FDR Put Humanity First. The Sequester Puts It Last.

FDR Put Humanity First. The Sequester Puts It Last.

FDR placed the needs of the American people above petty budgetary concerns, but today’s leaders lack his courage and vision.

In 1933 we reversed the policy of the previous Administration. For the first time since the depression you had a Congress and an Administration in Washington which had the courage to provide the necessary resources which private interests no longer had or no longer dared to risk.

This cost money. We knew, and you knew, in March, 1933, that it would cost money. We knew, and you knew, that it would cost money for several years to come. The people understood that in 1933. They understood it in 1934, when they gave the Administration a full endorsement of its policy. They knew in 1935, and they know in 1936, that the plan is working.—FDR, 1936

Eighty years ago this month, at the height of the worst economic crisis in our nation’s history, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered on his promise to launch a New Deal for the American people. Not wedded to any one program, idea, or ideology, the New Deal was founded on the very simple premise that when the free market failed to provide basic economic security for the average American, government had a responsibility to provide that security. In Roosevelt’s day, this meant imposing the first-ever meaningful regulation of the stock market, shoring up the nation’s financial system by guaranteeing private deposits and separating commercial from investment banking, and providing jobs to the millions of unemployed through government expenditures on infrastructure. The Roosevelt administration also launched the country’s first nationwide program of unemployment insurance to help the unemployed bridge the gap between jobs as well as Social Security to ensure that the elderly, after years of work and toil, would not suddenly find themselves utterly destitute.

Conservative critics of FDR’s polices say that these programs did not work—that unemployment remained high throughout the 1930s and that it was only World War II that brought us out of the Great Depression. As such, these same critics continually argue that the deficit spending that fueled the New Deal was the root cause of its inability to bring the unemployment rate down to acceptable levels. In short, they argue that government spending and government programs do not work, and that only the free market can provide the economic stimulus necessary to get the economy back on its feet again.

But as is the case today with the naysayers on climate change, the empirical evidence suggests that nothing could be further from the truth. During FDR’s first term, for example, the average annual growth rate for the U.S. economy was 11 percent. Compare that to the paltry 0.8 percent we witnessed in the first term of the Obama administration. The nationwide unemployment rate also fell, from its all-time high of 25 percent in 1933 to 14 percent by 1935, which at the time represented the largest and fastest drop in unemployment in our nation’s history.

But far more damning to the conservative critique is the argument that tries to invalidate the New Deal by positing that it was World War II and not the relief programs of the 1930s that brought us out of the Great Depression. Conservatives love to trumpet this fact and often use it as part of their argument against deficit spending, never stopping for a moment to consider that government expenditures—and deficits—in World War II made the New Deal look like small potatoes. In fact, deficit spending in the New Deal never topped 6 percent of GNP, while in World War II it ran as high as 28 percent. In other words, World War II was the New Deal on steroids. Viewed from this perspective, it is FDR’s critics on the left—not the right—who possess the stronger argument. The problem with the New Deal was that it did not go far enough. In other words, the government should have spent more money, not less, if it was going to be successful in bringing the economic crisis to an end.

All this is not to say that free enterprise is incapable of producing economic growth—it most certainly is. But there are times when capitalism, left to its own devices, can fail. Franklin Roosevelt was willing to acknowledge this, and he spent the better part of his tenure in office trying to put in place programs that would make capitalism work for the average American, not just those at the top. Hence, his agenda was not to subvert or destroy the free market system, but rather to save it.

It took vision and courage to launch the New Deal—the vision to understand that when the free market systems falls short or fails, government has a responsibility to take direct measures to get the economy moving again, and the courage to engage in deficit spending at a time when orthodox economic theory argued that the only proper response to an economic recession or depression was to slash government spending and balance the budget.

Unfortunately, the leadership we possess in Washington today lacks the vision and the courage to follow FDR’s example and put in place the sort of common-sense programs that would stimulate the economy and put people back to work. Instead of providing jobs for millions by spending money on our failing infrastructure—now ranked 24th in the world—or investing in programs that would reverse the falling education rates of our children, or providing greater federal support for the basic scientific research that may unlock untold benefits for future generations, we instead speak of nothing but the deficit and the sequester, as if cutting spending in the midst of recession is the magic bullet that will lead us out of our economic malaise.

Franklin Roosevelt faced similar critics, who, much like today’s deficit hawks, insisted that he must cut spending and balance the budget no matter what the consequences for the average American. But FDR would have none of this. “To balance our budget in 1933 or 1934 or 1935,” he said,

would have been a crime against the American people. To do so we should either have had to make a capital levy that would have been confiscatory, or we should have had to set our face against human suffering with callous indifference. When Americans suffered, we refused to pass by on the other side. Humanity came first.

