Eleanor Roosevelt's Legacy: How the World Recognized Workers' Right as Human Rights

Dec 9, 2011Brigid OFarrell

eleanor-roosevelt-150This year has seen uprisings around the world demanding rights. Eleanor Roosevelt recognized those rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

eleanor-roosevelt-150This year has seen uprisings around the world demanding rights. Eleanor Roosevelt recognized those rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Tomorrow we celebrate the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948. This year is especially significant. Thousands of people surged through the streets of Cairo as the Arab Spring emerged, challenging dictators across the Middle East. Here at home thousands of workers gathered in the streets of Wisconsin and Ohio fighting an unprecedented attack on labor unions. Workers joined with the unemployed as Occupy Wall Street and the 99% moved from New York City across the country to shut down the Port of Oakland. Economic inequality became the subject of media, new and old. As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich reminded us, employee pay is now down to its smallest share of the economy, while corporate profits make up the largest share of the economy since the start of the Great Depression. Average citizens around the world are standing up for their human rights: political, civil, economic, and social.

Often overlooked in this time of reflection on human rights is the inclusion of  workers' rights and the role of unions. On April 25, 1945, delegates from around the world met in San Francisco to begin deliberations on a charter for the United Nations. In an unprecedented move, over 40 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were invited to participate. Only seven NGOs were then given consultative status to attend meetings, suggest agenda items, and present positions to the Economic and Social Council. Three of them were labor groups: the AF of L, the World Federation of Trade Unions, where the CIO played a leading role, and the International Confederation of Christian Trade Unions representing European unions. Phil Murray, president of the CIO, said that he represented all of labor when he gave his full support for including human rights in the charter and establishing a Human Rights Commission, both of which were accomplished.

That same year, after President Roosevelt's death, President Truman asked Eleanor Roosevelt to become a delegate to the United Nations. The UN established a commission to bring nations together to agree on some very basic principles, and he asked Mrs. Roosevelt to chair the effort. Just as Doris Kearns Goodwin describes Lincoln as orchestrating a team of political rivals, ER, as she often signed her name, guided a complex international team of philosophers, lawyers, politicians, diplomats, and trade unionists to develop the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They addressed economic and social rights, as well as political and civil rights, for the first time.

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Eleanor Roosevelt was a very proud and public member of a labor union. As a working journalist, she joined the American Newspaper Guild in 1936 and had her union card in her wallet when she died in 1962. When she went to the United Nations, she worked closely with David Dubinsky of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, Mathew Woll of the Photoengravers Union, Jim Carey of the CIO, and Rose Schneiderman of the Women's Trade Union League. The AF of L hired Toni Sender, a journalist and politician who had fled Nazi Germany, to be its full-time staff person at the UN. Together, they made strong arguments for the specific inclusion of trade union rights in the document and they addressed the closed shop and the right to strike. ER explained that the United States delegation considered that "the right to form and join trade unions was an essential element of freedom." While fighting against the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act at home, under her guidance Article 23 declared that everyone, without discrimination, has the right to a decent job, fair working conditions, a living wage, equal pay for equal work, protection against unemployment, and the right to join a union.

The General Assembly met in Paris in 1948. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed on December 10 with 48 votes in favor and none against. ER thanked the unions for their help and they acknowledged her contributions when Phil Murray sent a letter supporting Eleanor Roosevelt's nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Declaration remains one of her greatest accomplishments and the cornerstone of today's powerful human rights movement.

Practicing what she preached, ER told striking members of the IBEW that "everyone who is a worker should join a labor organization." She came to believe this was true for workers in the public sector as well as in the private sector. She argued for full employment at home and economic aid abroad. For her, all employees around the world had a right to a decent job and a voice at work, without fear of harassment or intimidation. But when asked "Where, after all, do human rights begin?" she answered, "In small places close to home... the neighborhood... the school or college... the factory, farm or office... unless they have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere."

Eleanor Roosevelt's voice resonates today with a call for reform not only to achieve economic gains, but to restore a basic element of democracy to women and men who work for a living. And as she told the delegates at a CIO convention, "We can't just talk. We have got to act... And we must see improvement for the masses of people, not for the little group on top." International Human Rights Day is a call to action for the 99% across the country and around the world.

Brigid O'Farrell is an independent scholar. This blog draws on her most recent book, She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker, now available in paperback from Cornell University Press.

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How to Break a Capital Strike? Full Employment

Dec 8, 2011Bryce Covert

If banks want to threaten capital strikes, the government should fight back by putting people to work and taking power away from banks.

If banks want to threaten capital strikes, the government should fight back by putting people to work and taking power away from banks.

