David B. Woolner

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow

Recent Posts by David B. Woolner

  • The State of the Union Then and Now: Raising the Minimum Wage is Still a Good Idea

    Jan 29, 2014David B. Woolner

    Decades after FDR called for a national minimum wage, the debate continues -- and his arguments for it still ring true.

    Decades after FDR called for a national minimum wage, the debate continues -- and his arguments for it still ring true.

    We have not only seen minimum wage and maximum hour provisions prove their worth economically and socially under government auspices in 1933, 1934 and 1935, but the people of this country, by an overwhelming vote, are in favor of having the Congress—this Congress—put a floor below which industrial wages shall not fall, and a ceiling beyond which the hours of industrial labor shall not rise. – Franklin D. Roosevelt, State of the Union Address, January 3, 1938

    In calling for an increase in the minimum wage in his State of the Union address, President Obama may have unwittingly echoed Franklin D. Roosevelt. For it was in the sixth year of FDR’s presidency, in the annual message to Congress that FDR delivered on January 3, 1938, that Roosevelt reiterated his increasingly vehement call for the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act—the very law that would establish the national minimum wage.

    In proposing the legislation, FDR used many of the same arguments that President Obama used to counter the conservative opposition that insisted—much as the conservative right does today—that the federal government has no business trying to increase the purchasing power of the average worker, and that the enactment of a national minimum wage law would hurt business and increase unemployment. Opposition in the largely non-union and racially segregated South—where there was a huge differential between the wages of white and black workers—was especially intense, and thanks to the actions of Southern Democrats in both the House and Senate, who had joined with conservative Republicans in the formation of an anti-New Deal coalition, passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act was not going to be easy.

    To counter these arguments, FDR appealed, as he often did, to the moral sensibilities of the American people, insisting that government had “a final responsibility for the well-being of its citizenship” and this included enacting “legislation to end starvation wages and intolerable hours.” Furthermore, there were sound economic reasons to pass wage and hours legislation. In an earlier address on the subject, using language that is especially relevant to President Obama’s call for an increase in overseas exports, FDR observed that:

    American industry has searched the outside world to find new markets—but it can create on its very doorstep the biggest and most permanent market it has ever seen… A few more dollars a week in wages, a better distribution of jobs with a shorter working day will almost overnight make millions of our lowest-paid workers actual buyers of billions of dollars of industrial and farm products. That increased volume of sales ought to lessen other cost of production so much that even a considerable increase in labor costs can be absorbed without imposing higher prices on the consumer. I am a firm believer in fully adequate pay for all labor. But right now I am most greatly concerned in increasing the pay of the lowest-paid labor—those who are our most numerous consuming group but who today do not make enough to maintain a decent standard of living or to buy the food, and the clothes and the other articles necessary to keep our factories and farms fully running.

    Interestingly, a group of over 600 economists, including seven Nobel laureates, recently issued an open letter calling on President Obama and the congressional leadership in both parties to raise the minimum wage, arguing, as FDR did, that “the weight of evidence” shows that an increase in the minimum wage will “have little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers, even during times of weakness in the labor market.”

    It seems incredible that we should still be locked in the same debate about the moral and economic impact of an increase in the minimum wage more than three-quarters of a century later, at a time when even the McDonald’s Corporation had to admit after its own internal analysis that its minimum-wage workers could not survive on what they were receiving without the addition of a second job.

    In 1938, Franklin Roosevelt argued that if we want to move “resolutely to extend the frontiers of social progress, we must… ever bear in mind that our objective is to improve and not to impair the standard of living of those who are now undernourished, poorly clad and ill-housed.” The Fair Labor Standards Act, which was signed into law on June 25, 1938, has helped improve the lives of millions of American workers—especially those at the bottom rung of the income scale—through its recognition of need to establish a minimum wage and through the provision that provides time and a half for overtime work. But in order for the law to be effective and have meaning, the minimum wage must keep up with the cost of living, and, as President Obama noted in last night’s address, the real wage of the average American worker has been in decline for decades when adjusted for inflation.

