Mark Schmitt: Reinvent Government So Americans See the Benefits

Oct 4, 2011

FDR and his New Deal programs may best be remembered for how they transformed the way the American people related to their government. He himself reminded them, "Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us."

FDR and his New Deal programs may best be remembered for how they transformed the way the American people related to their government. He himself reminded them, "Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us."

But times have certainly changed. A much-circulated graph in an article by Suzanne Mettler showed that half of Americans who have been the recipients of a social program say they have "not used a government program." This is on full display when Tea Partiers demand government get its hands off their Medicare. And as Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Mark Schmitt draws out in his fantastic review out today of Mettler's new book, The Submerged State, this is a feature of our current governmental system, not a bug.

Want some recent evidence? As Mark points out, in one poll only 12 percent of voters said their taxes had gone down under the Obama administration, even though they received a tax credit that was more likely to be spent than even the Bush tax cut we all received in the mail. This is because the tax credit, while delivered efficiently, was invisible to those whom it benefitted. As Mark puts it:

Countless federal benefits are delivered so unobtrusively, through the tax system or through public-private partnerships, that their beneficiaries hardly know government played any role. It is difficult to have a real democratic debate about the role of government, Mettler argues, when so much of what government does is unknown and unseen.

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The answer to this problem isn't just a better PR machine spreading the gospel of all the good government does for its people, though. As Mark points out, "Mettler is not calling for a change in the public image of government; she wants to change government itself." He wants to take this even further by sparking a totally new era of government:

[I] is not just a matter of "revealing" submerged policies or replacing them with more visible ones. It is time for a new era of reinventing government, in which the goal is to establish certain clear, unambiguous public functions, and put energy and resources behind them... Responsibilities should be clearly delineated between the public and private sectors, and between governments at different levels. If providing affordable housing is a public responsibility, for example, agencies such as Fannie Mae should be fully public and fully accountable to the public, and to the extent that it's not a public function, they should be private. Such a radical rethinking of government would not only make it more efficient and more effective, but possibly better respected. It would also allow a level of public engagement that is impossible in the current world of half-seen and little understood programs. And instead of making small gestures to show government cares about problems, this approach might actually solve them.

FDR couldn't have put it better himself. Read his full review here -- it's definitely worth reading in its entirety.

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From Eleanor Roosevelt to Michelle Obama, How First Ladies Can be Assets to the Presidency

Sep 22, 2011Bryce CovertEllen Chesler

ellen-chesler-150On Sunday, September 25, the FDR Presidential Library and Museum and the Roosevelt Institute will present "FDR's INNER CIRCLE: DOMESTIC POLICY," a program that will examine the historical impact that FD

ellen-chesler-150On Sunday, September 25, the FDR Presidential Library and Museum and the Roosevelt Institute will present "FDR's INNER CIRCLE: DOMESTIC POLICY," a program that will examine the historical impact that FDR's circle of close advisers had on the president and the New Deal. Panelists, who will include Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Ellen Chesler, will also discuss to what extent modern presidents can and do rely on close confidants in an era of expanded government and more complex society. Online participants are invited to view the event and join the conversation here. I got the chance to sit down with Ellen ahead of her remarks and talk about one of FDR's closest advisers, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the changing role of the modern-day first lady.

Bryce Covert: How did Eleanor Roosevelt develop into the strong force in Franklin's presidency that she eventually became?

Ellen Chesler: Eleanor Roosevelt came of age in a laissez-faire era when responsibility for addressing poverty was at best accepted as the obligation of privileged elites. Churches were at first the preferred venue for this charity or "noblesse oblige," but then came an assortment of voluntary institutions, including the settlement houses on New York's Lower East Side, where Eleanor went to work. It was there that she opened her eyes to the harsh realities of poverty in this country and to the vast disparities of wealth and opportunity as a result of the circumstances of one's birth: social class, race, ethnicity, and, of course, gender.

Orphaned and terribly sad as a young girl, Eleanor was predisposed to sympathy for the suffering of others. Later, as a young wife, she found herself burdened with the demands of five young children and bored with the conventional preoccupations of women of her social class. Reaching out to help others less fortunate in their personal circumstances became her special calling. It also served her husband's career.

But then, as is well known, their life together unraveled with Eleanor's discovery of the love affair between Franklin and her young social secretary, Lucy Mercer. The marriage survived, but only as a union of two people committed to advancing Franklin's political aspirations. That bond strengthened as a result of his paralysis after he contracted polio at the age of 39. Through the 1920s, as he struggled to regain his strength, Eleanor kept herself up-to-date on matters of public policy and also gained sophistication in the machinations of electoral politics. By the time they came to Washington in 1933, she had earned herself a secure place among his inner circle of advisers, many of whom came with them from New York.

