David B. Woolner

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow

Recent Posts by David B. Woolner

  • Repeating Our Mistakes: The "Roosevelt Recession" and the Danger of Austerity

    Jul 7, 2010David B. Woolner

    legacy-lessons-150 Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    legacy-lessons-150 Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    For those familiar with the New Deal, recent economic reports showing that the recovery is slowing, coupled with the refusal of the Senate to pass legislation (which President Obama supports) to extend unemployment benefits and provide additional federal aid to America's struggling cities and states for fear of adding to the federal deficit sound like history repeating itself.

    In 1937, after five years of sustained economic growth and a steadily declining unemployment rate, the Roosevelt Administration began to worry more about possible inflation and the size of the federal deficit than the ability of the economy to sustain the recovery. As a consequence, in the fall of 1937, FDR supported those in his administration who advocated a reduction in federal expenditures (i.e. stimulus spending) and a balanced budget. The results -- which included a massive reduction in the number of people employed by such programs as the WPA -- were catastrophic. From the fall of 1937 to the summer of 1938, industrial production declined by 33 percent; wages by 35 percent; national income by 13 percent; and not surprisingly, the unemployment rate rose by roughly 5 percentage points, with an estimated 4 million workers losing their jobs.

    The economic downturn caused by the decline in federal spending was commonly referred to as the "Roosevelt recession," and to counter it, FDR asked Congress in April of 1938 to support a substantial increase in federal spending and lending. Unlike the current situation, Congress backed FDR's request, and as a result, the recovery was soon underway again.

    Equally important, the lessons drawn from the 1937-38 recession convinced FDR that deficit spending and monetary expansion were critical to economic recovery. In essence, the Roosevelt Administration, through hard experience, finally endorsed Keynesian economics, and over the course of the next seven years, government spending on the economy -- increasingly fueled by the demands of World War II -- would grow to unprecedented levels, all but wiping out unemployment (which fell to below 2 percent by 1943) and turning the United States into a global super-power in the process.

    Many economists agree that there is a real danger that the reluctance of Congress to pass even the modest measures of new spending called for recently will not only stall the recovery but also lead to a possible double dip recession. The lessons from 1937-38 certainly back this assessment, but unfortunately, it appears that the deficit hawks in Congress are more interested in playing on people's fears and lack of understanding of the federal government's role in the economy than in learning from the past.

    President Obama is right to back this new round of spending, but if he is to overcome the reluctance of those even in his own party to add to the federal deficit, he must do more to convince the American people, as FDR did, that deficit spending during a major economic crisis is not only necessary and right but can also lead to an extended period of economic expansion and prosperity. If there is any lesson to be learned from the years 1933 to 1945, it is surely that -- just ask any member of the Greatest Generation.

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

    ND20 ALERT: Join us in NY for fresh ideas, July 16-18! Guild Hall, in collaboration with the Roosevelt Institute, will gather thought leaders in the arts, the economy, and the media in East Hampton for a can’t-miss symposium featuring George Soros, Van Jones, plus ND20 contributors Elizabeth Warren, Rob Johnson, Jeff Madrick, Editor Lynn Parramore, and more. RSVP today - seats are limited.

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  • The Tea Party Movement: Successor to the American Liberty League?

    Jul 1, 2010David B. Woolner

    legacy-lessons-150 Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    legacy-lessons-150 Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    Much has been written about the parallels between President Obama and Franklin Roosevelt. Both leaders assumed office during a time of great economic crisis and at a moment when the United States faced significant security threats from abroad. And, even though President Obama has turned out to be a more of a centrist politician than his liberal supporters would like, he nevertheless shares (albeit to a lesser extent) FDR's belief in the use of government as an instrument to help restore the economy and provide the American people with a basic measure of social and economic security -- hence the push for the stimulus bill and for health care reform, however imperfect critics on both the left and the right find these two pieces of legislation. One further and largely overlooked parallel, however, is the conservative/right-wing reaction to the two men's assumption of power; a reaction that led to the creation of two remarkably similar organizations: the American Liberty League in 1934, and the Tea Party Movement in 2009.

