Bold, Persistent Experimentation vs. Bold Persistence

May 6, 2011Robert McElvaine

fdr-profile-serious-150FDR knew that even when an idea failed, he had to keep trying.  Republicans think that if they keep trying the same thing, they can't fail.

fdr-profile-serious-150FDR knew that even when an idea failed, he had to keep trying.  Republicans think that if they keep trying the same thing, they can't fail.

It would be difficult to imagine a better illustration of the stark difference between the political and ideological aftermaths of the economic collapses of 1929 and 2008 than the statement made on Thursday, the eve of the anniversary of the inauguration of the WPA in 1935, by House Speak John Boehner.

“Nothing is off the table except raising taxes,” Mr. Boehner declared when addressing negotiations on raising the debt ceiling. “I believe that raising taxes will hurt our economy and hurt job creation in our country.”

What we are seeing yet again is a clash between faith-based economics and fact-based economics.

Mr. Boehner and most of his fellow Republicans are people of faith. Their faith, though, is not in God, but in the Market. Their devil is the government. They know the Truth, and facts and evidence will not shake their faith.

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The same difference between policy based on faith and on facts was the greatest one between Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The former was an ideologue, the latter a pragmatist. In 1932, FDR exemplified the fact-based approach when he famously called for “bold, persistent experimentation” and said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” For his part, Mr. Hoover, like most people in his party today, was oblivious to evidence. His position (and, far more, that of today’s full-blown believers in the Market God) was: Take the Method (as they see it, there is only one) and try it. If it fails, deny its failure and try it again -- and again . . . and again . . . . But, above all, keep trying the same thing.

Low taxes on the rich, little government regulation, and concentration of wealth and income at the very top led to the Great Depression. When they were reinstated during the administration of George W. Bush, those policies produced the Great Recession. In between, when President Bill Clinton proposed a modest increase in the top marginal tax rate as part of his 1993 budget proposal, “conservative” economists predicted disaster and, basing their positions on received dogma, every Republican in Congress voted against the Clinton budget plan. It was followed by a period of sustained prosperity and a budget surplus.

Those facts make no impression on ideologues of the right. Nor does the fact that such government programs as the WPA substantially mitigated the ill effects of the Depression for millions of its victims and that similar programs would do the same today.

The difference boils down to this: Bold, persistent experimentation versus bold persistence.

Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters and Professor of History at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi and the author of ten books, including The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941.

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The WPA that Built America is Needed Once Again

May 6, 2011David B. Woolner

Begun 76 years ago today, the WPA brought America into the modern age. Our times call for a repeat of this effort.

Begun 76 years ago today, the WPA brought America into the modern age. Our times call for a repeat of this effort.

More than three quarters of a century ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that the "demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally it is the greatest menace to our social order." He also insisted that he would "stand or fall" by his "refusal to accept as a necessary condition of our future a permanent army of unemployed." On the contrary, he said, "we must make it a national principle that we will not tolerate a large army of unemployed and that we will arrange our national economy to end our present unemployment as soon as we can and then take wise measures against its return. I do not think it is the destiny of any American to remain permanently on relief rolls."

To put people back to work, FDR launched a series of programs designed to protect America's environment (through the CCC reforestation programs and creation of the shelter belt in the Midwest to bring an end to the Dust Bowl) and build America's economic infrastructure. The most famous of these was launched seventy-six years ago today: the Works Progress Administration or WPA. Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA literally built the infrastructure of modern America, including 572,000 miles of rural roads, 67,000 miles of urban streets, 122,000 bridges, 1,000 tunnels, 1,050 fifty airfields, and 4,000 airport buildings. It also constructed 500 water treatment plants, 1,800 pumping stations, 19,700 miles of water mains, 1,500 sewage treatment plants, 24,000 miles of sewers and storm drains, 36,900 schools, 2,552 hospitals, 2,700 firehouses, and nearly 20,000 county, state, and local government buildings.

Conservatives critics charged that the WPA was a "make work" program, but its accomplishments, which touched nearly every community in America, continue to make a mockery of this charge. The WPA put millions of skilled and unskilled laborers back to work -- it was a requirement of the program that all those involved in the projects, from the architects and engineers down to the construction laborers, be hired by WPA dollars. It provided the critical economic infrastructure needed to bring the United States into the modern age.

