What Was Missing in Kansas: the Greatest Generation's Political Power

Dec 12, 2011Harvey J. Kaye

fdr-we-need-you-150President Obama's speech recognized the progressive values of his grandparents' generation, but not the democratic action that put those values into practice.

fdr-we-need-you-150President Obama's speech recognized the progressive values of his grandparents' generation, but not the democratic action that put those values into practice.

President Obama speaks proudly and often of his grandparents and their generation -- the men and women who confronted and beat the Great Depression and fascism. But for all of his words of admiration and affection, he has yet to show that he truly understands what made the Greatest Generation truly great. His remarks last Tuesday in Osawatomie, Kansas reflected a common misconception of what their struggles, labors, and achievements entailed and what they have to say to us today.

Seeking to regain the political initiative from Republicans, Obama went to Kansas not only to present his ideas on how we might reinvigorate the American economy, but also to reiterate his commitment to enabling Americans to pursue and realize the nation's historic purpose and promise. He specifically chose Osawatomie because it was there, 101 years ago, that the former president and Republican-turned-progressive Teddy Roosevelt delivered his famous "New Nationalism" speech. As Obama noted, it was in that speech that TR said, "Our country...means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy...of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him."

Progressives welcomed President Obama's speech. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote, "It was, at once, a clear philosophical rationale for his presidency, a straightforward narrative explaining the causes of the nation's travails, and a coherent plan of battle against a radicalized conservatism." Progressive editor Matt Rothschild exclaimed, "I wish Obama would go to Kansas more often. His speech... was unlike any I've ever heard him give. He finally embraced progressivism."

Undeniably, Obama made some strong points in his remarks. He finally pointed his presidential finger at the "greed" of bankers and "irresponsibility" of regulators and all that they have wrought. He spoke of the gross inequality that has come to mark American life and how it has corrupted our democracy. And he insisted that government has an important role to play not only in responding to the continuing joblessness and suffering, but also in addressing the ever intensifying inequality and declining opportunity we have experienced.

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Nevertheless, elements of the president's Kansas speech make me doubt that he fully grasps what needs to be done and how to do it. My reservations stem from the way he spoke of his grandparents -- and my parents -- and their generation. Before he quoted Teddy Roosevelt, Obama said:

My grandparents served during World War II. He was a soldier in Patton's Army; she was a worker on a bomber assembly line. And together, they shared the optimism of a nation that triumphed over the Great Depression and over fascism. They believed in an America where hard work paid off, and responsibility was rewarded, and anyone could make it if they tried -- no matter who you were, no matter where you came from, no matter how you started out... And these values gave rise to the largest middle class and the strongest economy that the world has ever known.

All this is true. But like many who praise the Greatest Generation's values, the president left out the most critical, progressive, and democratic, if not inspiring, part of the story.

The men and women who saved the nation from economic destruction and political tyranny, and went on to create the middle class and turn the United States into the strongest and most prosperous nation on earth, didn't do so simply by having the right values and working hard to achieve them. They did so by electing and re-electing Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They chose a leader who not only believed in them, but also rallied and engaged them directly in progressive initiatives and struggles of recovery, reconstruction, and reform.

They undertook these labors against historical expectations, in the face of powerful conservative, reactionary, and corporate opposition, and despite their own terrible faults and failings. In the process, they subjected big business to public account and regulation, empowered the federal government to address the needs of working people, organized labor unions, fought for their rights, reconstituted the "We" in "We the People," established a Social Security system, rebuilt the nation's public infrastructure, and improved the environment. They did so, that is, by harnessing the powers of democratic government and in the process making America freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before.

We should honor our parents and grandparents from the Greatest Generation. The best way for us to show our appreciation is to live out their politics.

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America. Follow him on Twitter @HarveyJKaye.

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We Need a World War II Effort to Tackle Global Warming and the Great Recession

Dec 12, 2011Jon Rynn

earth-150If the government doesn't go bold on the environment, the economy and the earth will continue to suffer.

earth-150If the government doesn't go bold on the environment, the economy and the earth will continue to suffer.

The news from the world of global warming science is grim. We need to keep the planet from warming by more than 2 degrees centigrade or the climate could become extremely dangerous. To stay below that level would require a drastic decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in the next several years. Many commentators, from Al Gore to Thomas Friedman to Lester Brown, have argued that we need a World War II type effort to prevent the worst of global warming. Such an effort would have the bonus effect of reviving the economy. When FDR was confronted with a world war, he converted as much as one third of the economy to that effort, with the federal government in the lead. The result: fascism was defeated along with what was left of the Great Depression. Can we do something similar today?

When World War II started, the federal government converted several industries, including the automobile industry, to make tanks, planes, and other military goods. A planning department was set up, and all resources that were necessary for the war effort were carefully counted and controlled. At the peak of the war, about one third of all output (GDP) in the United States went into the military. One third of today's economy would be about $5 trillion dollars.

While there is a debate about whether the war actually ended the Great Depression, it certainly finished off the scourge of high unemployment. The construction of new machinery for the factories laid the groundwork for the post-war boom, as well as enlightened policies like the G.I. Bill, which paid for college for returning soldiers and made housing loans available through the government.

Today we have a different problem, but it could become just as deadly as a world war. Modern global civilization will become difficult if not impossible to maintain if the planet overheats, according to a new report. Our society is not designed to deal with increasing sea levels, indefinite droughts in some areas and unpredictable deluges in others, forests destroyed by warm weather pests, dead oceans, and disappearing glaciers that lead to the destruction of many of the world's most important rivers.

