Memo to Chris Christie and Other Budget Cutters: Infrastructure Projects Benefit Everyone

Mar 8, 2011Mark LaFlaur

hudson-river-tunnelChris Christie might claim that he can't afford high-speed rail, but a recent panel explained why the country can't afford to miss out on it.

hudson-river-tunnelChris Christie might claim that he can't afford high-speed rail, but a recent panel explained why the country can't afford to miss out on it.

The Museum of the City of New York recently hosted a panel discussion titled "Roads to Nowhere: Public Works in a Time of Crisis," part of the museum's ongoing Urban Forum series on infrastructure in New York. The discussion focused on NYC and environs, but has implications for public works projects -- infrastructure and transportation -- around the nation. The same pressures affecting public works funding (or slashed funding) in New York hold for the U.S. generally.

About 150 transportation and public works geeks came to hear such eminent public works and transportation experts as Jeffrey M. Zupan, senior fellow for Transportation, Regional Plan Association; Denise M. Richardson, managing director, General Contractors Association of New York; Dr. Michael Horodniceanu, president of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Capital Construction Company; and Joan Byron, director, Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative at Pratt Institute. The discussion was intelligently moderated by New York Times transportation reporter Michael M. Grynbaum.

Hanging over the evening's discussion was a shocking, job-killing decision in October 2010 by New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Citing cost overruns, he pulled the state out of the ARC project -- a new train tunnel under the Hudson River that would have doubled commuter rail capacity between New Jersey and Manhattan, making room for an additional 25 New Jersey Transit trains per hour. Christie objected that his state had to pay more than originally budgeted and he refused to raise taxes to cover the costs. The ARC project was the nation's largest infrastructure project. Transportation secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Transit administrator Peter Rogoff went to Trenton to negotiate a compromise, but Christie rejected their offers.

Denise Richardson said that the ARC project would have provided public benefits for at least a century to come, not to mention easier commutes and less auto traffic. Christie's cancellation immediately cost about 6,000 direct jobs at a time when unemployment among contracting workers is already at 30%. (The blog 2nd Avenue Sagas says the cancellation means $478 million flushed down the drain for New Jersey alone.) Jeffrey Zupan noted wryly, "To say I was chagrined about Christie's decision is sugarcoating it." And Michael Grynbaum pointed out that Christie isn't alone in shooting down rail projects. Other Republican governors across the United States -- in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida -- have also been rejecting federal appropriations for high-speed rail.

Meanwhile, Michael Horodniceanu pointed out that Christie would not have even been the one to cut the ribbon and it was merely a political decision to appear fiscally conservative. Joan Byron observed that Christie was largely elected by "south Jersey drivers," not by "north Jersey riders," so the only people inconvenienced would be those who hadn't voted for him in the first place. Byron stressed -- and other panel members agreed -- that supporters of the ARC project had not built a sufficient base of support so that its benefits would be clear even to those who would not actually be traveling through the tunnels. We must all make clear to our fellow citizens, she said, that such public works projects raise the property values of people in the areas served and raise the overall economy by making it easier to get to and from good-paying jobs.

The public does not want to have to pay any higher taxes, understandably, but often the benefits of the public works programs are not evident to already overstressed taxpayers, and thus support is lacking. The projects support the construction workers, the materials suppliers -- an entire ecosystem of benefits. The tax income gained by state and federal treasuries as a consequence of infrastructure development and the related industries and services they feed spreads the wealth around to the general population. Public works projects should be understood as investments that last for generations.

Sign up to have the Daily Digest, a witty take on the morning’s most important headlines, delivered straight to your inbox.

And even though the common view in upstate New York is that only New York City benefits from the public works projects in the greater metropolitan area, in fact the city's health is a matter of survival for the entire state. Three-quarters of the state's tax income is received from the greater New York City area. That revenue feeds services in Buffalo, Syracuse, and so on; it's in those residents' interest to ensure that New York City and environs has a healthy, robust transportation infrastructure. The same is true, of course, of New Jersey, or Philadelphia, or any other metropolitan area. A vibrant capital nourishes the provinces, and vice versa.

But Horodniceanu pointed out that it is difficult to spread the view of public works as beneficial to the public generally amid the pervasive anti-government rhetoric used by conservative politicians. With gasoline prices already rising, tax increases to pay for public transportation -- as Europeans do as a matter of course -- would be politically unacceptable. He contrasted the widespread American view (and unwillingness to pay for public transportation) with the French readiness to embrace and pay for public works. He cited a field trip of a group of French students to see the building of the trans-English Channel tunnel, popularly known as the Chunnel, while across the Channel a group of British citizens were protesting the "eminent domain" taking of wheat fields to be used for the tunnel and rail line into London. The clear implication was that the American attitude is more akin to the British than the French.

Two important subjects the MCNY panel did not discuss -- they only had an hour, after all -- were the political dimension to the "time of crisis" and the environmental benefits of public transportation. Why are there budget shortfalls? Which political party is doing most of the canceling of projects, and why? What wouldn't be possible if the rich and corporations paid their fair share of taxes? And why aren't the President or congressional Democrats pushing anything like the WPA & CCC programs that rebuilt America and employed millions in the last big depression?

To be sure, President Obama does often speak of the importance of high-speed rail and has spoken of a $50 billion, ten-year National Infrastructure Bank. In a speech to the Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 7, the President said "I want to put more people to work rebuilding crumbling roads, rebuilding our bridges. That's why I've proposed connecting 80 percent of the country with ... high-speed rail." The President understands the importance, but he and Congress have to know (and be reminded repeatedly) that there is strong popular support for these projects.

There has been some other good news that was not mentioned by the panelists. In early February, Amtrak announced the Gateway Project, a $13.5 billion tunnel that will go approximately where ARC would have gone and will boost the capacity of the Northeast Corridor. The Infrastructurist reports that the Gateway Project "would triple the number of hourly Amtrak trains heading through New York (from four to 12) and, if Amtrak ever achieves its (true) high-speed hopes for the corridor, the new tunnel could service that too." It would be the first phase of a $117 billion master plan announced by the national rail service in October that has a target completion date of 2040.

On the other coast, a rather surprising development reported by The Infrastructurist and the California High-Speed Rail blog is that Japan's ambassador to the United States has said that his country might be willing to pay up to half of the costs of a bullet-train system in California. According to California High-Speed Rail, "Basically our Japanese allies are begging us for the chance to build our train because they know it's going to profitable."

At a time when the Republican party is driven by ax-wielding Tea Party activists and the president continues to seek common ground with the party that abhors him, we must take help where we can find it, with Japanese yen or other sources. We must also work to build consensus among our fellow Americans to demand investments here at home for the tax dollars we're paying to Washington. Is our contribution to the Treasury to be spent forever on foreign wars and military bases in 150+ nations, or is it going to be spent here at home? National security begins at home, and we cannot afford a WPA or CCC to work our way out of the current (unmentionable) great depression if a half-trillion dollars and rising is going to the Pentagon every year. And the U.S. certainly cannot afford the rebuilding it needs if its treasury is being starved by the wealthy and corporations unwilling to pay their fair share of taxes.