Last week, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley announced she would be suing the five biggest mortgage servicers over robo-signing. The very next day, GMAC Mortgage said it would withdraw most of its lending in the state. It offered up the excuse that "recent developments have led mortgage lending in Massachusetts to no longer be viable." What recent developments would those be? Asking mortgage companies to adhere to the rule of law?

This could be called, as Matt Stoller was quick to point out, a capital strike -- a lender refusing to lend in protest of government policy. A capital strike is a theoretical situation in which lenders decide to shut down the economy by refusing to invest and hire workers in reaction to government intervention that forces them to make bad business decisions. Sound familiar? While banks saw their profits rise to $29 billion in the first three months of 2011, a 66.5 percent increase over the same period last year, the loans they gave out declined at the end of 2010 and hiring has been sluggish. They're not investing and hiring.

Wall Street is not in all probability actually on a capital strike. Besides the fact that the idea of all the firms getting together and executing an organized action is far-fetched, the reason they're not investing and hiring is because the economy (and therefore demand) sucks, not because the government hasn't given them enough backrubs. While the term "capital strike" used to be thrown around on the far left, the John Boehners of the world are now using it as a threat against enacting any government policy that might hurt the business sector's feelings. The idea is that if the government enacts too many regulations, raises taxes too high, and otherwise does things that business doesn't like, we risk them shutting down the economy.

Capital doesn't have a great reason to be on strike. Think times are bad? Firms are making a third more profit than they did before the recession. Feel overburdened by regulation? Only the large corporations are worried about new regulations -- small businesses aren't feeling affected. Taxes got you down? Taxes on corporate earnings are at a 60-year low.

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So besides GMAC's targeted action, it's highly unlikely that Wall Street has gotten together and decided to strike against the government. What's more likely, as Peter Frase suggests at Jacobin, is that the threat of a strike is having the same effect:

[J]ust as in a labor strike, sometimes you don't actually have to go out on the picket line: you just have to convince the other side that you're ready and willing to strike. Just as a union might use a strike authorization vote to increase its leverage at the bargaining table, so the right's economic propaganda is designed to tilt the political playing field away from labor and toward capital.

This is what John Boehner claims to be so worried about and what makes so many inveigh against Obama's supposedly anti-business policies. If we don't placate Wall Street, it'll shut down the whole economy! Do what it wants so that no one gets hurt!

But as Frase points out, just because a group goes on strike -- be it labor or capital -- doesn't mean we have to give in to their demands. When workers strike, management can either negotiate or try to break the strike. So if we follow the capital strike logic and assume that capital is threatening a strike (whether or not it would really do so), the government, as management, has the choice to negotiate or break the strike.

Wall Street got us in this mess. Why should we give in to its threat to strike? Instead, the government can break it -- and the best way would be for it to spend money in pursuit of full employment. It would seem on first glance that full employment would be in the best interest of the banks: employed people can spend more money on goods, increasing demand, greasing the wheels of the economy and therefore profits. Yet we can look back to the 1930s and 40s to understand why full employment could be the best tool for breaking capital's grip on our politics.

FDR also faced a slowdown in investment and called it a capital strike meant to take down his presidency and the New Deal. Roosevelt's Assistant Attorney General Robert Jackson himself said the slowdown in investment was a "general strike -- the first general strike in America -- a strike against the government -- a strike to coerce political action." The New Deal was a concerted effort to get people back to work. Why was capital so dead-set against it? In 1943, economist Michal Kalecki asked the same question: "The entrepreneurs in the slump are longing for a boom; why do they not gladly accept the synthetic boom which the government is able to offer them?" His answer had two important points. Firstly, if raising employment is left solely to the laissez-faire market, then "capitalists [have] a powerful indirect control over government policy." Anything to shake their confidence has to be avoided. Once the government takes over that function, though, that power is diminished. Secondly, those capitalists also lose power when workers aren't as dependent on their current employer for a job. If under full employment a worker is almost guaranteed work, he has much better leverage to demand higher wages, better benefits, etc. from his employer. Either way, banks will lose their hold over the economy.

Breaking the threat of a capital strike in this way is a win-win. It first and foremost puts people back to work. But it also has the nice effect of loosening Wall Street's stranglehold on politics. Its power will diminish. Sounds good to me.

Bryce Covert is Editor of New Deal 2.0.

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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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FDR's Response to Pearl Harbor: Economic Freedom as Vital National Security Policy

Dec 7, 2011David B. Woolner

In the aftermath of the day which will live in infamy, President Roosevelt understood that ensuring human rights, particularly the right to economic wellbeing, was the only way to stave off extremism.