As it turns out, FDR’s decision to put “humanity first” was not only the right moral decision, it was also the right economic decision. For the deficit spending that he finally unleashed in World War II, coupled with the social and economic reforms put in place during the New Deal, led to one of the longest periods of economic prosperity in America’s history and the birth of the modern American middle class.

Sadly, all of the evidence to date suggests that our leaders in Washington are quite happy “to pass by on the other side” and let the sequester proceed without so much as a fight. With roughly 16 million people across the country still unemployed, this is surely “a crime against the American people.”

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

Cross-posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Bad GDP Report Is A Warning Not To Create Another Roosevelt Recession

The Bad GDP Report Is A Warning Not To Create Another Roosevelt Recession

President Obama should begin his second term much like the first and demand stimulus to bolster a sagging economy.

The only real capital of a nation is its natural resources and its human beings. So long as we take care of and make the most of both of them, we shall survive as a strong nation, a successful nation and a progressive nation—whether or not the bookkeepers say other kinds of budgets are from time to time out of balance.

This capital structure—natural resources and human beings—has to be maintained at all times. The plant has to be kept up and new capital put in year by year to meet increasing needs. If we skimp on that capital, if we exhaust our natural resources and weaken the capacity of our human beings, then we shall go the way of all weak nations. —Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1938

In a somewhat surprising announcement, the Commerce Department noted yesterday that the U.S. economy actually shrank in the fourth quarter of last year, contracting by 0.1 percent. This sharp decline from the 3.1 percent growth rate posted in the previous quarter has not as yet lead to widespread fears that the United States is about to enter another recession, but given that much of the cause of the decline can be attributed to cuts in government spending, some economists worry that this news is but a harbinger of things to come. We are, after all, facing another government-manufactured showdown on March 1, as well as a possible government shutdown near the end of March when the stopgap measure financing the federal government expires. Then there is the expected fight over raising the federal debt ceiling, which could lead the U.S. to default on its debts.

Most economists agree that the uncertainty brought about by the dysfunctional nature of Washington is having a negative effect on the economy. But we hear little about the direct effects that cuts in government spending have had on job growth. How many Americans, for example, are aware that one of the primary drivers of our persistently high unemployment rate is the sharp decline in public sector employment—the massive layoffs of teachers, firefighters, police officers, and other public sector employees over the past two years? We might also ask how many Americans recognize that one of the primary ways President Obama managed to stop the downward economic spiral at the start of his first term was through the funding of public sector jobs via the stimulus funds that were channeled to state and local governments. Indeed, it was the expiration of that federal support, and Congress’s refusal to support the president’s modest request for additional federal dollars to support state and local governments in his jobs bill, that initiated the recent public sector decline.

Now at the start of President Obama’s second term, with the U.S. economy still in a very fragile state, we are reminded once again of the direct link between government spending and jobs. For it was the deep cuts in federal defense spending that helped push the economy into negative territory in the past quarter.

One would assume, in the face of such economic realities, that Congress would support the type of modest spending proposals President Obama put forward in the American Jobs Act. But rather than provide funding for the employment of teachers, firefighters, police officers, and the like, rather than put hard-pressed Americans to work rebuilding our dismal infrastructure (now rated 23rd in the world), Congress would rather engage in another endless round of bickering about the perils of deficit spending. Once again heeding the siren song of the deficit hawks, those soothsayers of doom who insist that without an immediate and massive reduction in the level of federal spending we face an imminent economic collapse.

Interestingly, roughly three-quarters of a century ago President Roosevelt faced a similar argument at the start of his second term. Thanks to the stimulus spending of the New Deal, the U.S. economy had been growing at an average annual rate of over 11 percent. Fearing inflation, his more conservative economic advisors, like Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, urged the president to cut spending, balance the budget, and tighten the money supply. But the U.S. economy—which had seen the largest drop in the unemployment rate in history—was still fragile, and the results of the spending cuts were a disaster. Unemployment shot up, industrial production declined, and the country soon found itself in the midst of a recession.

Thankfully, FDR quickly reversed course, and his re-instigation of the essentially Keynesian economic policies (counter-cyclical deficit spending) he had been following since the start of his tenure as president soon turned the U.S. economy around. But the cost to the American people and to FDR’s political fortunes was high. Millions lost their jobs unnecessarily, and the president took a real beating in the 1938 midterm elections, rendering his social and economic reform agenda much more difficult to accomplish.