    If Congress is serious about improving and not impairing the lives of the millions of working poor in this country, then it is high time to heed the president’s call to “give America a raise” and increase the minimum wage. To fail to do so would be yet another example of the callous indifference—most recently exemplified by the failure of Congress to extend long-term unemployment benefits—that those in positions of wealth and power have shown for the plight of the millions of Americans who struggle day by day to get by on wages that force even those working full-time to live a life of poverty. Indeed, the inability or unwillingness of this Congress to act on behalf of the most vulnerable in our society brings to mind the words of the late Pete Seeger, who died this week, when he sang, “which side are you boys, which side are you on?”

    David B. Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. 

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  • Progressivism in America: Are We Opening a New Chapter in Our Book of Self-Government?

    Nov 7, 2013David B. Woolner

    As Americans reject the extreme right wing at the polls, FDR's vision of self-government may be on the rise again. Note: On Nov. 8-9, David Woolner and other leading thinkers will explore the past, present, and future of progressivism at a conference hosted by the Roosevelt Institute and the Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin. Click here for details and livestream.

    As Americans reject the extreme right wing at the polls, FDR's vision of self-government may be on the rise again. Note: On Nov. 8-9, David Woolner and other leading thinkers will explore the past, present, and future of progressivism at a conference hosted by the Roosevelt Institute and the Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin. Click here for details and livestream.

    The results of this week’s elections have led to a good deal of speculation in the press about the repudiation of the hard right among the American electorate. Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s victory over Tea Party-backed Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia gubernatorial race and Republican Governor Chris Christie’s impressive reelection win in heavily Democratic New Jersey have both been interpreted as evidence of the broader appeal of moderates in both parties. If true, this would be a welcome development, particularly on the Republican side of the ledger, where the obstructionist winner-take-all attitude of the extreme right has rendered the United States virtually ungovernable and nearly brought the country to ruin on two occasions within the past two years.

    President Obama and other political leaders on both sides have frequently cited the economic damage that this “crisis governing” has wrought to our economy. But equally significant—particularly for those of us who favor more activist social and economic policies—is the damage done to government itself, and by extension, to our democracy.

    Indeed, the American people’s faith in government, especially Congress, is at an all-time low. Of all the issues confronting liberals or progressives today it is this issue, faith in government, that is perhaps the most important. For without the support of the broad electorate it will be impossible for Congress and the executive to move forward on a whole range of issues.

    Eighty years ago, in the midst of an even worse economic crisis, Franklin Roosevelt won the support of the American people by asking them “to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization.” Moreover, he insisted that the failed non-governmental attempts to meet the crisis brought on by the financial collapse of 1929-1932 left the American people “baffled and bewildered,” without the means to fashion “practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men.”

    But in the wake of the many programs that Congress and the president put in place to meet the crisis from 1933 on, the people began to sense the truth “that democratic government has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable. We would not admit”, he continued, “that we could not find a way to master economic epidemics just as, after centuries of fatalistic suffering, we had found a way to master epidemics of disease.”

    In making this argument, FDR insisted that the American people were not discovering a wholly new truth, but were simply “writing a new chapter in our book of self-government.”

    Our history, then, tells us that it is possible for us to meet the challenges before us—but only if we are willing, as FDR advised, “to find through government the instrument of our united purpose."

    On November 8-9, the Roosevelt Institute and the Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin will hold a major international conference entitled Progressivism in America: Past, Present and Future. Featuring such noted figures as Nobel Laureate and Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz, journalists like E.J. Dionne and Jonathan Alter, and historians such as Alan Brinkley and Ellen Chesler, the conference seeks to address today’s policy challenges with solutions grounded in and inspired by the legacy of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt—including the all-important realization, as FDR remarked years ago—that “government is competent when all who compose it work as trustees for the whole people.” This event will be livestreamed. Click here for more details.

