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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FDR's Vision for a Strong and More Compassionate America

Aug 1, 2011David B. Woolner

Wanted: a restoration of faith in government as an instrument of social and economic justice.

Wanted: a restoration of faith in government as an instrument of social and economic justice.

With deadlock in Washington and a recent spate of economic data showing that the so-called "recovery" of the US economy is growing weaker by the day, it appears more and more likely that the Great Recession which has been with us since the fall of 2007 will continue. This is very bad news for the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs, their homes, or both. It also places a terrible burden on the millions of young people about to enter the work force. It is hard to look forward to the future when that future is full of uncertainty. In this respect both the older generation of long term unemployed and the younger generation that has yet to take on their first job share much of the same anxiety. When, they ask, will this economic downturn come to an end?

This despair is not unlike that of the generation that greeted Franklin Roosevelt when he took the oath of office on March 4, 1933. The nation had never experienced anything like the economic conditions that existed that year, and there were real fears that liberal capitalist democracy itself was under siege.

To counter this despair Franklin Roosevelt famously urged the American people to remember that "the only thing they had to fear was fear itself." But he also acknowledged -- in the line that received the greatest applause in his first inaugural -- that "this nation asks for action and action now." He promised to deliver on that demand -- and deliver he did. Within his first hundred days alone, FDR, working with Congress, passed 15 major pieces of legislation, including a series of banking and financial reform measures that formed the basis of our financial economy for more than six decades.

The rescue of America's banking system and the regulation of the stock market helped restore the American people's faith in these two key sectors of the economy. Moreover, the jobs created through the launching of such New Deal programs as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the later Works Progress Administration did far more than simply help improve our environment or build our nation's economic infrastructure, they also gave people hope.

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This fundamental partnership between a government willing and able to act in the name of the public good, and a people willing to support it, formed the essence of the New Deal. Out of this partnership came many of the programs that we take for granted today, such as unemployment insurance and Social Security. But these things never would have happened without the leadership and vision of Franklin Roosevelt who time and time again admonished the American people never to forget that "government is ourselves and not an alien power over us." Bolstered by this new-found vision the President, the people and the Congress transformed the nature of the American society and government; created the economic infrastructure that made it possible for us to become the great arsenal of democracy in the Second World War and by 1945 would see the United States emerge the world's first true and only super-power.

The New Deal was not always pretty. Mistakes were made, and the road to economic recovery was long and hard. But throughout it all the American people did not despair because they understood they were following the vision of a leader who was dedicated not to a single ideology or a pre-set series of ideas, but to the simple proposition that in the midst of the worst economic crisis this nation had ever seen the government had an obligation to act.

The legislative record of the New Deal -- which has never been equaled by any administration before or since -- stands as a testament to this commitment to action. It also stands as a testament to FDR's overarching faith in government as an instrument of social and economic justice. It is clear to all concerned that our leaders in Washington today do not share this faith. Dedicated to the principles of free market fundamentalism and ideologically opposed to government intervention in the economy -- even in the midst of crisis -- they prefer to turn away from government and offer no real vision for the future except ever-more tax and spending cuts. Thanks to this misguided austerity, more workers are losing their jobs, the economy continues to falter, and hope is nowhere to be found.

Nearly eighty years ago, in the same inaugural address, FDR warned the American people not to embrace the false promises espoused by a "generation of self-seekers," because "they have no vision, and when there is no vision, the people perish." Indeed, "happiness," he said, "lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men."

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

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FDR's Championing of Labor Unions Key to Prosperous Post-War Economy

Jul 22, 2011David B. Woolner

Under Roosevelt's leadership, union membership and the size of the American economy grew hand-in-hand.

"It is now beyond partisan controversy that it is a fundamental individual right of a worker to associate himself with other workers and to bargain collectively with his employer." FDR --Address at San Diego Exposition, October 2, 1935

Under Roosevelt's leadership, union membership and the size of the American economy grew hand-in-hand.

"It is now beyond partisan controversy that it is a fundamental individual right of a worker to associate himself with other workers and to bargain collectively with his employer." FDR --Address at San Diego Exposition, October 2, 1935

Just over three quarters of a century ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed one of the most important -- though frequently overlooked -- pieces of the reform legislation to come out of the New Deal: the National Labor Relations Act. More often referred to as the Wagner Act, after its champion, Senator Robert Wagner of New York, this landmark bill established the National Labor Relations Board, an independent, quasi-judicial government agency that played a critical role in the remarkable expansion of union membership that took place during the Roosevelt era.

Prior to the passage of the Wagner Act, and thanks in part to the anti-union climate of the 1920s, union membership in the United States had declined precipitously. At the onset of the Great Depression, for example, membership in the American Federation of Labor had fallen from a high of five million in 1919 to less than 3 million in 1933. Seeking to expand workers rights as part of his administration's efforts to launch the New Deal, FDR created a weaker NLRB as part of the 1934 National Recovery Administration. But the 1934 agency proved largely ineffective and in 1935 FDR endorsed Senator Wagner's efforts to make the NLRB permanent and more powerful. The new law declared a whole series of coercive management practices to be illegal, and gave private sector workers the right to form unions and to engage in collective bargaining. It also gave the NLRB the right to determine bargaining unit jurisdictions, oversee union elections and certify the results as legally binding. The law also insisted that management had a duty to bargain with a properly certified union, though of course it did not compel the union to agree with the union demands.

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As with many other pieces of New Deal legislation, the establishment of the NLRB was bitterly attacked by employers as a measure that would ruin the US economy. But such fear mongering proved completely unfounded. Over the next ten years both union membership and the size of the US economy would grow hand in hand, so that by 1945 the ranks of unionized worker had reached a record 35 percent of the non-agricultural workforce, while wages had increased by 65 percent, unemployment had fallen to less than one percent, and the US economy exploded to meet the demands of the Second World War.