    The American Liberty League was essentially an anti-government organization that ruthlessly attacked nearly every New Deal measure under the guise of its goals "to defend and uphold the [U.S.] Constitution...to teach the duty of government to protect individual and group initiative and enterprise, to foster the right to work, earn, save and acquire property and to preserve the ownership and lawful use of property when acquired."  In hundreds of published pamphlets, the League often sent mixed or contradictory messages, variously accusing the New Deal of being inspired by fascism, socialism or communism, and the President's leadership of being so strong that it was tantamount to the establishment of a dictatorship, or so weak that he rendered himself unable to ward off the sinister influence of his socialistic advisers.

    The League saw economic planning and regulation as a threat to American values, the growth of the national debt as sign of permanent economic decline, and the New Deal itself as the enemy of private enterprise and hence the Constitution. Like the Tea Party, the Liberty League also claimed to be a non-partisan, popularly based organization, but its membership never exceeded 125,000.  It was largely financed by some of the most powerful business interests in the country, including the du Pont family (which provided roughly 30% of the League's budget) and the leaders of General Motors, General Foods, Chase National Bank, Standard Oil, and other major corporations. The League spent enormous sums of money in an attempt to unseat FDR in the 1936 Presidential election, but thanks to the President's exposure of the League's ties to America's wealthy corporate elite -- whom FDR famously termed "economic royalists" -- their plans backfired and the Republicans suffered one of the worst electoral defeats in American history.

    The Tea Party Movement also calls for "Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets."  Like the American Liberty League, it views the recent government initiatives to bring an end to the financial/economic crisis and reform health care as unconstitutional and accuses President Obama of pursuing policies that will turn the United States into a socialist country. The Tea Party also claims to be a non-partisan, populist movement, but a recent New York Times article noted that its membership is disproportionately made up of white male Republicans over the age of 45. It has also been widely reported that the Tea Party has received significant financial support from wealthy donors.

    As a political phenomenon, then, the Tea Party shares many of the same tenets and clearly emerged from some of the same forces and fears that gave rise to the American Liberty League in 1934. The one major difference to date appears to lie in the two leaders' responses; for in spite of his popularity, FDR never took anything -- especially an election -- for granted, and in the 1936 campaign he launched such an effective rhetorical assault on the League and its moneyed backers that by the fall of that year his Republican opponent, Alfred Landon, called the League's endorsement of his candidacy "the kiss of death."  To date, President Obama has chosen not to take on the Tea Party with anything like the same rhetorical conviction, preferring to take a more reasoned as opposed to emotional approach to a remarkably similar anti-government backlash in a time of crisis. This might be more in keeping with his style of governance, but it may be a decision he will live to regret come November.

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

    ND20 ALERT: Join us in NY for fresh ideas, July 16-18! Guild Hall, in collaboration with the Roosevelt Institute, will gather thought leaders in the arts, the economy, and the media in East Hampton for a can’t-miss symposium featuring George Soros, Van Jones, plus ND20 contributors Elizabeth Warren, Rob Johnson, Jeff Madrick, Editor Lynn Parramore, and more. RSVP today - seats are limited.

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  • Obama v. FDR: Using the Media to Restore Public Trust

    Jun 16, 2010David B. Woolner

    legacy-lessons-150Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    legacy-lessons-150Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    There is no question that President Obama exhibited a masterful use of the media, including the Internet, during his election campaign. Through it he established an almost unprecedented bond with the American people, especially young people, who came to see his campaign as a means by which they might change their destiny -- both their own and the country's. But in the past eighteen months, that bond has all but disappeared. Perhaps this is because the process of governing is never as exciting as trying to win an election. Perhaps, too, it is because the President has now become a much more familiar figure. Certainly both of these factors have played a role in the demise of the special relationship Candidate Obama enjoyed with the public. But there is more to it than over-exposure or the dreary process of governing. It seems that the President has forgotten or has lost touch with the key element in the world of media relations: his audience.