Mark LaFlaur is Founder of

Share This

Rolling Back the Clock in Wisconsin: Governor Walker’s Assault on the New Deal

Mar 1, 2011David B. Woolner

Unions helped boost productivity and wages during FDR's time -- shouldn't we learn that lesson?

Unions helped boost productivity and wages during FDR's time -- shouldn't we learn that lesson?

Late last week, President Obama accused Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker of unleashing "an assault on unions" in his drive to push through legislation that would strip away many of the collective bargaining rights currently held by public sector workers in that state. The President also said that while everyone will need to make some "adjustments" in the current fiscal climate, we should not forget the "enormous contributions" public employees make to our states and to our citizens.

The President is certainly correct when he says that the move by Governor Walker is an assault on the unions. But his hint that wage and benefit concessions (adjustments) might be necessary unfortunately plays into the hands of the deficit hawks who keep insisting that the only way for us to climb out of the Great Recession is through massive cuts to state and federal budgets.

As Robert Reich recently observed, nothing could be further from the truth. The real cause of these budget deficits is not excessive spending, but a dramatic fall in tax revenue perpetuated in part by the recession and in part by "tax giveaways to the rich."

Indeed, in our forty-year drive to provide a greater and greater share of our national income to those who need it the least -- the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans -- we have managed to expand their take of total national income from 9 percent to 20 percent. With more and more of the nation's wealth flowing to a smaller percentage of the population -- whose contributions to the national well-being has declined precipitously thanks to cuts in income, estate and other forms of taxation -- is it any wonder that the middle class has been severely hurt by this recession or that governments, thanks to declining wages and the loss of jobs among working Americans, are struggling to meet their obligations?

Under similar circumstances nearly 80 years ago, Franklin Roosevelt's response to the nation's worst economic crisis was not to strip away labor's right to bargain collectively or to slash government to the bone, but rather to use government and the legislative process to strengthen the ability of working Americans to secure fair wages and working conditions. As such, a key element of the New Deal was the passage of labor laws like the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, two monumental pieces of legislation that set up a permanent National Labor Relations Board, granted private sector workers the right to form unions and to bargain collectively, established a national minimum wage, and guaranteed "time and a half" for overtime in certain jobs. In this vastly improved climate, union membership increased dramatically, from less than 3 million in 1933 to more than 14 million in 1945. So too did wages. By 1937, in fact, real weekly earnings were 30 percent higher than they had been when FDR first took office and fifteen percent higher than they were in 1929.

Sign up for weekly ND20 highlights, mind-blowing stats, event alerts, and reading/film/music recs.

Meanwhile, for those who had lost their jobs or were suffering in poverty in their old age, the Roosevelt Administration provided work building the nation's economic infrastructure through such federal programs as the Works Progress Administration (WPA). It also provided a measure of economic security through the passage of the Social Security Act with unemployment insurance and old age pensions. All of this required considerable spending on the part of government, spending that, much like today, ran into substantial opposition from fiscal conservatives and organizations like the American Liberty League, which accused the Roosevelt Administration of taking the country down the path of socialism. Hemmed in by this political opposition, and lacking experience in the new field of Keynesian economics, the Roosevelt Administration was not able to unleash the level of federal stimulus -- deficit spending -- that was needed to restore the economy until the security demands of World War II rendered the arguments of the deficit hawks irrelevant.

Led by a government committed to working with both management and labor to make the United States the most powerful nation on the planet, US wartime production exceeded all expectations and dwarfed our allies and enemies alike. Moreover, in the pro-labor climate of the time, union membership expanded at an ever more rapid pace. By 1945, it had reached a record 35 percent of the non-agricultural workforce, while over the same period wages increased by a healthy 65 percent.

Thanks to the willingness of the federal government to invest in the wartime economy (which included federal expenditures that reached a high point of 46.5 percent of total GDP in 1943), and to the wartime collaboration between the federal government, private enterprise and organized labor, the United States emerged from the war not only as the richest and most powerful nation on earth, but also the country poised to dominate the world's economy for generations to come. And all of this with a highly paid and highly unionized work force.

It is true that the labor legislation of the 1930s did not apply to public service employees, but it seems highly unlikely that once achieved FDR would support any effort, like the one currently underway in Wisconsin, to take away these rights. Indeed, when Franklin Roosevelt took office in midst of the despair of the Great Depression, he promised to "wage war" against the economic crisis. He also once remarked that "if ever I went to work in a factory, the first thing I'd do is join a union." Under his leadership, working Americans were not stripped of their rights, but were encouraged to organize for better wages, hours and working conditions. In doing so, they not only helped lift themselves out of the Great Depression, they also helped lift the nation out as a whole. Rather than follow the false promise of economic growth through ever more tax decreases for the rich, isn't it time we tried the opposite tack? Shouldn't we consider raising taxes on the wealthy and looking to expand the economy -- and state and federal revenue -- through increased wages and benefits for the millions of working Americans in Wisconsin and elsewhere who make up the backbone of this country?

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

Share This

When FDR Came to Wisconsin to Fight the Kochs and Walkers of 1934

Feb 24, 2011Harvey J. Kaye

fdrmain-150FDR didn't just stand up for workers, but he took a stand against the fat cats working against them.

fdrmain-150FDR didn't just stand up for workers, but he took a stand against the fat cats working against them.

This past Tuesday evening, nearly 1,000 unionists and their supporters gathered here in Green Bay, Wisconsin to register their appreciation for Senator Dave Hansen, one of the 14 Democrats who have absented themselves from the state to deter passage of Governor Scott Walker's Budget Repair Bill. The bill threatens to not only severely cut workers' incomes but also effectively eliminate their collective bargaining rights.

We also came together to consider what we were going to do next about that threat. Everyone -- from teachers and social workers to firefighters and snowplow drivers -- said they were ready to fight on against a governor who has insisted he will not negotiate. Most, though it pained them, said they were willing to sacrifice income to address the state's budget woes. And yet nobody was willing to give up their rights. Not only in "radical" Madison, but even here in supposedly conservative Green Bay, it seemed that Americans were ready to start making democratic history again -- not on the gridiron this time but in the struggle to win, and hold onto, the rights of democratic citizens and workers.

Listening to the speakers, I felt their enthusiasms and anxieties. But I also had questions and concerns. It angered me that union leaders were giving way on the dollar question when we all know that tax cuts and giveaways for corporations and the rich will continue. I wondered why nobody on the platform referred to the fact that the "class war from above" against labor and working people had been going on for more than thirty years now. It disappointed me that we were not discussing how we might address the hostility -- and plight -- of those private sector workers who believe public sector employees have it easy. And it bothered me that we were not talking about a movement to "take back America" from the likes of the billionaire Koch brothers and the Tea Party. But I stayed quiet -- recalling all too well how the efforts of some of us to organize Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice in support of the late 1990s revival of the labor movement had self-destructed in intellectual and political wrangling.