President Obama, who is fond of history, might do well to study what happened to FDR in 1937. At the very least he should not give up on his demand that Congress provide a modest level of support for further federal spending on behalf of state and local governments. He should also insist on further federal spending on infrastructure. As FDR once said, these measures do not represent wasteful spending; they represent an investment in the American people, an investment in what he liked to call “human capital.” Human capital whose health and well-being was not only critical for the present but also for the future. Indeed, FDR insisted that:

Before we can think straight as a nation, we have to consider, in addition to the old kind, a new kind of government balance sheet—a long-range sheet which shows survival values for our population and for our democratic way of living, balanced against what we have paid for them. Judged by that test—history’s test—I venture to say that the long-range budget of the present Administration of our government has been in the black and not in the red.

Let us hope that the president and Congress will take heed of this lesson. For, like FDR, they too will one day have to pass the test of history.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New DealBlog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

FDR’s 47 Percent: Will The Democrats Finally Heed Their Voices?

FDR’s 47 Percent: Will The Democrats Finally Heed Their Voices?

President Obama should use the fiscal cliff to shift the debate away from deficits and take on the inequality that’s undermining our democracy.

It has been well said that “the freest government, if it could exist, would not be long acceptable, if the tendency of the laws were to create a rapid accumulation of property in few hands, and to render the great mass of the population dependent and penniless…”

We believe in a way of living in which political democracy and free private enterprise for profit should serve and protect each other—to ensure a maximum of human liberty not for a few but for all…

Today many Americans ask the uneasy question: Is the vociferation that our liberties are in danger justified by the facts?

…Their answer is that if there is that danger it comes from that concentrated private economic power which is struggling so hard to master our democratic government.—Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1938

In his remarks on the so-called “fiscal cliff,” and in numerous campaign speeches, President Obama has repeatedly remarked that “we can’t just cut our way to prosperity,” and that “if we’re serious about reducing the deficit, we have to combine spending cuts with revenue. And that means asking the wealthiest Americans to pay a little more in taxes.” The president has also said that he is “not wedded to every detail” of his current plan to reduce the deficit and that he is open to compromise. But he also has made it plain, as he did in his recent remarks at the White House, that he will refuse to accept any approach that isn’t balanced; that he is “not going to ask students and seniors and middle-class families to pay down the entire deficit while people like me making over $250,000 aren’t asked to pay a dime more in taxes.”

For the millions of Americans who remain out of work, or are struggling with hourly wages that when adjusted for inflation stand where they were in 1978, this is welcome news. But the president’s focus on taxes and the deficit is only part of the story. What the country really needs, according to most economists, is more stimulus, for the best way to reduce the deficit is to expand the economy, which would of course result in more government revenue.

The president has certainly made reference to this, and he has included a modest $50 billion in stimulus spending in his recent budget proposal to Congress, but for the most part the public discourse on how to avoid the “fiscal cliff” and fix our economy has been centered not on jobs or the vast structural inequality that now separates the top 1-2 percent from the rest of us, but on the deficit. This is unfortunate, for it means, in essence, that the country’s economic agenda is still very much in the hands of the conservative right; that we are still focused not on the cause of our economic woes—a collapsed economy brought on by the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression—but on the by-product: the vast fall-off in federal, state, and local revenue that naturally came about as a result of this collapse.

A far better exercise would be to move away from the right’s obsession with the deficit and open up a conversation with the American people about a far more critical issue facing the nation: the ever-widening gulf between the rich and the rest of us and the very real consequences that this disparity in income has had on our economy and indeed on the very nature of our democracy.

Roughly three-quarters of a century ago, when faced with a similar set of circumstances—including a conservative right that was fond of labeling his policies Socialist—Franklin Roosevelt did not shy away from addressing the conditions that led to the collapse of the world’s economy. He well understood—as did the millions of Americans who lived in or on the threshold of poverty—that “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself.” He also understood that “the Federal debt, whether it be twenty-five billions or forty billions, can only be paid if the Nation obtains a vastly increased citizen income…The higher the national income goes the faster will we be able to reduce the total of Federal and state and local debts. Viewed from every angle, today’s purchasing power—the citizens’ income of today—is not at this time sufficient to drive the economic system of America at higher speed.”