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Sadly, many of the conditions that led to the creation of the WPA are once again with us today: high unemployment and a crumbling economic infrastructure that is rapidly rendering the United States less and less competitive in the global economy. This sorry state of affairs is detailed in a recent article in The Economist, which notes, among other things, that the United States' public spending on transport and water infrastructure has fallen steadily since the 1960s and now stands at a paltry 2.4% of GDP. Meanwhile, Europe spends on average 5% of GDP on infrastructure and China is spending 9%. In fact, the United States, according to the article, does not spend nearly enough just to maintain, let alone expand, its existing transport and water systems. The result is that today the US ranks 23rd among the nations of the world in overall infrastructure quality, according to a recent study by the World Economic Forum.

A new and even modest stimulus package would help alleviate this critical problem and provide millions of skilled and unskilled jobs, but the deficit hawks in Congress will have none of this. They insist that such a use of government is contrary to the American way.

To this, FDR's would no doubt reply:

[T]o those who say that our expenditures for Public Works and other means for recovery are a waste that we cannot afford, I answer that no country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources...

In our efforts for recovery we have avoided on the one hand the theory that business should and must be taken over into an all-embracing Government. We have avoided on the other hand the equally untenable theory that it is an interference with liberty to offer reasonable help when private enterprise is in need of help. The course we have followed fits the American practice of Government -- a practice of taking action step by step, of regulating only to meet concrete needs -- a practice of courageous recognition of change. I believe with Abraham Lincoln, that "The legitimate object of Government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all or cannot do so well for themselves in their separate and individual capacities."

Isn't it time we rebuilt our nation and put people back to work? Time for a new WPA?

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

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Time for an End to the “War on Terror”

May 5, 2011David B. Woolner

FDR laid out the Four Freedoms and took the moral high ground against Hitler's aggression. Obama should follow suit and work to win hearts and minds.

FDR laid out the Four Freedoms and took the moral high ground against Hitler's aggression. Obama should follow suit and work to win hearts and minds.

In a prescient article written a few months following the September 11 attacks, noted British military historian Michael Howard argued that the Bush Administration's decision to label our struggle with Al Qaeda the "war on terror" may have been a mistake. Howard takes issue with the use of the term "war" in part out of his conviction that its use elevates the status of the terrorists who should be seen not as military opponents, but rather as international criminals. He writes that they are no better than murderous drug traffickers who should be ruthlessly pursued with all the tools at our disposal, including the use of the criminal justice system. This is not to say that the military should be excluded from our struggle against Al-Qaeda and related organizations. On the contrary, in some parts of the world, as evidenced by the recent killing of Osama bin Laden, they must remain a vital component of this effort. But as we have known for some time, it is impracticable and unfair to expect our armed forces to "win" a "war" against such an amorphous enemy, and doing so creates unrealistic expectations. Our struggle against terrorism will not end in a spectacular battle. It will take years of plodding effort, and as we know from hard experience, it may never end completely.

In light of this, and in light of the fact that we have finally brought the mastermind of the September 11 attacks to justice, a growing chorus is calling on President Obama to bring the "war on terror" to an end. To a certain extent, the President has already done so. He rarely uses the phrase "war on terror." In his first few months in office, he took care to differentiate himself from his predecessor by stressing his desire to close the base Guantanamo, bring an end to combat operations in Iraq, and shift his administration's emphasis back to the conflict in Afghanistan. But his decision to keep Guantanamo open and dramatically increase the number of US combat forces in Afghanistan has led some of his critics to charge that American foreign policy has changed little under his tenure. The President, in short, may not refer to the "war on terror" all that often, but his policies in South Asia and elsewhere remain highly militaristic and in many respects it continues in all but name.

