the many experiments that has produced value that, in my practical experience, I have been unable to ignore. Simply travel the awe inspiring national parks of the West and you will be confronted by the grandeur and legacy of the program.
What the American Experience program does so well is to make an ideological case for a jobs program that builds on the values that are at the forefront of challenges that confront us today. So, the program is a very obvious attempt to blend the red and the green movements in their American form. As I indicated above, Americans are more allergic to illiberal ideologies than they are to third parties, but they have a basic need to be optimistic. The AE documentary demonstrates effectively that the CCC was an environmental program that also helped to solve the jobs problem of the Great Depression. It is a short walk between that experience and the one we face now, in which the Great Recession is accompanied by Global Warming. We have a jobs problem today that resists the trickle of good news coming out of the private sector and we have violent storms that continue to produce headlines of the form “not for a hundred years have we had” and then insert flood, blizzard etc. America has never been Red, on the whole, and it will never be Green, but we have witnessed robust examples of interventions into the labor market and, as the AE documentary shows us, we have had powerful environmental movements here as well.
I don’t know when this went into production (as I understand, it was released in late 2009), but one imagines that the producers sitting around and watching the Obama inauguration and thinking about what he might borrow from the New Deal to help pull the country out the dire mess it had fallen into. The creatives on the project would have heard, as I did, that capitalism itself seemed at risk ( I remember a show I did in late September 2008 for The Mike Duffy Show in Canada where we debated George Bush’s comment that he thought capitalism would survive). Doing television reporting at that time was astounding. Here is snippet from the Morning Joe on November 11th 2008:
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Has capitalism failed America?
JAMES K. GALBRAITH : Uh, America has had mixed economy since the 1930s. It’s had institutions like Social Security, like deposit insurance, uh, institutions that have helped stabilize our economy, and we’re going to have to rely on those institutions going forward.
The media were suddenly rediscovering the New Deal and they wanted experts who tell them something about it. A few remnant figures like Galbraith, who was the son of the practical economist who ran the price administration program during WWII and gave us the idea of the state as a countervailing power to business, had the intellectual tools to make sense of what we were facing at the time. This mixed economy remnant was loosely scattered and weak, and we were more comfortable and ready to hear from the market fundamentalist wing. This explains why Amity Shlaes book, The Forgotten Man, was ready and well received when it was. Her message was simple: the New Deal didn’t work, so don’t you dare try it again.
In my mind’s eye, the AE staff were watching the development of the ARRA (or the stimulus) after the successful demand for a the TARP (the bailout) and were Googling while thinking “what about CCC? Wasn’t that a great program?” The more you pay attention to it, the more it seems to make sense. Unlike the draconian and probably failed National Recovery Act–the NRA acronym gives us funny institutions here in the States– the CCC was a popular and well remembered program. This is the mixed economy at its best.
After watching the documentary, and you really should, you will probably ask yourself, why is Obama not doing something like this now? I think that that is a good question. The best answer is that the mainstream intellectual space has little room for mixed economy thinking today. Obama’s advisers are not the sort who think that military style camps for young people to do environmental work is a good idea: much better to shore up the banking system and to use various kinds of targeted stimuli to get someone in the private sector to do what is needed instead. But, if you believe the four men who tell their CCC stories, being off in the desert with three hearty meals and great work experience in the cause of the public good is not so bad for a young person’s character. I had such an experience when I was a Physics student at the University of Chicago, building a gamma ray telescope in the desert in a way that is not so far from how the interviewees describe their CCC experience. This kind of “Socialism” may be better than the alternative.
The summary line is this, in a time when economic dislocation is causing social disruptions in which civil rights leaders are comparing their experience to those days when they had to face down the KKK, it may be time to start thinking about traditional American solutions to the jobs problem like the CCC. People don’t like to pay for what they enjoy, but our national parks are a great symbol of the fact that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Perhaps, the times are ripe now to remember the sense of public purpose that Arthur Schlesinger predicted would return in cycles to American politics. The episode of the American Experience proves that public broadcasting is a crucial part of that hopeful vision.