So what would a World War II-type program to prevent global warming and end the Great Recession look like? As I argued in my book, Manufacturing Green Prosperity, we would need to spend on the order of one trillion dollars per year, for 20 years, in order to build the necessary transportation, energy, urban, and agricultural infrastructure. And by "we" I mean "we the people" -- that is, the federal government.

I recently completed a chapter for a book about a green energy economy that should come out in 2012, and I proposed that with a budget of $1.2 trillion dollars per year we could employ about 24 million people, of which over 5 million would be manufacturing jobs. A revival of manufacturing sparked by this program is vital to ending the Great Recession.

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Here are the federal programs needed to create a full-employment green economy, along with the annual budget required:

1. An Interstate Wind System that would generate all of our electricity, which is currently provided mostly by coal and natural gas plants at $150 billion

2. An Interstate Electricity Grid that would be able to carry all of this electricity throughout the continent at $85 billion

3. Solar photovoltaic panels that would generate a quarter of our current electricity needs, which would make up for the electricity that the wind system would require at $150 billion

4. Geothermal heat pumps under all residential buildings that would provide all heating and cooling needs at $50 billion

5. Weatherizing half of the homes in the country at $25 billion

6. A 17,000 mile Interstate High-Speed Rail System at $30 billion

7. An expanded freight, medium-speed, and commuter rail system at $25 billion

8. A vastly larger transit system at $60 billion

9. A 100 percent organic agricultural system at $10 billion

10. Recycling/reusing almost everything at $100 billion

11. Last but not least, housing half of the population in dense, walkable neighborhoods, which would cost $500 billion per year if 100,000 250 unit apartment buildings were constructed

At the end of this 20-year program of economic reconstruction, the United States would emit virtually no greenhouse gases. As added benefits, it would not use petroleum, whose supply is shrinking and on which the U.S. is very dependent, nor would it destroy the water, soil, and forests of its ecosystems. We could also implement a "government as employer of last resort" system so that everyone who wanted a job could have one.

Even this program would not actually be at the level of a World War II-type effort, since $1.2 trillion constitutes less than one tenth of the economy, whereas the real WWII effort required one third. We could double the rate by doubling the budget to $2.4 trillion, which might be required to avoid out-of-control global warming -- particularly if, as I suspect, it took 10 years to accumulate the "political will" to implement such a program (assuming it could happen at all).

The good news: it is technologically feasible to create a thriving civilization without emitting greenhouse gases. The bad news: there will have to be major shifts in economic, and therefore political, power in order to build a sustainable civilization.  We have a much different political constellation than in FDR's era. In 1941, the top 1 percent constituted a much smaller portion of national income and thus had less power. There was an 81 percent top tax rate in place, which peaked at 94 percent in 1944-5 (and was still 91% in 1963).The Democrats, a significant percentage of whom were truly progressive, were dominant in Congress, and FDR sat in the White House. This was all accompanied by a very strong set of left-wing movements and institutions, including strong trade unions.

And how would all of this be paid for? There are several ways to come up with $1.2 trillion. First, we can do it the same way that the government did for the Iraq war or the financial bailout: we could simply go into debt (preferably through a public infrastructure bank). World War II was paid for with debt -- which was brought down very quickly because of the post-war boom. Second, the top 1 percent makes about 24 percent of national income, which in 2009 was about $12 trillion. So we could obtain, say, half of the needed $1.2 trillion by imposing a 25 percent tax on that income bracket. We could pay for the whole thing with a 50 percent tax. Third, we currently spend almost $1 trillion on the military. The Defense Department keeps its budget high not because we need such a large military, but because it has created a "military-industry-congressional complex" that doles out money to almost every congressional district in the country -- and creates good factory jobs. Most of the 6 million people either employed directly by the Department of Defense or indirectly through the industrial complex could be converted to working on our number one national security issue: creating an economy that will not implode.

Ultimately, an economy cannot thrive if the ecological foundations on which it rests are collapsing. That is where we are heading, and unless the government steps in directly, and in a big way, there will be no nation to secure.

Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.

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Bruce Judson on the Societal Dangers of Income Inequality

Dec 8, 2011Bryce Covert

money-justice-scalesI got the chance to talk with Bruce Judson, who has been writing the "Restoring Capitalism" column and whose comprehensive plan for reversing the rise in economic inequality will be published as an e-book

money-justice-scalesI got the chance to talk with Bruce Judson, who has been writing the "Restoring Capitalism" column and whose comprehensive plan for reversing the rise in economic inequality will be published as an e-book, Making Capitalism Work for the 99%: A Manifesto, this week. We talked about his work before the financial crisis that examined the startling rise of income inequality in the U.S., how it can lead to social unrest and instability, and what course we must take to correct these trends.

Bryce Covert: You talked about the societal dangers of growing income inequality in your 2009 book It Could Happen Here before it was on the national agenda. What made you pay attention to the trend?

Bruce Judson: I started discussing the book with Harper Collins in 2007. At that time, a number of prominent people were also very concerned about it, including Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, Elizabeth Warren, and Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz. They all said it was dangerous for our democracy. But I kept wondering why. What happens next? So I started my own research.

In the book, I took a historic perspective on what happens when extreme inequality arises in a society. It describes a series of steps, or a narrative, for how growing economic inequality can ultimately lead a democracy to implode. The book argued that if economic inequality in America continued unchecked, it would lead to a dysfunctional economy, even greater political polarization, ultimately political paralysis, anger and mistrust throughout the society, protests, and eventually reform or some type of political instability.

