FDR Put Humanity First. The Sequester Puts It Last.

Mar 1, 2013David B. Woolner

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.

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 nation-wide 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 have 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.

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The Real State of the Union Requires a Stronger Government

Feb 15, 2013David B. Woolner

Instead of downplaying the role of government, we should recommit to a "spirit of charity."

We of the Republic sensed the truth that democratic government has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable…

In this we Americans were discovering no wholly new truth; we were writing a new chapter in our book of self-government . –Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1937

Instead of downplaying the role of government, we should recommit to a "spirit of charity."

We of the Republic sensed the truth that democratic government has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable…

In this we Americans were discovering no wholly new truth; we were writing a new chapter in our book of self-government . –Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1937

In his State of the Union address, President Obama challenged the Congress and the American people to join him in a common effort to make the United States a better nation; to recognize that while we “may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms” we are all “citizens” imbued with the rights and responsibility “to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.”

Certainly, the president’s call for “investments” in setting up universal preschool, increasing access to higher education, promoting research and development, fixing our broken infrastructure, and establishing a higher minimum wage so that in “the wealthiest nation on earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty,” is a welcome development. So too is the president’s acknowledgment that there are still communities in this country where, thanks to inescapable pockets of rural and urban poverty, young adults find it virtually impossible to find their first job. “America,” he insisted, shouldnot [be] a place where chance of birth or circumstance should decide our destiny.”

And yet, if we examine the state of our union honestly, it not only becomes apparent that we are indeed a society where “chance of birth or circumstance” decides our destiny, but also a society that has fallen far behind the rest of the world in education, health care, infrastructure, and a host of other indicators that determine the overall quality of life.

In study after study, for example, Americans are found to be far less economically mobile than their counterparts in Canada and Europe. In education, the U.S. now ranks 17th in the developed world overall, while we are ranked 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading, well behind our Asian and European counterparts. For decades the U.S, was ranked number 1 in college graduation, but we now stand at number 12, and even more shocking, we are now ranked 79th in primary school enrollment. This is no way to sustain or build a competitive edge in a global economy.

Other statistics tell a similar tale. How many Americans, for example, are aware that out of the 35 most economically advanced countries in the world, the U.S. now holds the dubious distinction of ranking 34th in terms of child poverty, second only to Romania? In infant mortality, the U.S. ranks 48th. As for overall health and life expectancy, a recent report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council found that among the 17 advanced nations it surveyed, the U.S.—which in the 1950s was ranked at the top for life expectancy and disease—has declined steadily since the 1980s. Today, “U.S. men rank last in life expectancy among the 17 countries in the study and US women rank second to last.” In infrastructure, the World Economic Forum recently ranked the U.S. 25th in the world, behind virtually all other advanced industrialized nations and even some in the developing world.

Still, there are some categories where the United States ranks number one: we have the highest incarceration rate in the world—far higher than countries like Russia, China, or Iran. We have the highest obesity rate in the world and we use more energy per capita than any other nation. And while the U.S. does not possess the highest homicide rate in the world—that distinction goes to Honduras—the rate of death from firearms in the U.S. is nearly 20 times higher than it is among our economic counterparts. And on a city-by-city basis, we would find that if New Orleans were a country, for example, its homicide rate would rank number 2 in the world.

Eighty years ago, when the United States found itself in an even more precarious state than it does today, Franklin Roosevelt used the occasion of his first inaugural address to say to the American people that “this is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” to avoid the temptation “to shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.” The president then went on to implore the American people to reject the fear and apprehension that had paralyzed the nation by reminding them that “in every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people” which is essential to overcoming the challenges we face.

Four years later, in the first State of the Union address of his second term, President Roosevelt observed that “the deeper purpose of democratic government is to assist as many of its citizens as possible, especially those who need it most, to improve their conditions of life…” But, he went on, even with the “present recovery,” the United States was “far from the goal of that deeper purpose, for there were still “far-reaching problems… for which democracy must find solutions if it is to consider itself successful.”