This is unfortunate, for as Howard notes, using military force as the lead instrument in the struggle against terrorism is fraught with risks and often plays into the terrorists' hands. Why? Because the potential loss of innocent life in the use of overt force against the terrorists often renders greater support among the local population for the terrorists as opposed to the military units aligned against them. As such, military action can be counter-productive, as terrorists can successfully be destroyed "only if public opinion... supports the authorities in regarding them as criminals rather than heroes." Moreover, in the last analysis, as Howard points out, the struggle against terrorism is fundamentally a battle for hearts and minds. If we wish to isolate the terrorists and hence greatly reduce their potential to carry out attacks, then perhaps it is time for a shift in emphasis -- both rhetorical and actual -- from the use of military force to a much greater use of existing national and international criminal justice agencies, backed where necessary by the traditional military and intelligence services.

In the long-run, then, our goal must be to win the battle for hearts and minds. Seventy years ago, when the United States faced a much more formidable enemy, FDR came to the same conclusion. In January 1941, he responded to Adolf Hitler's declaration that he had established "a new order in Europe" by articulating a different set of guiding principles to shape the allied war effort and inspire the rest of the world to join in the struggle. As opposed to Hitler's "new order," Roosevelt said, we proposed a "moral order" based on four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. FDR may not have succeeded in bringing the benefits of the Four Freedoms to every corner of the globe, but his articulation of these simple yet eloquent values made the distinction between fascism and democracy as powerful as any weapon, inspiring a generation to struggle on for years in the face of a monstrous evil.

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De-militarizing our struggle with terrorism also makes a good deal of sense in light of other recent events in the Middle East, where the Arab Spring is rapidly ushering in a new generation of potential leaders committed to a more open and democratic system of government. For too many Arabs, the United States is still viewed as an aggressor state, more interested in protecting American interests than promoting democratic reform. By ending the war on terror, branding terrorists as international criminals (as opposed to political/military actors), and shifting our efforts to the criminal justice system, we send a powerful message not only to the people of the Middle East, but to other potentially dangerous regions of the world. We show that the United States remains committed above all else to the rule of law. Indeed, sending out this message at this critical juncture in the history of the Middle East may prove as powerful a weapon in our struggle against terrorism as the massive array of military force we have assembled in the region.

President Obama has made some serious steps in this direction through his somewhat halting support for the pro-democracy movements in Egypt and Tunisia and in his decision to protect the Libyan people from the savagery on Muammar Gaddafi. He also made the right decision two years ago when he publicly disavowed the use of torture and in his recent decision not to release the photos of the deceased Osama bin Laden on both security and moral grounds. But if we wish to draw a sharp distinction between the values the United States and its allies aspire to and the hatred, bigotry, and fear that stands at the heart of Al-Qaeda's terrorist network, then we need to do more. We should bring the "war on terror" to an end, wind down our involvement in Afghanistan, and place a greater focus on bringing international terrorists to justice. If President Obama will take this opportunity to signal that our foremost goal in the struggle against terrorism is to render justice and uphold the rule of law -- as opposed to engaging in a "war" against an extremist ideology -- he will strengthen our hand, make it easier for states such as Pakistan to join in the effort, and do much to marginalize the terrorists within their own communities.

With the death of Osama bin Laden, it is time for a new approach in our struggle against terrorism. It is time for us -- as it was for FDR in 1941 -- to regain the moral high ground. We must shift our emphasis from the instruments of war to the instruments of justice and treat the terrorists not as belligerents, but as criminals, whose disrespect for the rule of law and basic human rights will ultimately be defeated. Not on the battlefield, but through the exercise of justice.

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

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The Rise and Fall of Our Economic Royalists?

May 2, 2011Jon Rynn

fat-cat-150Today's "robber barons" use race as a distraction from real economic problems.

fat-cat-150Today's "robber barons" use race as a distraction from real economic problems.

In a recent column in the NYTimes, Charles Blow sounds like he has taken a page from FDR’s famous “economic royalist” speech. Talking about what he calls “the right’s flimsy fiscal argument," Blow claims that:

It all loses traction as more Americans begin to see the far right for what it truly is: a gang of bandits willing to sacrifice the poor and working classes to further extend the American aristocracy -- shadowy figures who creep through the night, shaking every sock for every nickel and scraping their silver spoons across the bottom of every pot.