Sadly, each of the stages of misery seems to be happening like dominoes falling. And I am convinced the Occupy movement reflects the coalescing of the deep and unfortunate anger that pervades our society as a result.

BC: What historical trends stood out as most similar to our situation?

BJ: I was terrified by the similarities between our society and the era of the Great Depression. As a nation, we were moving toward levels of economic inequality we had not seen since the financial crash of the late 1920s. My reading of history, of events surrounding the New Deal era and the Depression, is that excess inequality tended to be associated with high speculation and a lack of appropriate constraints on the financial industry.

In essence, I came to believe growing economic inequality was intimately linked to economic catastrophe, which would be so great that it would tear our social fabric.

BC: Why is inequality so destabilizing and dangerous?

BJ: There are very few things in America that are taboo. But one thing we never, ever talk about is the potential for political instability in the U.S. We're taught as children that we had one great revolution. We take the stability of our democracy for granted.

But economic inequality is very dangerous, and the reason is that in our society wealth and power go together. As wealth becomes substantial, it starts to use its political power to ensure its hegemony and mucks up the important, competitive elements that make capitalism work. Over time, what was formally a vibrant economy with efficient markets becomes an inefficient, dysfunctional one.

Here's a recent example. The New York Times wrote that Wall Street does not want a transparent market for swaps and that Washington politicians were listening to its demands. The reason for the opposition is that, in effect, traders make more money by keeping "prices in the shadows." A transparent market means that you have the equivalent of a stock exchange, where all participants can see the prices of recent trades. That's all it means.

It's hard for me to see how this would even be a serious discussion if the financial industry did not have political influence. Is there any public interest in a market that is opaque, rather than transparent?

BC: What does inequality mean for the middle class, which is the foundation of our country's economy?

BJ: Early America lacked the class barriers then prevalent in Europe: Everyone mixed with each other. This led the more fortunate to have empathy and a visceral understanding for the problems of the less fortunate. As economic inequality has increased, we see far less mixing among people at different income levels. Now everyone has less of a sense that they are part of one large community and that we have a responsibility to each other.

Political theorists, going back to Aristotle, have all concluded that a vibrant middle class is essential for a vibrant democracy. The members of the middle class hope to move up, so they want mobility to remain a desirable option, but they also fear moving down, so they are more likely to support a social safety net. In essence, the middle is the group that ensures stability as a barrier to legislative extremes that unduly reward the wealthy or harm the poor.

Unfortunately, inequality that chips away at the middle class can lead to violence. There was violence that occurred in the Depression, with riots in the Midwest. People also started to take the law into their own hands. In penny auctions, after your farm was foreclosed on, you showed up at the courthouse with all of your friends -- farmers who had their rifles with them -- and took over the bidding and bought back your farm for penny. As income inequality increases, the dispossessed may start to feel they have been treated unfairly and things can get ugly.

BC: Your work also predicted revolution. What's your current take?

BJ: The book did not predict revolution. The book said that if we allow income inequality to continue growing unchecked, then we would face a high risk of political instability or revolution. We discussed earlier how the book detailed a series of stages, or a narrative, for how growing economic inequality can lead to social upheaval. Unfortunately the narrative I detailed seems to be happening.

My best estimate is we have now passed through 60 percent of the narrative. A lot needs to happen before the risk of political instability becomes a reality. I am hopeful that with inequality now on the national agenda, we will see the reforms needed.

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BC: You've lately been focused on the dysfunctional aspects of our economy, particularly housing. What are their implications?

BJ: My take on much of the dysfunction in our economy today is that we have lost sight of what I call "actual capitalism." Instead, we have a strange system that people have variously described as crony capitalism, socialism for the rich, and corporatism. This shift is destabilizing our economic system as well as our democracy.

The housing crisis is even more significant because of its potential impact on our social fabric. Foreclosure can be one of life's most traumatic events. The 14 million people expected to face foreclosure will have lost their down payment, their dignity, their sense of belonging to a community, and their way of life. Do policy-makers seriously believe we can foreclose on one-quarter of all the mortgages in the nation without any social backlash?

This is a national tragedy. It is also a potentially dangerous brew. It would be natural for many of these millions of people, who are reading about bank malfeasance and enormous salaries in the financial sector, to conclude that they unfairly lost their homes so that a privileged few could realize enormous incomes and remain above the law. What happens to that anger? How will all of the children in these families believe in the American Dream?

What is striking to me is the lack of energy or creativity that has been applied to the problem. To fix our economy and society, we need to prioritize keeping homeowners in possession of their homes. This was one of the main goals of the New Deal, and as a result all kinds of valuable, creative financial mechanisms were created. The 30-year mortgage was effectively invented as part of the New Deal (at the time mortgages typically ran only five years), and the Federal Housing Administration was created in 1934. We absolutely can develop innovative solutions. But we have allowed a dangerous sense of complacency and inevitability to take over.

BC: Does the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement make you more or less hopeful for the nation's future?

BJ: It absolutely makes me hopeful that we will start to see some meaningful reforms. The Occupy movement is casting a bright and unforgiving light on some of the unacceptable practices in our society that, sadly, have become commonplace.