    David B. Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. 

     

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  • The Larger Issue at Stake in the Shutdown: The Role of Government

    Oct 14, 2013David B. Woolner

    By choosing not to position himself as a defender of government, President Obama may have made his opposition stronger.

    By choosing not to position himself as a defender of government, President Obama may have made his opposition stronger.

    The recent news that there has been a shift in tone in the debate between congressional Republicans and the White House over the government shutdown has been greeted as a welcome development in much of the press and on Wall Street, where, in response to rumors of an impending deal, the DOW Jones Industrial Average shot up more than 300 points.

    But there is a larger issue at stake in this debacle that President Obama has to a large extent ignored: the role of government in shaping a just and economically sustainable liberal capitalist democracy.

    Today’s free-market fundamentalists continue to denounce any attempt by the federal government to regulate capitalism. They insist that the forces of the market could easily solve all of our nation’s woes if only government would get out of the way. Their faith stems from their unshakable belief that the free market system cannot fail, and the apostate in their vision is government.

    The history of the free market system in the years between the October 1929 crash of the stock market and the steady deflationary slide into the Great Depression three years later teaches us something quite different. Capitalist economies can collapse; the free market system can fail; millions of people can be thrown out into the street, wondering not just where they might find work, but where they might get their next meal.

    It was at the height of this crisis of capitalism that the American people elected Franklin D. Roosevelt as the 32nd President of the United States. FDR was no ideologue, he harbored no extreme views on the right or on the left, but he understood that capitalism was in deep trouble, that the transition of the United States from a largely agrarian state to a modern industrial society had left millions of Americans vulnerable to the fickle twists of the unregulated marketplace, and that the only institution strong enough to take on the forces of wealth and privilege that largely controlled the marketplace—those whose unbridled greed was chiefly responsible for its collapse—was government.

    It was this message and this philosophy that led the American people to support the many measures FDR put in place under the banner of the New Deal. Measures like the separation of commercial and investment banking, the establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, or the passage of the all-important Social Security Act, which gave us old-age pensions and unemployment insurance. At the time, critics of the New Deal charged that FDR was leading the country down the path to a dictatorship; that he was subverting the Constitution. The American Liberty League even went so far as to claim that the passage of the Social Security Act meant “the end of democracy.”

    But Roosevelt scoffed at these “prophets of calamity,” and unlike President Obama, was willing on behalf of the American people both to acknowledge and attack the forces arrayed against them. Consider, for example, FDR’s repeated assaults on the “economic royalists” whose vast concentrations of wealth distorted the free-market system to such an extent that they made it virtually impossible for “small businessmen and merchants to make worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit.” In the face of such vast inequality, “the hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor… had all passed beyond the control of the people,” he warned. “Private enterprise,” he said, “became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise.” 

    As a result, “the political equality we once had won” had become “meaningless in the face of economic inequality,” leading to the inescapable conclusion that “against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could only appeal to the organized power of government.”

    Throughout his tenure as president, Barack Obama has been reluctant to present himself as the voice of the average working American, to position himself and his administration as leading a government effort to attack the immense inequality that has re-emerged in our society over the past 30 years, and to seek the people’s support for this effort. Instead, he has engaged in a somewhat admirable attempt to find solutions to such problems as health care reform through compromise with his conservative opposition, often by the establishment of programs—such as the Affordable Care Act—designed to appeal more to those who harbor a greater faith in the free market than they do in government.

    But as recent events make clear, the president’s decision to seek market-friendly solutions to our most pressing problems has not won him any credit among the archconservatives who have hijacked the Republican Party. Their overriding focus is to discredit government, not work with it; to destroy the social safety net, not save it; and it would appear that they are quite willing to go to extreme lengths to achieve their ideological goals, including the possibility of driving the U.S. Government into default.