President Obama certainly echoed these sentiments when he spoke about the meaning of citizenship and “the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others.” But the president said little about the role of government in ensuring that these obligations are met, and he qualified his remarks by opening his speech with his oft-repeated maxim that the American people do not expect government “to solve every problem.”

FDR took a different tack. For him government was the instrument of the common people, and as such its primary responsibility was not to serve as an arbiter between the demands of the rich and the needs of the poor, but rather as the vehicle through which the hopes and aspirations of all Americans could be met. In this he argued that:

The defeats and victories of these years have given to us as a people a new understanding of our government and of ourselves…It has been brought home to us that the only effective guide for the safety of this most worldly of worlds, the greatest guide of all, is moral principle.

We do not see faith, hope, and charity as unattainable ideals, but we use them as stout supports of a nation fighting the fight for freedom in a modern civilization…

We seek not merely to make government a mechanical implement, but to give it the vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity.

We are poor indeed if this nation cannot afford to lift from every recess of American life the dread fear of the unemployed that they are not needed in the world. We cannot afford to accumulate a deficit in the books of human fortitude.

In the place of the palace of privilege we seek to build a temple out of faith and hope and charity.

To bring about a government guided by the “spirit of charity,” FDR initiated the most far-reaching social and economic reforms in our nation’s history; reforms designed to provide the average American with a measure of economic security; reforms that reduced the vast, unjust, and unsustainable economic inequality that had brought the country to ruin just a few short years before.

If we are going to “honestly” face “conditions in our country today,” then we need to recognize that the steady abandonment of the principles of governance put in place by Franklin Roosevelt in the past three decades have done enormous harm to the state of the union. In light of this, rather than repeat the conservative mantra that government cannot solve every problem, perhaps President Obama should follow the example of President Roosevelt by reminding the Congress and the American people that even though

Governments can err, [and] presidents do make mistakes… the immortal Dante tells us that Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales.

Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

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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The Bad GDP Report is a Warning Not to Create Another Roosevelt Recession

Jan 31, 2013David B. Woolner

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.

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 shut down 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.

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Leading from Behind is No Way to Lead: What a Second-Term Obama Can Learn from FDR

Jan 17, 2013David B. Woolner

To achieve progress in his second term, President Obama must recognize that his opponents aren't really interested in a "grand bargain."

To achieve progress in his second term, President Obama must recognize that his opponents aren't really interested in a "grand bargain."

My fellow countrymen. When four years ago we met to inaugurate a President, the Republic, single-minded in anxiety, stood in spirit here. We dedicated ourselves 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. We of the Republic pledged ourselves to drive from the temple of our ancient faith those who had profaned it; to end by action, tireless and unafraid, the stagnation and despair of that day. We did those first things first.

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… To do this we knew that we must find practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men. —Franklin D. Roosevelt, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 1937

Just over three-quarters of a century ago, in his second inaugural address, Franklin Roosevelt, reflecting on the accomplishments of the New Deal in mitigating the worst effects of the Great Depression, noted that “the greatest change we have witnessed [over the past four years] has been the change in the moral climate in America.” Among “men of goodwill,” he went on, “science and democracy together offer an ever-richer life and ever-larger satisfaction to the individual. With this change in our moral climate and our rediscovered ability to improve our economic order, we have set our feet upon the road of enduring progress.”

FDR based this assumption on the idea that what had transpired over the course of his first term—a first term which brought us, among other things, Social Security, unemployment insurance, the right of workers to engage in collective bargaining, the separation of commercial and investment banking, the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the largest single drop in the unemployment rate in the nation’s history to date, and an average annual economic growth rate of 14 percent—was directly tied to a new understanding of the role of government. This new understanding, he noted, was based on the “fulfillment of a [collective] vision…to speed the time when there would be for all the people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness.”

Equally important, however, was FDR’s assertion that in arriving at this new vision of government the people understood that it was critical to find “practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men,” 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.”

In essence, what FDR offered the American people was a new vision for the future. This new vision was based the fundamental idea that it was only the power of democratic government that could provide the means to counter “the blind economic forces” and “blindly selfish men” who had profaned democracy and brought the country to ruin in the dark days of the early 1930s.

