Proposed: CCC + RTC = Public Service Administration

21Sep08

The Civilian Conservation Corps employed thousands of jobless young men in the 1930s.  In exchange for room, board, and a stipend, they built state parks and other public works that have been enjoyed by generations of Americans.  The discipline instilled by that experience served those young men well, as they next turned to military service in World War II and then to the building of the U.S. as the richest country on Earth.  This is not to oversimplify the costs and dangers in that sequence of events; but as a general proposition, the creation of the CCC did have tangible positive effects in response to the employment crisis of the Great Depression.

The Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) was a temporary federal agency responsible for cleaning up after deregulation of the savings and loan industry led to its collapse in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  For all that the RTC achieved, it was an imperfect solution.  As an employee of that organization, I heard and encountered a great many instances of poor management, great waste, and sometimes stunning inefficiency.  Among the multiple causes of the organization’s sometimes chaotic operation, one was haste, both in its creation and in its termination.  It appeared that, in its early days, the corporation had disposed of immensely valuable properties in a fire-sale fashion; and toward the end, many RTC employees seemed to be spending a great deal of their time trying to arrange their own transfers from that sinking ship — which by law was to go out of existence in the not-too-distant future — to permanent federal jobs.

The country now faces multiple crises.  There is, among other things, a crisis in the financial system, of such magnitude as to shake the country’s economy to its core; a crisis in the nation’s infrastructure, such that major bridges can collapse or be at risk of doing so; and crises in Iraq and, even more so, in Afghanistan, where the nation’s wealth and military recruitment have so far been insufficient to finish the job to which we committed ourselves.  To rise to the challenges posed by these and other crises, it cannot be business as usual.

Something is wrong when there is so much work to be done, and yet so much fear that people will lose their jobs, and so much discouragement on the part of those who have no jobs and cannot find any.  In theory, the job market will take care of such things; but in reality, it does not, and in various ways it has always failed to do so.  The job market has never paid stay-at-home parents for their irreplaceable contributions to the future; it has rarely paid teachers enough for doing their part; and it has never found itself sufficiently motivated to put up an army to defend the country, a postal service to deliver our mail, or an agency to give us trustworthy tests of our prescription drugs.

National service is not simply a matter of people opting to go to the Peace Corps instead of getting drafted.  We now approach an era in which it may be both necessary and salutary to provide meaningful jobs to all who need them.  That may mean repairing bridges with a new CCC, or carrying a gun in the military.  It may also mean providing adequate staffing for the next RTC.  This time around, the bailout agency should have sufficient personnel and resources to prosecute cases against those who milked the banking system, and to get a competitive price for the assets of the failed banks and other organizations that it will be taking over.  Even in a time of greater computerization, there will be lots of boxes of paper to go through, and lots of transactions to scrutinize.

People are now talking about reregulation of the financial industry.  It would be fair to ask whether there should not also be improved regulation of infrastructure, so that we do not again have this experience of blowing money on SUVs and McMansions while failing to keep the water pipes working.  Regulation of the military would also be a good idea, in some sense of the term, to insure accountability and timely changes of course when a strategy is patently failing.  One could say much the same of the health care industry and the judicial system, both of which operate under regulations of a certain type, and yet substantially fail to provide affordable services to those most in need of them.

The needed sorts of regulations may be most intelligently developed and administered on the basis of practical familiarity with what went wrong before.  The job of a file clerk or grunt soldier is not necessarily just to do what someone else tells them.  It is also to think, ask questions, learn, report findings, and become knowledgeable in the better ways and worse ways to do things.  Theirs is the sort of knowledge that should inform future regulations.

Rather than create another RTC to come into existence and then vanish again, it may be time to create a problem-solving public service agency with a longer-term horizon.  With or without a competent president, the country does not need to keep lurching from one crisis to the next.  When the next Hurricane Katrina hits the next New Orleans — indeed, well before that happens — there should already be a combination of meaningful pre- and post-event plans in place.  This is a matter of having, administering, and revising regulations that people inside and outside the agency find relevant and useful on a daily basis.  Again, such regulations cannot just flow from the pen of an attorney who lays the onus on others to do whatever s/he says.  To work, regulations of these kinds should be developed and revised interactively and continually, through consultation with the people who are actually building those levees or digging through those file boxes.

The next crisis-response agency should not be a flash in the pan.  The U.S. is now at a place of needing a relatively stable repository of problem-solving knowledge and skill.  People who want to make a difference, regardless of skill level, should always be able to obtain employment in an enterprise dedicated to addressing the nation’s disasters.  That may mean the American Red Cross or the Army Corps of Engineers, working under contract with the proposed Public Service Administration (PSA); or it may mean the PSA itself, as it identifies and responds to the next short-term crisis or the next neglected long-term problem.

There are so many crises out there.  It may sound like what we need, really, is just for the government to start doing its job.  But the government has been doing its job.  The job of government, as we know it, is to do the work that now needs to be done, and to prepare for the work that is anticipated for the future.  Crises come, not from government failing to do its job, but from the job expanding faster than governmental budgets and political (and public) willpower can respond.  A public service administration, responding nimbly to an emergent issue, would strive to stay in touch with the messy realities, although certainly it may recommend or foster the creation or modification of agencies and regulations to handle the identified problem going forward.

The mission of the proposed public service agency is, ultimately, to institutionalize the concept of government by the people, for the people.  As we now know, neither a president nor a voter can reliably marshal enough knowledge, power, and long-term stamina to keep governmental institutions responsive to developing needs.  A problem-oriented public service agency — a sort of Ombudsman or Inspector General with executive power — would differ from agencies that deal with agriculture, education, or war.  Its commitment would be to an ethic of good government, no matter what type of issue it might be handling.  As such, it could inspire considerable popular enthusiasm, on into the indefinite future.

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