At another low point in American economic history, during the 1936 Democratic National Convention, FDR decried the domination of a small economic elite:

For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital -- all undreamed of by the fathers -- the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service…

It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property…

For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor, other people's lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.

There is one big political difference between the world that Roosevelt faced and the one we are witnessing: the South has switched from being constrained by a bigger, and more progressive, Democratic Party, as it was in FDR’s day, to our situation now, in which the Southern conservatives are the dominant force in a Republican Party purged of its more moderate elements. The new economic royalists use this conservative base to pursue their agenda.

The American political party system has always been affected by the conservative political culture of the South. As we acknowledge the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, focus of a fascinating series in the NYTimes, it is useful to recall that what the South was attempting to establish when it seceded to form the confederacy was a state based on racism and the establishment of a permanent economic elite. The NYTimes series puts to rest any lingering doubt that the South was fighting for anything different. In a speech of March 12, 1861, the Vice President of the Confederacy, after describing Thomas Jefferson’s ideas concerning the evil of slavery, declared:

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that Slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.

Unfortunately, after this “republic” had been eliminated, there was no general land reform -- as occurred in a very beneficial way for the development of South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan after World War II -- and so the same political culture that had flourished before the Civil War remained, bruised but intact.

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Meanwhile, the Republican Party, which had been founded to stop the expansion of slavery outside of the South, had won the Civil War, and so the newly emerging industrial captains -- robber barons, as they were called, turning eventually into the economic royalists of FDR’s speech -- allied with the Republican Party, which eventually became the dominant political party of the economic elite. In a very peculiar turn of events, the party of the cities, the Democratic Party, also remained the party of the Southern “royalists." Thus the “middle party," the Republicans, were flanked to their right by the Southern wing of the Democratic Party and to their left by the Democrat’s Northern wing.

After World War II, the Republicans created their own far-right wing in the form of McCarthyism and anti-Communism. At the same time, the combination of the two contradictory wings in the Democratic Party became unsustainable, particularly since the Civil War was finally ended by the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights acts of the middle 1960s. Lyndon B. Johnson thought that this would lose the South for the Democrats -- and the Republicans complied by pursuing a “Southern Strategy” to capture it. But this may eventually lead to the Republican’s undoing if Charles Blow is correct that the “flimsy” arguments of the current incarnation of the Republican Party could be their self-destruction.

This progressive outcome may be the result of generational change, combined with overreaching against programs for seniors. The major theme of Blow’s piece was not simply the rapaciousness of our new economic royalty, but that race in America has been used to distract much of the white electorate from real issues of power and wealth. Exhibit A is the Trumped-up “debate” about Obama’s birth certificate (pun intended). It may be that younger Americans, less permeated with racist ideas, will reject these distractions. In addition, by alienating seniors, many of whom may have retained some old-time racist attitudes, the Republicans may have, thankfully, lost some of the advantages of their implicitly racist arguments.

According to my calculations, the 112th Congress has 94 Republicans in the House from the South out of 242 total Republicans in the House, and there are 16 Southern Senators out of 47 Republicans. This means that instead of being a large minority within a majority liberal party, the Southern conservatives are a large minority, indeed the backbone, of the conservative party -- and this pulls the entire Republican Party far to the right. It can no longer even hold on to its moderates.

Since, as Charles Blow points out, a rather large majority of the American public is center and center-left, and certainly not far right, then the far right is “losing traction," in Blow’s words. There are several implications:

First, the progressive potential of the Voting Rights Act, and of an undercurrent of progressive politics that has existed in the South since at least the Populist movement, must be encouraged, so that the conservative political culture of the South is challenged.

Second, probably the best way to expunge the last traces of the old extremist Southern political culture is to put forward a political agenda that can excite and unify progressive forces -- for example, by advocating a jobs-centered program.

Third, we need to understand that race has always been used to divide Americans, and that now is the time to unite them around the job of rebuilding the country.

Finally, by pursuing these goals, we can create a political culture and program that will cut the base of support for the economic royalists, both inside and outside of the South.

We should bear in mind Roosevelt’s words from 1936:

Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference. There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.

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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Mark Schmitt Discusses: Did Obama Save Capitalism?