There is much in this speech that still holds relevance for Americans today. In the massive loss of manufacturing jobs and the globalization of the world’s economy in the last few decades, we can see at work “the blind economic forces” of which FDR spoke. And in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the power of the “blindly selfish men” on Wall Street is all too familiar. So too—thanks to the onset of the Great Recession—is the anxiety, fear, and bewilderment that he noted plagued the American people on the eve of his first inaugural. What is missing, sadly, is the contravening narrative, the covenant that FDR made with the American people, the understanding that the reforms achieved in his first term had made the exercise of all power more democratic by bringing:

…private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government. The legend that they were invincible—above and beyond the processes of a democracy—has been shattered. They have been challenged and beaten.

President Obama has for the most part shied away from the idea that the real challenge to our democracy stems not from the dysfunctional nature of Congress, but rather from the forces of wealth and privilege who see themselves as “above and beyond the process of democracy.” Rather than take on these forces directly, he speaks instead of asking the wealthy to “pay their fair share in taxes,” of building a consensus, of taking a “balanced approach,” of striking a “grand bargain” that would make sure that middle-class folks aren’t bearing the entire burden and sacrifice when it comes to some of these big challenges.” In taking this approach, the president argues that he is following the will of the American people, who made it clear through his re-election that they want compromise and action. These may be noble sentiments, but they fall far short of expressing what the American people truly want from their president, which above all else is leadership.

The sad fact is that we now live in a society where the income disparity between the rich and the rest of us now stands at its worst level since the late 1920s—just before the onset of the Great Depression. The Congressional Budget Office, for example, recently reported that between 1979 and 2007 the top 1 percent of households doubled their share of pretax income while the bottom 80 percent of American households actually saw their share of income decline. In a similar study, a recent Census Bureau report notes that the average white male worker earns roughly the same hourly wage that he would have made in 1978, adjusted for inflation, while the average CEO’s pay has increased by roughly 600 percent.

As was the case in the 1920s, such a drastic mal-distribution of wealth is clearly not sustainable, as it makes it very hard for the average worker to sustain the level of purchases necessary to maintain our largely consumer-based economy. Hence, if we truly want to find a way to grow our economy—as the president insists he does—then we must find a way to address this critical structural imbalance in our economy. And this means real reform, the type of reforms we saw in the New Deal, reforms that brought about the birth of the post-1945 modern American middle class that now seems to be so rapidly disappearing.

So rather than beat about the bushes, President Obama might do well to recognize—as FDR did—that the forces of wealth and privilege weighted against him are not really interested in a compromise or a “grand bargain.” What they want is to maintain the economic and political status quo in what FDR once rightly called the “false belief” that happiness can only be achieved “in the mad chase of evanescent profits.”

To overcome these entrenched forces, President Obama will need to provide the country with much more than his somewhat vague efforts to meet the other side halfway. He must learn to recognize that above all else it is his responsibility to give voice to the common aspiration of the people and provide them with a vision for the future -- a vision that recognizes government’s fundamental responsibility to fashion a more just and equitable society, a vision based on the truism, as FDR said in his second inaugural, that:

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.

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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FDR's 47 Percent: Will the Democrats Finally Heed Their Voices?

Dec 3, 2012David B. Woolner

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…"

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 per cent 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 per cent of the nation's families received incomes which in dollars and cents reached the same total as the incomes of the 47 per cent 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 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.

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Obama's Second Term Could Mark the Return of the Four Freedoms

Nov 21, 2012David B. Woolner

As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," a call to return to a foreign policy based in FDR's vision of shared peace and prosperity.

As part of our series "A Rooseveltian Second Term Agenda," a call to return to a foreign policy based in 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.

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Worried About TBTF Banks? Ignore Romney's Attacks in the Debate.

Oct 5, 2012Mike Konczal

The big question is not whether to dismantle Dodd-Frank, but whether it gets implemented correctly.

