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GRAY MATTERS: A 21st Century New Deal

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here. Saul's Reflections column, in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, also appears at Time Goes By twice each month.

I first met Marcy Kaptur in 1982 when she was a long-shot Democrat running for a House seat in northern Ohio. As I recall, my story bet that she would win. Now Kaptur, who is from Toledo, is the longest serving woman in the House and named by her colleagues as one of the most valuable. She is also tilting at another windmill.

Because she’s a quintessential liberal Democrat with a moderate touch (she’s opposed to abortion) and 26 years of successful politics, you’d think that President Obama, who just got finished campaigning in depressed Ohio, would pay attention to her. But she’s among the progressive Democrats cursed by Rahm Emanuel as “f***ing retarded” and ignored by the rest of the White House honchos because they challenged Obama’s vain reach for the center and the mirage of Republican support.

Kaptur, who has been a Democratic activist since age 14, has deep roots in blue-collar America, which is where this administration needs help. She is the daughter of Polish-American grocers and still lives in her family home.

As a member of the Budget Committee and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, she helped lead the grilling of the financial geniuses including Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who helped topple the economy then rewarded the banks for their generosity.

She is also on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee. Among her accomplishments was the success of legislation, after a 17-year battle with too many bureaucracies, for the creation of the vast World War II memorial on the Washington Mall which she helped dedicate in 2004. The idea for the memorial, which is a top tourist attraction, came from a constituent, Roger Durbin, a letter carrier who wondered why there were Korean and Vietnam memorials but none for America’s greatest conflict.

A bit of a throwback to the New Deal, she has pressed the White House and Congress to resurrect the very effective Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial banking from investment banking. But it was repealed in 1999 by some of the same people who are now top White House economic advisers.

And, she says, the new financial services regulations they helped craft are so full of White House compromises, few Americans understand it. Although the bankers seem to like it.

Now, once again, Kaptur finds herself backing a legislative long shot that makes sense to many economists, but not the president’s economic advisers who are stuck fast in the mud of a jobless recession and have no ideas about how to escape.

She may be whistling in the dark, but she introduced last December, HR 4318, which would

“authorize the president to reestablish the Civilian Conservation Corps as a means of providing gainful employment to the unemployed and underemployed citizens...through the performance of useful public work...”

She calls it the “21st Century” version of the CCC, one of the New Deal’s most politically popular jobs programs.

One of Kaptur’s aides called my attention to her bill which echoes the legislation proposed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first month as president in March 1933. As the Great Depression wore on, the CCC put three million young men to work planting trees, improving the national parks, building state parks, erecting fire towers, improving roads and dams.

The CCC’ genius is that it concentrated on jobless young men, 18 to 16, thousands of whom wandered the land as hobos. And much of their modest earnings was sent home. Kaptur’s bill, of course, would include women and there are no age limitations.

With more than 15 million Americans, including more than 10 percent of Ohioans out of work, the legislation says it is designed

“to relieve the acute condition of widespread distress and unemployment existing in the U.S. and to provide for the restoration of depleted natural resources...and the advancement of an orderly program of useful public works.”

The work to be done includes forestation of public lands, the prevention of forest fires, floods and soil erosion, pest control, construction, maintenance and repair of roads and trails, overseen by the Interior Department.

President Obama’s first stimulus proposal, which was watered down, and another just announced is running into the Republican “no.” But although they were meant to create public works jobs, the money did not go directly to hire workers, but to cities, counties and contractors and have made scarcely a dent in the jobless rate.

The CCC, like the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, would hire and pay workers directly for their work as employees of the federal government.

Kaptur’s legislation asks for $16 billion for each of the next four years to finance the CCC. In a letter appealing to colleagues to co-sponsor her legislation (so far seven house members have signed on), Kaptur suggested that the National Guard and other federal and state agencies could help manage the corps. “We again have the opportunity to make as grand a contribution as President Roosevelt,” she said.

There is little doubt Republicans will resist the legislation but Obama could, like Roosevelt, put his power behind it, using labor unions and progressive groups to embarrass Republicans who claim they want to see progress on job creation. But I doubt the White House knows about the legislation or cares.

Obama claims he admires the New Deal, but so far he has not come close to employing its solutions despite appeals from the best economic minds in the country – including Nobelists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman.

In a New York Times Op-Ed entitled, How To End The Great Recession, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich noted that

“the Great Depression and its aftermath demonstrate that there is only one way back to full recovery – through more widely shared prosperity...New Deal measures, Social Security..unemployment insurance...the minimum wage...the GI Bill...created rapid growth and more jobs.”

Even more conservative economists have called for New Deal style job creation measures. But if Obama, mired in conventional, no-win proposals, does not respond, it would not be the first time Kaptur has been disappointed in her president. In an interview with Guernica Magazine, she blasted Obama’s economic advisers, specifically Lawrence Summers, who helped kill Glass-Steagall, and Geithner:

“Anyone who’s had their fingers on any of the financial damage that’s been done should not be allowed to serve in the federal government...That revolving door should be slammed shut How can you have the architects of the disaster in charge of the remediation?”