Apr 29, 2011

In a Bloggingheads video excerpted by the New York Times, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Mark Schmitt tackles an important question with James Pinkerton of Fox News: Did Obama save capitalism? Mark's simple answer is yes, "and everybody ought to just bow down about that, particularly people on Wall Street." But perhaps it wasn't quite the same thing as what FDR did after the Great Depression. "It's not like you have an alternative waiting in the wings," i.e. socialism or fascism, "which to a greater degree there was during the time of FDR," he says.

In a Bloggingheads video excerpted by the New York Times, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Mark Schmitt tackles an important question with James Pinkerton of Fox News: Did Obama save capitalism? Mark's simple answer is yes, "and everybody ought to just bow down about that, particularly people on Wall Street." But perhaps it wasn't quite the same thing as what FDR did after the Great Depression. "It's not like you have an alternative waiting in the wings," i.e. socialism or fascism, "which to a greater degree there was during the time of FDR," he says.

More specifically, Obama "saved the financial sector and he saved the auto sector," Mark points out, and our economy doesn't have much left if you let those two collapse. But the White House hasn't done everything right -- "the range of people they're listening to and the ways they're thinking about the economy should be broader," he notes. There are some problems that are out of their hands to some extent, like outsourcing and globalization. But "unless you have a way to explain to people what they're going through and how it can change and how we can get back to having more of a middle class country... then I think you've got a very tough political problem as you move into a more prosperous period," Mark concludes.

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Watch the full Bloggingheads episode below, covering topics such as Obama's Trumanesque election strategy, the GOP field, and the similarities between ObamaCare and RyanCare:

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Loss of High-speed Rail Funding is a Loss for America

Apr 25, 2011David B. Woolner

We're on the wrong track of forgetting our history of putting people to work building the infrastructure we need.

In the recent battle between the White House and Congress over the 2011 budget, one of the major casualties was high-speed rail. This is another sad indication of the lack of vision emanating from Washington. Not only will this cost thousands of good paying and highly skilled jobs, it also represents another step back in the need for the United States to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce our energy consumption.

We're on the wrong track of forgetting our history of putting people to work building the infrastructure we need.

In the recent battle between the White House and Congress over the 2011 budget, one of the major casualties was high-speed rail. This is another sad indication of the lack of vision emanating from Washington. Not only will this cost thousands of good paying and highly skilled jobs, it also represents another step back in the need for the United States to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce our energy consumption.

High-speed rail has also been in the news of late because of Florida Governor Rick Scott's decision to turn down funds that were already appropriated to build the first line between Tampa and Orlando. Taking his cue from the deficit hawks and proponents of limited government, Governor Scot claimed the plan would be too costly for Florida's state government -- a claim that has been disputed by a number of economists -- and rejected the federal dollars, in spite of the strong support from a significant portion of Florida's business community. Similar rejections of federal dollars for rail projects have come from the newly elected republican Governors of Wisconsin and Ohio, who together have turned away over $1.2 billion in federals funding for improvements in the nation's rail system, including a high-speed line between Madison and Milwaukee.

All three governors have cited economic reasons for their refusal to accept these funds, but as Stephen Harrod, Assistant Professor of Operations Management at Dayton University notes, the real reasons more likely stem from a deep-seated ideological and cultural bias against the very idea of high-speed rail among the American right. In a recent article on the subject, Professor Harrod observes that much of the conservative opposition to high-speed rail can be linked to the widespread and erroneous notion that the construction of such a system would lead the United States into "European socialism." As such, one of the rallying cries of Tea Party advocates is "Stop the Train." These same individuals are uncomfortable with the urban nature of rail travel, and because the establishment of a rail system requires a good deal of centralized planning it must, by its very nature, be "socialistic."

These arguments ignore the fact that the vast majority of European rail companies operate on a commercial basis. They also ignore the enormous contribution the federal government has made and continues to make in the construction of our nation's highways, best exemplified by the creation of the Interstate Highway System under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Not to mention federal support for the nation's air travel and the all important but long forgotten federal subsidies for the construction of the much celebrated transcontinental railroad in the nineteenth century.