Moreover, the labor legislation of the New Deal helped form the basis of a long period of post-war prosperity that vastly expanded the size and wealth of the American middle class. Yet sadly, the right of American workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining -- and hence protect their job security and wages -- is once again under attack. The recent attempt by conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives to challenge the NLRB authority to act through the introduction of such bills as the Protecting Jobs from Government Interference Act is but one example of this ongoing attempt to weaken the NLRB's authority and with it the power of unions to fight against unfair labor practices. In 1935, in the wake of the Wagner Bill, FDR asserted that the "fundamental...right of a worker to associate himself with other workers and to bargain collectively with his employer" was "now beyond partisan controversy." Based on the recent activities of this Congress, and the strong anti-union movement among conservatives in states like Wisconsin and New Jersey it would appear that he was sadly mistaken.

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

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Dorian Warren on Why We All Need a Strong Labor Movement

Jul 18, 2011Bryce Covert

dorian-warrenI got the chance to talk with Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren, who just publis

dorian-warrenI got the chance to talk with Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren, who just published new research on workplace anti-union campaigns. We discussed his surprising findings about illegal employer intimidation tactics, the labor movement's biggest weaknesses, and why comprehensive labor reform would amount to some of the best economic stimulus we could find.

Bryce Covert: You recently published new research on workplace intimidation tactics against union organizing. Can you explain the important findings that came out of your work?

Dorian Warren: As background, let me start by saying that we already know what happens when workers try to organize into a union: employers routinely violate the law. They use a range of legal and illegal tactics. The most egregious one is firing workers who are seen as union leaders or union influencers, and that happens in about 34% of union election campaigns. A number of other illegal tactics include threatening workers, threatening to close the plant, threatening to close the shop, illegal pay raises, that kind of stuff.

The other thing to note is that usually when workers file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board for an election, the wait from the date they file a petition to when the election is scheduled is really long. Throughout all that time, employers engage in anti-union campaigns, again using these legal and illegal tactics. So the National Labor Relations Board proposed a rule change to potentially decrease the number of days between when workers file a petition and form election and when the election is scheduled and held.

The research that I did with my coauthor Kate Bronfenbrenner was to look at the timing of when employer campaigns start through the election and what difference the proposed rule change would make. What we found was that the employer campaign starts very early. It definitely starts once workers start filing a petition for election, it continues constantly, and the number of tactics they use are multiple. So every single day before an election the employer campaign is constant, the tactics are cumulative, and it's unrelenting.

But the surprising finding is that employer campaigns start even before workers petition. So let's say Target or WalMart hires new employees and as part of the orientation it gives them an anti-union video to watch. From day one that's basically an employer anti-union campaign. Then it's constantly probing and trying to find out if there's any talk of unionization. The employer knows that workers are talking about potentially wanting a union, and they start doing things way before workers even file a petition to ask for an election. The longer employers can delay an election, the more time they have to harass and intimidate workers. But our research shows that from before the workers file a petition to when they file a petition, leading all the way up to an election and even after the election if they win the election, the employer's still using these tactics to intimidate and harass workers.

BC: What are the details of the NLRB rule change proposal and what are its implications?

DW: The proposal is to streamline the NLRB election process, which is very clunky. There are lots of delays and it takes a long time for workers to actually get an election. It would also prevent employers from attempting to delay. Workers usually file for election, the election date is set, but then close to the election date the employer files a claim with the National Labor Relations Board, usually falsely accusing the union of some kind of unfair practice or tactic, which then the Board has to investigate. So they delay the election. Then after the investigation, which usually finds nothing wrong, the election is rescheduled, and then that starts all over again. This rule would say there will be no delays. There will be an investigation after the election as opposed to postponing elections to investigate these delays, so-called infractions, either by employers or the union. The idea would be obviously that these changes would give workers a better chance to unionize free of intimidation and coercion.

Assuming this rule change goes through, it would make it potentially easier for workers to organize because they wouldn't be subject to the employer campaign for as long and therefore would probably end up winning more union elections. It will make organizing easier in a climate where employers are absolutely hostile by default and break the law because the penalties aren't that strong.

Employers are going crazy about this. The Chamber of Commerce is going crazy about this proposed rule change because they know that this would make it easier for unions to organize.

BC: If the rule goes through, does it address what you identified in your research? What goes unaddressed?

DW: The only thing that would address what we found in our research would be comprehensive labor reform. But obviously the political possibility for that is zero. This rule change would help address what we find, but it's not going to eliminate the employer campaign. Employers are still going to violate the law and fire people and threaten people. They'll just have a shorter time to do it, so hopefully it won't have as much impact on workers as it does now. This rule change does nothing about our big finding that employers already violate the law before workers even file for a petition. Those practices are still going to happen and employers are still going to be spying on workers, essentially, to see if there's any talk of a union and then go into action immediately when they hear it.

It's a systemic problem. There's really nothing that would change it. There are no quick fixes in terms of what the National Labor Relations Board can do. They really need legislative change to alter the incentive structure against employers violating the law.

BC: Are there other short-term things that can be done right now short of comprehensive reform?

DW: After this I'm not sure what's left. There was another rule change that another federal agency did issue. The National Labor Relations Board covers all private sector workers except transportation workers. Railroad and airline workers are covered by the Railway Labor Act. If you're an airline worker and you want a union, the election goes to the National Mediation Board, not the NLRB. Last year, with two pro-labor Obama appointees, the National Mediation Board made a rule change for their election rules. In political elections, basically whoever gets the majority of the vote wins, and the same with the NLRB union elections. The Railway Labor Act was always different. It said that a majority of all workers was what it took to win unionization. So if people didn't show up to vote you were kind of screwed. Basically if someone didn't show up that was a no vote. The rule change was to make it similar to the National Labor Relations Board and our basic election rules for political campaigns -- just a majority of who shows up. They issued that rule change last year and again business groups went crazy. One of the implications of that is probably thousands of flight attendants at a couple of airlines, something like forty or fifty thousand flight attendants, are going to have elections to decide whether they want to join a union or not.