Wednesday's presidential debate had a relatively detailed discussion of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. From a transcript, this is how President Obama described what the bill does:

The big question is not whether to dismantle Dodd-Frank, but whether it gets implemented correctly.

Wednesday's presidential debate had a relatively detailed discussion of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. From a transcript, this is how President Obama described what the bill does:

We said you've got -- banks, you've got to raise your capital requirements. You can't engage in some of this risky behavior that is putting Main Street at risk. We've going to make sure that you've got to have a living will so -- so we can know how you're going to wind things down if you make a bad bet so we don't have other taxpayer bailouts. [...] And, you know, I appreciate and it appears we've got some agreement that a marketplace to work has to have some regulation. But in the past, Governor Romney has said he just want to repeal Dodd- Frank, roll it back.
 
And so the question is: Does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street? Because if you do, then Governor Romney is your candidate. But that's not what I believe.
The sleepy delivery aside, this is a good description. I would have liked to seen a reference to the CFPB ("cops on the beat protecting consumers") and derivatives reform ("making sure our financial markets are transparent"), since they are both under serious attack from conservatives. But it's not bad for a high-level overview.
 
What was Mitt Romney's critique of Dodd-Frank?
One is it designates a number of banks as too big to fail, and they're effectively guaranteed by the federal government. This is the biggest kiss that's been given to -- to New York banks I've ever seen. This is an enormous boon for them....We need to get rid of that provision because it's killing regional and small banks. They're getting hurt.
 
Let me mention another regulation in Dodd-Frank. You say we were giving mortgages to people who weren't qualified. That's exactly right. It's one of the reasons for the great financial calamity we had. And so Dodd-Frank correctly says we need to have qualified mortgages, and if you give a mortgage that's not qualified, there are big penalties, except they didn't ever go on and define what a qualified mortgage was.
 
It's been two years. We don't know what a qualified mortgage is yet. So banks are reluctant to make loans, mortgages. Try and get a mortgage these days. It's hurt the housing market because Dodd-Frank didn't anticipate putting in place the kinds of regulations you have to have. It's not that Dodd-Frank always was wrong with too much regulation. Sometimes they didn't come out with a clear regulation.

First off, as Adam Levitin notes, the reason that we don't have a QM definition is because that requires having a CFPB director. And who has been blocking a CFPB director consistently from the beginning? Senate Republicans. President Obama had to recess appoint a director in order to get this rule started, much to the chagrin of Republicans. So it is a bit much to block the nominee necessary to start the agency and then complain the agency isn't getting things done.

That said, there are two major complaints here. The first is that Dodd-Frank's "resolution authority" and regulations for systemically important financial institutions (SIFI) are a "wet kiss" to the banks, and the second is that qualified mortgages are holding up the financial market. Let's take them in turn.

SIFI and Too Big To Fail

Part of Dodd-Frank's approach involves creating a graduated system of regulatory burdens for risky financial firms, combined with special resolution authority powers housed at the FDIC to resolve these firms when they fail. This gets attacked by conservatives, an attack Mitt Romney reiterated, because, they believe, it has three problems: (1) it picks a handful of winners, (2) protects those winners from competition through regulations that have no teeth, and (3) gives a signal to the market that these firms will be bailed out again in the future.

To address complaint (1), all bank holding companies with $50 billion or more in consolidated assets are included without a necessary designation, and systemically important financial institutions (SIFI) are included as well after a determination process. So it isn't just the top five firms, but instead the 35 plus that are all larger in size. If it were an advantage to be declared systemically important, SIFI financial firms would be fighting to get the designation. By all accounts they are not, and indeed they are fighting against this status.

For (2), it makes sense that they are fighting the designation because Dodd-Frank requires more capital and includes more requirements for riskier firms. Take Sec. 165, which requires "large, interconnected financial institutions" to be subject to "prudential standards...more stringent than the standards and requirements applicable to nonbank financial companies and bank holding companies that do not present similar risks to the financial stability of the United States."