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In light of this, Professor Harrod says the tax-saving arguments used by Governor Scott and others ring hollow, as each of these governors is perfectly happy to accept federal dollars in support of their state's highway system. Hence, they are not opposed to government funding of transportation, they are opposed to government funding of rail transportation.

The popular view, of course, is that our nation's highways, including the vast network of rural roads, are paid for by fuel taxes equally shared by all. But as Professor Harrod points out, the vast majority of revenue collected from fuel taxes comes from the urban population, which means that most rural roads in America, which are often built as a spur to local economic development, are in effect subsidized by the federal government.

In FDR's day, similar arguments were used to try to bring an end to such programs as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which used federal funds issued to localities to employ millions of Americans in a massive effort to build the nation's economic infrastructure. Critics charged that the WPA was simply engaged in a massive "make work" effort and many conservatives regarded it as major step towards socialism. This perception -- though wildly inaccurate -- remains with us to this day. The goal of the WPA was to get people off relief and into productive employment, not only to provide them with the income needed to help support their families, but also to maintain the skills of the nation's workforce and invest in the future expansion of the economy. As such, each project was carefully screened to ensure all facets of the labor needed to complete the work, from the design and engineering work down to the actual construction, came from the ranks of the unemployed. Moreover, many of the improvements made by the WPA -- including over 570,000 miles of rural roads, roughly 100,000 bridges, tens of thousands of schools, and hundreds of airports -- are with us still.

Thanks to this deep-seated bias against the culture of rail travel and the centralized planning required for the construction of an efficient high-speed rail system, the United States has once again fallen behind our European and Asian counterparts. Worse still, we risk losing the opportunity to employ the thousands of engineers, architects, machinists and other highly skilled workers required to build such a system. Most Americans still operate under the erroneous assumption that such federal programs as the New Deal's WPA or Interstate Highway System only involved the employment of low skilled and poorly paid labor. In doing so, we have turned away from our own legacy and have chosen to forget that the construction of our nation's economic infrastructure did not just happen by accident. It took planning, vision, a highly skilled work force, and a good deal of federal support.

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

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Showing Some FDR Pride

Apr 22, 2011

It turns out we're not the only ones who consider ourselves FDR's biggest fans. A car parked near NYU in New York City was recently spotted sporting this homage:

fdr-car

It turns out we're not the only ones who consider ourselves FDR's biggest fans. A car parked near NYU in New York City was recently spotted sporting this homage:

fdr-car

Guess we'll have to step up our game. FDR tattoos anyone?

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On Anniversary of FDR's Death, Remembering Leadership that Faced Down Economic Tyranny

Apr 12, 2011David B. Woolner

On this day one of the most visionary presidents in US history passed away while in office. Roosevelt historian David Woolner honors his legacy, and the legacy of the millions of Americans who grieved at his passing.

On this day one of the most visionary presidents in US history passed away while in office. Roosevelt historian David Woolner honors his legacy, and the legacy of the millions of Americans who grieved at his passing.

In his inaugural address on the 4th of March, 1933, Franklin Roosevelt -- who passed away 66 years ago today -- chastised the forces of wealth and power who, through their greed and avarice, led the United States into the greatest economic crisis of our history, the Great Depression. "Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership," he said, "they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish."

Over the next twelve years FDR would articulate a vision for America that was based on the notion that every American deserved not just political rights, but the right to a measure of social and economic security. It was a theme that he returned to again and again, a theme that led to the banking and financial reforms that gave us the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Securities and Exchange Commission and which gave us such landmark pieces of legislation as the Social Security Act, the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The onset of the Second World War and a conservative backlash against the New Deal in the late 1930s limited FDR's ability to push through further reform legislation during the course of his unprecedented third and forth terms. But his belief in the link between political and economic freedom intensified, and it was during the war that his articulation of his vision for America and the world reached its greatest height. It was in January 1941, for example, that FDR expressed his view that the great sacrifices the democracies were making in their struggle against fascism were necessary so that humanity could one day establish a world based on "four fundamental human freedoms": freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. FDR reiterated much of this when he joined Winston Churchill in drafting the Atlantic Charter later that year. He backed up his call for a greater measure of global economic security through his support for the creation of such post-war institutions as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (which later became the World Bank).