I believe the Occupy movement is not going away. The reason it grew so quickly is that it was the flashpoint for the country's anger and widespread feelings of unfairness. It's almost inevitable that in some way it will expand to include people who feel they've been unfairly foreclosed on, the record numbers of Americans experiencing long-term unemployment, and many of the unemployed in general who feel they've been cheated out of the opportunity to work - mainstream America.

The danger is that if the Occupy movement does not succeed, and nothing takes its place, we will move further along the narrative I described.

BC: We are heading into the presidential election season. What kind of leadership will be needed to reverse growing income inequality?

BJ: In Senator Jim Web's terrific book A Time to Fight, he noted that no aristocracy in history has given up its power willingly. Unfortunately, I believe that to change course will require a knockdown drag-out fight. And it's not going to be about consensus. It's going to require political leaders with courage who stand up and fight for what is right.

We certainly saw the need for this kind of conflict in the era of the New Deal. FDR was called a "traitor to his class." During his reelection campaign, he spoke at Madison Square Garden and said that never had the forces of "organized money" been "so united against one candidate" and "They are unanimous in their hate for me -- and I welcome their hatred." This kind of language gives you a sense of the antagonism that arose when Roosevelt worked to reverse extreme economic inequality.

BC: What action do we need to take to reverse these trends?

BJ: My comprehensive thinking on these issues, and how they could be addressed with specific policies, is in the new book, Making Capitalism Work for the 99%: A Manifesto.

Economic inequality has been building for over thirty years. It's so pervasive in our society that no single policy, such as a change in tax rates, will fix it. We need to recognize that reversing this trend will require a determined, systematic approach somewhat like the New Deal.

I think we need to act in four areas:

First, we must return to actual capitalism. This means accountability, the rule of law, fair and competitive markets, compensation, appropriate to the value created for society (by getting rid of many special privileges and protections now given to the financial sector), and several other reforms. If we recreate such a system, we will also see the return of an economic system that is far more conducive to job creation.

Second, we have to talk about tax policy. The capital gains rate is at the lowest point since World War II, and the carried interest rule seems like an unfair privilege.

Right now, 75 percent of all equity trading in the nation is high-speed, meaning computer-driven, activity. This type of massive speculation and arbitrage has little, if any, societal value. The proposed federal transaction tax would help address this. It would raise several hundred billion dollars in tax revenues over the next decade and to some extent tamp down on trading designed to take advantage of minute price variations by making it unprofitable.

Third, we've got to be far more creative in developing policies to keep people as owners of their homes. This must be a priority.

Fourth, we need to return to individual states the right to protect their citizens in economic matters. One missed check on the failure of the federal government in allowing the financial crisis to happen could have been state regulators. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission found that they tried, but were prohibited from, protecting their citizens because of federal preemption.

Of course there is one overriding issue here. Economic inequality is dangerous because wealth leads to political power. To accomplish a systematic reform agenda, we must eliminate the influence of money in politics; if that prevents all of this, then these ideas are all irrelevant.

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The Eurozone Embraces the Austerity Albatross

Dec 7, 2011Jeff Madrick

Europe's leaders are determined to repeat the mistakes of the past, but they've forgotten their own recent history.

Europe's leaders are determined to repeat the mistakes of the past, but they've forgotten their own recent history.

It is not quite clear what the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, agreed upon this week, but what we know is more than a little disturbing. They have baked austerity economics into the eurozone. Germany wants all of the eurozone to act like it does: get control of your finances, suppress wage growth, and subsidize manufacturing. In what seems like yet another monumental case of national egotism, they believe that a little discipline is all that is needed and that the profligate must pay the price.

Of course, the German model could not have worked if everyone had followed it. Someone has to buy the goods that are being made and exported. This requires rising wages.

Mr. Sarkozy seems to sympathize with the disciplinarian approach, though he advocates a softer form of it. The result is that everyone will have to abide by the deficit restrictions handed down. Never mind that France and Germany were the main violators of the Maastricht agreement that was supposed to hold deficits to 3 percent of GDP early in the previous decade.

The fantasy is that this will somehow produce growth, but it won't. To repeat, someone has to boost aggregate demand.

What gets one angry, in particular, is that most of the countries in trouble had their public finances well under control. This was true in Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Belgium. Germany's deficit levels were not as well controlled. Where is the cause and effect here?

And then there is the nonsensical idea that private creditors will not have to take any losses. As many are now pointing out, Ireland refused to allow its remarkably irresponsible banks, which financed a property boom that made America's look fairly tame, to take any losses. Instead, the taxpayers took on all the debt themselves. As for Ireland's recent bounce back, GDP is still way below pre-recession levels and unemployment is devastating. The Irish people, who seem to believe sacrifice is a national fate, are leaving in droves. But the Irish government is praised, perhaps by those who advise Sarkozy and Merkel, for cutting social spending and forcing its people to suffer even more. Meanwhile, the business model of Ireland is all about tax breaks for international companies who don't really hire that many people in Ireland.

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The point of all this is that it is supposed to give the European Central Bank, the world's tallest ostrich, cover to remove its head from the sand for a moment. Then it could perhaps support collapsing sovereign debt, which is a task it should be undertaking anyway.

Imagine it is 1931 or so. An enraged establishment of wise men (and perhaps a couple of women) think they know what's good for America in a depression. They say we should pass a law limiting the size of any deficit financing. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve will continue to maintain vigilance lest inflation raise its head again -- which it will inevitably do. If that had happened, we might still be in the Great Depression.