Or Sec. 171, which requires that capital requirements scale with "concentrations in market share for any activity that would substantially disrupt financial markets if the institution is forced to unexpectedly cease the activity." The idea is that if a firm wants to get bigger or engage in riskier activity, the normal prudential requirements to hold more capital and plan for a failure should scale as well.

For (3), the question is whether it will work or whether the market will think there will be endless bailouts. As I've described at length elsewhere, the resolution authority in Dodd-Frank is designed to precommit against bailouts. You need three institutions to approve resolution, who must consider the decision with a bias toward the market and the bankruptcy code. If there's a liquidation, the FDIC has to wipe out shareholders, hit creditors, fire management and board members, and can't buy equity in the firm to keep it alive. The problem we face isn't Dodd-Frank, but Congress and the executive branch passing "TARP: Part Two."

So how is the market reacting? Jennie Bai, Christian Cabanilla, and Menno Middeldorp of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York wrote a great paper recently that used "Moody’s KMV credit default swap (CDS) implied probability of default to gauge changes in the market perception of the risk that senior bondholders will not be completely repaid." (Disclosure: In the past, I worked at Moody’s KMV, a well regarded credit risk firm founded as KMV by three old-school quants, as a financial engineer. As a result, I'm biased towards their probability of default methodologies as a metric.)

What did they find?

Using the results from this regression and the shift in Bloomberg resolution news over our sample, we estimate that the anticipated and actual changes in resolution regime have increased the CDS market’s expectations of default by approximately 20 basis points, which is around a fifth of the average CDS-implied default probability for G-SIFIs in March 2012. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that markets are no longer pricing in any possibility of government support, it does suggest that the new laws have resulted in the CDS market taking into account the view that senior bondholders run a higher risk that they’ll need to share in the costs of bank resolution.

The market is starting to price in the risk that senior bondholders at risky, major financial firms will take hits, and those risks are priced in alongside movements in the resolution authority law. Given that the rules aren't completed yet and that there are additional ways to bolster them, this is a good sign. Mitt Romney's attack on the overall plan embodied in Dodd-Frank isn't the right approach for people serious about tackling Too Big To Fail. The problems we should be worried about are whether there is a good implementation of the law and if it is sufficient for taking down a major firm.

QM

In addition to Adam Levitin's piece, you should read John Griffith and Julia Gordon of Center for American Progress, writing over at Think Progress, who have a piece on the QM issue.

We’re thrilled to hear Romney give such a full-throated defense of the ability-to-repay rule. It’s a welcomed about-face from his recent calls to repeal Dodd-Frank and dismantle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal agency that’s responsible for enforcing the rule. That said, Romney has a few key facts wrong.

As Romney points out, the ability-to-repay rule has not yet taken effect as regulators are still defining the “Qualified Mortgage” exemption. But the Republican candidate neglected to mention that the final rule isn’t due until January 2013 — a deadline regulators appear to be on pace to meet. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau submitted its proposed rule back in April and is currently hashing through public comments.

Romney seems to imply some sort of negligence or malfeasance from the Obama administration that is preventing the rule from being completed. Alas, no scandal here. The Dodd-Frank law is actually quite clear about what type of loan should be considered a “Qualified Mortgage.” The loan must be well-underwritten with verified income, employment, and debt information. Loan payments can’t exceed a certain percentage of the borrower’s net monthly income. The loan can’t contain risky feature like negative amortization, interest-only payments, or balloon payments. The list goes on.

It's a shame the debates didn't include anything on foreclosures or the housing market more generally, but the Dodd-Frank discussion was a pleasant surprise.

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FDR's Debate Lesson for Obama: It's About Capturing Americans' Imaginations

Oct 4, 2012David B. Woolner

President Obama spent too much time picking apart the details of his opponent's plans instead of attacking the underlying philosophy as FDR did.

President Obama spent too much time picking apart the details of his opponent's plans instead of attacking the underlying philosophy as FDR did.

Let me warn you and let me warn the Nation against the smooth evasion which says, “Of course we believe all these things; we believe in social security; we believe in work for the unemployed; we believe in saving homes. Cross our hearts and hope to die, we believe in all these things; but we do not like the way the present Administration is doing them. Just turn them over to us. We will do all of them—we will do more of them we will do them better; and, most important of all, the doing of them will not cost anybody anything.”