But after that I'm not sure what else the Board can do. They're already trying to speed up the processing of cases when employers or unions, but really employers, violate the law. There has to be an investigation and there's a trial to see if the employer violated the law, and then there's a ruling. There are hundreds if not thousands of cases and there's always a backlog because Republicans are trying to defund the Board and compromise its work.

After this latest rule change that's pretty much it. That's all they can really do.

BC: Ignoring politically impossibility, what would a modern-day Wagner Act to update labor laws look like?

DW: The first thing is there'd be no occupational exclusions. We should have a national campaign right now to take out the occupational exclusions of the Wagner Act. We know the history of why they're in there in the first place. It's unacceptable that they're still in. No worker should be denied protection or the fundamental right to freedom of association.

The second thing would be really, really strong penalties for violations of the law. Ideally it would match the whole system of employment law, including all the anti-discrimination laws like sex discrimination, race discrimination, age, disability. For instance, if employers fire a worker for union activity, the only penalty is that they have to hire the worker back and they have to post a sign in the workplace saying they won't do it again and potentially pay the worker back pay. That's not a strong incentive against violating the law. Unlike, say, anti-discrimination law, where you can sue for punitive damages, which works as a stronger sanction against employers for violating the law. Even raising the penalties so that you create strong incentives for employers to actually obey the law would be important. The potential for class action lawsuits when employers violate workers rights, the potential for triple or even hundred times back pay if they fire workers, really huge fines, punitive sanctions for violating any workers rights -- that would be, I think, ideal in any kind of twenty first century Wagner Act.

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BC: To play devil's advocate, many say that pro-labor reforms in a recession will hamper businesses from creating jobs. What do you say to that?

DW: In the preamble to the National Labor Relations Act, the justification is to level the playing field so that workers can bargain for higher wages with employers, which would then help the economy and help get us get out of the Depression because it would fundamentally give workers consumption power. They'd buy more goods and services, which would create more jobs, which would help the economy. It's economic stimulus, essentially.

I would say the same thing is true now. The problem has been that with wage stagnation for forty years, people had to take on debt to keep up with inflation and to buy basic things because they weren't getting raises. If we were to pass a new Wagner Act today that gave workers the right to organize free of intimidation, they could bargain for higher wages with employers, who have record profits, and that would help to stimulate the economy again. First, it would help people get out of underwater mortgages, and second, it would help people be able to buy more stuff. Especially in an economy that's 70% based on consumption, actually giving workers more bargaining power is a form of stimulus.

BC: Following that logic, with all the backward movement against labor -- what happened in Wisconsin, the Supreme Court decision on WalMart -- is there an anti-stimulus effect from these attacks?

DW: Part of that process of downward mobility has been the loss of pensions and economic security for private sector workers, especially with declining unionization, which is only 7% in the private sector down from almost a third in the 1940s. The aim of these attacks on public sector workers is to put them in the same boat as private sector workers -- strip them of pensions, strip them of the ability to bargain for higher wages. In that sense I do think there is a huge effect on the economy because with higher unemployment and as people lose their bargaining power they're not going to be able to purchase more stuff. Also, as people lose their pensions I can't even imagine what that's going to do in terms of pushing older people into the workforce longer at the same time that there's probably going to be an increase in age discrimination.

For all those reasons, I think the attacks are very dangerous. It's basically figuring out a way to eliminate the middle class, which is just absurd to me, and to fundamentally destroy the labor movement, because the public sector is now the strongest part of the labor movement. A majority of unions are public sector workers for the first time in history. They're not in the private sector. And think about teachers and the attacks on teacher's unions: one in four union members in this country is a teacher. It's mind-blowing actually. It's also a political attack and an explicit attempt to weaken the strongest base of the Democratic Party.

BC: In your view, what can the labor movement focus on right now to help the tide flow in the other direction?

DW: The labor movement's big Achilles' heel is the fact that it never organized the South. That's important for two reasons. It's important for labor's strength because the South is a whole different economy. Because it was a non-union economy, it actually ended up destroying the manufacturing sector and the labor movement. The auto industry essentially moved to different states to get out of UAW contracts.

The second implication is political. Because labor has a huge influence on how workers vote, it's not coincidental that the South is pretty Republican and pretty right-wing. If you're a white working class man there's basically a twenty-point gap between whether or not you'll vote Democrat or Republican and it's all based on union membership. So if you're a white working class man and you're in a union, you're much more likely to vote Democrat than Republican -- it's the union difference. If you're a white working class woman you're already a little bit more likely to vote Democratic, but you're much more likely if you're a member of a union.

There has to be some really transformative strategy and real commitment, even if it's just targeting three key states for instance, for labor to organize the South. It would help make the labor movement stronger but also change the politics of the country, frankly. Labor's been the core base of the Democratic Party since the New Deal. It seems extraordinarily short sighted that the party is looking at the destruction of its base and just standing by like a deer in headlights, and in some cases aiding and abetting the attack on labor.

BC: Many saw what happened in Wisconsin as a sign of the labor movement's reinvigoration. Do you have hope for the future of the movement?

DW: I have a different take on Wisconsin. Yes it was great that people mobilized, but I would stop short of what others have called it -- a victory of some kind. I'm not very hopeful at all, even of Wisconsin. That was a moment. And we lost, frankly. And we're losing in more than a dozen states around the country. Wisconsin's either a sign of reinvigoration or a sign of the last gasp. I think people over-interpreted it. I want to be more sober about it and say okay, where do we go form here, what's the strategy? It's a defensive fight. We're the ones trying to defend fundamental rights. We lost. Now what do we do? What's our vision? First we have to get those rights back. And it's not like things were great before. What's our vision for revitalizing workers' rights broadly? Unless there are some serious breakthrough strategies that labor, that workers, can come up with, I think the labor movement has about five years to figure out how to stay alive. Otherwise it's all over.