During Franklin's 12 years as president, Eleanor traveled endlessly, serving as a witness for a president who only occasionally left the White House. His disability undoubtedly made him a far more compassionate man in his own right, with a rare sympathy for human suffering. But whatever his own predilections, Eleanor was always hectoring him to do more and to fight harder for basic social justice. She was famous for leaving notes on his morning breakfast tray about something or other that was troubling her and needed his attention. She was often berated by his staff and by their own children for never giving him a moment of peace.

Together, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt helped transform the basic discourse of politics in this country. Out of the turmoil that enveloped capitalism and democracy during the Great Depression and World War II, they created a new paradigm of an activist state whose fundamental obligation is not only to protect the basic civil and political rights of its citizens, but also to provide for minimum standards of social security and economic wellbeing.

In what I think was the last article she published before her death in 1963, Eleanor used the example of Sarah Delano Roosevelt to invoke a world that had been transformed by Franklin's innovative leadership. She wrote that even his own mother, a woman of solid Christian values, could never fully accept the radical principle that had defined her son's presidency -- his belief that citizens in a democratic society are worthy not just of private charity or public assistance, but have fundamental rights as human beings. They are entitled to speak and worship and assemble freely, as the U.S. constitution requires, but also, as she put it, they are entitled to "the right to a job, the right to education, the right to health protection, the right to human dignity, and the right to a chance of fulfillment." As a living legacy to her husband, Eleanor embodied these principles in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, forged under her genial leadership as chair of the Human Rights Commission in 1948.

Join the conversation from the comfort of your own computer on September 25 as noted experts discuss FDR’s inner circle.

BC: How does Eleanor's role in her husband's presidency compare to presidencies in the modern era?

EC: They are really not comparable. The White House today is so much bigger and more professionalized. Presidents have phalanxes of advisers beyond their formal cabinets and departments. This professionalization has actually complicated the role of the first lady, making it more difficult for her to serve openly as an informal adviser.

Perhaps ironically, the many challenges to traditional patriarchal households and the many educational and employment opportunities now available to women in their own right also hobble the lives of first ladies who are, after all, volunteering their services. Remember that Eleanor had no formal education beyond boarding school and had never held a job beyond some teaching at a Manhattan private school. Options for women, and particularly for married women, were sufficiently limited that no matter what she did or how controversial many of her views became, most Americans still saw her as Franklin's agent -- perhaps a bit outspoken at times, but still carrying out his objectives, not the other way around.

She also got special dispensation because of his polio. It's hard to imagine a president today essentially confined to the White House or to campaigning from the back of a train. Can you contemplate a first lady today with her own daily newspaper column (or blog), communicating to the public directly without a filter of any kind? Or try to imagine a situation where a president running for reelection would send his wife to the convention to put his name in nomination, while he stayed in Washington, mixing martinis before dinner, accompanied by his secretary and assorted friends?

Hillary Clinton had a tougher time in part because she entered the White House as an accomplished professional with a distinguished career in her own right. The balance of power between men and women, and the traditional economic and social arrangements of households, was also shifting for all Americans right under her feet.

The Clinton White House became a mirror in which everyone seemed to see their own reflection and onto which they projected their own (perhaps unacknowledged) anxieties. I remember polling my own friends to discover with no surprise that women who did not work and their husbands all tended to dislike Hillary. But I also often found that the ones whose wives were out-earning or out-performing them were just as uncomfortable with her. Eleanor did not face that hurdle. And of course once Hillary held a job in her own right, as senator or as Secretary of State, she became immensely popular across the board, even among conservatives.

BC: What other comparisons can we make between Eleanor and Hillary as first ladies?

EC: Hillary Clinton strongly shares Eleanor Roosevelt's conviction that the state has an obligation to advance the social and economic wellbeing of its citizens. I would credit her for urging her husband as the first act of his presidency in 1993 to sign the Family and Medical Leave Act. It was a landmark piece of legislation because it recognized the profound changes in family structure that have occurred as a result of the revolution in women's work and formal employment. It was an important breakthrough in American thinking about the appropriate role of government in helping men and women balance obligations to work and family.

Like Eleanor, Hillary also spent the better part of her years as first lady on the road, meeting as often with the powerless as with the powerful. She had boundless enthusiasm for that. She also had an understanding that the modern welfare safety net created by the New Deal was not fulfilling the vision of the Roosevelts for a temporary government subsidy that would help build personal capacity and self-reliance.

Others may disagree, but I would argue that Hillary Clinton, as first lady and later as a senator, helped ameliorate some of the shortcomings of the compromised 1996 legislation to reform welfare by providing a better integrated program that combines economic subsidies with social supports. She also was a player in helping to win increases in the minimum wage, rewarding work through the expansion of the earned-income tax credit, widening opportunities for education and job training, widening access to Head Start and daycare, and protecting reproductive choice. Incremental changes in healthcare provisions, which she also championed, resulted in a substantial broadening of the population of working families eligible for insurance. Among these was S-CHIP, the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which covers young people through the age of 18 and was an important model for further expansion of health insurance under the Obama administration.