But, my friends, these evaders are banking too heavily on the shortness of our memories. No one will forget that they had their golden opportunity—twelve long years of it.

Remember, too, that the first essential of doing a job well is to want to see the job done. Make no mistake about this: the Republican leadership today is not against the way we have done the job. The Republican leadership is against the job's being done. — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936

From the moment he took office in the New York State Senate until his death as president roughly 35 years later, Franklin D. Roosevelt relished the toss and tumult of the political arena. As he once told a reporter in the midst of his early struggle with New York’s Tammany Hall political machine, “there is nothing I love as much as a good fight” – and FDR was brilliant at it.

This passion for the art of politics—and for the basic principles that underpinned his political philosophy—served FDR extremely well over the course of his public life. In fact, few politicians in the 20th century, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and his cousin Theodore Roosevelt, ever came close to FDR’s ability to master the nation’s political discourse.

What fueled FDR was his fundamental belief in the power of government to create a more just and equitable society, and his deep knowledge—from personal experience—of the forces of wealth and privilege that had little if any regard for the plight of millions upon millions of Americans who struggled day by day to provide for their families. FDR never forgot that it was these “malefactors of great wealth,” as his cousin TR labeled them, who brought the country to ruin in 1929, and he spent the better part of his presidency in battle against the forces that wanted to return the United States to the so-called Gilded Age of unfettered capitalism.

The American people understood this, in part because they had lived through the economic collapse that brought on the Great Depression, but also because of the clear and unequivocal message that FDR delivered time and time again about the nature of struggle between those who sought to exploit the free-market system for their own ends, and those who believed, as he did, that the only way to make capitalism work in the long run was to make sure that it provided a basic measure of economic security and opportunity to all Americans, not just those at the top.

It was this conviction that led the Roosevelt administration to initiate Social Security and unemployment insurance, to guarantee bank deposits through the FDIC, or to protect investors—both small and large—through the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The aim here was not to create “trickle-down government,” or a generation of dependents, as Governor Romney would have us believe, but rather to use government to ensure that the millions who toiled in the nation’s farms and factories might receive a decent wage and a small measure of economic security against what FDR called “the hazards and vicissitudes of life,” such as the loss of a job or poverty-ridden old age.

We now take many of these programs for granted, but in FDR’s day they aroused fierce opposition, particularly from the well-heeled conservative elite, who did everything they could to try to discredit both the president and his ideas. In their view, FDR’s philosophy of government was tantamount to socialism, an un-American attempt to subvert the Constitution and rob the nation of the individual initiative that stood at the core of its—and their—success.

But FDR would have none of this, and in a series of withering attacks on what he called “a generation of self-seekers” he implored the American people to join him in abandoning “our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life.” Indeed, as he reminded the American people in the summer of 1936, it was critical that the nation reject a system of governance where “for too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality,” where “a small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor—other people's lives.”

For Roosevelt, the great issues of his day were not simply about whose “plan” might deliver more jobs for the American people, or provide a greater chance at reducing the deficit, but about the fundamental moral and economic structure of our society -- a society where government must remain determined “to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and [where] we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous.”

Like FDR in 1936, President Obama now faces the same sort of “powerful influences” that in Roosevelt’s words “strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.” But judging from last night’s debate, one would hardly know it. Instead of attacking the underlying philosophy behind Governor Romney’s call for the restoration of the types of policies that led to the Great Depression and the Great Recession—policies that in Romney’s words would rid the country of what he calls “the web of dependency” among the “47 percent”—the president spent too much time trying to explain the differences between the two men’s various “plans.” Given Governor Romney’s penchant for leaving out the details of his various proposals to reduce the deficit and grow the economy, perhaps this is understandable, but in doing so the president failed to capture the imagination of the American people.