There is a bit of good news. Last week there were recall elections in Wisconsin and all the anti-labor incumbents were defeated. That suggests that there is some sustainability and some momentum from what happened in February. That's hopeful. But we haven't seen the efforts of people to mobilize in Wisconsin in any other place. In Ohio, in New Jersey, in New Hampshire, in Michigan, Oklahoma, all across the country, there are these basically same bills, but there hasn't been the same kind of mobilization that was shown in Wisconsin. Something more has to happen on a large scale. I don't see it yet.

BC: You just described a very bleak picture. What's the difference between now and FDR's time, when there was a huge movement for labor rights in the midst of a depression?

DW: A couple of things. One key point was the 1934 sit-down strike of autoworkers. That helped to spark a movement to unionize industrial workers, whether in auto or steel or rubber or textiles. But that was five years into the Great Depression. I don't think we're at a point where workers overall feel like the existing system is discredited. Maybe we're getting there as these quarterly reports keep coming out on corporate profits and CEO salaries. I think we're getting there. It can't happen fast enough.

The second factor I think is that there was a real fight in the labor movement around a new model. The old craft model of unions that worked for the building trades, for instance, was not adequate for the new industrial economy. There had to be some other model of unionism, so industrial unionism was created in the 30s to match the new kinds of work and the new kinds of employers. I think we need a similar kind of breakthrough strategy now. What kind of unionism do we need for the current moment, for the current economy? We've been toiling at the edges. The labor movement has been trying different strategies incrementally, but there hasn't been a new model of unionism that can recruit people by the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.

Third is frankly a question of presidential leadership. The 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act was the first time that workers were given the right to organize. Then it got declared unconstitutional, and then the response was the Wagner Act. But in both cases there were posters and signs that union organizers would walk around with and on them was FDR saying ‘the president wants you to join a union.' There was a sense that now the law is on your side, the president's on your side, it is your fundamental right to do this. I think we're absolutely lacking that today. There's no sense that the law is on the workers' side, there's no sense that the president is on workers' side.

There's this new effort, Caring Across Generations, to organize workers from early daycare workers to home health workers who work with seniors. It's promising. There's an effort to organize WalMart, there's an effort to organize warehouse workers who are actually part of a crucial supply chain to WalMart and other big box stores. That looks promising. There are efforts by restaurant workers, carwash workers. So there are all these pieces that are definitely promising. I think the big question is a question of scale. Can they scale up fast enough to really make an impact sooner than later, or have an impact sooner than later? That's what I'm worried about.

*For more on the Wagner Act, see Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Ferguson discuss its history and relevance to contemporary struggles at last year's panel at the FDR Library at Hyde Park, NY: "1935 and the Enduring New Deal" (click on video for Sept. 26, 2010).

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What is the Future of the American Dream of Progress?

Jul 14, 2011Brittany McMahan

flag-150There’s a lot of talk lately about American dream. But what is it, really? We asked our Roosevelt Institute summer interns to give us their perspective. Here, Harding University rising junior Brittany McMahan looks at the idea of progress in the American Dream.

flag-150There’s a lot of talk lately about American dream. But what is it, really? We asked our Roosevelt Institute summer interns to give us their perspective. Here, Harding University rising junior Brittany McMahan looks at the idea of progress in the American Dream.

The "American Dream" means a lot of things for different people. However, at its core, it's really about progress. Historically, America has had a reputation as a place where you can escape persecution or oppression and progress to something better.

That message is built into our unlikely history -- our progress from a provincial territory granted independence through a small revolution to the most powerful nation in the world. The dream is about overcoming obstacles, rising above negative circumstances or restrictions, setting a goal, and stopping at nothing to achieve it.

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Our history is also about expanding our idea of what progress means -- and to whom it applies. A nation that once enslaved people of color is now lead by a man of color. This past June, America progressed from sexual stigma for gays to equal marriage. In many ways, we have moved from a nation where the value of a person was measured by race, gender, sexual orientation and financial status to a nation of equal opportunity for everyone -- men, women, and children of every race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religious belief or non belief, sexual orientation, grit, and creed.

But in terms of economic equality, we're regressing.

Nearly fifty years ago Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told America about his dream. He worked for a nation of freedom and equality for all its inhabitants. We remember him for his work on racial justice, but he also promoted a message based on a fundamental idea laid out by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his vision of the Four Freedoms that should be granted to all: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want. It was this last idea, Freedom from Want, or economic justice, that King took up towards the end of his life. As FDR had done with his Economic Bill of Rights, King's Poor People's Movement sought to raise the standard of living, economic opportunities, and security for Americans on the premise that such things were rights -- not privileges. Such ideas may seem radical, but today, as our nation's economic inequality continues to grow, there's a renewed interest in them. Active citizens are lobbying for a living wage as opposed to a minimum wage. People are getting passionate about the quality of life for individuals. They want economic stability and some measure of security in their lives.

With the current job market, rising national debt, continuous big business melodramas, and the need for reform, economic equality has become perhaps our most pressing issue. Going back to the American Dream, it means that economic opportunity is part of what we believe in. And a complete lack of it should be out of the question. The American Dream is progress-- progress from apathy to political empowerment, persecution to liberation, stigma to acceptance. It is also a progress from the back of the soup line to the corner of Wall Street. From being financially powerless to economically independent. America guarantees its people certain inalienable rights -- life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And the next stage of our progress will be about giving people the economic empowerment to express them.

Brittany is currently serving as a Roosevelt Institute Summer Academy Fellow with the Communications team in the New York office and a student at Harding University.