Of course, no one will really abide by the new principles when and if this crisis passes. And that's the good news. The bad news is that it delays the day of reckoning when Europe must restructure sovereign debt, accept that the Greeks and Irish, and perhaps the Italians and Spaniards, have suffered enough penance, and issue some eurozone bonds to cover the financial holes and perhaps provide social transfers to the suffering countries. All this will require an ECB with its head facing the sun, willing to be the lender of last resort for a while.

They may get to this point. And after that? Will Germany begin to provide sufficient stimulus to enable the eurozone to grow again? I think the odds are slightly above 0.5 that the eurozone will develop an adequate rescue package. Austerity economics will not lead to growth, but the very opposite. Don't we all know that?

One of the great clichés is that those who forget history are destined to repeat it. More relevant and more interesting is that those who do know history repeat it anyway. The baser human instincts keep tugging us in the direction of monumental error. They are at work in Europe again.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the author of Age of Greed.

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The Lesson of Pearl Harbor: America's Greatest Challenges Create Its Greatest Generations

Dec 7, 2011Reese Neader

Under FDR's leadership, the U.S. reacted to defeat at Pearl Harbor by working together to build a new world order. How will millennials measure up?

Under FDR's leadership, the U.S. reacted to defeat at Pearl Harbor by working together to build a new world order. How will millennials measure up?

When Japan attacked our nation on December 7, 1941, FDR responded decisively. He called on the federal government to marshal all of its resources and cited the "unbounding determination of the people" to rise to the challenge. Our grandparents rallied to the call of the federal government and marched to victory in World War II. In the wake of that conflict, they built an international system that enshrined democratic values and a global economic framework for shared prosperity.

Throughout history, the United States has consistently used its crushing defeats as a springboard to rise to national action. Those defeats are a reminder to us that we are stronger together and that we can only succeed by facing our challenges with determination and innovation. An energetic government built the railroads, constructed the interstate highway system, and put a man on the moon. A strong government ended slavery, desegregated our schools, and defeated the forces of fascism and Nazism.

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Today our country again faces the specter of defeat. Our economy has stalled, our financial system continues to hover near collapse, and the international system is under assault from new threats like terrorism, climate change, and energy scarcity. But in the face of economic catastrophe, our leaders bailed out Wall Street instead of Main Street. And instead of engaging global leaders to build a plan for joint action to face down threats to the international order, our leaders are calling for reductions in U.S. foreign assistance and reducing our role in world affairs.

Right now, millions of people around the world are living in a state of desperation. And right now, millions of Americans are living in poverty and out of work. There is no other solution to these problems except for bold, strong, and coordinated government action.

Every generation is defined by the challenges it meets and overcomes. In our time, we have the same mission our grandparents had when they battled through the Great Depression and won World World II: We need to build a foundation for shared prosperity and make the world safe for democracy. We can honor their sacrifice and honor the vision of FDR by responding to our challenges together as a country.

Reese Neader is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Policy Director.

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Frank Luntz and the Battle Over Economic Freedom

Dec 5, 2011Mike Konczal

Occupy Wall Street has some conservatives running scared, leaving a window of opportunity to change the dialogue on what freedom really means.

Occupy Wall Street has some conservatives running scared, leaving a window of opportunity to change the dialogue on what freedom really means.

Last week, Republican strategist and wordsmith Frank Luntz shared his concerns about the Occupy movement with a group of Republican governors in Florida. "I'm so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I'm frightened to death... They're having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism." Chris Moody wrote a must-read article on the matter, including the ten dos and don'ts that Luntz suggested to his audience.

As Seth Ackerman pointed out, there's an entire industry around Democrats and liberals trying to get an edge on Luntz with even more carefully polled wordplay. However, by talking directly about the power of the 1 percent over our lives, the broken political process, burdensome debts, and a collapsed labor market, the Occupy movement has gotten Luntz's attention in a few short months. As Ackerman puts it:

For twenty or thirty years, Democratic politicians... have been paying what must amount to billions of dollars by now to consultants, pollsters, and think tank gurus to tell them how to talk to the public about inequality in some way that might spark sustained public engagement... Then the Occupy movement comes along and after two and a half months shifts the national consciousness so palpably that Republican governors are scrambling to ask their Rasputins how capitalism can be defended to their constituents back in Peoria.

Luntz suggests 10 sets of words, phrases, and concepts to abandon and has some easily defended ones to use instead. "Jobs" and "entrepreneur" are out. "Careers" and "job creators" are in. Many people across the spectrum are noticing that Luntz is suggesting a retreat from the word "capitalism," but few reference where he wants to retreat to:

1. Don't say 'capitalism.'

"I'm trying to get that word removed and we're replacing it with either 'economic freedom' or 'free market,'" Luntz said. "The public...still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we're seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we've got a problem."

Luntz suggests retreating to "economic freedom" as an easily defensible phrase conservatives can use to describe the economic status quo. This is astute, as there's been a long, 30-year conservative project to locate freedom in the laissez-faire marketplace.

It hasn't always been this way. Take this 1930 cartoon in the Chicago Defender, where economic freedom is seen as part of the right to unionize (click for larger image):

(Source: Foner, The Story of American Freedom.)

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Economic freedom as freedom from coercion was once a core part of progressive thought. Economic freedom as economic security was a central part of the New Deal and Roosevelt's four freedoms. And economic freedom as freedom from domination in the workplace is a central aspect of what unionization brings to the country. This was thought of as essential to the lives of the individuals and democracy itself -- as Samuel Gompers said, "Men and women cannot live during working hours under autocratic conditions, and instantly become sons and daughters of freedom as they step outside the shop gates."