BC: How does the relationship between Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt compare to Obama's presidency?

EC: I heard Michelle Obama deliver a powerful speech in New York on Tuesday -- an impassioned call to action for Democratic women that drew a very vivid comparison between her husband and his conservative opponents. Her defense of her husband was elegant and powerful and was distinguished as much by its passion as by its content. As so many pundits have observed, Michelle Obama, a forceful advocate for her husband during the campaign, has been something of a prisoner in the White House, her attention focused only on matters that could not possibly provoke controversy, such as elementary education, child obesity, military families, and of course, fashion. I know all the arguments about why this was necessary and how threatening a tall, strong, brilliant, and beautiful African-American woman would be to many Americans, especially if she seemed "uppity." I realize that she was encouraged to appear devoted to her daughters and family and essentially to take an "un-Eleanor, un-Hillary" approach to her position. But after hearing her speak this week, I think this has been a mistake and would send her out on the road 24/7! It's still not too late, and she may yet turn out to be one of her husband's best assets.

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Some Advice for Obama on His Jobs Speech Tonight

Sep 8, 2011

President Obama is set to give a much-anticipated speech on how he plans to combat our unemployment crisis and jumpstart the economy. What policies should he lay out? Can one speech make any difference? We at the Roosevelt Institute weigh in.

President Obama is set to give a much-anticipated speech on how he plans to combat our unemployment crisis and jumpstart the economy. What policies should he lay out? Can one speech make any difference? We at the Roosevelt Institute weigh in.

We all know that Barack Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt. The question now is whether he's Herbert Hoover. The U.S. economy is dead in the water. Three years into his term, unemployment is frozen at over nine percent. In a scenario reminiscent of the Night of the Living Dead, his administration's bungling and temporizing has revived all the old pre-2008, free market fundamentalist stereotypes about the impossibility of effective government action. An infrastructure bank and a few minor tax cuts would be nice, but this is a moment that calls for massive government action based on the model of the New Deal: A contemporary equivalent of the WPA, mortgage relief along the lines of the Home Owners' Loan Corporation, aid to the states, and real efforts to make banks use their money to make loans of instead of buying back their stock and paying bonuses. With Europe going into recession and on the brink of another giant financial crisis that may well produce a "Lehman in reverse," there is not a moment to be lost. And if Republicans obstruct, then it's time to campaign against them instead of agreeing in advance to all their principal demands. - Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow & University of Massachusetts, Boston Professor Tom Ferguson

As a Millennial and someone who has recently graduated from college, I believe it is critical for President Obama to address how young people can graduate and find a job. It is now a certain fear for college seniors and recent graduates that they won't be able obtain a job that uses the degree they've just earned and allows them to begin paying back sky-rocketing students loans without a steady income. Similarly to the rest of the country, many of my friends who are recent graduates are struggling to find a job, being a year out of school, and are working at establishments where a college degree is not required in order to start paying back their student loans. We need to hear President Obama speak about a plan to ensure that young people coming out of college can enter the workforce, earn a steady income from their intended career, and pay back their college debt. - Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Chapter Services Coordinator Dante Barry

The policy framework of the U.S. government has been clear and unchanged since the passage of TARP. This speech, like every other set of administration policy proposals, will be irrelevant. Citizens should not pay attention to it. To the extent that there is an idea that could help Americans, it would be the restoration of the rule of law in the financial sector combined with mass principal write-downs for home mortgages. - Roosevelt Institute Fellow Matt Stoller

It's time for an America that works for all of us -- starting with good jobs for everyone. Jobs with good pay and benefits so that families can educate their children, live and retire with security, and pursue their dreams.

We built a strong America by building a strong middle class. But today the rich are richer than ever while the middle class is being crushed and totally closed off. CEO campaign contributors buy tax breaks from Congress to ship our jobs overseas, while their corporations cut our wages and benefits at home.

We can create good jobs for everyone in America. There is more than enough vital work to be done and Americans stand ready and eager to do it. We can create:

  • Good Jobs. We can assure that every job -- private and public -- pays enough to support a family with decent wages, health and retirement benefits, and family-friendly leave policies.
  • Jobs for Everyone. We can create tens of millions of jobs for our future. Jobs for a green economy of energy independence, jobs to rebuild our infrastructure and create a new infrastructure for the information age. Jobs to educate our children and take care of our seniors.
  • Good Jobs in America. We can create good jobs in America with fair trade and currency policies, government purchasing American-made goods, and the end to tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas.