At the same time, I not only appreciated that my fellow citizens and unionists felt no less determined to defend themselves, their families, and their rights than I did. I also was pretty sure they had more experience in doing so than this tenured professor. And those thoughts led me to recall Franklin Roosevelt's visit to this city in the summer of 1934 to celebrate the tricentennial of the first settlement of the area by French "voyageurs."

The Great Depression continued to devastate American lives, but FDR's New Deal was giving Americans hope. It mobilized their energies and renewed labor's energies, which promised a mobilization of workers in favor of not only recovery and reconstruction but also real reform. Standing before a huge crowd at Bay Beach Park, the President spoke of what joined Americans together and of the struggles they had waged and were continuing to wage:

...Men everywhere throughout Europe -- your ancestors and mine -- had suffered from the imperfect and often unjust Governments of their home land, and they were driven by deep desire to find not alone security, but also enlarged opportunity for themselves and their children. It is true that the new population flowing into our new lands was a mixed population, differing often in language, in external customs and in habits of thought. But in one thing they were alike. They shared a deep purpose to rid themselves forever of the jealousies, the prejudices, the intrigues and the violence, whether internal or external, that disturbed their lives on the other side of the ocean.

Yes, they sought a life that was less fettered by the exploitations of selfish men, set up under Governments that were not free. They sought a wider opportunity for the average man.

Having achieved that initial adventure of migrating to new homes, they moved forward to the further adventure of establishing forms of government and methods of operating these forms of government that might assure them the things they sought. They believed that men, out of their intelligence and their self-discipline, could create and use forms of government that would not enslave the human spirit, but free it and nourish it throughout the generations. They did not fear government, because they knew that government in the new world was their own.

Sign up for weekly ND20 highlights, mind-blowing stats, event alerts, and reading/film/music recs.

I do not need to tell you that here in Wisconsin they built a State destined for extraordinary achievements. They set up institutions to enforce law and order, to care for the unfortunate, to promote the arts of industry and agriculture. They built a university and school system as enlightened as any that the world affords. They set up against all selfish private interests the organized authority of the people themselves through the State. They transformed utilities into public servants instead of private means of exploitation.

People know also that the average man in Wisconsin waged a long and bitter fight for his rights. Here, and in the Nation as a whole, in the Nation at large... man has been fighting... against those forces which disregard human cooperation and human rights in seeking that kind of individual profit which is gained at the expense of his fellows...

In the great national movement that culminated over a year ago [1933], people joined with enthusiasm. They lent hand and voice to the common cause, irrespective of many older political traditions. They saw the dawn of a new day. They were on the march; they were coming back into the possession of their own home land.

As the humble instruments of their vision and their power, those of us who were chosen to serve them in 1932 turned to the great task. In one year and five months, the people of the United States have received at least a partial answer to their demands for action; and neither the demand nor the action has reached the end of the road. But, my friends, action may be delayed by two types of individuals. Let me cite examples: First, there is the man whose objectives are wholly right and wholly progressive but who declines to cooperate or even to discuss methods of arriving at the objectives because he insists on his own methods and nobody else's.

The other type to which I refer is the kind of individual who demands some message to the people of the United States that will restore what he calls "confidence." When I hear this I cannot help but remember the pleas that were made by government and certain types of so-called "big business" all through the years 1930, 1931 and 1932, that the only thing lacking in the United States was confidence.

Before I left on my trip... I received two letters from important men, both of them pleading that I say something to restore confidence. To both of them I wrote identical answers: "What would you like to have me say?" From one of them I have received no reply at all in six weeks. I take it that he is still wondering how to answer. The other man wrote me frankly that in his judgment the way to restore confidence was for me to tell the people of the United States that all supervision by all forms of Government, Federal and State, over all forms of human activity called business should be forthwith abolished.

Now, my friends, in other words, that man was frank enough to imply that he would repeal all laws, State or national, which regulate business -- that a utility could henceforth charge any rate, unreasonable or otherwise; that the railroads could go back to rebates and other secret agreements; that the processors of food stuffs could disregard all rules of health and of good faith; that the unregulated wild-cat banking of a century ago could be restored; that fraudulent securities and watered stock could be palmed off on the public; that stock manipulation which caused panics and enriched insiders could go unchecked. In fact, my friends, if we were to listen to him and his type, the old law of the tooth and the claw would reign in our Nation once more.

The people of the United States will not restore that ancient order. There is no lack of confidence on the part of those business men, farmers and workers who clearly read the signs of the times. Sound economic improvement comes from the improved conditions of the whole population and not a small fraction thereof.

Those who would measure confidence in this country in the future must look first to the average citizen...

That's where I'm looking. And from what I can tell, the people are hurting, but their struggle to extend and deepen American freedom, equality, and democracy continues.

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. A member of the National Writers Union/UAW who looks forward to becoming a member of a UW faculty union, he is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America. Follow him on Twitter:

Share This

Amity Shlaes’s Forgotten History: When Unions Go Bust, We All Do

Feb 23, 2011Lynn Parramore

Busting unions gave Calvin Coolidge the White House, but it gave America the Great Depression.

Busting unions gave Calvin Coolidge the White House, but it gave America the Great Depression.

For years, American workers' wages have stagnated even as they produced more. Since 2008, they have been socked with staggering new bills for bank bailouts and hammered by a Great Recession brought on by the very same banks. Now public sector workers are confronted by a new crop of Republican governors who want to put an end to unions. Union workers in Wisconsin have already conceded all of Governor Walker’s draconian demands. But they want to hold on to their right to bargain so that they won’t be at the mercy of the whims of political appointees or rogue school boards. Tens of thousands have swarmed Madison to show their support for the working people of Wisconsin.

Conservatives are tasked with coming up with a narrative that makes villains out of these working folks and heroes out of the powerful people who aim to squeeze them for what’s left of their economic security.

This is not easy. And you have to admire their ingenuity. Amity Shlaes, ever the eager revisionist, has whipped up a widely parroted narrative that contains just enough truth to give it the ring of plausibility. It goes like this: Governor Scott Walker is a paragon of virtue who will soon be embraced by the American public, just like his union-crushing predecessors Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan. According to Shlaes’s account, Coolidge, then governor of Massachusetts, stood boldly against badly abused Boston policemen who walked off the job in 1919 and left the city unprotected against looters. After firing the policemen, Coolidge became a national hero and was promptly swept into the Vice President’s office on a wave of popular admiration. When President Warren Harding died, Coolidge took office and it was suddenly Morning in America. As Shlaes tells it:

“’Boston Police’ remained American code for the principle that union causes do not trump others. The concern that the U.S. might succumb to European-style revolutions lifted. Strikes abated. Wages rose without unions in Motor City. Private-sector union membership declined. Joblessness dropped. Companies poured cash, which they otherwise would have spent on union relations, into innovation.”

Let us fill in some finer detail, shall we?

As Shlaes admits, the Boston police force had been grossly abused with long hours and horrific conditions. And it was true that there was some disorder when they walked off the job, though she somewhat overstates the case. It is also true that Coolidge’s response made his reputation as a Republican politician.

