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Editorial: A Biden big government ‘New Deal’? Not so fast

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 4/27/2021 The Editorial Board, Chicago Tribune
a man that is standing in the grass: President Joe Biden listens during a climate change virtual summit from the East Room of the White House on Thursday, April 22, 2021, in Washington, D.C.. © Brendan Smialowski/AFP/AFP/TNS President Joe Biden listens during a climate change virtual summit from the East Room of the White House on Thursday, April 22, 2021, in Washington, D.C..

Illinois state parks have plenty of modern amenities, but some of their best features date back more than 80 years. There are handsome lodges at Starved Rock, Giant City, White Pines and Pere Marquette, constructed by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. The CCC did plenty of other valuable work — planting trees, clearing trails, constructing shelters, hauling rocks, digging ditches and more.

The program eventually provided jobs to some 3 million people, almost all men, putting them to work on conservation projects that would have lasting benefits. Now, President Joe Biden is reviving memories of that chapter in American history by proposing $10 billion to establish a new Civilian Climate Corps. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and congressman Bobby Rush have introduced legislation to establish a new CCC, geared more to conservation than climate.

The CCC was a grand program for its time. But does that mean a new version of it would be a good idea? We have our doubts.

The economic context is radically different. When President Franklin Roosevelt initiated the CCC, the country was in the midst of an economic collapse that sent the unemployment rate to a staggering 25%. The lack of a federal safety net made the lack of jobs a matter of life and death for many people. Hunger and homelessness mushroomed. No one knew how long it would take for the economy to recover.

Today, by contrast, the economic crisis precipitated by the pandemic is rapidly subsiding as more and more Americans get vaccinated and resume activities they had avoided. Unemployment jumped to 14.8% in April 2020, as people sheltered in place and businesses shut down. But the economy is rebounding strongly, with unemployment down to 6% in March and economists predicting 7 million new jobs this year.

Any new CCC would be competing with private employers to find and train workers. And the best jobs program is robust economic growth, which creates greater demand for workers and pushes up wages.

The old CCC was hardly generous in compensation, paying the equivalent of less than $600 a month — raising the ire of organized labor, which saw it as depressing wages. A major purpose of Biden’s version, however, is not limiting costs but, as he puts it, “placing good-paying union jobs within reach for more Americans.” With that approach, he would load an unnecessarily heavy burden on taxpayers while reducing the number of projects his climate corps could complete.

There are plenty of climate-related undertakings and conservation efforts that warrant investments. But there is no particular reason to think a new CCC would be better suited for those tasks than existing agencies — whether it’s the state or federal Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, the Chicago Park District or hundreds of other state and local environmental, parks and conservation offices.

Instead of creating a new federal body, it would make more sense for Washington to channel funds to lower levels of government and let them figure out the most pressing needs in this realm — and the optimal way to address them. The CCC was right for its era — which doesn’t make it right for ours.

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