Taking note of this—and in a reference to the bottom half of the U.S. population that today sounds all too familiar—FDR observed in a speech on the perils of monopoly that:

47 percent of all American families and single individuals living alone had incomes of less than $1,000 for the year; and at the other end of the ladder a little less than 1 1/2 percent of the nation’s families received incomes which in dollars and cents reached the same total as the incomes of the 47 percent at the bottom…

This clearly was unacceptable, he went on, for:

No people, least of all a democratic people, will be content to go without work or to accept some standard of living which obviously and woefully falls short of their capacity to produce. No people, least of all a people with our traditions of personal liberty, will endure the slow erosion of opportunity for the common man, the oppressive sense of helplessness under the domination of a few, which are overshadowing our whole economic life.

Hence, for Roosevelt it was the economic plight of the average American—not the deficit—that was the key not only to the restoration of our economy, but also to the health and well-being of our democratic system of government; even to our very way of life.

The debate over the so-called fiscal cliff and the showdown between President Obama and Congress over what to do about it has attracted a great deal of attention from the media. But rather than fall into another round of endless bickering with the budget hawks about the deficit, the president should use this opportunity to remind the American people—as FDR did all those years ago—that an economy and a political system built on fundamental inequality is simply not sustainable. If we really want to help the 47 percent, our highest priority should be to adopt policies based on the fundamental idea that “political democracy and free private enterprise for profit should serve and protect each other,” not just the wealthy few at the top.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

Cross-posted from The Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a nonprofit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Obama’s Second Term Could Mark the Return Of The Four Freedoms

Obama’s Second Term Could Mark the Return Of The Four Freedoms

As part of our series “A Rooseveltian Second-Term Agenda,” a call to return to a foreign policy based on FDR’s vision of shared peace and prosperity.

Even though we come from different places, we share common dreams: to choose our leaders; to live together in peace; to get an education and make a good living; to love our families and our communities. That’s why freedom is not an abstract idea; freedom is the very thing that makes human progress possible—not just at the ballot box, but in our daily lives.

One of our greatest presidents in the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, understood this truth. He defined America’s cause as more than the right to cast a ballot. He understood democracy was not just voting. He called upon the world to embrace four fundamental freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. These four freedoms reinforce one another, and you cannot fully realize one without realizing them all.—Barack H. Obama, University of Yangon, November 19, 2012

In his historic visit to Burma, also referred to as Myanmar, President Obama spoke at length about the journey Burma is taking from dictatorship to democracy, a transition he said has the potential to inspire people the world over as “a test of whether a country can transition to a better place.”

President Obama made it clear that his journey to Burma—the first by an American president—was inspired in part by his own desire to encourage the people and government of Burma to press ahead with their democratic reforms so that the “flickers of progress” that the world has seen will not be extinguished. The president’s visit was also notable for his repeated insistence that America was a “Pacific nation,” whose “future was bound to those nations and peoples to our West.” But perhaps the most significant aspect of his speech was his decision to frame his remarks around a concept first articulated by Franklin D. Roosevelt at one of the darkest moments of the Second World War—the need to build a world founded on four fundamental human freedoms.

At a moment when Adolf Hitler had proclaimed the onset of “a new order” in Nazi-occupied Europe, and when Japanese militarists had seized much of China and were poised to expand their grip on Southeast Asia, Franklin Roosevelt proposed “a greater conception,” a “moral order” that represented the very antithesis of the “tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.” FDR’s order was based on the idea that all people—“everywhere in the world”—deserved the right to enjoy freedom of speech and expression; freedom of worship; freedom from want; and freedom from fear.

He articulated this vision in part because of the critical need to gain the support of the American people and Congress for the passage of the Lend-Lease Bill that was pending on Capitol Hill. But the enunciation of the Four Freedoms and initiation of Lend-Lease—which would make it possible for the United States to provide arms and munitions to Great Britain free of charge—was also inspired by a much deeper conviction: that the security of the United States was tied directly to the health and well-being of other nations.

For many Americans today, World War II and the Great Depression are two separate events. But for the generation that lived through these unparalleled crises, nothing could be farther from the truth. In their minds, and in the mind of Franklin Roosevelt, the two were inextricably linked. The Great Depression, after all, was not confined to the United States, but represented a worldwide economic crisis that helped inspire anti-democratic forces in both Europe and Asia—anti-democratic forces that helped give rise to the fascist movements in Germany and in Japan that would initiate the most destructive war in human history.