The question before Congress today, the question that every American is asking us, is not whether Americans want to work or whether there's plenty of work to be done. It is whether Congress can stand up to the lobbyists for the most wealthy and powerful and put the lives and livelihoods of everyday Americans first. - Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch

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Rob Johnson: American Dream Can't be Restored with Sky-high Inequality

Aug 30, 2011

At a recent event at the Hammer Forum, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Rob Johnson joined Andy Stern to answer the question: Can we restore the American Dream? In his presentation, Rob pointed out that we can't simply return to our past, particularly given how much has changed in the aftermath of the financial crisis. "The challenges are not just simply going back," he points out, "but drawing on the best traditions of our past to create a new vision."

At a recent event at the Hammer Forum, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Rob Johnson joined Andy Stern to answer the question: Can we restore the American Dream? In his presentation, Rob pointed out that we can't simply return to our past, particularly given how much has changed in the aftermath of the financial crisis. "The challenges are not just simply going back," he points out, "but drawing on the best traditions of our past to create a new vision."

So what's changed since the boom times of the American Dream? For one thing, the financial system sucks up about 40 percent of corporate profits. "The servant of finance, which is supposed to serve the economy and the economy and markets are supposed to serve social goals, has become the master," Rob says. Another is our staggering income inequality. Between 1917 and 1978, 70 percent of GDP growth went to the bottom 90 percent of our society. Now that equation has all but reversed. Over the past 30 years, the bottom 90 percent has seen its income growth decline, while "one percent of the population is getting two-thirds of the gains," Rob points out.

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This inequality comes with high costs. Rob points to a study that shows a correlation between high levels of income inequality with such tragedies as higher mental illness, obesity, high school dropout, incarceration, infant mortality, and homicide rates, while public trust declines. Unequal societies are also far less likely to foster social mobility. And the U.S. isn't just slouching along with other unequal nations, but is a real outlier toward bad outcomes, Rob points out.

Yet in the face of all of this, the government continues to be in Wall Street's pocket, enforcing an austerity agenda even with soaring unemployment rates. So Rob has some sympathy with some of the Tea Party's motivations. "They look at the government as an insurance agency for the rich and the powerful with the premiums paid by them," he says. "Can you imagine belonging to a golf club where you paid dues but only the rich and powerful got to play the course?" DC should take a hard look at FDR's Second Bill of Rights, particularly given our high levels of unemployment. Otherwise, we have a big problem on our hands.

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Obama Could Look to FDR to Tame Housing and Jobs Crises

Aug 25, 2011David B. Woolner

Unemployed and underwater, Americans need robust, FDR-style federal action.

Unemployed and underwater, Americans need robust, FDR-style federal action.

In a further indication of the weakness of the US economy, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported earlier this week that the number of Americans at risk of foreclosure is rising, while the number of mortgage applications to purchase a home has fallen to a 15-year low -- despite record low mortgage rates. The government also recently reported another sharp decline in the price of homes holding government-backed mortgages, by nearly six percent in the last quarter, the largest decline since 2009. In short, the housing crisis that played a key role in the initiation and perpetuation of the Great Recession is far from over and the risk that the ongoing trouble in the housing market will drag the country back into recession is becoming increasingly apparent.

In the face of these and other grim economic statistics, it has been reported that the Obama administration is considering further government action to help struggling homeowners keep their homes, including a proposal that would allow the millions of Americans who hold government-backed mortgages to refinance at today's historically low rates. The administration is also looking into the feasibility of a home rental program that would help keep hundreds of thousands of foreclosed homes off the market in an effort to stop home prices from falling further.

This is not the first time, of course, that the United States has faced a housing crisis. Nearly 80 years ago, President Roosevelt took office under circumstances not unlike those we face today. In 1933, for example, the non-farm foreclosure rate was running at roughly 1,000 homes per day, so that by the end of that year an estimated 50 percent of all urban mortgages in the US were either delinquent or in foreclosure. The number of housing starts had also fallen off dramatically, from a 1920s high of 937,000 in 1925 to only 93,000 in 1934.

To deal with the housing emergency and reverse this trend, the Roosevelt administration created the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) in June 1933. The HOLC -- which was a federal entity -- provided immediate relief to families facing foreclosure by buying out their existing mortgage and replacing it with a new one based not on the typical short-term mortgage agreement of the time (usually a non-amortized loan of seven to ten years terminating with a balloon payment), but rather on the far more affordable amortized mortgage of between 25 and 30 years. Over the course of its three-year history, the HOLC refinanced over one million homes or roughly 20 percent of all the urban mortgages in the country. Moreover, by the time the HOLC finally closed its books in 1951, it had turned a small profit, with the result that this remarkably successful mortgage program did not cost the U.S. taxpayer any money.

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In an effort to secure a long-term solution to the U.S. housing crisis, the Roosevelt administration passed the National Housing Act a year later. The housing act established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), and through it significantly increased access to home ownership among average Americans by insuring loan institutions against default; by institutionalizing the 30-year amortized mortgage; and by establishing other standard criteria, such as the 10 percent down payment, building codes, and on-site inspections of new and existing homes for violations of the newly developed codes. The creation of the FHA had a tremendous impact on the US housing industry, increasing over home ownership from 40 percent in the 1930s to over 70 percent by the end of the century.