This is on the minds of people I've talked with at various Occupy movements. Early on in Occupy Wall Street I went and asked 15 random people at Zucotti Park what "freedom" meant to them. Their answers invoked these earlier versions of economic freedom as essential aspects: “I think that freedom is your ability to carry out what you want to do. It’s not just about your social freedom, it is also about economic freedom." "Freedom is...when people can go to public universities and not have to go into debt. So not only so they can get the careers they want, but so they can be productive people in society." With the movement, we have an opportunity to change the dialogue.

Corey Robin's excellent essay in The Nation, "Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom," can act as a guide to why this is so important and what the roadmap toward changing it could look like. He says:

The secret of conservatism’s success -- as any reading of Reagan’s speeches and writings will attest -- has been to locate this notion of freedom in the market... We must confront this ideology head-on: not by temporizing about the riskiness or instability of the free market or by demonstrating that it (or its Republican stewards) cannot deliver growth but by mobilizing the most potent resource of the American vernacular against it. We must develop an argument that the market is a source of constraint and government an instrument of freedom. Without a strong government hand in the economy, men and women are at the mercy of their employer, who has the power to determine not only their wages, benefits and hours but also their lives and those of their families, on and off the job...

The politics of freedom does not dismiss the value or importance of state resources. But rather than conceiving of them as protections against the hazards of the market or indices of public compassion, it sees them as sources of power, as the tools and instruments of personal and collective advance. Armed with universal healthcare, unemployment benefits, public pensions and the like, I am less vulnerable to the coercions and castigations of an employer or partner. Not only do I have the option of leaving an oppressive situation; I can confront and change it -- for and by myself, for and with others. I am emboldened not to avoid risks but to take risks: to talk back and walk out, to engage in what John Stuart Mill called, in one of his lovelier phrases, “experiments in living.”...

That is why the politics of freedom refuses to view the state as the conservative does: as a constraint. Or as the welfare-state liberal does: as a distributive machine. Instead, it views the state the way the abolitionist, the trade unionist, the civil rights activist and the feminist do: as an instrument for disrupting the private life of power. The state, in other words, is the right hand to the left hand of social movement.

It will be challenging to square this idea of the state as a partner in economic freedom with the more anarchist-leaning tendencies of much of Occupy thought, but it's a debate worth having.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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A Feast for the 1%, a Famine for the One Third

Nov 23, 2011David B. Woolner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Franklin D. Roosevelt, January 20, 1937

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

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

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

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

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In that purpose, he continued:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dredging Up the Submerged State: How Democrats Lost Their Nerve

Nov 14, 2011Mark Schmitt

The greatest obstacle to a New Deal-worthy response to our current economic crisis is Americans' distrust of government. But what causes that distrust? Is it just bred in the American spirit, from the Founding Fathers? If so, how were FDR and his successors able to overcome the distrust and bring newfound powers of government to bear against an economic crisis? Is it just propaganda carried over from the Reagan era?

The greatest obstacle to a New Deal-worthy response to our current economic crisis is Americans' distrust of government. But what causes that distrust? Is it just bred in the American spirit, from the Founding Fathers? If so, how were FDR and his successors able to overcome the distrust and bring newfound powers of government to bear against an economic crisis? Is it just propaganda carried over from the Reagan era?

Last year, a fresh answer emerged in a couple of articles and now an important book, The Submerged State, from Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler. Mettler showed that Americans distrusted government in part because, unlike in the New Deal era, they don't see or feel what government does. We've created programs that are so complicated, vague, and nuanced -- tax credits and public-private partnerships -- that many of their beneficiaries don't know that they are benefiting from government at all. Mettler's analysis has multiple implications: We have to call attention to the purpose of government and how programs like student loans help to achieve it, but we also need a new approach to the structure of government and a willingness to move decisively and visibly on big public missions.

I reviewed The Submerged State in The New Republic in October, and have subsequently had the pleasure of asking Suzanne some questions about her new book. The answers will appear in a question-and-answer format, expanding on points in the book, over the next few weeks.

Mark Schmitt: In your wonderful book, you show how the "submerged state" programs of the current era, like the tax credit for education savings, are invisible to their beneficiaries, thus fostering their feeling that government does nothing for them. You draw a contrast to older programs like Social Security and the GI Bill that recipients knew about and could feel. Most of the New Deal and Great Society programs were much more visible. How do you explain that? Was it that FDR, Harry Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson were smarter about creating programs that people would appreciate? Or were those just simpler times?

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Suzanne Mettler: Social welfare policies created as part of the New Deal and Great Society did tend to feature a more visible role for government, for various reasons. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson benefitted from large majorities of Democrats in Congress, so they more often had the political clout to enact policies with designs they favored. The policies of the submerged state, some of which date back to the early and mid-twentieth century, were typically promoted by Republicans or by conservative Democrats who favored arrangements that worked through market mechanisms rather than government bureaucracies. In addition, submerged policies often emerged as the fruit of compromises with powerful interests -- groups who would only support reform if it channeled funds in their direction. This is exemplified by the creation of bank-based student lending in 1965.

In the period of conservative governance that the United States has experienced since 1980, creating and building the submerged state has become a bipartisan affair. Such designs appear, at least at first blush, to embrace the market-based priorities of this period, the view that the private sector does things more effectively and efficiently than government. In reality, submerged policies are antithetical to genuine laissez faire principles, because they actually intervene in the market and channel government resources to promote particular industries at the expense of others.