In light of this, Franklin Roosevelt remained convinced that the Second World War had economic causes. Moreover, as the war progressed, he became more and more convinced that America’s security was tied to the security of the rest of the world. As such, it was not enough for the United States to rely solely on the strength of its armed forces to provide for the nation’s safety; we also had to concern ourselves with the political, social, and economic health of other regions of the world since, as FDR put it in 1944, “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence”…and “people who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

It was this basic idea that inspired not only the Four Freedoms, but also the many institutions and practices that were put in place during and after the war to foster international cooperation and a more prosperous, healthy, and peaceful world. Many of these institutions and practices—like the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and multilateral trading regime—are with us still, so that much of the world we live in today is the world shaped by the vision of Franklin Roosevelt.

In recent years, however, we seem to have moved further and further away from this vision to a foreign policy that is dominated largely by the use of military force—no doubt inspired in part by the advent of modern technology, such as drone aircraft. This is unfortunate, for even though President Obama has shown willingness to use other means to pursue America’s interests abroad, his foreign policy to date has remained highly militarized.

His eloquent speech in Burma may indicate that he has decided to pursue a more progressive foreign policy agenda in his second term, one based on the recognition that the best means to keep America safe in the long term is to ensure that the hopes and aspirations of people the world over to enjoy freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear stand not, as Roosevelt said, as some “vision of a distant millennium,” but as “a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

Cross-posted from The Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a nonprofit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Memo To Romney: America’s Greatest Presidents All Used Government To Increase Prosperity

As part of the How We Value Government series, a reminder that while America has benefited from the free market, we wouldn’t be anywhere without the government playing a major role in the economy — and our entire society.

In his Wisconsin primary victory speech, presidential aspirant Mitt Romney made some interesting observations about Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Abraham Lincoln. He seemed to indicate that he admires them, as they were what he termed “historically great” presidents. He then went on to chide the current president for having the audacity to think of himself in the same league as these three great former leaders. He described the coming presidential election at great length as a historic choice between what he termed a “government-centered society” and a “society led by free people and free enterprises.”

In making these observations, Mr. Romney made no attempt to rectify the fundamental contradiction in his remarks. He either failed to see, or decided to conveniently ignore, the fact that the three “historically great” presidents (one Republican and two Democratic) he made reference to at the opening of his remarks all shared one thing in common: a fundamental belief in the positive use of government to help expand the economy and provide a greater degree of economic opportunity and social justice for all Americans — not just those at the top of the income ladder.

It was President Lincoln, for example, who in 1862 signed such pieces of legislation as the Homestead Act, which issued 160 acres of Federal land west of the Mississippi River at little or no cost to any adult citizen who had not borne arms against the United States, provided they agreed to improve the land. He also signed the Morill Act, which donated 30,000 acres of federal land to a number of states and territories that could then be sold by the state to provide the revenue needed to fund public colleges and universities. The result was the establishment of over 60 “land-grant” colleges and universities across the country, including Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison (the very state in which Mr. Romney made his remarks about the evils of a “government-centered” society). The Homestead Act greatly accelerated the settlement of U.S. territory in the West and was a boon to the overall economy. The establishment of “land-grant” colleges and universities brought the dream of higher education to tens of thousands — indeed, millions — of low-income farmers and workers who had previously been denied that opportunity, which had untold benefits in science, technology, and the liberal arts.

FDR brought us the most comprehensive banking and financial reform in U.S. history. He established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a number of other important laws that restored confidence in the country’s financial and banking sector not only among the American people, but also among the business community. In using government in this way, the Roosevelt administration laid the basis for the overall growth of the financial sector for decades to come. FDR also greatly expanded the country’s economic infrastructure through a massive effort to update the country’s antiquated roads, bridges, airports, and other facilities, all of which helped propel the expansion of the economy in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and beyond. He also signed the National Labor Relations Act into law, which encouraged higher wages through the unionization of the workforce and, near the end of his life, pushed through the GI Bill, which allowed thousands of returning World War II veterans the chance to secure further job training or access to higher education. Both of those efforts helped make the post-1945 U.S. economy the envy of the world.

The Johnson administration gave us the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and ‘65, which began the long, slow process of ending racial discrimination in America. It gave us Medicare and Medicaid to provide the elderly and low-income individuals with access to health care. Head Start and the Higher Education Act of 1965 helped low-income families secure a better education for their children. The Truth-in-Lending Act helped protect consumers from abusive lending practices. These and a host of other initiatives were designed to build a “Great Society” that would provide everyday Americans with a greater measure of social security and economic opportunity.

In short, all of these “historically great” presidents used government as a tool to improve the lives of working Americans through a host of important initiatives that not only helped render the United States a more just and equitable society, but also helped expand our economy by increasing the level of economic opportunity.