Mr. Vice President, and Mr. Speaker, and Members of the Senate and House of Representatives:

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan...

In the aftermath of the day which will live in infamy, President Roosevelt understood that ensuring human rights, particularly the right to economic wellbeing, was the only way to stave off extremism.

Mr. Vice President, and Mr. Speaker, and Members of the Senate and House of Representatives:

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan...

The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our Nation...

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory...

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire. -Franklin D. Roosevelt, December 8, 1941

It was 70 years ago today that the myth of American invulnerability came to a sudden and dramatic end. On that day, wave after wave of Japanese bombers attacked the sleeping base at Pearl Harbor and in their destruction helped usher in a new era in American and world history.

Like virtually all other Americans, FDR was shocked and outraged at the events that occurred that Sunday morning. But in other respects, the events at Pearl Harbor confirmed what he and many of his advisors already knew about the state of the world in the mid-20th century: It was a much smaller place. In an "air age," the distances across seemingly vast oceans had been dramatically reduced. If one looked at a map of the world from the perspective of the North Pole -- as FDR was wont to do -- the continents of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres seemed to almost touch one another.

These observations may seem commonplace to us today with our satellite communications and intercontinental ballistic missiles. But in 1941, they were quite profound and to a large extent reflected, as the historian Alan Henrikson has written, the "mental map" that Franklin Roosevelt had developed over years of interest in geography, map reading, and even the collecting of stamps from far-off lands.

FDR, in short, had a profound understanding of the physical make-up of the planet. As such, he tended to see the world as a single community made up of neighboring states inhabited by peoples who shared many of the same hopes and aspirations. He also believed that "people who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made." One only had to look at the catastrophic decade of the 1930s, with its global economic crisis and the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia, for confirmation of this sad truth.

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For Roosevelt, then, the Second World War, as he called it, was as much about the perils of economic depravity as it was about blatant international aggression, for the latter was one of the by-products of the former. In a very real sense, therefore, the welfare of peoples living in the heretofore distant corners of the earth had a direct bearing on the welfare of the people of the United States. The war in fact proved beyond a doubt that the two were inextricably linked. The hardship suffered in one part of the world -- hardship that led to the creation of the most brutally aggressive regimes history had ever seen -- had now reaped its destruction upon America itself.

It was for these reasons that FDR implored the American people in their "righteous might" to not only help him "win through to absolute victory," but also to help create a world, as he said nearly a year before, founded on four essential human freedoms: Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. For by helping to establish these rights, including the right to live free from hunger and fear -- "everywhere in the world" -- the United States would render itself far more secure and much less likely to have to face an even greater conflagration in the future.

In light of these revelations, FDR did all he could to convince the American people that the United States had to play an active role in world affairs. He felt it was critical that the "United Nations" -- the long forgotten name of the wartime alliance created just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor -- continue to strive for peace and prosperity after the war was over. He sought to work with our friends and allies to build the necessary institutions, such as the United Nations Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, to reorder the world's economic system and facilitate great power cooperation in the postwar world.

Of course, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, FDR also accelerated the build-up of American arms, including a massive expansion of the U.S. Army Air Force, and engaged in a significant restructuring of American defense and intelligence capabilities. This led to the creation of the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the postwar Central Intelligence and National Security Agencies -- all designed to transform American foreign policy into what might best be called National Security Policy.

But in the long run, FDR understood that American military and economic power were not enough to provide the kind of security the American people desired in the wake of the day of infamy. Equally important was moral leadership -- the promotion and adherence to the rule of law, democratic values, and basic human rights, including the all-important right of every person to enjoy basic economic security.

Today, as we look around the globe, we can see that FDR's assessment of the basic hopes and aspirations of peoples the world over to live in a world based on his four fundamental human freedoms is as strong as ever. The evidence is clear in recent events in the Middle East, Moscow, and here at home in Zuccotti Park. The United States may face a future where our status as the world's leading economy may one day no longer be certain, but the values that inspired the valiant men and women who fought the Second World War can and should remain a beacon of hope to all those who aspire to live in a more prosperous and peaceful world.

As FDR reminded us seven decades ago: "Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them... To that high concept there can be no end save victory."

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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Would Eleanor Roosevelt Support Occupy Wall Street?

Dec 7, 2011Suzanne Kahn

She left clues in her advice columns about how she viewed activism aimed at changing entrenched policy.

In 1941, readers of the Ladies' Home Journal found out that Eleanor Roosevelt did not like mice, "but I do not shriek when I see one." In 1945, she told them that their husbands should help them with their dishes because, "I think anything connected with the home is as much the husband's work as the wife's." They learned all this and much more in Eleanor's monthly advice column.