In addition, as partisan polarization has escalated, submerged policies have grown more attractive to Democrats because they offer a more politically feasible manner of channeling resources to low- and moderate-income people than the creation or expansion of direct policies. This is the case not only because conservatives are more willing to support them, but also because they encounter fewer procedural hurdles in Congress. They are not subject to the public glare and multiple veto points of normal budget items, and once enacted, they can grow automatically and are not subject to annual appropriations.

Mainstream Democrats have increasingly come to recognize that such policies poll well. This point is explored in fascinating new research by Jake Haselswerdt and Brandon Bartels, discussed recently at The Monkey Cage, and by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones. But contrary to Drum's conclusion that these policies show "how to fool conservatives into spending money," in the longer run it is liberals and moderates who are shown to be the fools for embracing such policies. As I show in The Submerged State, government's role in such policies eludes Americans, including even the beneficiaries. This makes it possible for people to become increasingly indifferent or even hostile to government, not recognizing that it is the source of policies they depend on. In turn, it prevents people from mobilizing to support reforms to address the major social problems that concern them.

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2012: 1932 Redux?

Nov 8, 2011David B. Woolner


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

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


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

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

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

-Franklin D. Roosevelt, May 22, 1932

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Woman with a Plan: The Real Story of Margaret Sanger

Nov 2, 2011Ellen Chesler

Her opponents have smeared her as a racist and classist, but she devoted her life to fighting for equal access to reproductive choice.

Her opponents have smeared her as a racist and classist, but she devoted her life to fighting for equal access to reproductive choice.

Birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger is back in the news this week thanks to GOP presidential candidate and abortion rights opponent Herman Cain, who claimed on national television that Planned Parenthood, the visionary global movement she founded nearly a century ago, is really about one thing only: "preventing black babies from being born." Cain's outrageous and false accusation is actually an all too familiar canard -- a willful repetition of scurrilous claims that have circulated for years despite detailed refutation by scholars who have examined the evidence and unveiled the distortions and misrepresentations on which they are based (for a recent example, see this rebuttal from The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler).

It's an old tactic. Even in her own day, Sanger endured deliberate character assassination by opponents who believed they would gain more traction by impugning her character and her motives than by debating the merits of her ideas. But when a presidential candidate from a major U.S. political party is saying such things, a thoughtful response is necessary.

So what is Sanger's story?

Born Margaret Louisa Higgins in 1879, the middle child of a large Irish Catholic family, Sanger grew into a follower of labor organizers, free thinkers, and bohemians. Married to William Sanger, an itinerant architect and painter, she helped support three young children by working as a visiting nurse on New York's Lower East Side. Following the death of a patient from a then all-too-common illegal abortion, she vowed to abandon palliative work and instead overturn obscenity laws that prevented legal access to safe contraception.

Sanger's fundamental heresy was in claiming every woman's right to experience her sexuality freely and bear only the number of children she desires. Following a first generation of educated women who had proudly forgone marriage in order to seek fulfillment outside the home, she offered birth control as a necessary condition to the resolution of a broad range of personal and professional frustrations.

The hardest challenge in introducing Sanger to modern audiences, who take this idea for granted, is to explain how absolutely destabilizing it seemed in her own time. As a result of largely private arrangements and a healthy trade in condoms, douches, and various contraptions sold under the subterfuge of feminine hygiene, birth rates had already begun to decline. But contraception remained a clandestine and delicate subject, legally banned under obscenity statutes, and women were still largely denied identities or rights independent of their relationships with men, including the right to vote.

By inventing the term "birth control," Sanger brought the practice -- and by implication, women's entitlement to sexual pleasure -- out into the open and gave them essential currency. She went to jail in 1917 for opening a clinic to distribute primitive diaphragms to immigrant women in Brooklyn, New York, and appeal of her conviction led to a medical exception that licensed doctors to prescribe contraception for reasons of health. Under these constraints she built a network of independent local women's health centers that eventually came together under the banner of Planned Parenthood. She also lobbied for the repeal of federal obscenity statutes that prevented the legal transport of contraception by physicians across state lines, which were struck down in federal court in 1936.

Sanger sought and won scientific validation for various contraceptive methods, including the birth control pill, whose development she supported and found the money to fund. In so doing, she helped lift the religious shroud that had long encased reproduction and secured the endorsement of contraception by physicians and social scientists. From this singular accomplishment, which some still consider heretical, a continuing controversy has ensued.

Sanger always remained a wildly polarizing figure, which clarifies the logic of her decision after World War I to jettison "birth control" and adopt the more socially resonant term "family planning." This move was particularly inventive but in no way cynical, especially when the Great Depression brought attention to collective needs and the New Deal created a blueprint for bold public endeavors.

Some have falsely charged that Sanger defined family planning as a right of the privileged but a duty or obligation of the poor. To the contrary, she showed considerable foresight in lobbying to include universal voluntary family planning programs among public investments in social security. Had the New Deal incorporated basic public health and access to contraception, as most European countries were then doing, protracted conflicts over welfare and health care policy in the U.S. might well have been avoided.

Having long enjoyed the friendship and support of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Sanger also had ample reason to believe the New Dealers would fully legalize and endorse contraception as a necessary first step to her long-term goal of transferring responsibility and accountability for voluntary clinics to the public health sector. What she failed to anticipate was the force of opposition family planning continued to generate from a coalition of religious conservatives, including urban Catholics and rural fundamentalist Protestants, that held Roosevelt Democrats captive much as today's evangelicals have captured the GOP.