This is unfortunate, for Governor Romney is correct when he says this election is about choosing very different paths for our nation. Will we embrace the type of society that was built in the New Deal? A country where the reforms of the 1930s helped the middle class flourish in the decades after World War II? Or will we embrace the philosophy of government that has become increasingly dominant in the past 30-plus years -- a philosophy of government where, as the Census Bureau recently reported, the average male worker is making the same hourly wage adjusted for inflation that he was making in 1978, while the average CEO’s pay over the same period has sextupled and the income of the people in the top 1 percent has grown by 600 percent?

For Roosevelt, the answer was obvious, and he was not afraid to state it “boldly and plainly.” As he said in his speech to the 1936 Democratic Convention:

The defeats and victories of these years have given to us as a people a new understanding of our government and of ourselves… It has been brought home to us that the only effective guide for the safety of this most worldly of worlds, the greatest guide of all, is moral principle…

We cannot afford to accumulate a deficit in the books of human fortitude.

In the place of the palace of privilege we seek to build a temple out of faith and hope and charity…

Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales.

Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.

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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Romney's 47 Percent Remarks Reflect the Mentality FDR Fought Against

Sep 20, 2012David B. Woolner

Romney's comments may spark a widespread backlash against the kind of contempt for the poor that FDR once overcame.

But here 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 one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

Romney's comments may spark a widespread backlash against the kind of contempt for the poor that FDR once overcame.

But here 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 one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

But it is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope—because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. 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. - Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1937

Mitt Romney’s callous remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who “pay no income tax,” are “dependent on government,” see themselves as “victims,” and will never “take personal responsibility… for their lives,” have been seized upon by both conservative and liberal commentators as the strongest indication yet that Romney is out of touch with the American people. They have also proved to be something of an embarrassment for fellow members of his party who are running for office. In Massachusetts, for example, U.S. Senator Scott Brown told the Boston Globe that Romney’s remarks did not represent the way Brown viewed the world. “As someone who grew up in tough circumstances, I know that being on public assistance is not a spot that anyone wants to be in.” Similar sentiments were echoed by a number of other Republican candidates, like Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, who told Politico that as the son of an auto mechanic and a school cook—with five brothers and sisters—he did not "view the world the same way” Romney does. In New Mexico, meanwhile, Republican Governor Susana Martinez responded by noting that her state had “a lot of people that are at the poverty level…but they count as much as anybody else.”

Romney’s remarks have also sparked a good deal of interest in just who the 47 percent are and what this figure means. Ironically, the net result this furor may be to inject a more elevated discussion into the nation’s political discourse about one of the most important issues facing the country: the alarming rise in the number of Americans who have joined the ranks of the poor.

According to official statistics just released by the Census Bureau, the number of Americans living in poverty reached 48.5 million people in 2011, the highest number in 53 years. And while the percentage of Americans living in poverty finally appears to be falling from its high last year of 15.9 percent, it is important to remember that the number of “near poor”—those individuals and families who struggle with incomes just above the poverty line—has topped 51 million. That means the total number of Americans living below or just above the poverty line now stands at just under 100 million—roughly one-third of the population.

Given these statistics, and the growing number of Americans who have retired and are living off of Social Security (which the retirees have paid for through payroll taxes), is it any wonder that approximately 47 percent of the American populace pays no federal income tax? Of course we should not forget that most of these individuals do pay payroll taxes as well as state and local taxes, not to mention sales taxes, which are in place in 45 states.

A far more important question is how it is that the richest country in the world now finds itself with roughly one-third of its population living in such dire economic circumstances. According to Mr. Romney, these 100 million Americans are stuck in or near poverty because they have refused to take “personal responsibility and care for their own lives.” As such, they are quite happy to live on government handouts, firm in their belief that they are “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

Quite apart from the debate over health care, one would have thought that access to food and shelter is not something that a civilized society in the 21st century would deny its most vulnerable citizens—and when pressed Mr. Romney has backed away a bit from such an extreme stance. But the undeniable disdain in his comments for “those people” whom he has characterized as freeloaders who regard themselves as “victims” has sparked a strong negative reaction, even, as noted, from many members of his own party.