But it was not exactly popular enthusiasm that wafted Coolidge into the White House. Actually, there was a huge orchestrated effort to push Coolidge by powerful financial interests. He ended up on the ticket with Warren Harding not so much because of his overwhelming appeal to the American public - he was known for being taciturn, unsociable, and downright weird (Alice Roosevelt Longworth wondered if he had been “weaned on a pickle”). Rather, it was his overwhelming appeal to American bankers.

They knew a good thing when they saw it.

Sign up for weekly ND20 highlights, mind-blowing stats, event alerts, and reading/film/music recs.

Young Coolidge, you see, had gone to Amherst College, where he had hardly any friends except Dwight Morrow, who became his bosom buddy. Coolidge went on to become a small town Massachusetts attorney representing banks, while Morrow became a senior partner in House of Morgan. When Morrow saw his pal Coolidge attracting attention in the Boston Police Strike, he wrote to everyone he knew and launched a national campaign to make a legend out of the uncharismatic Coolidge. Morrow and fellow Morgan partner Thomas Cochran lobbied tirelessly for Coolidge at the Chicago Republican Convention in 1920, and their lobbying paid off. Coolidge, first as vice president and then as president in 1923 when Harding died, became a valuable partner for the House of Morgan. Famously declaring that “the business of America is business," Coolidge stocked his administration with enough Morgan men to fill a banking convention. Historian Murray N. Rothbard notes that

“the year 1924 indeed saw the House of Morgan at the pinnacle of political power in the United States. President Calvin Coolidge, friend and protégé of Morgan partner Dwight Morrow, was deeply admired by J.P. “Jack” Morgan, Jr. Jack Morgan saw the president, perhaps uniquely, as a rare blend of deep thinker and moralist. Morgan wrote a friend: ‘I have never seen any president who gives me just the feeling of confidence in the country and its institutions, and the working out of our problems, that Mr. Coolidge does.’”

Coolidge got to the White House for crushing unions, where he slept ten hours a day and hopped on and off a mechanical horse in his underpants and a cowboy hat.

Here’s what America got: the Great Depression.

Coolidge’s real legacy was a huge upward shift of income during the “roaring twenties” away from ordinary people to the rich and powerful, who got even richer and more powerful thanks to his regulatory and policy inactivity. The best Average Joe could hope for under Coolidge was for his income to hold steady. The profits from that wondrous innovation and growth that send Shlaes into rhapsodies went to fatcats who turned the country into a casino and smashed the economy.

Reagan’s history is better known – or so you would think. His firing of 13,000 striking workers was, as Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson put it, “an unambiguous signal that employers need feel little or no obligation to their workers.” After Reagan, employers were emboldened to illegally ditch workers who sought to unionize, replace permanent employees who could collect benefits with temps, and ship factories and jobs abroad. Ever-smiling with his friendly cowboy image, Reagan tried to lower the minimum wage for younger workers, weaken child labor, job safety and anti-sweatshop laws, and do away with training programs for the jobless. He also did his best to replace thousands of federal employees with temps without civil service or union protections. Under his watch, the share of the nation’s wealth held by the richest 1 percent of Americans went up 5 percent richer. Guess whose declined?

At the time, Americans were supportive, by slim margins, of Reagan’s stance against the air traffic controllers, who went on strike to win benefit concessions from the federal government. However, the comparison with Wisconsin workers is not exactly apples to apples. These workers have agreed to concessions, and only fight to maintain their right to collective bargaining. Intuiting correctly that the public may not be on their side in this battle, conservatives have relentlessly pushed the deceptive idea that public employees enjoy higher salaries and better benefits than their private-sector counterparts. But this has been widely debunked. Careful research has shown that when you adjust for skill levels, public sector workers are not overpaid relative to private sector pay scales.

After the Great Crash, Coolidge's bank-friendly, union-bashing policies didn't seem like such a great gift to America. And just like in the twenties, Reagan's signal that it was open season on unions energized a much bolder effort to hold down wages by corporate America: Over the next few years, workers by the thousands were let go, found their pay slashed, and turned into poorly paid part time employees. US income inequality reached Himalayan levels as people's share of the benefits from increased productivity took a sharp nosedive. Today, after the Great Recession, Reagan's anti-union attitude and enthusiasm for deregulation has also proven to be a dubious legacy.

Governor Walker says he’s fighting for ordinary Americans. So why does he want to require unions to re-certify every year, but we don’t hear a peep about corporations being required to renew their charters every year? Why does he want to control the salaries of public employees, but doesn’t have any interest in controlling the salaries of grossly overcompensated corporate CEOs? Why does he call for sacrifices from hard-working people who have been screwed by the economy through no fault of their own, and none from the financiers who caused the crisis?

Maybe it’s because he has quite a bit in common with Coolidge and Reagan after all. In Reagan’s case, as in Coolidge's, union-busting led to some of the biggest peacetime income re-distributions in modern history. Democracy got weaker, oligopolies got stronger, the rich got richer, and the rest of us got left behind.

The real lesson from Coolidge and Reagan is this: If Governor Walker and his Republican friends are allowed to crush the public unions, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Lynn Parramore is Editor of New Deal 2.0, Media Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and Co-founder of Recessionwire.

Share This

The Moral Imperative for Deficit Cutting

Feb 22, 2011L. Randall Wray

line-of-american-peopleThe majority of Americans want a government that serves the people.

Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), head of the House Budget Committee, says that reducing the federal government's deficit is a "moral challenge".

line-of-american-peopleThe majority of Americans want a government that serves the people.

Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), head of the House Budget Committee, says that reducing the federal government's deficit is a "moral challenge".

He's right. Finally, one politician who recognizes that the hysteria about federal budget deficits and debt has nothing to do with economics. There is no credible economic theory and no economic evidence that can lead one to conclude that the US needs to reduce its budget deficit during a time of widespread unemployment.

It is a morality play, plain and simple.

It is, as Ryan says, a debate about "different ideas about government". It is about "should", not "can". The government CAN provide a safety net that feeds our poor, that houses our homeless, that cares for our sick, that hires our jobless, that supports our aged in dignity. There is no question of affordability -- sovereign government can always afford to "credit bank accounts" (as Chairman Bernanke puts it) using keystrokes. The question is SHOULD the government do so?

On one side, we have the modern Hooverites, including Ryan. Nay, they say, government should not help its citizens. Quoting Grover Cleveland, Hoover used remarkably precise Ryanesque words: "Though the people support the government, the government should not support the people." President Reagan modernized that with the argument that "government IS the problem". (And just to prove that Democrats can be Hooverish, too, President Clinton's slogan was "The era of big government is over".) Ryan puts it this way: "Let's choose to put proper limits on our government and unleash the initiative and imagination of the world's most exceptional people."