Ignoring all of this, Mr. Romney insists that it is only “free enterprise” and the “free enterprise system” that can lift people out of poverty, educate our kids, and build a strong middle class. He claims that this is the one true path to economic prosperity and as such says he is running for president because he wants to “restore to America the economic values of freedom and limited government that has made us the powerhouse of the world.”

But in making this claim, Mr. Romney misreads our history. There is no question that the United States and the American people have benefited tremendously over the years from the fruits of the free enterprise system. But the notion that our government has not played a major part in this success story ignores the facts. Ask yourself where we might be today without the innovations of such institutions as MIT or Cornell University, if our banking system was not backed by the FDIC, or what sort of social security system we might have if we had turned over the Social Security Trust Fund to the private equity markets prior to the recent financial crisis. Also ask yourself if you really think the financial sector would be better off without the SEC or if it really is fair that Warren Buffett’s secretary pays a higher rate of tax than her employer.

History teaches us that the true story of America is one of enlightened leadership in the creative use of government to unleash the creative energies of the American people. History also reminds us that the free market, left unchecked, can bring the country to financial ruin. Mr. Romney refuses to acknowledge this. Instead, he claims that President Obama is wrong to focus so much of his attention on finding government-led solutions to our current problems. Meanwhile, he mocks him for even attempting to aspire to the greatness of a Lincoln, Roosevelt, or Johnson — the three of our presidents who, perhaps more than any others, understood that there are times when, as FDR put it, the American citizen, in seeking to rectify economic inequality and injustice, “could only appeal to the organized power of government.”

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

FDR’s Response To Pearl Harbor: Economic Freedom As Vital National Security Policy

In the aftermath of the day which will live in infamy, President Roosevelt understood that ensuring human rights, particularly the right to economic wellbeing, was the only way to stave off extremism.

Mr. Vice President, and Mr. Speaker, and Members of the Senate and House of Representatives:

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan…

The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our Nation…

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory…

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire. –Franklin D. Roosevelt, December 8, 1941

It was 70 years ago today that the myth of American invulnerability came to a sudden and dramatic end. On that day, wave after wave of Japanese bombers attacked the sleeping base at Pearl Harbor and in their destruction helped usher in a new era in American and world history.

Like virtually all other Americans, FDR was shocked and outraged at the events that occurred that Sunday morning. But in other respects, the events at Pearl Harbor confirmed what he and many of his advisors already knew about the state of the world in the mid-20th century: It was a much smaller place. In an “air age,” the distances across seemingly vast oceans had been dramatically reduced. If one looked at a map of the world from the perspective of the North Pole — as FDR was wont to do — the continents of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres seemed to almost touch one another.

These observations may seem commonplace to us today with our satellite communications and intercontinental ballistic missiles. But in 1941, they were quite profound and to a large extent reflected, as the historian Alan Henrikson has written, the “mental map” that Franklin Roosevelt had developed over years of interest in geography, map reading, and even the collecting of stamps from far-off lands.

FDR, in short, had a profound understanding of the physical make-up of the planet. As such, he tended to see the world as a single community made up of neighboring states inhabited by peoples who shared many of the same hopes and aspirations. He also believed that “people who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” One only had to look at the catastrophic decade of the 1930s, with its global economic crisis and the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia, for confirmation of this sad truth.

For Roosevelt, then, the Second World War, as he called it, was as much about the perils of economic depravity as it was about blatant international aggression, for the latter was one of the by-products of the former. In a very real sense, therefore, the welfare of peoples living in the heretofore distant corners of the earth had a direct bearing on the welfare of the people of the United States. The war in fact proved beyond a doubt that the two were inextricably linked. The hardship suffered in one part of the world — hardship that led to the creation of the most brutally aggressive regimes history had ever seen — had now reaped its destruction upon America itself.

It was for these reasons that FDR implored the American people in their “righteous might” to not only help him “win through to absolute victory,” but also to help create a world, as he said nearly a year before, founded on four essential human freedoms: Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. For by helping to establish these rights, including the right to live free from hunger and fear — “everywhere in the world” — the United States would render itself far more secure and much less likely to have to face an even greater conflagration in the future.

In light of these revelations, FDR did all he could to convince the American people that the United States had to play an active role in world affairs. He felt it was critical that the “United Nations” — the long forgotten name of the wartime alliance created just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor — continue to strive for peace and prosperity after the war was over. He sought to work with our friends and allies to build the necessary institutions, such as the United Nations Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, to reorder the world’s economic system and facilitate great power cooperation in the postwar world.