This is welcome news, for it may portend the first glimmer of hope that the winner-take-all, you’re on your-own philosophy of the extreme right is being undermined by a far more compassionate and realistic view of how a modern society is supposed to function; a society where we can all agree that government has a responsibility to provide the average citizen with a basic level of economic security and equal access to economic opportunity. This would include policies that ensure that all Americans have equal access to education and affordable health care and where the focus of the debate about the size and role of government would center how best to use government—not eliminate it—in our fight to eradicate poverty.

Seventy years ago, in the midst of an even worse economic crisis, Franklin Roosevelt faced a number of critics who characterized the world in a manner that was quite similar to Governor Romney’s. “You know their reasoning,” FDR said. “They say that in the competition of life for the good things of life; ‘Some are successful because they have better brains or are more efficient; the wise, the swift and' the strong are able to outstrip their fellowmen. That is nature itself, and it is just too bad if some get left behind.’” But, he went on:

It is that attitude which leads such people to give little thought to the one-third of our population which I have described as being ill-fed, ill-clad and ill-housed. They say, "I am not my brother's keeper"—and they "pass by on the other side." Most of them are honest people. Most of them consider themselves excellent citizens.

But this nation will never permanently get on the road to recovery if we leave the methods and the processes of recovery to those who owned the Government of the United States from 1921 to 1933.

In Roosevelt’s day, those who “owned the Government” from 1921 to 1933 promoted the same type of laissez-faire policies that Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan embrace and which contributed to the economic collapse President Obama inherited in 2009. By the mid-1930s, however, most Americans found themselves in agreement with FDR’s comment that “we have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.” They also concurred with his view that “out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays.”

Perhaps Mr. Romney has done us all a favor, for his apparent indifference to the plight of “those people” who make up the 47 percent of the American population has forced a good many of his fellow Republicans to admit that government does have a role to play in ensuring we live in a decent society. They may not agree with the Democrats on how just how large a role government should play, but their tacit acknowledgement that government can and must be part of the solution to the nation’s problems is a welcome change from the ceaseless and vacuous claim of the far right that government stands at the root of all our problems.

Who knows; in the long run, it may even lead to the moderation of the Republican Party, something which all Americans, even the 47 percent, would welcome with open arms. 

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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Konczal and Grunwald: Could the Stimulus Have Been Better Without Being Bigger?

Sep 10, 2012

We've all heard the standard arguments about the stimulus: progressives think it should have been bigger, while conservatives think it was a pork-filled monstrosity.

We've all heard the standard arguments about the stimulus: progressives think it should have been bigger, while conservatives think it was a pork-filled monstrosity. But in the latest episode of the Roosevelt Institute's Bloggingheads series, Fireside Chats, Mike Konczal talks to Michael Grunwald, author of The New New Deal, about four stronger criticisms of the bill from the left.

Konczal notes that it probably wouldn't have been possible to pass a larger stimulus through Congress, but his first question is "Why didn't we have a WPA? President Roosevelt went out in one month and hired like four million people," so if we're facing a similar jobs crisis now, "why don't we just go and hire five million people to do whatever?"

Next, the Michaels discuss President Obama's rhetorical pivot toward deficit reduction and "the idea that you couldn't pass the first stimulus, you couldn't do more to expand the economy, without also bringing down the long-term debt," which led Obama to "straitjacket himself on this issue of worrying about the bond market."

Third, Konczal argues that "President Obama very much looked at how to attack the problem of unemployment as a budgetary phenomenon as opposed to using every lever at his disposal," including the Federal Reserve and the nationalized GSEs. Rather, he chose to "kick the can on housing, hoping unemployment would come down in two years."

Finally, Konczal says "the New Deal brought in kind of a new contract with government" that involved the creation of a safety net and a much stronger role for the federal government in the economy. He and Grunwald explore whether Obama's policies have the potential to create another paradigm shift that is "fundamentally a new kind of social reality, a political reality."

For more, including details on what was actually in the stimulus and how it reflected President Obama's broader agenda, check out the full video below:

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