Like much of the New Deal, both of the efforts involved direct federal action inspired by a desire to provide both immediate relief and long-term reform. They were also part of a much broader effort to revive the overall economy -- spearheaded by the Roosevelt administration's determination to provide meaningful jobs to the millions of unemployed through such programs as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservations Corps (CCC), or the lesser-known Public Works Administration (PWA).

Given the inability of President Obama's Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) to reverse the decline in the housing market, it is encouraging to see that the administration is considering further measures to shore up this critical sector of our economy. One would hope that the administration might look towards the HOLC for inspiration as it moves towards further action. But as most economists predict -- and as the New Deal instructs -- a massive refinancing program on its own may not be enough to restore the housing market. What we really need is more jobs -- perhaps a modern version of the WPA -- to rebuild the nation's crumbling infrastructure and further funding for education and job training to restore our competitiveness in the world economy.

With the deficit doomsayers now in charge of our nation's agenda, and with the American public and media hoodwinked into believing that the best way to revive our economy is by cutting government spending, the likelihood of a new federally funded jobs program in the near future is close to nil. This is bad news for the millions of unemployed who will not be able to pay their mortgages -- no matter how low the interest rate -- without the one thing they desperately need: a paycheck.

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


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Dorian Warren on MSNBC: Millennials Face an "American Nightmare"

Aug 18, 2011

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren joined guest host Melissa Harris-Perry on The Last Word last night to discuss what she calls the "recession generation": young people graduating into this economic morass. And what do they have to look forward to if things keep going they way they are? Dorian's answer: "An American nightmare, not an American dream."

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Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren joined guest host Melissa Harris-Perry on The Last Word last night to discuss what she calls the "recession generation": young people graduating into this economic morass. And what do they have to look forward to if things keep going they way they are? Dorian's answer: "An American nightmare, not an American dream."

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

It didn't used to be this way. "Thinking back to the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal," Dorian points out, "we had investment in national infrastructure, not an austerity politics." There was even a National Youth Administration to specifically tackle youth unemployment. But now, he says, our politicians "don't have that same vision."

But Millennials do. Speaking of the Roosevelt legacy, Dorian recounts his experience working with Campus Network students at the FDR Library in Hyde Park recently. "The ideas and the vision are there for this recession generation," he says, "but their voices aren't being heard in the same way." Maybe it's time for D.C. to tune in.

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Obama's FDR Moment

Aug 17, 2011Eliot Spitzer

smiling-fdr-profile-150Americans are looking to the President for bold ideas. Here are two.

smiling-fdr-profile-150Americans are looking to the President for bold ideas. Here are two.

President Obama should heed the famous wisdom of FDR: "Above all, try something." Being passive in the face of rising anxiety breeds discontent, doubt, and ultimately, contempt.

Interestingly, the president's one grand moment to date -- his embrace of the plan to capture Osama Bin Laden --emerged from a willingness to be bold, even when many of his advisers were counseling otherwise. He defied the more modulated approaches many military advisers recommended, and the payoff, both substantive and political, was huge. The president should take this lesson and apply it to his actions in the domestic arena.

First, he should act dramatically to help the American homeowner. There is a continuing and incendiary crisis in the housing market, with about 20 percent of all homes underwater (that is, the mortgage owed on the house is greater than the value of the house). This is dragging down our economy, creating a downward spiral of foreclosures and abandonment. The lack of mortgage reform also reminds every homeowner of the unfairness attached to the bailouts: The banks, in their moment of insolvency and need, got hundreds of billions in direct cash payments, guarantees, and transfers in the form of artificially low interest rates, all of which have led to a massive transfer of wealth from taxpayers and savers to the banks. Yet homeowners who have seen their primary asset drop in value have been given nothing at all by the banks and nothing meaningful by the president.

The administration, in conjunction with the Federal Reserve, should insist that banks, in return for all the taxpayer subsidies they have gotten and continue to receive, reduce any mortgage that exceeds the value of the house. Once it is established that the homeowner is underwater, other variables can be considered to determine how much the mortgage should be reduced: the income of the borrower, the year the mortgage was issued, the behavior of the bank in recommending the mortgage, or the culpability of the borrower in misrepresenting income levels.

Borrowers with reduced mortgages would have more money to spend, thus boosting the economy and relieving the housing market of a huge overhang. Owners would regain mobility, and the market could set a clearing price. Many also believe that the banks would come out ahead --facing fewer foreclosures, less abandonment, fewer houses stockpiled.