    One can certainly understand the political calculations behind President Obama’s oft-repeated willingness to meet his opposition halfway, but it now appears that his past readiness to compromise and acknowledge his other points of view has won him few converts and may have only strengthened the hand of those who seek to destroy his agenda.

    A far better tack may be to steal a page or two from FDR, who called upon the American people to recognize “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,” and above all else, to never forget that “government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.”

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. 

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  • The Ongoing Crisis Demands Jobs, Not Deficit Reduction

    May 16, 2013David B. Woolner

    Today's leaders must recognize that job creation is the key to boosting revenues for the government and the people.

    Today's leaders must recognize that job creation is the key to boosting revenues for the government and the people.

    Now, the rise and fall of national income—since they tell the story of how much you and I and everybody else are making—are an index of the rise and fall of national prosperity. They are also an index of the prosperity of your Government. The money to run the Government comes from taxes; and the tax revenue in turn depends for its size on the size of the national income. When the incomes and the values and transactions of the country are on the down-grade, then tax receipts go on the down-grade too. If the national income continues to decline, then the Government cannot run without going into the red. The only way to keep the Government out of the red is to keep the people out of the red. And so we had to balance the budget of the American people before we could balance the budget of the national Government.Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936

    The news that the nation added 165,000 jobs in April and that the unemployment rate has dipped to 7.5 percent—its lowest since December 2008—is of course welcome. It has eased the fears of many economists that recent cuts in federal spending might stall our somewhat anemic recovery, helped boost the stock market to record levels, and has been cited by Alan Krueger, the Chairman of the President’s Economic Advisors, as “further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression.”

    But as many economists have also reported, the April rate of job growth is still far too low to bring about the level of re-employment needed to bring us back to full employment, and, worse still, the slight improvement in the overall unemployment rate masks a good many far more disturbing statistics. Many of the jobs acquired in April are low-skill and low-paying. Some of the drop in the unemployment rate can be attributed to the fact that millions of Americans have stopped looking for work and have dropped out of the work force all together—496,000 people in March 2013 alone. Then there are the under-employed, who also rank in the millions. If we add their ranks to those who are unemployed or have dropped out of the work force altogether, we arrive at an overall “underemployment rate” of 13.9 percent, up from the previous month’s rate of 13.8 percent. Taken together this means that roughly 22 million Americans are either unemployed or under-employed—a staggering figure, which after four years of so-called “recovery” has some economists predicting that long-term un-and under-employment may now be a permanent fixture of the American landscape.

    What is even more shocking, however, is that in spite of all of these grim statistics, grim statistics that reflect the hardship and pain of millions, much of the political discourse in Washington—and in the media—remains fixated on the debt and deficit and the Republican demand for a balanced budget. It is almost as if Washington has all but given up on trying to take direct action to bring about a better employment picture. This realization is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that one of the more significant contributors to our persistently high unemployment rate in the past year has been public sector layoffs. 

    Calls for the federal government to balance its books are not new, of course. Thanks to the extremely effective public persuasion campaign of the conservative right, we have heard this refrain time and time again. It has now become de rigueur for most politicians— no matter what their party—to pay lip service to the need to get “our house in order” and cut the deficit no matter what the consequences for the average American.

    It wasn’t always this way, however. In the mid-1930s, when faced with a similar economic crisis and similar calls for cuts in federal spending, Franklin Roosevelt took an entirely different tack. He insisted that in the midst of a crisis where—much like today—we faced both declining federal revenues and increasing unemployment, “a national choice had to be made” between those who argued that the government should do nothing and “let Nature take its course” and those who argued for federal intervention in the economy, even if it meant running a deficit. As FDR saw it, what stood between his administration and a balanced budget were “millions of needy Americans, denied the promise of a decent American life.” In light of this, he argued that “to balance our budget in 1933 or 1934 or 1935 would have been a crime against the American people,” which would have required either “a capital levy that would have been confiscatory” or accepting “human suffering with callous indifference." "When Americans suffered,” he went on, “we refused to pass by on the other side. Humanity came first.”