    One President who never lost touch with his constituency -- the American people -- was Franklin Roosevelt. FDR saw the media not as a separate entity or institution to which he had a special responsibility, but -- much like Candidate Obama -- as a vehicle through which he could communicate directly with the people. Moreover, FDR well understood that a good share of the media ownership in the country regarded him and his policies with hostility. But he overcame this hostility by always staying one step ahead of them; through incessant action, bold leadership and by holding (with a few exceptions) two press conferences a week for a total of 997 while in office!

    FDR's media mastery and brilliant sense of timing meant that more often than not it was his administration that orchestrated the headlines -- headlines that were often in lockstep with the public. FDR was able to do this because he focused on gauging the problems and mood of the nation. His concern's mirrored those of the public and he used the media not only as a means to convey his profound understanding of their hopes and fears, but also as a means to explain how his government proposed to meet them. Perhaps the classic example of this was his use of his famous "Fireside Chats," where the President would explain the settled polices of his government in simple conversational tones, much like a group of friends gathered around a fireplace. No President had ever spoken to the American people in such a manner before and the public responded in kind, increasing the volume of mail sent to the White House from an average of 5,000 letters per week under Hoover to more than 50,000 per week under Roosevelt.

    By making last night's Oval Office address, President Obama took an important step toward restoring his relationship with the American people. But he will need to do more to restore the bond he once had with the public. FDR used the media to constantly remind the American people that he understood their needs and was absolutely committed to acting in their behalf. In doing so, his voice became their voice and in a very real way attacks on the President and his policies were widely regarded as attacks on the people themselves.

    Armed with the public's trust, and having established an almost unparalleled bond with the American people, FDR was able to forge ahead with an unprecedented slate of programs that changed the course of American history. If President Obama wishes to do the same, then he must do much more than simply grant interviews and give the occasional press conference or town hall speech. He must show the American people that his concerns and theirs are virtually identical, so that together they may overcome the vested interests that in recent years have rendered Washington virtually dysfunctional. In short, President Obama, like FDR, must become the people's president.

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

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  • Oil, Jobs, and the Environment - A New Deal Solution to the Spill?

    Jun 10, 2010David B. Woolner

    legacy-lessons-150 Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    legacy-lessons-150 Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past. He co-edited the book “FDR and the Environment,” now out in paperback.

    In the wake of recent revelations that far more oil is spilling out into the Gulf than was originally estimated, and as it now appears more and more likely that BP will not be able to completely shut off the flow of oil until perhaps as late as August, fears about the economic impact of the disaster have intensified. With roughly a third of the federal waters in the Gulf closed to fishing, the seafood industry has perhaps been the hardest hit by the disaster. But tourist bookings as far away as Florida are down as well, with some hotels reporting a 50% cancellation rate. Then there is the energy industry. In spite of the oil catastrophe, the Obama Administration's decision to halt shallow drilling until new safety regulations are in place and to enforce a minimum six month moratorium on deep water drilling has come under growing criticism -- even from some lawmakers -- because of its potential impact on jobs. Indeed, in an interview today on PBS's NewsHour, Senator John Barrasso of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee echoed the concerns of his colleague, Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, when he said that he agreed with her assessment that "even a temporary pause" in off shore drilling would "hurt the economy at a time when we're dealing with 9.7% unemployment in this country."

    This notion -- that in hard times environmental issues must take a back seat to economic concerns -- is a myth that environmentalists have struggled with for decades. What is less well known is that FDR was the one president who did more to face this false dichotomy and in the process develop a whole new approach to human interaction with the environment. It was Roosevelt, after all, who had to deal with the twin crises of the collapse of the US economy and the environmental catastrophe known as the Dust Bowl. And, as a man raised in the pastoral countryside of the Hudson River Valley, who possessed a deep appreciation for the productivity of the land and an equally strong belief -- like Thomas Jefferson before him -- that democracy had its roots in the fundamental ties between the people and the land, watching the soil of the Midwest blow away in the wind tore at his very being. Indeed, for FDR the collapse of the economy and the environmental degradation of the land in the Midwest and in other parts of the country were intimately linked; so much so that he remained convinced throughout these years that it would be impossible to restore one without restoring the other.