The U.S. government would not overcome cultural and religious objections to public support of family planning through its domestic anti-poverty and international development programs until the late 1960s, after the Supreme Court protected contraceptive use under the privacy doctrine created in Griswold v. Connecticut. At this time, Planned Parenthood clinics became major government contractors, since there were few alternative primary health care centers serving the poor. Today, one in four American women funds her contraception through government programs, many of them still run by Planned Parenthood -- a number likely to rise under the Affordable Care Act.

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Sanger's eagerness to mainstream her movement explains her engagement with eugenics, a then widely popular intellectual movement that addressed the manner in which human intelligence and opportunity is determined by biological as well as environmental factors. Hard as it is to believe, eugenics was considered far more respectable than birth control. Like many well-intentioned reformers of this era, Sanger took away from Charles Darwin the essentially optimistic lesson that humanity's evolution within the animal kingdom makes us all capable of improvement if only we apply the right tools. University presidents, physicians, scientists, and public officials all embraced eugenics, in part because it held the promise that merit would replace fate -- or birthright and social status -- as the standard for mobility in a democratic society.

But eugenics also has some damning and today unfathomable legacies, such as a series of state laws upheld in 1927 by an eight-to-one progressive majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, including Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis. Their landmark decision in Buck v. Bell authorized the compulsory sterilization of a poor young white woman with an illegitimate child on grounds of feeble mindedness that were never clearly established. This decision, incidentally, was endorsed by civil libertarians such as Roger Baldwin of the ACLU and W.E.B. Dubois of the NAACP, both of whom Sanger counted among her supporters and friends.

For Sanger, eugenics was meant to begin with the voluntary use of birth control, which many still opposed on the grounds that the middle class should be encouraged to have more babies. She countered by disdaining what she called a "cradle competition" of class, race, or ethnicity. She publicly opposed immigration restrictions and framed poverty as a matter of differential access to resources like birth control, not as the immutable consequence of low inherent ability or character.

As a nurse, Sanger also understood the adverse impacts of poor nutrition, drugs, and alcohol on fetal development and encouraged government support of maternal and infant health. She argued for broad social safety nets and proudly marshaled clinical data to demonstrate that most women, even among the poorest and least educated populations, eagerly embraced and used birth control successfully when it is was provided.

At the same time, Sanger did on many occasions engage in shrill rhetoric about the growing burden of large families of low intelligence and defective heredity -- language with no intended racial or ethnic content. She always argued that all women are better off with fewer children, but unfortunate language about "creating a race of thoroughbreds" and other such phrases have in recent years been lifted out of context and used to sully her reputation. Moreover, in endorsing Buck v. Bell and on several occasions the payment of pensions or bonuses to poor women who agreed to limit their childbearing (many of whom enjoyed no other health care coverage), Sanger quite clearly failed to consider fundamental human rights questions raised by such practices. Living in an era indifferent to the obligation to respect and protect individuals whose behaviors do not always conform to prevailing mores, she did not always fulfill it.

The challenge as Sanger's biographer has been to reconcile apparent contradictions in her beliefs. She actually held unusually advanced views on race relations for her day and on many occasions condemned discrimination and encouraged reconciliation between blacks and whites. Though most birth control facilities conformed to the segregation mores of the day, she opened an integrated clinic in Harlem in the early 1930s. Later, she facilitated birth control and maternal health programs for rural black women in the south, when local white health officials there denied them access to any New Deal-funded services.

Sanger worked on this last project with the behind-the-scenes support of Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council for Negro Women and then a Roosevelt administration official. Their progressive views on race were well known, if controversial, but their support for birth control was silenced by Franklin's political handlers -- at least until he was safely ensconced in the White House for a third term, when the government rushed to provide condoms to World War II soldiers.

Sanger's so-called Negro Project has been a source of controversy first raised by black nationalists and some feminist scholars in the 1970s and later by anti-abortion foes. Respecting the importance of self-determination among users of contraception, she recruited prominent black leaders to endorse the goal, especially ministers who held sway over the faithful. In that context, she wrote an unfortunate sentence in a private letter about needing to clarify the ideals and goals of the birth control movement because "we do not want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population."  The sentence may have been thoughtlessly composed, but it is perfectly clear that she was not endorsing genocide.

America's intensely complicated politics of race and gender has long ensnarled Sanger and all others who have sought to discipline reproduction. As many scholars of the subject in recent years have observed, much of the controversy proceeds from the plain fact that reproduction is by its very nature experienced individually and socially at the same time. In claiming women's fundamental right to control their own bodies, Sanger remained mindful of the dense fabric of cultural, political, and economic relationships in which those rights are exercised.

In most instances the policies Sanger advocated were intended to observe the necessary obligation of social policy to balance individual rights of self-expression with the sometimes contrary desire to promulgate and enforce common mores and laws. She may have failed to get the balance quite right, but there is nothing in the record to poison her reputation or discredit her noble cause. Quite the contrary.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. may have put it best in 1966, when he accepted Planned Parenthood's prestigious Margaret Sanger Award and spoke eloquently of the "kinship" between the civil rights and family planning movements. Here is what he said, since it bears repeating:

There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger's early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist -- a nonviolent resister... She launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions. Margaret Sanger had to commit what was then called a crime in order to enrich humanity, and today we honor her courage and vision; for without them there would have been no beginning.

Ellen Chesler is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and author of Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America.

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