Of course, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, FDR also accelerated the build-up of American arms, including a massive expansion of the U.S. Army Air Force, and engaged in a significant restructuring of American defense and intelligence capabilities. This led to the creation of the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the postwar Central Intelligence and National Security Agencies — all designed to transform American foreign policy into what might best be called National Security Policy.

But in the long run, FDR understood that American military and economic power were not enough to provide the kind of security the American people desired in the wake of the day of infamy. Equally important was moral leadership — the promotion and adherence to the rule of law, democratic values, and basic human rights, including the all-important right of every person to enjoy basic economic security.

Today, as we look around the globe, we can see that FDR’s assessment of the basic hopes and aspirations of peoples the world over to live in a world based on his four fundamental human freedoms is as strong as ever. The evidence is clear in recent events in the Middle East, Moscow, and here at home in Zuccotti Park. The United States may face a future where our status as the world’s leading economy may one day no longer be certain, but the values that inspired the valiant men and women who fought the Second World War can and should remain a beacon of hope to all those who aspire to live in a more prosperous and peaceful world.

As FDR reminded us seven decades ago: “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them… To that high concept there can be no end save victory.”

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book on U.S.-UK economic relations in the 1930s, entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

A Feast For The 1 Percent, A Famine For The One Third

As we celebrate this Thanksgiving, we should remember that 100 million of our fellow citizens are struggling to get by.

[H]ere is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens — a substantial part of its whole population — who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.

I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.

I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.

I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.

I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions.

I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

-Franklin D. Roosevelt, January 20, 1937

Nearly three quarters of a century ago, Franklin Roosevelt rededicated himself and his administration to the creation of an America where the government and the people alike would strive to eliminate the destructive and unjust disparities of wealth that had wrought such great economic hardship that they threatened to undermine the very essence of our democracy. Thanks to this commitment, generations of Americans embraced the idea that, as President Obama once said, “in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play.”

But in a disturbing article published earlier this week, the New York Times took note of the growing number of Americans whose hard work and responsibility have not brought them the measure of economic security they deserve. Struggling with incomes that stand just above the poverty line, they are labeled the “near poor.” This diverse group of individuals and families lives paycheck to paycheck under the constant threat of economic ruin, often working multiple jobs at low wages that have remained stagnant for decades. According to data that has yet to be published by the Census Bureau, the number of “near poor” in the United States has risen to 51 million individuals, which, as the Times reports, places approximately 100 million people, or one in three Americans, “either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it.”

The fact that one in three Americans now lives in poverty or just above the poverty line provides us with another distressing link between the Great Recession and the Great Depression. It harkens back to Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Inaugural Address, when, after noting the nation’s economic progress since the beginning of his first term, he challenged the American people to do better and join him in an effort to “paint out” from our national canvas the sight of “one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”

It was true, Roosevelt said, that since the day of his fist inauguration, the country had made great strides in reversing the downward economic spiral that had gripped the nation in paralyzing fear. Faced with an unprecedented economic catastrophe, the people of the republic had dedicated themselves “to the fulfillment of a vision — to speed the time when there would be for all the people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness.” But, he went on, “our covenant with ourselves did not stop there. Instinctively we recognized a deeper need — the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization.”

In that purpose, he continued:

…we have been helped by achievements of mind and spirit… We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays. We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.

This new understanding undermines the old admiration of worldly success as such. We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life.

It is odd that in this time of Thanksgiving, one hears little about the millions of Americans trapped in or threatened by poverty or the need to fashion a society where the “elementary decencies of life” — a job with a decent wage, access to health care and higher education — are within the reach of all. It is even more perplexing that in a time of serious economic depravity, the focal point of our all-but-dysfunctional Congress is not how “to find through government the instrument of our united purpose” but how to obstruct the very sort of structural reforms needed to help average Americans secure better lives for themselves and their children.

Part of this stems from the blind faith that free market fundamentalists have falsely promoted as the solution to all of our problems and from the inordinate amount of money that now flows from Wall Street to Washington, creating a new Gilded Age where the 400 wealthiest individuals in the United States possess more wealth than the bottom 150 million combined. But another part of it stems from our own misguided perception of what constitutes wealth and progress. In this second Gilded Age, wealth and progress have come to mean one and the same thing — the acquisition of an inordinate amount of capital or other assets by an individual, often obtained through mere financial transactions.