    As a consequence, and as the environmental historian, Richard N.L. Andrews, has written, "Roosevelt's personal vision of integrating economic and environmental restoration" became one of the core principles of the New Deal. "No other President," he insists, "has focused so personally or effectively on the restoration of environmental damage, nor on the principle that such restoration is integral and beneficial to economic recovery rather than in conflict with economic priorities."

    For many years, of course, the New Deal -- with its dam building and emphasis on the use of administrative expertise as opposed to judicial oversight in its approach to the environment -- was seen as something of a blank space in the history of modern environmentalism. But in recent years this view has changed dramatically. Having recognized that in a world of limited natural resources human interaction with nature is inevitable, modern environmentalists, like FDR, have come to see the environment not as a realm set apart from humans, but as the field for human action, inextricably linked with the human community, economy and system of values. For FDR then, restoring the environment and restoring the economy were part of the same process; a process that he began within days of assuming office. One of the hallmarks of this effort was the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) on March 31, 1933, less than a month after his inauguration. This was followed shortly thereafter by the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which represents the Roosevelt Administration's first great effort in regional planning. The TVA took the unusual step of combining public power and conservation in an area comprised of nearly 300,000 acres of land in seven states. Its immediate purpose was to control flooding in the vast area of the Tennessee River and its tributaries through the construction of a series of dams and reservoirs; but it also improved river navigation, generated electricity, and sought to restore a vast watershed decimated by excessive timber cutting, irresponsible farming and largely unregulated coal mining through soil conservation and reforestation. In the process it also provided jobs for thousands of workers, including 6,000 from the CCC alone.

    This multipurpose approach to solving both an environmental and economic problem can be seen in the work of the CCC as well. Between 1933 and 1942, when the program ended, the CCC planted over 3 billion trees (including the vast shelterbelt from Texas to the Dakotas that brought the Dust Bowl to an end), constructed roughly 100,000 miles of road, restored 80 million acres of farmland, laid hundreds of miles of telephone lines, created nearly 800 state parks and restored nearly 4,000 historic buildings. In total, it employed more than three million individuals (who enlisted in the program for a minimum of six months), mostly from blighted urban areas, who were required to send the majority of their pay ($25 out of the $30 they were paid monthly) back home to help support their families. In this way, the program became a means both to restore rural as well as urban America. The CCC built libraries for the camps and offered its workers classes (with a 90% enrollment rate), and taught more than 100,000 men how to read and write. It was also perhaps the most popular program of the New Deal (with an over 80% approval rating from the American public) and would help inspire later generations to establish such programs as the Peace Corps and Americorp.

    Both the TVA (which is still in operation today) and the CCC were federally funded programs established within the first hundred days of the Roosevelt presidency. They were inspired by the belief that in times of environmental and economic crisis, the federal government can and must act aggressively in the public interest. They were also enormously successful in achieving their fundamental aims of helping to restore the social, economic and environmental well-being of vast regions of the country. As we try to come to terms with this new environmental catastrophe that has unfortunately struck a critical region of the nation, there are certainly lessons that can be drawn from these two extraordinary and unprecedented programs that emerged in the New Deal. Our experience in the Gulf to date has proven that mere government oversight of a largely private sector effort to deal with this disaster will not be enough. Nor should we fall victim to the false view that such a catastrophe is the unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the paramount need for energy and economic development in a time of high unemployment. Franklin Roosevelt once said that those who allow or purposely destroy the natural resources of a region should also be seen as destroyers of "the liberty of the community...destroyers of his neighbor's happiness [and] prosperity." British Petroleum has destroyed the liberty of the Gulf Coast community, but to restore this region to its full health the federal government should take a lesson from the New Deal and act much more forcefully in the public interest. The American people understand this. They are ready and eager to do whatever it takes to make this region whole again and in all likelihood would support a comprehensive, multifaceted federally funded effort to clean up the Gulf coast along the lines of the CCC and TVA.

    One gets the sense that President Obama knows this, as it was less than a year ago that he reflected on the "large-heartedness" of the American people, of their ability "to stand in other people's shoes," of their belief "that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise." For the inhabitants of Gulf Coast there is no question that such a time has arrived. The President should heed his own words and deliver. It times of great crisis the American people expect no less.