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What Conservatives Don't Want You to Know About Government's Role in the Economy

Jun 28, 2011Jon Rynn

fdr-we-need-you-200If we don't learn the lessons from the Great Depression, our infrastructure will crumble, the recovery will stagnate, and our economy will be left behind.

fdr-we-need-you-200If we don't learn the lessons from the Great Depression, our infrastructure will crumble, the recovery will stagnate, and our economy will be left behind.

The current conventional wisdom for many in the U.S. is that the less government is involved with the economy the better. But this is precisely the moment in history when more government is needed. Without government intervention, the recovery will continue to stagnate, the economy as a whole will remain off balance, and we won't be able to meet the challenges facing the country.

I have been proposing a different way of looking at an economy than the traditional, neoclassic one. In my view, each industry fits into a wider system, as say trees or deer or bears fit into a wider forest ecosystem. In the same way, goods manufacturing, machinery industries, service industries, infrastructure, and the myriad other parts of a functioning society -- including the health and education systems -- have to work properly in order for the economy as a whole to function, with manufacturing functioning as the central sector. All industries are co-evolving, dynamically growing, concentrated within discrete geographical regions. And it is the responsibility of government to help orchestrate this interaction, or else it can turn into an ugly riot.

But at the root of the neoclassical world view is the idea that the economic system is self-regulating, that is, if the economy is pushed off course by "external" forces, then it will become stable by itself -- without government interference. And yet we know that economies are constantly growing and changing -- that is, they are not stable -- and they are often under threat of recession and depression. That is why governments always have to be part of the solution. They are needed in order to support economic growth, maintain the right structure of the economy, and intervene when the economy goes bad.

FDR's presidency is the perfect example of this. When he became president, Herbert Hoover had just spent several years trying to reverse the Great Depression with market-based solutions, but FDR championed a set of governmental policies that turned the country around. To deal with unemployment, FDR established the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, which was not only designed to employ one fully able member of each household in which no one could find work, but also to build up the country's physical infrastructure. Building infrastructure is what governments do best. In fact, one could say that civilization started when the first governments constructed the irrigation and drainage systems that enabled agriculture to flourish. The United States, like every successful country, has a long and rich history of infrastructure building, without which the country would have very likely stayed poor. From canals like the Erie Canal before the Civil War, to the railroads after, from the dams that even conservative Republicans like Calvin Coolidge initiated, to the WPA that built libraries, schools, airports, roads, and other structures in virtually every town, to the Interstate Highway System championed by a Republican president, the United States has kept itself at the forefront of the global economy by making the building of transportation, energy, communications, water, education, and other systems the foundation of prosperity.

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Partly as a result of his interventions into the economy, FDR was able to lead the nation into World War II by fundamentally transforming the economy to produce military equipment. At its height, one third of the country's GDP was devoted to the war effort, with millions fighting overseas. That's five trillion dollars in today's economy. In other words, even assuming the continuation of a one trillion dollar military budget in the face of no wars of necessity, the economy has four trillion dollars left over to remake itself while providing for a comfortable standard of living for its inhabitants.

Instead of learning this lesson of history, however, our current political class seems determined to follow Herbert Hoover, not FDR. Meanwhile, the long-term domestic problems we face are worse than what FDR confronted. In the 1930s, the US was by far the leading manufacturing power and the top producer of oil; now the manufacturing sector is sinking fast, and not only do we import almost two-thirds of the crude oil we process, the global supply of oil is becoming harder to produce and is shrinking. In addition, we desperately need to eliminate the use of fossil fuels and transform agriculture and forest management in order to avoid the worst of global warming. The path forward is clear: we need an electric transportation system based on high-speed rail for long-distance travel, electric rail for freight, transit and small electric cars for intra-city movement, wind and solar power for electricity generation, recycling on a serious and massive scale, a densification of urban areas, and a more labor-intensive, localized, organic agricultural system. And these could provide the market for a revived manufacturing sector.

Only the government can build all of these systems in the time needed to both save the economy and save the environment. Incentives can go part of the way, but not fast or far enough. Taxing carbon or trading rights to carbon won't solve global warming or decrease the use of oil as quickly as we need them to; lowering taxes or reducing the deficit won't bring the manufacturing sector back. Government-as-builder does not mean government-as-warrior or government-as-Big-Brother. It is possible to have a strong government that is peaceful, democratic, and not beholden to our economic royalists, as we currently are. But maintaining democracy is never easy; the political system is no more a self-regulating system than is the economy. At least we can have a clear vision of where we are heading.

History doesn't care if the political conversation of the United States won't allow for talk about large-scale government intervention into the economy. The path to economic and ecological collapse is paved with "realistic" intentions. If the conservatives can be audacious enough to threaten policies that will further destroy the middle class and poor for the sake of the superwealthy, why can't progressives draw on a rich American history, from before FDR and after, to rebuild a once mighty nation and help the rest of the planet move toward a sustainable future?

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

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Ellen Chesler on Wal-Mart v. Dukes: "The Simple Answer is an Equal Rights Amendment"

Jun 24, 2011Bryce CovertEllen Chesler

ellen-chesler-150In the wake of this week's Wal-Mart ruling on the sex discrimination class action suit, Bryce Covert spoke to Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Ellen Chesler.

ellen-chesler-150In the wake of this week's Wal-Mart ruling on the sex discrimination class action suit, Bryce Covert spoke to Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Ellen Chesler. Chesler calls for constitutional protection of women's rights, explains why women's success is linked to economic growth, and remembers Eleanor Roosevelt's tireless work to bring human rights to all.

Bryce Covert: Why is this ruling considered by many to be so dangerous?

Ellen Chesler: Women and minorities who think they are underpaid will now find it nearly impossible to band together to sue their employers and claim punitive monetary damages. Class actions have been a significant vehicle to establish discrimination in employment and seek redress during the half-century since the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. But with this ruling, the Supreme Court is now saying that employees can sue collectively only if there is proof of an explicit company policy to discriminate. It's no longer enough to demonstrate a clear statistical pattern of women earning less and winning fewer promotions. This is outrageous. What company announces up front that it discriminates?