In addition, the banks could also receive a piece of the upside when and if owners sell their houses for more than the value of the reduced mortgage. How much of the upside could be worked out with rules designed to encourage rational behavior by all parties. (If the bank got 100 percent of the price above the value of the mortgage, there would be no incentive for an owner to charge more; if the bank got only a tiny percentage of the price differential, it would never recoup the amount by which the mortgage has been reduced.) The opportunity is to force the banks to give the housing market a shot in the arm -- while also allowing them to retain an equity stake that permits them to recoup any short-term loss.

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The critical point is this: The best way to revive the housing market is to help out the millions of Americans who are underwater on their mortgages. It is also the best way for the president to make it clear he is acting on behalf of the public at large.

Second, the president should do more to help the American worker. He should establish a jobs program. Do the simple math: We are spending more than $110 billion annually in Afghanistan. Stop it. Or scale it back to the sort of covert operations and drone war that is warranted. Savings? Perhaps about $100 billion -- per year. Use that money to create up to 5 million jobs at $20,000 each. With the unemployment among those aged 16 to 19 at an astonishing 25 percent, and unemployment among black people at 15.9 percent, there is no question that the crisis of unemployment is destroying the fabric of our nation. Those who refuse to work get denied all other benefits.

Put Jack Welch and Jeff Immelt, former and current CEOs of GE, in charge of using this labor well. Just as FDR did during the Great Depression, put these Americans to work in states, counties, schools, parks. Make them work -- but pay them. Get the dollars flowing back into the economy to help pull us out of the Great Recession. And when the unemployment rate dips below an agreed upon number, indicating that the labor market is healthy again, phase out the program.

There are ideas out there. All the president has to do is argue for them. Americans are not used to feeling that we are not masters of our own fate. We are a nation steeped in the idea that we can redirect the course of history at will. What we need at this moment is a president with bold ideas and the passion to fight for them.

Eliot Spitzer is the former governor of the state of New York.

Crossposted from

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Washington, Lincoln, and FDR Were Great Presidents - and Great Radicals

Aug 17, 2011Harvey J. Kaye

fdr-we-need-you-150Those remembered as America's greatest presidents were also three of its greatest radicals.

fdr-we-need-you-150Those remembered as America's greatest presidents were also three of its greatest radicals.

Given the state of American politics and public life, we need to embrace our radical past and start putting it to good use. I refer here not -- or at least not simply -- to the great tradition of American radicals that has included such figures as revolutionary patriot Thomas Paine, feminist Fannie Wright, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, socialist Eugene Debs, anarchist Emma Goldman, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Just as much, I have in mind those figures whom both historians and the American people at large consider our greatest presidents: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Rarely thought of as radicals, they definitely do stand as radicals in the American grain.

Ask most people why Washington, Lincoln, and FDR are so revered and you will get various answers… Ask them what they share as historical heroes and you will likely hear it had to do with the fact they led America through its most challenging wars to final victories. Allowing the fact that Washington was not yet President when he led the Continental Army – remember, there was no national executive at the time – the answer is clearly correct and will work on a short answer test in any classroom. But as essential as military action has been and remains to the defense of the nation and American democratic life, the answer is inadequate and potentially debilitating of patriotism and good citizenship.

What we need to appreciate – and I think most Americans will readily understand – is that Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt led us through our greatest national crises and not only prevailed, but made America freer, more equal, and more democratic in the process.

Washington led the American army against the British Empire to secure the nation’s independence. He led a force and a citizenry-in-the-making to create a nation committed to the proposition that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And he presided over a constitutional convention that endorsed the proposition that in this country, “we the people…” govern. Washington himself may not have recognized just how radical those lines of 1776 and 1789 would prove to be, but he was the man who helped guarantee that they survived to inspire generations of radicals to come.

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Lincoln confronted the breakup of the United States over the question of slavery, a vile institution that denied the very principles upon which the country was founded. And he led the nation -- at least the northern and western sections of it -- in a brutal war to sustain the Union. But hating slavery, and coming to see how important it was to liberate black Americans and remake America without the chains that shackled them, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Whatever tragic and ironic turns U.S. and Southern history took thereafter, it did so without the “peculiar institution” holding it back. As he said at Gettysburg: “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Franklin Roosevelt led the United States through two terrible crises, each of which placed the very survival of the nation in jeopardy. In the 1930s, the Great Depression threatened to destroy the country economically and socially and, quite possibly, politically. But FDR harnessed American energies to carry out not only vast programs of relief, recovery, and reconstruction, but also struggles to institute major programs of reform -- from Social Security to the National Labor Relations Act -- which together revolutionized American government and public life. And if that were not enough, in the 1940s, Nazism, Fascism, and Japanese Imperialism threatened to destroy the United States militarily and politically. Yet articulating Americans’ finest ideals in the words “Freedom of speech and expression, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear,” he once again inspired and encouraged his fellow citizens not only to defend those ideals, but also to progressively advance them.