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


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  • FDR and the New Deal Response to an Environmental Catastrophe

    Jun 3, 2010David B. Woolner

    dust-storm-texas-300Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

    dust-storm-texas-300Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past. He co-edited the book "FDR and the Environment," now out in paperback.

    As President Obama heads to the Gulf of Mexico to inspect the miles of coastline ravaged by oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout, he might wish to examine the federal government's response to an earlier environmental catastrophe -- the drought and dust storms of the 1930s that turned major regions of the United States into what is commonly referred to as the Dust Bowl.

    As the generation that lived through the Great Depression will attest, the Dust Bowl was no laughing matter. The storms generated by this environmental disaster darkened cities, buried homes and farm equipment, killed livestock and represented a serious health risk. In many mid-western states, thousands of cases of what came to be known as "dust pneumonia" emerged, some of them fatal. Overall, the Dust Bowl rendered millions of acres of farmland virtually useless, left roughly half a million Americans homeless, and forced hundreds of thousands of people off the land. It also resulted in the most intense period of internal migration in American history. Between 1932 and 1940 it is estimated that 2.5 million people abandoned the plains for other regions of the country, of which some three to four hundred thousand went to California alone. Further exasperating the crisis was the fact that many of these migrants -- or "Okies" as they were often called -- were not welcome in the communities in which they sought a new life. The city of Los Angeles, for example, set up a "Bum Blockade" at key railroad and road junctions to try to keep the migrants out of the city; a move which reflected the more or less general perception that the migrants were socially and culturally inferior, or as Tom Joad put it in John Steinbeck's famous novel The Grapes of Wrath, "Okie means you're scum."

    In response to this unprecedented crisis, the Roosevelt Administration sought not only measures to alleviate the plight of the migrants and rural poor -- through the establishment and work of such agencies as the Resettlement Administration and the later Farm Security Administration -- but also through measures that sought to attack the root causes of the environmental degradation that led to the creation of the disaster in the first place. Recognizing that the key issue was soil conservation, and having gained experience in this issue through his time as Governor of New York State (and as an amateur farmer and forester), FDR established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) within his first 100 days in office and the Soil Erosion Service (later the Soil Conservation Service and now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) shortly thereafter. The establishment of the Soil Erosion Service marks the first major federal commitment to the preservation of natural resources in private hands. Even more significantly, in 1935, FDR initiated the Prairie States Forestry Project to create a "shelter belt" from the Texas Panhandle to the Canadian border. Over the course of the next seven years, the U.S Forestry Service, working in conjunction with the CCC, the newly established Works Progress Administration (WPA), and local farmers, planted nearly 220 million trees, creating over 18,000 miles of windbreaks on some 30,000 farms. The scale of this effort boggles the imagination. It literally changed the face of America and most importantly -- along with the introduction of new farming techniques also initiated by the New Deal -- stopped the dust storms dead in their tracks.

    As A. Dan Tarlock and other environmental historians have noted, an equally significant aspect of this effort is the precedent it set for later generations. For what the New Deal efforts at "conservation" really amount to is the first major effort at what today we would call "sustainable development": an approach toward the environment based on long-term planning. This recognizes the need create a balance between stewardship and managed exploitation and sees the federal government playing a crucial role in establishing the parameters of that balance so that future generations may enjoy a healthy and prosperous existence.

    Today, as we grapple with the ecological disaster plaguing the Gulf waters and region, we would do well to recall the New Deal efforts to not only bring immediate relief to those suffering in the wake of a natural disaster, but also to bring about a long term solution to the problem. Planting millions of trees provided work for thousands and helped restore a vast area of the country into productive farmland. The conditions we face today are not all that dissimilar from those we faced in the 1930s. But the solution -- a massive effort to combine our need for jobs with the pursuit of alternatives to fossil fuels and a concomitant reduction in greenhouse gasses -- has so far eluded us. Perhaps the President's visit to oil-drenched wetlands of Louisiana will change this.

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

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