The court, of course, did leave the door open to individuals who can still try and vindicate their rights one by one. But without the economies of class actions, protection against discrimination is beyond the reach of most workers, who don't have the resources to sue one person at a time. Management is effectively left with little liability. It can do whatever it wants.

Moreover, the same five justices who prevailed in this decision ruled against Lilly Ledbetter several years ago when she brought an individual action claiming she had been paid less than men doing her same job over many years. That decision rested on a technicality -- that Ledbetter had not taken action within the time limits required for lawsuits under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. With Democrats controlling both houses of Congress in 2009, women's rights advocates then passed the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which simply extends the timeframe. President Obama signed the law as his first official act. But we don't have a comparable political situation now, which makes the Wal-Mart ruling even scarier.

Legislative remediation in this situation could be achieved through the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives in 2009 when Democrats were in control, but was then blocked by Republicans in the Senate. That measure puts more teeth into claims of pay discrimination from women by authorizing their right to demonstrate unfair practices through exactly the kinds of aggregate data that the majority has challenged in this ruling. But with Republicans now controlling the House there is no chance for this bill.

BC: What elements are missing in American law that would better ensure women's rights?

EC: The simple answer is an Equal Rights Amendment to our constitution. Ironically, we are the only major democratic country in the world that does not offer women a constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law.

Let's remember that the rights of women in the United States have essentially been cobbled together case by case, with no more than the due process clause of the 14th Amendment as an underlying constitutional principle. Even with respect to employment discrimination, women were an afterthought -- actually a kind of joke. We were added into the 1964 Civil Rights Act by a racist Southern member of Congress who thought he could kill the whole thing by specifically including women as a minority class. Ingenious young women lawyers then seized on that provision, among others, and built a vibrant body of jurisprudence to establish equal protection as a foundation for women's rights.

But sadly enough, it's a whole lot easier to unravel a body of law, no matter how clever it may be, when there are no deep constitutional principles framing it beyond due process. And one of the great ironies of history is that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was foremost among the pioneers of the women's rights revolution of the 1970s, is now being made to witness the evisceration of her work by her own colleagues on the court.

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Justice Ginsburg, of course, wrote the minority opinion in the Wal-Mart case, citing evidence that gender bias suffuses the company's culture -- that women make up more than 70% of the wage earners but only 33% of the management who have a free hand to make decisions about pay and promotions. She was joined in that opinion by the two other women on the court, Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, and by Stephen Breyer.

I also want to remind readers that international human rights conventions growing out of the landmark work of Eleanor Roosevelt also provide a binding legal framework to prevent sex discrimination. The landmark Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, commonly known as CEDAW, is quite a visionary document in terms of the obligations it places on countries to protect the civil, political, social, and economic rights of women. But another great irony of history is that the United States is not a party to this treaty. We're one of only four countries in the world that has never ratified it, which places us in the unlikely company of Iran, Sudan, and Yemen. CEDAW was passed by the United Nations in 1979 and signed by Jimmy Carter before he left office. But for years its been held up in the Senate by conservatives opposed to human rights and multilateral engagement as a general matter and to women's rights agreements of just about any stripe. The US Constitution requires a super-majority of 67 Senators to ratify a treaty, and that's been hard to achieve on just about any matter in recent years.

This also reminds me that the Paycheck Fairness Act, which closes some of the loopholes in the Equal Pay Act of 1963, is also part of Eleanor's legacy. The Equal Pay Act was the central piece of legislation recommended by the Kennedy Commission on the Status of Women, which Eleanor chaired until her death in 1962. Eleanor had for many years supported protective labor legislation for women, which took into account their primary obligations as mothers. But through the Kennedy Commission, she came to understand that this approach had created silos for women and closed off opportunity. This change in her thinking was also influenced by her work on global women's rights. It's an important piece of Roosevelt history.

BC: Beyond the individual women who lost in this case, what's the fallout for our country?

EC: Hillary Clinton's iconic status notwithstanding, the historic leadership of the United States in the global women's rights revolution is steadily being eroded.

In comparative gender equality rankings by the World Economic Forum, the United States today stands only 19th among the 144 countries surveyed. We're outranked predictably by the Scandinavian countries, by the UK, France, and Germany, but also by Canada, Australia, and even some of the small democracies of Eastern Europe. Obviously, American women are not disadvantaged in these comparative rankings just by wages, which remain low here for so many women, especially at the bottom of our wage scale. Also considered are measurements of public policies that support women and families, such as subsidized childcare and health care, paid family and medical leave, and flexible work arrangements, where the United States too often falls short.

Conservatives so often claim that women are not victims of discrimination in the workplace -- that they chose easier assignments and less demanding work in order to balance work and family. But this seems to me a rather feeble argument because the absence of family-friendly work policies for both men and women is itself a disadvantage that governments in modern industrial societies ought to redress.

BC: Women's rights have clearly become a hotly partisan issue. Was it always this way?

EC: Quite to the contrary, the Republican Party was actually the party that first supported an equal rights amendment for women. There's been a substantial partisan realignment on these issues. Who today would believe that Richard Nixon was a strong enforcer of affirmative action for women and other minorities?

Everything changed when Ronald Reagan's political handlers recognized that they could finally unravel the New Deal coalition by appealing to social conservatives who had traditionally voted with Democrats on pocketbook issues. They could be lured away because of their growing discomfort on matters like affirmative action and reproductive rights. Conservative Republicans are shamefully guilty of spreading the spurious claim that gains for women always come at the expense of men, when the truth is that expanding opportunity has exactly the opposite effect.