It is not clear who those "exceptional" people are, but the past two decades have demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that as government withdraws, it is Wall Street that is unleashed -- the "initiative and the imagination" of the Bernie Madoffs, Jamie Dimons, John Macks, Joe Cassanos, Dick Fulds, Bob Rubins, Angelo Mozilos, and Lloyd Blankfeins run loose. And when they crash the economy, causing unemployment and poverty to explode, according to Ryan's moral compass government should do nothing to help its citizens.

On the other side, we've got the modern New Dealers, who know that unbridled capitalism inevitably devolves to thievery. You need government to protect its citizens from the excesses. To be sure, New Dealers recognize the benefits of Schumpeterian entrepreneurial spirit, but they share the skepticism of Adam Smith who said that our captains of industry rarely meet except to plot against the best interests of our nation's workers and consumers. And they know that each time we experimented with laissez faire, it led to economic depression, brought on by the robber barons and their Wall Street financiers in the late 19th century, the Wall Street investment bankers of the 1920s, and the Wall Street investment bankers (yet again!) in the 2000s. (Does anyone see a pattern?)

Sandwiched between the Hoovers and the New Dealers, we've got the Clinton-Obama New Democrats who want to please Wall Street in order to keep the campaign dollars flowing, while also preserving some modicum of a safety net. Thus, they adopt the schizophrenic deficit dove position: deficits are OK now, to clean up the mess caused by Wall Street, but we've got to reign-in "entitlements" to balance the budget once the crisis is past. Oh, and let's not mess with Wall Street, which has surely learned its lesson this time around. These New Dems are unwitting and unscripted characters in a morality play they do not understand, confusing economics for morals. Hence, they hold their noses and side with the New Dealers for the current deficit debauchery, but to atone for their sins go with the Hoover deficit hawks for balanced budgets in the sweet hereafter.

Here's the problem for the Moral Right and the Schizoid Center. In poll after poll, the American people consistently reject spending cuts for any program other than "foreign aid". Indeed, they want more federal government spending for education, veteran's benefits, (national) healthcare, and Medicare -- areas our morality warriors plan to cut. According to the recent PEW survey, 45% of Americans are willing to cut global poverty assistance; no other category of federal government spending comes close to achieving a majority in favor of cuts, as the following table demonstrates. (Find the full report here.)


Sign up for weekly ND20 highlights, mind-blowing stats, event alerts, and reading/film/music recs.

Note that aside from global poverty assistance, only military defense and unemployment assistance find slightly more support for cuts than for spending increases; in all other areas, Americans favor more spending. Even Medicare -- a favored target of deficit hawks -- finds nearly three times more Americans favoring spending increases than the tiny minority willing to cut it. And Social Security remains the most popular government program ever -- no matter how often the deficit hawks tell Americans that no progress can be made on deficit reduction without gutting Social Security.

Disingenuously, Representative Judy Biggert claimed that Republicans "have a mandate from the American people to cut spending". They have nothing of the sort. The mandate is loud and clear: Americans want investment in all those areas that will improve the quality of life now and in the future.

Nor do Americans want higher taxes -- except on the super rich. But since the super rich are the natural constituency for the Moral Minority and the New Dems, that idea has no chance.

In short, the problem is that if democracy ever had its way in America, the government would be substantially BIGGER, not smaller, and MORE generous, not less. Americans decisively reject modern Hooverism, in spite of the anti-government campaign run out of Washington over the past thirty years.

So what can the Moral Minority do? Deceive. Obfuscate. Scapegoat. Talk about "unfunded mandates", "unsustainable deficits", "debt burdens on our grandkids", "government is running out of money", "welfare queens", "illegal deadbeat aliens", "national bankruptcy". All deceptions.

I hope that Rep. Paul Ryan's admission that deficit hysteria is really about morality, not economics, gets wide coverage. The American people need to know that the morality campaign is well-financed by hedge fund manager Pete Peterson's billions. He and Ryan want to push their Moral Minority views on the Moral Majority.

But the Moral Majority of this country wants more education, not less. Americans want more publicly funded healthcare, not less. They want to help the homeless get off the streets. They want to help grandma and grandpa live a decent life in retirement. They support nutrition programs for mothers and infants. They want to rein in Wall Street and to jail the crooks. And they want government to play its appropriate role in all these matters.

And most of all, they want to leave the world a better place for the generations of Americans to come. As such, they do not, as Ryan put it, "choose to relegate America to another chapter in the history of declining nations." They want no part of the "dog eat dog", "every man for himself", Hobbesian vision hawked by the Morality Minority.

They reject Ryan's "case for limited government" and instead want a government that serves its people.

Let us start with honesty about budget deficits and government debt. There is no honest economic argument against running budget deficits when the economy is below full employment. While we can debate about which programs government ought to fund, and at what level, and about who ought to pay taxes, and how much, there is no legitimate concern about the size of the resulting budget deficit or growth of government debt.

Surely, in a democracy these spending and taxing issues should be decided by the voters, but in a process that is free of all the fear mongering about deficits. The Moral Minority wishes to conceal the truth behind the deficit hysteria because it knows that the majority rejects the minority's position as immoral.

It is not moral to cut nutrition programs for pregnant women and infants, and to eliminate funding of family planning. It is not moral to cut Social Security benefits while handing payroll taxes over to Pete Peterson to supply money to his hedge fund activities. It is not moral to cut the IRS enforcement budget to let Wall Street's tax cheats protect their fortunes. And it is not moral to withhold funding from Wall Street's regulators, such as the SEC (which the GOP plans to cut).

Yet, all of these are components of the Moral Minority's unpalatable platform. No wonder Ryan wants to hide behind his "moral imperative" to cut government -- to keep the debate in the religious arena of morality and away from the light that economics might shine upon it.

L. Randall Wray is Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Share This

Obama Can Revolutionize Rural America with Broadband, FDR-style

Feb 18, 2011David B. Woolner

FDR brought prosperity to rural America with the Rural Electrification Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Obama can do the same with wireless internet.

FDR brought prosperity to rural America with the Rural Electrification Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Obama can do the same with wireless internet.

In a speech delivered last week in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, President Obama unveiled his plan to bring high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of America. Such an initiative, he said, would spark "new innovation, new investment and new jobs," and, if successful, would connect "every corner of America to the digital age."

Investing federal dollars in bringing the benefits of high-speed wireless to rural America is not unlike the efforts Franklin Roosevelt launched more than 75 years ago to bring electricity to America's family farms. In Roosevelt's day, it is estimated that roughly nine out of ten farms in America lacked electricity. As such, most farm families still lived a life that was more reminiscent of the 19th century. With no electricity, there was no running water, and hence no indoor plumbing or bathrooms. Water had to be brought into the house from wells or a nearby stream and heat was provided by indoor stoves. No electricity also meant that most farms lacked the convenience of modern appliances and had no way to obtain entertainment or information over the radio.

Prior to FDR's administration, advocates of rural power had found private companies disinterested due to the high costs of extending lines into the countryside, so they turned to the federal government. But even though many of the ideas being floated at the time involved the development of rural access to electricity through public-private cooperation, such plans fell on deaf ears.