Each of those men accomplished more than they ever promised or possibly, imagined. They did so not because God led them to it or each found it in himself to go beyond himself – though both may have played a fundamental role in making it happen. Even more critically, they all had faith and confidence in their fellow Americans, who not only responded to the challenge, but also propelled Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, respectively, to transcend themselves and join in making great democratic history.

So, it is time to embrace our radical history – progressive history, if you prefer – and to push, inspire, and encourage our current president to transcend his own limitations. Given the crises we face, we need to get Obama to embrace the tradition of Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt and start harnessing Americans’ persistent democratic aspirations and energies to do something about them. Better said, if we want to save the nation, we need to do what our greatest generations and their greatest leaders did – make America freer, more equal, and more democratic.

Reflecting on the achievements of the FDR years and the political debacles of the immediate postwar years, progressive Max Lerner wrote in the summer of 1948: "What we did once we can resume. The tragedy lies in the waste of our experience, in the waiting while all the old blunders are committed over again.”

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He is soon to finish the writing of The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America: FDR, the Greatest Generation, and Us. Follow him on Twitter:

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FDR Tackled a Jobs Crisis By Putting Americans to Work -- Not Handing Out Pinkslips

Aug 15, 2011David B. Woolner

History shows that we can effectively respond to high unemployment. But the real deficit in the U.S. today is leadership.

History shows that we can effectively respond to high unemployment. But the real deficit in the U.S. today is leadership.

"Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing great -- greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our great natural resources."

~Franklin D. Roosevelt, March 4, 1933

The economic news of the past few weeks -- highlighted by the debt ceiling debacle; the downgrade of US credit worthiness; the wild gyrations in the stock market and the wholly inadequate growth in the US job market in June and July -- all seem to point to one thing: the economic crisis that began in 2008 is far from over.

Worse still, given the political gridlock in Washington and the inability and/or unwillingness of the leadership on both sides of the political aisle to face the real crisis we face today -- the jobs crisis -- the prospects for a meaningful recovery seem remote at best. Many economists predict that the US will slide back into a recession. This is bad news for the millions upon millions of Americans who are out of work; bad news as well for the millions of young people just entering the work force. For the first time since the Great Depression, we face the ugly prospect of the loss of skills that often comes with long term unemployment or the lack of meaningful career opportunities for our youth.

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One would think that in the face of such a calamity our government would do everything within its power to expand or at least maintain the workforce. But with the current Administration having embraced the mantra of deficit reduction and budget slashing, and with one branch of Congress ideologically opposed to government intervention in the economy, government layoffs, especially at the state and local level, are actually pushing up the rate of unemployment.

Over three quarters of a century ago, when faced with a similar jobs deficit, Franklin Roosevelt used the power of the federal government to do just the opposite -- to put people to work. Under the auspices of such New Deal programs as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) or the Works Progress Administration (WPA) millions of Americans found meaningful employment restoring our nation's forests and watersheds and building the economic infrastructure we needed to grow the economy well into the future. Equally important, the skills required to build the 1000s of bridges, roads, schools, airports, dams and other key pieces of economic infrastructure necessary for a modern economy were not lost to that generation.

FDR did this because -- as he said in his first inaugural -- the most immediate and primary tasked needed to meet the economic emergency was to put people to work. This not only led to a significant drop in the unemployment rate (by more than 10 percent in his first term), it also helped fuel a period of economic expansion that would average 14 percent per year for the next four years.

Thanks to these efforts, the American people could look to the future with confidence rather than fear. Yes, times were hard. But under the leadership of the Roosevelt Administration, the federal government was engaged in an active effort to provide real jobs -- not handouts -- to millions and the industrial expertise we needed to meet the challenges of the Second World War were in place at the critical hour.

The national unemployment rate has now been at roughly 9 percent for more than two years. By any measure such a statistic -- which tells us little about the millions of under employed or those who have given up looking for work -- constitutes a national crisis. Yet all we hear about these days in Washington is the need to cut government spending (including federal aid to states) and reduce the deficit. Following this false logic will lay off more workers in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Given the dire state of affairs, the American people are right to fear the future. In addition to a jobs deficit, we now face a deficit of leadership at a time when we can least afford it.

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

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Forgetting Lessons of Keynes and FDR Brings On the 'Obama Recession'

Aug 4, 2011David B. Woolner

When FDR ignored the Keynesian tenet that cutting spending in a downturn spells disaster, he paid dearly. Obama is set to relearn this lesson the hard way.

When FDR ignored the Keynesian tenet that cutting spending in a downturn spells disaster, he paid dearly. Obama is set to relearn this lesson the hard way.

"The economic experiments of President Roosevelt may prove, I think, to be of extraordinary importance in economic history, because for the first time -- at least I cannot recall a comparable case -- theoretical advice is being taken by one of the rulers of the world as the basis of large-scale action. The possibility of such a remarkable event has arisen out of the utter and complete discredit of every variety of orthodox advice. The state of mind in America which lies behind this willingness to try unorthodox experiments arises out of an economic situation desperate beyond precedent."