We now have concrete metrics from more than 100 countries around the world to demonstrate the direct correlation between improvements in women's status and overall well-being.

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FDR, Quantitative Easing Wonk, Used Every Tool in His Box to Jumpstart Recovery

Jun 22, 2011Mike Konczal

Rather than focusing on far off threats, FDR chose to combat high unemployment and sluggish growth with everything he had.

Rather than focusing on far off threats, FDR chose to combat high unemployment and sluggish growth with everything he had.

I’ve been reading this important David Beckworth post on the quantitative easing and monetary policy FDR implemented during the Great Depression. Beckworth argues that the first QE policy happened during this time and that it benefited from the fact that Roosevelt explicitly said he would do what it took to get to the pre-trend price-level target. Beckworth links to this Gauti Eggertsson paper that argues that when FDR took office, he signaled that they’d get the price-level back to pre-Depression trend by going off the gold standard, financing a Federal government through deficit spending, and explicitly stating target levels for prices, and this change in expectations from Hoover's administration did a lot of the work of recovery.

I wasn’t sure how serious to take this -- a president talking about price levels with the public? But sure enough, here’s the second Fireside Chat from May 7th 1933 (my bold):

Much has been said of late about Federal finances and inflation, the gold standard, etc. Let me make the facts very simple and my policy very clear. In the first place, Government credit and Government currency are really one and the same thing. Behind Government bonds there is only a promise to pay… [I]n the past the Government has agreed to redeem nearly thirty billions of its debts and its currency in gold, and private corporations in this country have agreed to redeem another sixty or seventy billions of securities and mortgages in gold… [They] knew full well that all of the gold in the United States amounted to only between three and four billions and that all of the gold in all of the world amounted to only about eleven billions.

If the holders of these promises to pay started in to demand gold the first comers would get gold for a few days and they would amount to about one-twenty-fifth of the holders of the securities and the currency… We have decided to treat all twenty-five in the same way in the interest of justice and the exercise of the constitutional powers of this Government. We have placed everyone on the same basis in order that the general good may be preserved.

The Administration has the definite objective of raising commodity prices to such an extent that those who have borrowed money will, on the average, be able to repay that money in the same kind of dollar which they borrowed. We do not seek to let them get such a cheap dollar that they will be able to pay back a great deal less than they borrowed. In other words, we seek to correct a wrong and not to create another wrong in the opposite direction. That is why powers are being given to the Administration to provide, if necessary, for an enlargement of credit, in order to correct the existing wrong. These powers will be used when, as, and if it may be necessary to accomplish the purpose.

I discussed most of the parts of that quote dealing with gold clauses here and here. FDR told rentiers who had put suicide-pact clauses in their contracts, which allowed them to collect more gold than existed in the world so as to allow private parties to profit while the country suffered and was in a deflationary spiral, that he was going to come at them like a spider monkey. Beyond establishing credibility and changing expectations, it makes me happy to see a president so actively go after broken, destructive contractual schemes that prevent the management of bad debts and threaten the general good. But there’s the bold quote, stating what the final goal of monetary policy was at the beginning of his administration.

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Economic and monetary policy commentators like Ryan Avent have noted that "the Fed chose a direction rather than a destination” when it comes to QE and monetary policy. If Avent wants to see a destination mentioned by a sitting president, he should check out FDR’s fourth fireside chat on October 22, 1933 (my bold):

Finally, I repeat what I have said on many occasions, that ever since last March the definite policy of the Government has been to restore commodity price levels. The object has been the attainment of such a level as will enable agriculture and industry once more to give work to the unemployed. It has been to make possible the payment of public and private debts more nearly at the price level at which they were incurred. It has been gradually to restore a balance in the price structure so that farmers may exchange their products for the products of industry on a fairer exchange basis. It has been and is also the purpose to prevent prices from rising beyond the point necessary to attain these ends. The permanent welfare and security of every class of our people ultimately depends on our attainment of these purposes…

Some people are putting the cart before the horse. They want a permanent revaluation of the dollar first. It is the Government’s policy to restore the price level first. I would not know, and no one else could tell, just what the permanent valuation of the dollar will be. To guess at a permanent gold valuation now would certainly require later changes caused by later facts.

When we have restored the price level, we shall seek to establish and maintain a dollar which will not change its purchasing and debt paying power during the succeeding generation. I said that in my message to the American delegation in London last July. And I say it now once more.

I have two takeaways:

1. Wouldn’t it be funny if in this fireside chat, years into a sub-trend growth and massive waste from high unemployment and unused capacity, Roosevelt said something like, “Someday, 25 years from now, Russia might be able to get a space dog into orbit before us. In order to Win the Future against this space dog, we should immediately forget everything going on right now in order to prepare for research competition with potential adversaries decades from now. We must immediately start planning for this battle right now, lest we lose the future, so let’s give a bunch of tax holidays and easily captured credit benefits to various rocket manufacturers and other incumbents.”? That would be crazy. But that's how the discussion is now framed by the current administration. Instead, FDR was really serious about using every pressure point and every lever to get monetary and fiscal policies going instead.

2. Obviously back then the Democratic coalition had a lot of farmers in it, people for whom “the price level” wasn’t a graph pulled from the St. Louis Fed to put on their blogs but a real thing that they dealt with daily. There is a chance that insomuch as hipsters are an influential Democratic coalition group, and hipsters begin to engage in urban farming, “the price level” might become more of a thing that Democrats are responsive to in order to meet the needs of urban hipster gardeners. Until then, it’s up to economic bloggers to carry this message.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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Progressives Can't Afford to Exclude the Working Class

Jun 21, 2011Frank L. Cocozzelli

workers-200Without explaining how the government can create prosperity for all, progressives risk playing into charges of elitism.

workers-200Without explaining how the government can create prosperity for all, progressives risk playing into charges of elitism.