Sign up for weekly ND20 highlights, mind-blowing stats, event alerts, and reading/film/music recs.

All of this changed, however, with FDR's election to the White House. A strong believer in the need for the federal government to take the lead in the development of public power, FDR launched the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933 (which remains America's largest public utility) and in 1935 established the Rural Electrification Administration, or REA. The REA was a new federal agency whose sole purpose was to bring the benefits of electricity to rural America.

In its initial efforts, the REA tried to extend electricity to rural areas by providing low-cost government loans to private utility companies who would then be tasked with the job of building a full-scale rural electrical grid. But the agency soon found that most private companies were still not willing to participate in the program. As an alternative, and with the strong support of progressive Republicans like Senator George Norris of Nebraska, the REA then turned to the farmers themselves, urging them to form themselves into electricity cooperatives. These cooperatives would then receive low-interest REA loans, which would be used to finance the construction of local generating and distributing facilities and the lines needed to take the power to individual farms. The rural electrification program flourished under this formula, and by the time FDR died in 1945, it is estimated that nine out of ten farms in the country had electricity -- the exact reverse of the situation when he assumed office.

As predicted, rural electrification revolutionized life on the farm and remains one of the most significant -- if largely forgotten -- legacies of the New Deal. It vastly improved farm life, bringing running water and refrigeration, for example, which improved health and sanitation, as well as the radio, which linked farm families to the rest of the nation. It also made it possible for new labor-saving appliances and technologies to be introduced not only on the farm, but also in rural villages and schools, all of which improved the rural economy and quality of life.

President Obama's National Wireless Initiative is not unlike rural electrification. Properly administered and executed, it too can improve rural America's quality of life and has the potential, as the President observed, to "accelerate breakthroughs in health, education, and transportation." It also provides us with another example of how the federal government, in the tradition of the New Deal, can and must take the lead in improving the economic infrastructure of the country -- even in a digital age.

**For more on how FDR changed life in rural America, and how we can do it again today, check out Lynn Parramore's October, 2010 talk on the subject here. She joined other experts to talk about the enduring legacy of the New Deal.

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

Share This

Revisiting the WPA to Remind America of its Potential

Feb 7, 2011Gray Brechin

fdr-we-need-you-150In remarks at the FDR Library on the 75th anniversary of the WPA, Gray Brechin gave this speech reminding us of the multifaceted impact of this successful government program.

fdr-we-need-you-150In remarks at the FDR Library on the 75th anniversary of the WPA, Gray Brechin gave this speech reminding us of the multifaceted impact of this successful government program.

As you all know, we Americans have been marinated in a fundamentalist ideology for the last 30 years. You know the drill: government is so inefficient and corrupt that any taxes we pay for it are extortionate and wasted. There's a corollary to that so often repeated that it's become common wisdom despite the fact that it's flat-out wrong. It goes: "Everyone knows that the New Deal didn't end the Depression, the War did." The latter cliche has served to belittle stimulus initiatives undertaken by both Presidents Roosevelt and Obama. But it's also more generally used as argument-ending proof that government stimulus programs to create jobs and get the nation out of an economic crisis are futile or actually prolong the catastrophe. The implication is that only a good worldwide bloodbath can do that -- ironically enough when all limits are taken off of government spending. (In fact, as Amy Goodman reported, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner said that President Bush told him that "the best way to revitalize the economy is war and that the United States has grown stronger with war.")

These twin mantras are repeated by people who have no idea that they use the New Deal every day. They ride over New Deal roads, enjoy public parks, cross bridges and drive through tunnels, use airports, hospitals, and libraries, and some even send their kids to schools and colleges built by New Deal agencies. We take for granted the public health that comes with clean drinking water that my grandparents could not. The PWA totally rebuilt the Chicago waste water system so that Chicagoans no longer had to drink their sewage. Much of this was put in place 75 years ago in the depths of the Great Depression in order to get out of it. Contrary to what we're repeatedly told, those programs worked; they employed millions of men, women, and youth, collectively lifting the country rapidly out of the Depression. Moreover, post-war prosperity was largely built upon the back of New Deal public works, which were then new. They are seldom, if ever, acknowledged for contributing significantly to that prosperity.

About six years ago, I was looking for a project more uplifting than the kind of environmental writing I'd done before. I thought it would be fun to work with a photographer to document what the WPA had done in California. I knew a little about the CCC and nothing about the PWA, NYA, CWA, FERA, or the REA. What followed happens to everyone who undertakes this kind of research: it's as if you were walking through a dense overgrown jungle, where you discover a strange ruin. You begin to dig and find that it's an immense building, and then that there are other often magnificent buildings connected by roads and canals, stadiums. It's more than just a city or a network of cities: it's a whole civilization that we built just 75 years ago, then allowed to be buried and forgotten as if by a volcanic eruption.

But here's where the analogy falls apart: unlike a forgotten civilization, we use this vast cultural and physical infrastructure all the time without knowing it. If you mapped them, you would see that both New York and DC are largely New Deal cities, and the great cities of the Sunbelt such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, and Los Angeles were largely creations of the New Deal as well.

These are all things that I learned as I delved deeper. I quickly found that this huge legacy in one state alone couldn't be contained in a book, nor could uncovering it be done by just two people. So the book morphed into "California's Living New Deal Project" -- 'living' because millions of people and generations have benefited from the New Deal without knowing it, including strident critics of the Roosevelt administration. Indeed, they do not want to know it because to do so would fatally undermine that fundamentalist ideology I mentioned at the beginning.

With a seed grant from the Columbia Foundation and help from the Labor Institute at UC Berkeley, we built an interactive website now based at the Department of Geography, where I have an office. I work with others to map what the New Deal did for one state, relying upon a network of informants -- historians, historical societies, librarians, teachers, government employees, and just people interested in the New Deal, as well as research that I and my colleagues do. As the eminent California historian Kevin Starr said to me, it's just like a WPA project: a collaborative effort in which we are constantly learning from each other and seeing the landscape anew.

The WPA is best known of the public works agencies because it left plaques and markers, though nothing commensurate with what it achieved. The PWA left far fewer markers, the CCC and CWA none at all. Most New Deal projects are unmarked, so we are constantly being surprised. For example, we only recently discovered from records of the city park commission that the WPA planted 15,000 street trees in Berkeley, trees now in their maturity, overarching the streets and making the town extremely pleasant. WPA workers improved every park in San Francisco and, we suspect, the same is true across the country. You will sometimes find yourself in a forest, as I did in Georgia, where all the trees seem to be about the same age: 75 years. You could well be enjoying some of the 3 billion trees planted by the boys of the CCC, but none of this is marked. I have not yet figured out how to map the innumerable check dams and culverts built by the CCC to save our soil.

Sign up for weekly ND20 highlights, mind-blowing stats, event alerts, and reading/film/music recs.

Little of this is known, since the New Deal was interrupted and then killed by WWII. Because of that, the records that I thought I would rely on at the Library of Congress and National Archives are sketchy to nonexistent.