~John Maynard Keynes, January 1934

Just under three quarters of a century ago, a group of conservative economic advisers close to Franklin Roosevelt informed the President that they were worried about the rapid rate of growth in the US economy. Since 1933, when FDR took over at the height of the Great Depression, the economy had been expanding steadily, at an average rate of 14 percent per year. Schooled as most of these advisors were in the tenets of economic orthodoxy (which called for cuts in spending during an economic downturn), and unsure of the effects of the Keynesian-style deficit spending that the administration had been engaged in under the terms of the early New Deal, the President was advised to cut the budget, reduce deficit spending and tighten the money supply as a means to stave off inflation. Heeding their word (and no economist himself), FDR did just that.

The results were an unmitigated disaster.

Thanks to the Administration's decision to move away from the increasingly Keynesian policies it had been following -- policies that saw the unemployment rate fall from a high of 25% in 1933 to 14% by 1937 -- FDR launched one of the sharpest economic downturns in American history-the so-called "Roosevelt Recession" of 1937-38. In just a few short months, the GDP declined by 13 percent; industrial production by 33 percent; wages by 35 percent and an estimated four million people lost their jobs. No fool, FDR quickly reversed himself and went back to Congress to seek a massive stimulus bill to put people back to work and repair the damage to the Depression-era economy. Within three months growth had returned and the economy was back on track.

FDR only met John Maynard Keynes once during the 1930s, and after their 1934 meeting both men expressed a certain ambivalence about the other (Keynes said FDR did not know much about economics and Roosevelt said with all of his "numbers" Keynes struck him as more of a mathematician than an economist). But the lessons FDR drew from the 1937-38 recession were clear: cutting federal spending and tightening the money supply in the midst of a deep economic crisis were bad ideas and from this point on his administration pursued economic policies that can only be described as unabashedly Keynesian. FDR may never have publically embraced Keynes's theories, and in fact preferred to call his subsequent use of massive government borrowing and spending "compensatory fiscal policy," but the two concepts were virtually identical.

Spurred along by this change of heart and by the growing demands to increase defense spending to meet the challenges of World War II, the federal government borrowed 100s of billions of dollars in the late 1930s and early 40s, while at the same time government expenditures -- i.e. stimulus -- reached record levels. By the time the United States was fully engaged in the war, federal spending accounted for more than half of the country's Gross National Product, business was booming and the scourge of unemployment had all but disappeared.

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And what were the long term consequences of all of this borrowing and spending? Economic chaos? A sovereign debt and default crisis? No, what followed was more than three decades of postwar economic expansion and the creation of perhaps the best paid and best educated work-force America had ever seen.

The modern middle class was born.

In the past two years we have heard official after official claim that they do not want to repeat "the mistakes of the Great Depression." Yet the recent behavior of both the Obama Administration and senior members of Congress belies this claim. Rather than fight for economic policies that would stimulate the economy and put people back to work, this Administration -- and even many senior democratic party officials -- have chosen to ignore the lessons of the past. Instead of focusing on jobs and growth -- the real crisis in our economy -- they have embraced the sky-is-falling rhetoric of the Republican Party extremists. These fear mongerers and obstructionists have convinced millions of Americans and virtually the entire US media that the key to economic recovery is to slash federal spending. The Administration's championing of the 39 billion in cuts to the 2010-2011 budget and the recent debacle over the debt ceiling -- with an agreement that does nothing to stimulate the economy -- are but two sorry examples of this phenomenon.

In 1937 FDR paid a heavy political price for his decision to turn away from Keynesian economics. The democrats lost seats in the 1938 election and FDR's ability to push through further fundamental reforms in Congress was severely limited from this point forward. Worse still, millions of Americas suffered from the sudden economic downturn that came as a result of these ill-timed and unnecessary cut-backs.

President Obama sells the Budget Control Act of 2011 as a victory for the American people; as an important "first step" in solving the "deficit crisis." But he has missed a fundamental point: the most effective way to reduce the federal deficit in the long term is to spur economic growth in the short term. He also seems to have lost sight of the fact that the real crisis we face is that roughly 26 million Americans are either under employed or out of work. This national tragedy could be greatly alleviated by a return to the Keynesian economic policies temporarily abandoned by Franklin Roosevelt three quarters of a century ago. But neither the President nor his colleagues in Congress appear to have the desire or political will to resist the incessant Republican demands to cut spending no matter what the cost to the American people.

It is sad to think that history may be repeating itself. But the apparent decision of this administration to embrace cuts over spending may soon lead the President down the same path that FDR took in 1937. Only this time the "Obama recession" of 2011-2012 will most likely cost the current president his job.

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

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