For Roosevelt, however — and for much of his generation — the definition of wealth and progress was much more in keeping with the spirit of Thanksgiving. “Happiness,” as FDR famously said in his First Inaugural Address, “lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.” Four years later, he added that the “test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

For the 100 million citizens of our nation now struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, these words sadly offer little comfort, for it appears we have abandoned the noble effort of the Depression generation to paint the specter of poverty out of our national canvas.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book on U.S.-UK economic relations in the 1930s, entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

2012: 1932 Redux?

If Congress continues to obstruct efforts to revive the economy, today’s incumbents may suffer the same fate as Herbert Hoover.

The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.

We need enthusiasm, imagination, and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely. We need to correct, by drastic means if necessary, the faults in our economic system from which we now suffer.

-Franklin D. Roosevelt, May 22, 1932

Seventy-nine years ago today, on November 8, 1932, the people of the United States elected Franklin D. Roosevelt President of the United States. No one was absolutely sure what FDR would do as president, but everyone understood that the United States — and much of the rest of the world — was in deep trouble.

Since the start of the Great Depression three years earlier, unemployment had climbed above 20 percent, average annual family income had fallen by 40 percent, and thousands of banks had closed their doors, wiping out the savings of 9 million individual bank accounts. Roughly half of all the home mortgages in the United States were in default, with another 1,000 homes going under every day. American industry had all but collapsed. To take but one example, in 1929 United States Steel Corporation had 225,000 full-time employees; by the end of 1932 it had no full-time employees save its corporate officers and a mere handful of part-time workers. The same was true in the financial sector, where overall stock market values had declined by 85 percent since their high in September 1929.

The human side of this story is even more distressing. In its November 1932 issue, The Nation estimated that approximately 20 million Americans — one sixth the total population — were at risk of starvation during the coming winter. By the end of the year, more than 2 million homeless people were roaming the streets looking for work or relief, of which approximately 200,000 were children — mostly boys under the age of 14. In the coal mining regions of West Virginia and Kentucky, over 90 percent of the young were already suffering from malnutrition, as were more than 160,000 young people in New York City.

In the face of such a devastating crisis, FDR came to the conclusion that the forces of the market place had failed to deliver basic economic security to millions upon millions of Americans. He rejected the laissez-faire ideology that dominated the 1920s and understood that the forces of greed and avarice — led by what his cousin Theodore Roosevelt called “the malefactors of great wealth” — had created such an imbalance in our economic system that without immediate, significant reform, the U.S. might find itself in the throes of a revolution. This became all too clear with the rise of fascism and other forms of totalitarianism in parts of Europe and Asia.

In essence, FDR believed that for democracy to work, capitalism had to work — not for the few, but for all. He dedicated himself to the idea that against the forces of “economic tyranny” that had brought about this great crisis, “the American citizen could only turn to the organized power of government.”

It was out of this basic conviction that FDR launched the New Deal, not to destroy the free market system, but to save it. Under his guidance the American people embraced the notion that in a complex modern industrial society the government can and must serve as the primary instrument of social and economic justice. It was this simple philosophy that brought us Social Security, unemployment insurance, banking and financial reform, the minimum wage, the right of labor to organize, and a host of other reforms that fundamentally altered the relationship between the American people and their government. The New Deal also offered millions of unemployed the dignity of work — the chance for the laborers, architects, artists, and engineers of this great nation to build much of the economic, artistic, and environmental infrastructure that we still enjoy today.

Above all, FDR understood — as he said in his first inaugural — that “this nation asks for action and action now.” Thanks to the support he enjoyed among most congressional Democrats and a significant number of liberal Republicans, he was able to push through the most significant slate of legislative reforms in our nation’s history. In doing so, he not only helped alleviate a great deal of economic suffering but also restored the American people’s faith in democratic government.

There is no question that a good share of the support FDR received in his campaign for the White House in 1932 stemmed from his repeated calls for action and his criticism of the lack of initiative on the part the Hoover administration to meet the economic crisis. After more than two years of unemployment at or above 9 percent, the mood of the electorate today is not all that different than it was in 1932. Polls show a mixture of anxiety, despair, and frustration at Congress’s refusal to pass common sense measures — like President Obama’s jobs bill — that would offer some relief to the millions of unemployed Americans.

To date, the deficit hawks in Congress seem unconcerned about the cost of their obstructionism, but if 1932 is any guide, this may prove a risky strategy for the coming election. To paraphrase FDR, the American people may tire of a “hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing government” — except that this time they may take out their frustration not on the president, but on Congress.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book on U.S.-UK economic relations in the 1930s, entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.