Last year, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities asked me to deliver the opening address at their annual conference in La Jolla. I put together a show of the immense expansion in federal aid to public education in all of its dimensions during a few years of the Great Depression, compared with the equally dramatic contraction of public enlightenment in our own time. The 200 college presidents were astounded when I showed them that New Deal agencies built thousands of schools, entire college campuses, magnificent academic buildings, public libraries and museums, zoos and aquariums, and teaching hospitals. Many of these buildings are embellished with murals and sculptures as well as uplifting inscriptions such as ENTER TO LEARN, GO FORTH TO SERVE or WHAT YOU WOULD HAVE IN THE LIFE OF A NATION YOU MUST FIRST PUT INTO ITS SCHOOLS.

The people responsible for building this invisible New Deal archipelago had a big idea: they believed they were building a civilization worthy of the name, a democratic civilization that would endure and be a beacon to the world then darkening with the fundamentalist ideologies of those times. They had no idea that we would let it fall into ruin because we were persuaded that we should not have to pay taxes, as, for example, the governor and university administrators are now doing at the University of California because (as they say) they have no alternative. The example of the New Deal shows that there is an alternative -- it's a matter of priorities.

Compare that munificent New Deal legacy with an amendment that Senator Tom Coburn attempted to tack on to the Obama stimulus package last year. Here it is: "None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, arts center, or highway beautification project..." With the exception of gambling establishments strategically placed at the beginning of that sentence, all of these projects are things that WPA workers built and that we enjoy today, and about half of them are educational.

Or ponder an inscription in cream-glazed terra cotta on a magnificent PWA-built high school in Salem, Oregon: ENTER TO GROW IN WISDOM. Compare that with a new advertising campaign by Diesel jeans. It advises teenagers BE STUPID. That is, in a nutshell, the public, as opposed to the private, interest.

This progressive dismantling of the social contract has created in its wake an immense demoralization across the nation. To paraphrase the president who successfully launched us on the course to this decay and discord, it's nightfall in America. Rediscovering New Deal sites is therefore not just an antiquarian exercise. In their high purpose, their fine materials, their superb craftsmanship, the New Deal sites reveal an ethical dimension that neoliberal expedience has largely killed. They teach us that we are all in this together, that we are a community. They give us our moral compass back. That, for me, is their chief value.

I recently took the train across the country to give a talk in Hyde Park; I recommend it if you want to see for yourself how we are letting our cities and our physical infrastructure literally rust away, how we have become a gaudy but empty piñata. But all across the country I could look out my window and see public schools, post offices, water towers, parks and athletic fields built by New Deal agencies and still in use. No small town was untouched by the New Deal: I suspect that taxes did not seem so onerous when you saw them coming back to your community in those useful public assets that Senator Coburn wanted excluded from the stimulus package. Few in the most Republican-voting states know that their most beloved parks date from the New Deal, or that farmers still deliver their produce on all-weather farm-to-market roads built by WPA or CCC workers. Few know, when they are inspired by patriotic images of the Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument, that these were restored by the WPA and the PWA. Those agencies left no markers to remind us that they had been there.

It's time to change that: we at UC Berkeley Geography are seeking funding to expand our California Living New Deal into a National Living New Deal inventory that will involve thousands of Americans in a collective act of rediscovery. Doing so, both young and old will learn the pleasures of doing primary research, but we'll also learn to see our country -- and our responsibilities as adults -- with fresh eyes.

And finally, I hope that we will at last honor the ingenuity and compassion of those visionaries with whom Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt surrounded themselves -- people who believed it was their Christian and Jewish duty to help those less fortunate, that it is better for society to uplift rather than to punish people, and far cheaper to build schools rather than prisons and worldwide military bases. I hope we will also honor the hard work with which our parents and grandparents successfully dug out of the Depression. We hope that through our own work, we will remind Americans what we, at our best, can accomplish together. And we might just learn the meaning of that sentiment by the Roman poet Virgil over the door of the enormous WPA-built County Administration Building in San Diego: THE NOBLEST MOTIVE IS THE PUBLIC GOOD. For my money, that sentiment beats the command from the private sector to BE STUPID.

Gray Brechin is an historical geographer, visiting scholar in the U.C. Berkeley Department of Geography and founder and project scholar of California's Living New Deal Project.

Share This

FDR Drew on Thomas Paine in the Most Difficult of Times

Jan 28, 2011Harvey J. Kaye

fdr-radioside-150This coming weekend sees the birthdays of two great Americans: Thomas Paine, born on January 29, 1737 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, born on January 30, 1882. They share more than a birthday weekend -- they both believed in America's purpose and promise.

fdr-radioside-150This coming weekend sees the birthdays of two great Americans: Thomas Paine, born on January 29, 1737 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, born on January 30, 1882. They share more than a birthday weekend -- they both believed in America's purpose and promise.

In the winter of 1941-42, Americans faced their gravest crisis since the Civil War. The Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor had propelled the United States into the Second World War, a global conflict in which the very survival of freedom, equality, and democracy were at stake. And things did not look good at all. Germany had conquered most of Europe, Japan had overrun East Asia, and on every front from the Atlantic to the Pacific the Axis powers were advancing. At home, the reports of military disasters and setbacks triggered criticism of the government's handling of the war, rumors of invasion, and a sense of despair, if not defeat.

Though he had spoken to the nation in a Fireside Chat soon after securing a declaration of war from Congress, President Roosevelt recognized he would have to talk to his fellow citizens once again. He would not only have to clarify the military situation, but also reassure them of their strengths, mobilize their spirits and energies, and present them with a vision of a world worth fighting for.

Announcing that the President would deliver another Chat on Monday evening, February 23, at the close of the Washington birthday weekend, the White House did not reveal any details beyond requesting that everyone have a map of the world at hand. Still, Americans anticipated something important. Stores quickly sold out their maps. Newspapers rushed their own into print. And when Monday night came, 61,000,000 Americans, along with millions more around the world, tuned in to hear the broadcast.

Roosevelt understood that he needed to firmly engage American collective memory and imagination. Rallying support for the New Deal, he had regularly evoked historical images and personages such as Jefferson and Lincoln. But on this occasion, the nation's 32nd President would reach even more deeply into America's Revolutionary heritage, to the very crucible of war out of which the United States had emerged.

Seated at a desk behind a bank of microphones in a first floor White House room, Roosevelt opened up by recalling George Washington and his Continental army. Pointing to the "formidable odds and recurring defeats" they had suffered, the President recounted how their conduct had served as a "model of moral stamina" to ensuing generations. Contrasting their bravery and fortitude to the behavior of America's Tories -- those "selfish men, jealous men, fearful men" who preached defeatism and pressed for a negotiated peace -- he observed that America's first soldiers had never given up because they "knew that no man's life or fortune was secure without freedom and free institutions." And returning to the present, with isolationists in mind, he posited that the current "great struggle has taught us increasingly that freedom of person and security of property anywhere in the world depend upon the security of the rights and obligations of liberty and justice everywhere in the world."