She left clues in her advice columns about how she viewed activism aimed at changing entrenched policy.

In 1941, readers of the Ladies' Home Journal found out that Eleanor Roosevelt did not like mice, "but I do not shriek when I see one." In 1945, she told them that their husbands should help them with their dishes because, "I think anything connected with the home is as much the husband's work as the wife's." They learned all this and much more in Eleanor's monthly advice column.

Although it's not discussed nearly as often as her syndicated newspaper column, "My Day," Eleanor wrote an advice column for women's magazines from 1941 until 1962. For two decades, women asked her about how they should handle daughters who couldn't attract boyfriends, how she managed her budget, and what they should make of the major political issues of their day. By looking at some of the advice she doled out, it may be possible to piece together what she would have to say about the political issue of our day: Occupy Wall Street.

In 1962, she answered a question about another set of mass protests -- the anti-nuclear rallies of 1961 and 1962. Asked if she saw any value in women's groups marching in front of the White House for peace, she wrote:

The average person has a sense of frustration because he can think of no way to express to his government or to the world at large his desires for peaceful solutions to the difficulties that confront us. The demonstrations you mention are important if only because they dramatize the lack of more useful ways for people to show their devotion to the cause of peace. (McCall's, May 1962).

Similarly, in 1961 Eleanor also wrote about the frustration individuals felt about not being able to do more to prevent nuclear war. In "My Day" she wrote that the best an individual could do was "register...with our government a firm protest."

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OWS confronts massive inequality, not nuclear war and world peace, but Eleanor's take on the meaning and importance of protest in the face of overwhelming issues hits the nail on the head. OWS provides the average person with a way to express frustration and register a firm protest about an unfair economy. Critics have demanded that OWS propose solutions, but Eleanor might have pointed out that OWS makes clear the important point that there aren't easy, direct ways for the average person to fix the economy.

Viewed this way, OWS is doing something both Eleanor Roosevelt and the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s really understood: consciousness raising. Consciousness raising was a method of political mobilization developed by feminists in the late 1960s and 1970s. Formally begun by women's liberation groups, consciousness raising groups allowed women to share personal experiences and frustrations and come to understand that these were not isolated instances, but part of a larger pattern of political relationships that defined women's personal lives. Many feminists embraced consciousness raising methods because they hoped the realizations they inspired would move women to more concrete political action.

Consciousness raising came after Eleanor's time, but her advice column shows she understood the basic idea. Her column allowed women to see that their personal problems were shared. Eleanor urged her readers to take political action to address their concerns.

OWS similarly suggests that people consider how their personal challenges are rooted in political problems. "We are the 99 percent" invites people to identify with the protesters and think about how an unfair economy affects individual lives. Anyone who has been to an OWS rally has seen signs that do exactly that -- share their maker's own story about student debt, medical debt, etc. Consciousness raising is an important first step for many movements. The trick now is to find those more directly "useful" ways for people with raised consciousness to show their devotion to the cause.

Suzanne Kahn is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and a Ph.D. student in history at Columbia University.

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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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Pipeline Unveils Inaugural Class of Fellows

Nov 9, 2011

So you've heard of the Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline, and you've heard that it selects a group of young progressives doing exciting and important work to participate in the fellowship program each year. But who were this year's picks? The wait is finally over. The identities of the inaugural class of Fellows were revealed to the world at Roosevelt Rising this past Monday, a day-long event with exciting panels and distinguished speakers. You can meet the new Fellows by watching this video:

So you've heard of the Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline, and you've heard that it selects a group of young progressives doing exciting and important work to participate in the fellowship program each year. But who were this year's picks? The wait is finally over. The identities of the inaugural class of Fellows were revealed to the world at Roosevelt Rising this past Monday, a day-long event with exciting panels and distinguished speakers. You can meet the new Fellows by watching this video:

The event itself was a huge success, introducing the Fellows and launching the work they will focus on over the next year. It kicked off in the morning with a panel on how to envision a new economy for Millennial America with Pipeline Fellows Joe Shure, Darius Graham, Kristen Tullos, Suzanne Kahn, and Roosevelt Institute Fellows Mike Konczal and Sabeel Rahman. The panel was followed by a luncheon introducing all of the Fellows and a presentation from Dr. Paul Farmer, who awarded the first annual Rising Leader Award to Naomi Rosenberg. The day concluded with a panel discussion of citizenship in Millennial America with Pipeline Fellows Jack Madans, Minjon Tholen, Caitlin Howarth, and Nick Santos, moderated by Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Mark Schmitt.

Those who couldn't attend the event can watch the full video of it here:

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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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