In an effort to start making sense of what is an indisputably confusing situation, we asked some of the most thoughtful people we know the question: How will America change as a result of the economic downturn? Here are Robert Gordon and James Kvaal, senior fellows at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Hard economic times usually hit not only our wallets, but also our spirits. Charitable giving goes down. And as Benjamin Friedman has explained, racial tension and nativist sentiment go up.
Friedman noted one great exception in American history, though, and it's the Great Depression. In recent weeks, experts have talked about the New Deal for its contributions to financial regulation, like the FDIC and the SEC. But at least as important to Americans 75 years ago were projects that engaged them more directly as citizens: the "boys" building schools and blazing trails, the blue eagles in shop windows, the murals. Unlike the War on Poverty three decades later, this was not an affluent society doing its duty. It was a broken society saving itself through work together. Roosevelt had said in his first inaugural, "These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men." So they did.
Friedman speculates about a few reasons why the Depression, unlike other difficult times in our history, led to a rebirth of civic spirit: the bankruptcy of conservatism, the buoyant leadership of Roosevelt, the utter vulnerability of most of the population.
Could a similar spirit move us now? While Bush botched his chance to call the "9/11 generation" to service, people clearly want to make a difference. More than 26 percent of Americans volunteered in 2007, just missing the record since data collection began in 1974, and six points higher than in 1989. Of special importance for the future, college students' political engagement and voluntarism are at record levels. And young people aren't just doing service; they are building organizations, with support from foundations like Echoing Green and Ashoka.
In a tight economy, the young idealists could use a hand from Washington. Ted Kennedy and, of all people, Orrin Hatch, recently introduced a national service bill together, and an expanded commitment on this front is one of the few things on which Obama and McCain agree. Given a chance to contribute, and not just to sit by while big brains rewrite banking laws in Washington, a "9/22 generation"--named after the day when the scale of this crisis became clear--may yet emerge.
One focus of their effort already is energy. The urgency about global warming and "energy independence" is striking, even compared to four years ago. Jimmy Carter was mocked for calling Americans to conserve more energy, but if the next president does not call for greater conservation, he will be the one mocked. We may as well think big: The original "green jobs" program, FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps, planted three billion trees.
One thing that shouldn't stand in the way is money. The deficit is expected to reach three percent of the economy in 2009. Even with the bailout package and a weaker economy, it is unlikely to pass the five percent deficit we saw in the early 1990s or the six percent deficit in 1934. Likewise our national debt is now only about 40 percent of our economy, compared to nearly 50 percent of the economy 15 years ago. We can afford a package that will lift our economy and our spirits, if that's what we choose.
E.J. Dionne just pointed out that Barack Obama's argument for hope against fear sounds a bit like FDR's. But so too does his call for engaged citizens to restore America's promise. Especially these days, a little civic service beats the hell out of tracking your 401(k).