Sign up for weekly ND20 highlights, mind-blowing stats, event alerts, and reading/film/music recs.

The present war, Roosevelt said, was a "new kind of war...not only in its methods and weapons but also in its geography." Referring to the maps he had asked Americans to have ready, he surveyed the far-flung battlefronts and communications and supply lines to show how the conflict was unavoidably a global struggle, involving "every continent, every island, every sea, every air lane in the world." While granting that Germany and Japan had the immediate advantage, and warning of further losses, the President defiantly added that despite the odds, American soldiers and sailors were fighting valiantly and performing magnificently. And he promised that the United States and its allies would turn back the enemy, regain the ground lost, and ultimately prevail.

The President spoke of the sacrifices Americans would have to make on the assembly lines and, even more heroically, at the frontlines. And scoffing at Axis propaganda that portrayed them as "weaklings" and "playboys" who were eager to "hire" others to fight for them, he exclaimed: "Let them tell that to General MacArthur and his men. Let them tell that to the sailors... Let them tell that to the boys in the Flying Fortresses. Let them tell that to the marines!"

Just as fervently, the President reiterated America's commitment to pursue the war in partnership with its allies and insisted that doing so required the kind of "national unity that can know no limitation of race or creed or selfish politics." And apparently envisioning the extension of New Deal liberalism to the "whole world," he enunciated the principles they would seek to apply globally: "disarmament of aggressors, self-determination of nations and peoples, and the four freedoms -- freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear."

Finally, after again acknowledging the awesome task Americans had before them, Roosevelt welded together past and present:

"These are the times that try men's souls." Tom Paine wrote those words on a drumhead, by the light of a campfire. That was when Washington's little army of ragged, rugged men was retreating across New Jersey, having tasted naught but defeat. And General Washington ordered that these great words written by Tom Paine be read to the men of every regiment in the Continental Army, and this was the assurance given to the first American armed forces: "The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the sacrifice, the more glorious the triumph."

So spoke Americans in the year 1776. So speak Americans today!

Harvey J. Kaye is the 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, from which these paragraphs are drawn. He is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America. Follow him on Twitter:

Share This

SOTU: Like FDR, Obama Could Become Teacher-in-Chief

Jan 19, 2011Harvey J. Kaye

fdr-roosevelt-at-podium-150He may not have legislative victories ahead, but he can still tell the real story of American history.

fdr-roosevelt-at-podium-150He may not have legislative victories ahead, but he can still tell the real story of American history.

Okay, Obama is no FDR -- at least not the FDR who placed himself "at the head of the urban and agrarian masses," as progressive critic Max Lerner put it in 1939, and led one of the great "upsurging movements of American democracy."

So I won't waste time suggesting that Obama, in his State of the Union Message this coming Tuesday evening, should try to sound like the Second Coming of Roosevelt-the-New-Dealer. To say such things would be foolish, not only because the Republicans control the House, but also because Obama -- despite his community organizing experience -- just doesn't seem to have FDR's progressive spirit in him. Nevertheless, Obama does have in him something of the 32nd president, and I would urge him to start exercising it.

Like FDR, Obama has more than oratorical talents. He also has teaching talents. We need him to put them to work to counter the bizarre renditions of America's past propagated by the likes of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senator Jim DeMint, Governor Rick Perry, chalk-boarder Glenn Beck, media hound Sarah Palin, and AEI president Arthur C. Brooks.

I would seriously urge Obama, the former law professor, to go pedagogical.

I would press him to go up to the Capitol and speak not just as President and Commander-in-Chief, but as Head Teacher. I would tell him to instruct Congress and the nation in American history -- not just the tea party types, but Republicans and Democrats alike. I would encourage him to recover and project the narrative of American experience that reminds us all that the United States was founded as a Grand Experiment. It is an experiment in freedom, equality, and democracy and in extending those ideals. It is an experiment literally inscribed in American life through the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, the Four Freedoms, and the innumerable words and songs delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Sign up for weekly ND20 highlights, mind-blowing stats, event alerts, and reading/film/music recs.

I would then have the president direct our attention and imagination to the National Mall and the monuments we have built to presidents and others who inspired generations to fight for, defend, and advance the nation's historic purpose and promise. I would tell him to fervently recite the words "All men are created equal... Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness... We the People... A new birth of freedom... Government of the people, by the people, for the people... Freedom of speech and expression, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear... and We shall overcome." And I would insist that in the wake of doing so, he go out into the nation and tell that story over and over again.

Franklin Roosevelt regularly spoke to Congress and the public of the American experience and what it promised and demanded. In fact, he wanted to emulate his presidential mentors, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, by writing histories of the United States as they each had. But he did not, for he discovered that he was no author. Still, he articulated a narrative of the nation's history and prospects through his speechmaking. It was a narrative that rejected the story repeatedly told to bolster the rule and status of WASP Americans and the propertied and corporate rich of the Gilded Age. He proffered one in favor of expanding the "We" in "We the People," empowering working people in public and industrial life, and fashioning a social-democratic polity. And when he and his party suffered setbacks in 1938 and 1942, he did not retreat but, rather, sustained that narrative and vision.

Now, when the once-again ascendant right threatens not only Obama's own pro-corporate Health Reform Act, but Social Security itself -- as well as any chance of real recovery, reconstruction, and reform -- and guarantees to return us to the social and economic order of the Gilded Age, Obama cannot win significant legislative victories. But as "Educator-in-Chief," he can cultivate a more progressive American narrative and thereby encourage energies that might once again turn into movements.

Harvey J. Kaye is the 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:

Share This

FDR is #1

Jan 19, 2011Bryce Covert

smiling-fdr-profile-150It should come as no surprise that FDR is pretty popular around here. But you don't have to take our word for it.

smiling-fdr-profile-150It should come as no surprise that FDR is pretty popular around here. But you don't have to take our word for it. A new poll by the United States Presidency Center in the UK found FDR topped academics' ranking of 40 US presidents, beating them out in in three of the five assessment categories: vision and agenda setting, domestic leadership, and foreign policy. He was only outranked in two categories -- George Washington was first for moral authority and Abraham Lincoln was first for the legacy with the most positive historical significance.

And they're not the only ones who feel this way. A group of American academics came to the same conclusion last year. For the fifth time in a row, that group picked FDR over all the faces on Mount Rushmore. He ranked first in overall accomplishments and topped the categories of party leadership, handling the US economy, and foreign policy accomplishments.

Sign up for weekly ND20 highlights, mind-blowing stats, event alerts, and reading/film/music recs.

In a time when the entire world is still badly hurting from a financial meltdown and brutal recession, it's no wonder that FDR's long and historic presidency stands out as one that got the job done. He led the country out of the Great Depression with bold legislation and steady leadership. And he was committed to economic and social equality throughout the world.

But what does our current president think of FDR? Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Ferguson has noticed something odd in how Obama speaks of the former leader -- a rewriting of history that distorts some of his accomplishments. Maybe Obama should talk to the hundreds of historians who voted FDR #1.

Share This