Asked about Obama’s record on the economy, she said,

“It’s not GDP, it’s JOB. That means we need jobs. “ She was asked, “What grade you would give him?” She replied, “The largest room is room for improvement. In my region, he wouldn’t be passing. He’s got the wrong economic advisers. But they seem to take care of Wall Street just fine.”

Perhaps that’s why he’s facing midterm losses; Roosevelt gained House and Senate seats in 1934.

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We've forgotten that "the economy" exists to feed and clothe and house society -- we've become mesmerized by the idea that we exist for "the economy." That's a bunch of convenient nonsense constructed to benefit a very few, very rich people.

Thanks, Saul.

Ever since Obama took office I have been waiting for him to learn from the history of the Great Depression and mimic it's successes. I am so disappointed that he is mired in the siren song of bipartisanship and taking the middle ground. Now is not the time for wimpy solutions; it is time for Harry Truman type boldness. It is already too late to save the mid-term elections and he may be too late to save his presidency.

As a U.S. Forest Service retiree (you neglected to include National Forests in your piece, Saul. They are much larger and more in need of work than our National Parks), I am very familiar with the value of the CCC work. However, Obama's chances of getting something patterned after that New Deal program through Congress are just about nil.

A better way to accomplish the same thing would be to reinstitute the draft. This time, of course, it would include women. Those unfit (that would include lots of fattys who need some body work) or unneeded for traditional military activities could be directly used in the conservation and other public works activities you mention.

Military enhancements have lots of political advocates on both sides of the aisle. The system already is in place. No new bureaucracies would be needed. Draft levels could be raised or lowered as the economic situation dictated.

In addition, reinstituting the draft would have the huge benefit of keeping us out of nonsensical foreign military adventures. When your kids or grandkids and mine might have to lay their lives on the line, we would not allow a bunch of self-serving politicians to create the danger.

How about it, Obama? Think a little outside the box, assume some leadership, and do something great for the USA.

One of the dirty secrets that the gang on Capitol Hill aren't talking about is the fact that at least 15% of the world's workforce will be facing permanent unemployment. Many of the jobs that have disappeared in the last five years, will never reappear unless the U.S., the U.K., France, Italy and most of the other developed nations institute work creation programs like the C.C.C., the W.P.A. and similar. Unless this is done we will have approximately two million able bodied men and women idle and angry ripe for the first demagogue to lead them into revolt, rebellion or perhaps even a fascist movement.

Great column! Unfortunately, all responders have good points in my view. I still support President Obama and think he is being unfairly blamed for problems that probably began when he was in high school. However I, too, wish he'd stop trying to get along with everybody (especially the Republicans, who are genetically pre-programmed to say No to anything he proposes) and DO something. Take positive action to jump-start jobs. Some kind of public-private partnership could work.

It's obvious to anyone who has used a bridge, highway or national park lately that our infrastructure needs major attention, as do systems hidden from public view like water and sewage treatment. Many homes need retrofitting to conserve energy and better survive natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. There are millions of unemployed Americans. To me, 2+2=4!

At the very least, WPA/CCC-type programs would buy us some time to figure out how to deal with the very real structural changes our work force is facing. As a bonus, we'd end up with refurbished roads, bridges, water systems, etc. Seems like a win/win to me.

I didn't vote for Obama because I wanted him to mimic what worked in the 1930s. I voted for him to bring something new to deal with the very real problems that we face today. We need jobs and we need a leader. I'm with Ms. Kaptur. When it comes to the subject of jobs, Obama needs to step up. He is not passing.

Thank you, Saul, for this column.

Thank you, Saul!!! I think of Toledo as my hometown having spent most of my childhood there. And it pains me to see it hurting so badly. I remember it as a bustling, hard-working, progressive town. Now a LOT of that industry is gone as it is in Canton where I now live. According to my stepmother, who still lives in Toledo, Marcy is the best Congressperson around. She works hard for her constituents and she, or an aide, always calls them back with answers to questions and problems. I visited her website after Barb had waxed poetic about her and found it to be one of the most helpful of any Congressperson I've seen. It's not full of rhetoric -- it's truly helpful. In fact, it clarified something on my taxes and got me a larger refund. Needless to say, it's a frequent stop for me when I want to know what's going on in Congress.

I join Marcy Kaptur in her fight to bring jobs to Ohio and am fortunate to have a Congressman who agrees with her and am helping with his re-election campaign against a Tea Party darling.

Obama needs to stop trying to be a peacemaker and be strong in helping hard-working Americans have the jobs they need.

Ohio is dying and we need this greatly. We also need more Marcy Kapturs who really care about their constituents.

You've made some excellent points here -- once again.

As a former Buckeye, somewhat familiar with the hardcore conservative Republican attitudes existing for many there, the fact Kapturs has continued to be re-elected speaks volumes about her connection with her voters. Since Ohio is considered to be one of the critical states for the Democratic party Obama and crew might be wise to listen more to her. Many of her views on what's needed for our nation's recovery could certainly benefit areas in Southern California where I live.

I'll have to poll some of my Demo. party Central Ohio friends as to the current overall attitudinal temperature as we approach Nov.

I think it's premature to condemn Obama out of office. Seems too many people are so impatient and short-sighted today. I find it difficult to align myself behind any one particular major political party and even identifying with the Independents has become less than desirable for me.

Saul, I'm glad I found you again. Keep up the great work :-)

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