    And so the Roosevelt Administration launched programs like the Works Progress Administration that built much of the infrastructure we still enjoy today and which gave millions of Americans, from common laborers to structural engineers, the joy and dignity of work. FDR admitted that “this cost money”—and the American people understood that this would continue to cost money “for several years to come.” But given the dire state of the economy and the lack of demand in the private sector, the American people understood that it was the right thing to do.

    Unlike today’s politicians, however, FDR refused to pander to the sky-is-falling rhetoric of the conservative right on the disastrous consequences that would accrue to the country by running a deficit in the midst of an economic crisis. For them FDR had a simple answer. He flat out rejected “this foolish fear about the crushing load the debt will impose upon your children and mine.” On the contrary, he went on:

    This debt is not going to be paid by oppressive taxation on future generations. It is not going to be paid by taking away the hard-won savings of the present generation. It is going to be paid out of an increased national income and increased individual incomes produced by increasing national prosperity.

    In other words, FDR understood that the real crisis the country faced in the Great Depression was an employment crisis—not a deficit crisis—and that in the long run the “only way to keep the Government out of the red” was, as he said, “to keep the people out of the red.” And so he set his priority on the one thing he knew would help bolster the revenue of both the American people and their government: millions upon millions of jobs.

    Unfortunately, much of our leadership in Washington today seems to have lost sight of this fact, and instead of taking meaningful action to help grow the economy and alleviate the suffering of the millions of unemployed, would prefer to cut spending and engage in another endless round of bickering about the debt and deficit. Such “callous indifference” to the plight of millions of Americans is no way to bring about an end to the current crisis or build a better future for our children.

    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.

    For more on solutions to the ongoing unemployment crisis, join the Roosevelt Institute in Washington, D.C. on June 4th for A Bold Approach to the Jobs Emergency: Setting the Political Agenda for 2014 and 2016.

     

    Unemployment line image via Shutterstock.com.

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  • After the Senate’s Gun Control Failure, FDR Points the Way Forward

    Apr 19, 2013David B. Woolner

    The gun lobby may have won the latest legislative battle, but that doesn't mean the American people should stop fighting for change.

    [W]e have learned lessons in the ethics of human relationships—how devotion to the public good, unselfish service, never-ending consideration of human needs are in themselves conquering forces.

    The gun lobby may have won the latest legislative battle, but that doesn't mean the American people should stop fighting for change.

    [W]e have learned lessons in the ethics of human relationships—how devotion to the public good, unselfish service, never-ending consideration of human needs are in themselves conquering forces.

    Democracy looks to the day when these virtues will be required and expected of those who serve the public officially and unofficially. -FDR, Rochester, MN, August 18, 1934

    In the wake of the Senate’s refusal to advance legislation that would have expanded background checks for gun purchasers, President Obama gave a brief but impassioned speech in which he promised “to speak plainly and honestly” to the American people about how a bill that had the support of 90 percent of the public could not make it through the U.S. Congress. After all, the president continued, the legislation was bipartisan and designed merely “to extend the same background check rules that already apply to guns purchased from a dealer to guns purchased at shows or over the internet.” The bill, he said, showed “respect for gun owners” and “respect for the victims of gun violence”; it represented “moderation and common sense.” Moreover, a majority of United States senators voted in favor of the measure, and yet it still went down to defeat, blocked by a minority “who caved to the pressure” of the well-financed gun lobby and “started looking for an excuse—any excuse—to vote ‘no.’”

    The president called this “shameful” and noted that thanks to the “willful lies” of the NRA and its allies and the “continuing distortion of Senate rules,” a minority was able to block the majority from passing a common-sense measure that would “make it harder for criminals and those with severe mental illnesses to buy a gun.” Such obstructionist tactics were far less common during the New Deal era, but FDR’s appeals to the American people to never stop fighting for progress may be the key to breaking the Senate’s current logjam.

