Old School Stimulus


From The New Yorker

As a teen-ager, when I lived outside of Washington D.C., I went backpacking with friends along the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine to Georgia. Every ten miles or so the white blazes that mark the main trail would intersect with blue blazes leading off to roughly constructed but reliably leak-proof shelters hewn from logs. Usually the shelters sat near freshwater springs. Sometimes, on a stump beside the lean-to, or on one of the walls, you could find a tarnished plaque commemorating the Civilian Conservation Corps and describing the date of the shelter’s construction during the nineteen-thirties. For an adolescent in the confusing, materialistic suburbs of the nineteen-seventies, these shelters were powerful artifacts; they made credible and specific our school-book pages about Great Depression and its improvisational-jobs programs. Like the older brothers of friends who came back to our bloodless sub-divisions shattered by Vietnam, the shelters suggested an invisible fault line of vulnerability running beneath our seemingly impermeable and prosperous neighborhoods. Still, if building such things was what sudden, unexpected destitution might require, it did not seem so bad-internally displaced but skilled men camped on Appalachian ridges to build something of quality that would last and serve the public. For years afterward, when confronted with the idealistic claims of public policy, I often pictured those shelters and the men who built them-as I’m sure many other A.T. hikers did, too.

Some of them, apparently, are the authors of Title VII of the stimulus bill, “Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies.” Its provisions for the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the Forest Service total just over $1.3 billion, by my calculations. At the B.L.M., the money is to be spent on “maintenance, rehabilitation, and restoration of facilities, properties, trails and lands.” At the N.P.S.: “Deferred maintenance of facilities and trails.” There are more twenty-first century elements in the Title, such as a large-scale investment in clean-water construction projects, and an emphasis on retrofits for energy-efficiency gains, but the evidence that it was influenced by New Deal nostalgia is made plain in Section 702 of its General Provisions:

In carrying out the work for which funds in this title are being made available, the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture shall utilize, where practicable, the Public Lands Corps, Youth Conservation Corps, Student Conservation Association, Job Corps and other related partnerships with Federal, State, local, tribal or non-profit groups that serve young adults.

And, where practicable, the young adults shall wear woolen clothing, and woolen hats, and they shall smoke unfiltered cigarettes, and their faces, while unwashed, shall shine with dignity.

One other throwback provision: Fifty million dollars for the National Endowment for the Arts. This is a sad pittance, less than one-tenth of one per cent of the bill’s total stimulus spending, and paltry in comparison to the Roosevelt-era investments in writers and culture. At its peak, in April 1936, the Federal Writers Project employed more than six thousand writers. American newspapers have recently announced layoffs of more than twelve thousand journalists. However, rather than employing them, I imagine many in government would be content to send them into the woods.

Copyright © 2009 Condé Nast. All rights reserved.

The New Yorker

Student Conservation Association