Contemporary liberalism runs the risk of becoming isolated. But this threat does not solely come from the likes of Michele Bachmann or Glenn Beck. It also comes from some self-described liberals whose behavior feeds into the right's caricature of who we are. We risk becoming a group that restricts membership to a certain kind of liberal, one that is educated, not merely nonreligious but anti-religious, and one that is simultaneously smug and self-righteous.

One of the dark risks in an open society is the ascendancy of the enemy/friend dichotomy: one helps only those seen as having similar goals, customs, and beliefs and opposes those who don't. Just observe the poisoning of American political discourse over the past few decades. Discussion and engagement have given way to rants and demonization. In his September 2, 2009 edition of The Daily Howler, Bob Somerby identified a good example of how the right uses this to its advantage -- and how liberals enable its use:

It's simple-minded - but it works. On our side, we stand in line to help. For decades, almost all conservative spin has derived from two simple messages. When you get to work with such clear messaging, being a conservative pundit is the easiest job in the world:

Big government never did anything right. Liberal elites think they're better than you are.

Almost all Republican spin derives from those two messages. The conservative movement has been actively pushing those messages at least since the time of Nixon. No matter what happens in the real world, the conservative pundit simply dreams up a response which derives from one of those notions.

What was Somerby talking about? With regard to the charge of elitism, part of the answer could be found in a Washington Post column by conservative commentator George Will. Writing in April 2008 shortly after then-candidate Obama's comment about working-class voters who “cling” to God and guns, Will noted:

What had been under FDR a celebration of America and the values of its working people has become a doctrine of condescension toward those people and the supposedly coarse and vulgar country that pleases them.

When a supporter told Adlai Stevenson, the losing Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956, that thinking people supported him, Stevenson said, "Yes, but I need to win a majority." When another supporter told Stevenson, "You educated the people through your campaign," Stevenson replied, "But a lot of people flunked the course."

Does President Obama despise working-class folks? Of course not. His economic policies, though far from sufficient from a Keynesian standpoint, are more beneficial to these very folks than anything put forth by today's movement conservatism.

But his comments on guns and faith clearly display something of a disconnect that, three years later, still exists with many of our liberal talkers. Public faces of progressivism Ed Shultz, Rachel Maddow, and Bill Maher would rather play in the mud, demonizing the other side, than explain how contemporary liberalism is the best means available to create a prosperous capitalist economy for all, including those in the working-class.

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Instead of broadening the liberal base, the aforementioned public faces of the left act as though our philosophy were a restricted community. Too many of us howl with delight when Bill Maher derides poor working people as “one-toothers” or those who believe in God as delusional. During any give broadcast of Real Time, the host's constant drumbeat of proclaiming "American dumbness" is ever-present. If anything, he risks turning himself into the poster boy for what movement conservatism says is wrong with liberals. Would FDR, Harry Truman, or Robert F. Kennedy have engaged in such self-defeating, elitist behavior?

What these public figures could be doing instead is rebutting the conservative mantra that Reagan's tax cuts drastically increased revenue (they didn't). Better yet, how about pulling the rug out from under the GOP myth that big government doesn't do anything right? Projects put forth by economic liberals have led to generations of local wealth creation, such as the TVA or the Lower Colorado River Authority. They brought electrical power -- and production -- to whole sections of the South, areas “the invisible hand” of laissez-faire didn't want to touch. More importantly, such a discussion would be a very powerful tool in explaining how an activist government does indeed create private sector jobs.

Maddow and Shultz could take a cue from Thom Hartmann and use their programs to explain how administrations that based their domestic policies upon Keynesian economics were also examples of “big government” getting things very right. (In fairness, Maher does this with Real Time.) For the 30 years after World War II, an activist government ensured increased wealth for a greater number of citizens in a manner far more disciplined than those based upon laissez-faire dogma. Instead, Maddow wasted precious airtime on a June 15 segment with Samuel L. Jackson narrating "Go the F**k to Sleep," a bedtime story for adults.

Such silliness is an ongoing wasted opportunity; it is snarky entertainment that plays to a crowd of cynics instead of engaging those beyond the base. More than that, it is smart alec behavior that can cause some independent folks to feel empathy for liberalism's adversaries.

“When men are once enlisted on opposite sides," Enlightenment thinker David Hume observed, "they contract an affection to the persons with whom they are united, and an animosity against their antagonists: And these passions they often transmit to their posterity." Movement conservatism has taken Hume's observation and honed it into a potent weapon, all while some self-described liberals insist on telling the world how clever they are.

Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh can shape the public perception of liberals because we too often choose to disassociate ourselves from blue-collar folks. Whether it be the public or private faces of liberalism, we constantly fail to refute the myth that “government doesn't work.” That, too, illustrates the “liberal elites think they're better than you are” meme Somerby warned us about. The right's talking heads know full well that it is easier to hate a stranger and his ideas than the beliefs of a real-life friend. And to that end, when we segregate ourselves from the very folks contemporary liberalism was intended to help, we make it easier for movement conservatives to beat them down a bit more. It tends to make those who empathize with some, but not all of the of the political right defensive and protective of their own, creating greater identity with "whom they are united." Ranks close and camps become further polarized. Then we all retreat into our restricted communities and the discourse sinks deeper into the mud. And that plays right into the right's hands.

It doesn't have to be this way. One of my favorite photographs is of FDR shaking hands with a soot-covered coal miner during the 1932 Presidential campaign. That photograph of the patrician politician locking grips with a hard-bitten but proud everyday man speaks of common dreams. And it reminds us that contemporary liberalism should never be an exclusive club for the well-educated. As FDR knew, it should be a true pathway to mutual prosperity, one that is equitable and inclusive for all Americans.

Frank L. Cocozzelli writes a weekly column on Roman Catholic neoconservatism at Talk2Action.org and is contributor to Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America. A director of the Institute for Progressive Christianity, he is working on a book on American liberalism.

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