    This is not the first time President Obama has made reference to the frustration he and many other Americans feel about the relentless tendency of a minority of senators to block action by the Senate as a whole. In an equally passionate section of his recent State of the Union Address, the president pleaded again and again with Congress, not necessarily to pass the gun legislation he favored, but simply to bring the measures he outlined on gun violence to a vote because the people of Newtown, Aurora, Oak Creek, Tucson, Blacksburg, and “the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence” deserved it.

    Although he did not refer to it by name, what the president is referencing here is the ever-increasing use of the filibuster by the minority party in the Senate—in this case the Republican Party—to thwart the will of the majority. Filibusters used to be a rarity. During Franklin Roosevelt’s 12-year tenure as president, for example, the filibuster was used a total of six times, including twice in the 1930s to block anti-lynching legislation. But thanks to rule changes that took place in 1975, it is now much easier for senators to use the filibuster or even the threat of a filibuster to stop legislation from coming before the Senate for an actual up or down vote.

    Ironically, the changes that were instituted by the Senate leadership at that time—including a reduction in the number of votes needed to close off debate from 67 to 60 and the removal of the need for the senators involved to actually be on the floor of the Senate—were expected to make it easier—not harder—to bring legislation forward. But the effect has been just the opposite. This is especially true with respect to the removal of the need to be present in the Senate chamber, since this change has meant that virtually every piece of legislation (with the exception of budget legislation) requires a 60-vote supermajority to move forward in the Senate. 

    Prior to the 1990s, the historical association of the filibuster as an exceptional measure kept the number of uses relatively low. But since the 1990s the use of the filibuster by both parties has increased dramatically, averaging 34 per year. And in the past six years, the Republican minority has used the filibuster to block or stall the Senate’s business, including the ratification of federal judges and other top government officials, over 170 times.

    As President Obama noted in his remarks in the Rose Garden on the Senate’s failure to move the gun control provisions forward, a number of senators have characterized their blocking move as a “victory.” But given the Constitution’s unequivocal language about majority rule in the Senate (not to mention the fact that there is no mention of the filibuster) and polling data that shows 9 out of 10 Americans support expanding background checks for gun purchases, the president is right to ask, “a victory for who? A victory for what? ...It begs the question, who are we here to represent?”

    He is also right to urge the American people to act on their frustration in the one place where they can truly make a difference—in the voting booth. The president’s insistence that we can still bring about meaningful change to reduce gun violence so long as we “don’t give up on it,” demand action from our representatives, and when action is not forthcoming, “send the right people to Washington,” is not unlike the advice that FDR gave the American people in the dark days of the mid-1930s. We should remember that FDR’s efforts to use government to affect such meaningful reforms as Social Security, unemployment insurance, or the regulation of the stock market also elicited fierce opposition from a small but vocal minority that claimed these measures were an affront to the American people’s basic liberties.

    But in response to these shrill efforts to stifle reform by attacking government, FDR had a simple answer. As he told an audience gathered in Marietta, Ohio in 1938:

    Let us not be afraid to help each other—let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a president and senators and congressmen and government officials but the voters of this country.

    I believe that the American people, not afraid of their own capacity to choose forward-looking representatives to run their government, want the same cooperative security and have the same courage to achieve it, in 1938, as in 1788. I am sure they know that we shall always have a frontier—of social and economic problems—and that we must always move in to bring law and order to it. In that confidence I am pushing on. I am sure that the people of the Nation will push on with me.

    President Obama is right. The effort to bring about meaningful reform of the nation’s gun laws is not over, and if this Congress refuses to listen to the American people, then the voters have every right to send new representatives to Washington who will. But given the power and wealth of such anti-government special interest groups as the NRA, President Obama, like Franklin Roosevelt before him, will need to keep reminding the American people that government is indeed “ourselves,” and if we do not want it to become “an alien power over us,” each of us will need to take our responsibility to vote seriously. As things stand right now, the very essence of our democracy may depend on it. 

    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.

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