Indeed, near the end of his life, the experiences of depression and war had convinced FDR that "true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence" as "necessitous men are not free men," but the stuff with which "dictatorships are made." Moreover, FDR became convinced that in a complex, modern industrial economy, providing such basic economic security is much more than a mere aspiration. It is a necessity, a right, which can and must be protected. Having reached the conclusion that in our own day "these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident," the President went on to make one of the most important -- and least known -- speeches of his career when he called for the establishment of "a Second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all [Americans] -- regardless of station, race, or creed."

With tremendous prescience, President Roosevelt then listed what he considered to be these essential rights, among which were included: the right to a useful and remunerative job; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food, clothing, and recreation; the right of every businessman to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies; the right to a decent home, adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment; and the right to a good education.

As Cass Sunstein has observed in his book "The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need it More than Ever", the Second Bill of Rights sought to protect both opportunity and security and to complete the unfulfilled promise of the American revolution, by making sure -- in an era of fascism -- that every American could enjoy the benefits of liberal, capitalist democracy. At the base of FDR's vision stood his faith in government as an active instrument of social and economic justice; government that was dedicated not to special interests, but to the common good.

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In a world dominated by free-market fundamentalists, the notion of government as an instrument of economic revival and social improvement has almost disappeared from the public consciousness. Yet the problems that FDR sought to address remain with us still -- and in recent years have gotten worse. Today, for example, roughly twenty percent of American children live in poverty, the highest rate among any industrialized nation. We still have approximately 13.5 million people officially unemployed and the unofficial rate is estimated to be much higher. With the new health care reform bill there is some hope that the millions of Americans without health insurance will be covered in the future, but given the current political and legal challenges, this is by no means certain. In the meantime, the costs associated with a higher education continue to climb, as does student debt, which for the first time in American history topped a trillion dollars and now exceeds nation-wide credit card debt.

In Roosevelt's day, GIs returning from fighting overseas could look forward to going to college on the GI Bill (often referred to as "the GI Bill of Rights"), which also provided an array of housing, medical and other benefits. Thanks to the foresightedness of this legislation -- which was the first tangible consequence of FDR's Second Bill of Rights speech -- millions of young men attended college for the first time. In doing so, they not only improved their own lives, they also changed the face of America and drastically improved the productivity of the post-war workforce. All this thanks to a government program designed and dedicated to making higher education affordable for millions of middle and lower-income Americans.

Engaging in serious structural reform and fashioning programs that provide both security and economic opportunity for millions of Americans takes money, vision and leadership. As we struggle past one budget crisis and stumble our way toward the next, it appears that we lack all three of these key ingredients -- and millions continue to suffer because of it. Worse still, a new generation of "self seekers" has once again lured the American public to follow their false leadership, buying into the specious notion that the Great Recession was caused not by reckless bankers and hedge fund managers but by too much government spending. They claim that cutting government expenditures in an economic downturn will lead to more jobs and that the best way to ensure the long-term health of the economy is to shrink government, strip unions of their collective bargaining rights and make the tax cuts on the rich permanent.

Over six decades ago, in the face of a far greater economic crisis, FDR rose the occasion by convincing millions of Americans to follow his vision and to support the transformation of American society through the establishment of the New Deal. Looking back on the causes of the Great Depression, which are remarkably similar to those that cause our current economic crisis, FDR once observed that for too many Americans,

...the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor -- other people's lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.

Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people's mandate to end it.

If we are going to reclaim our mandate to end economic domination by the rich and put our nation back on the path to equality, we are going to need much more than endless calls for tax cuts and an end to government intervention in the economy. We are going to need leaders strong enough to take on the forces of wealth and greed; leaders who will not merely trumpet their ability to cut government spending in a recession, but instead defend the right of government to act directly and decisively to put people to work; leaders dedicated to bringing an end to the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth that has robbed Americans of the purchasing power they need to restore the health of the economy and achieve the same standard of living as their parents. In short, we are going to need leaders with vision, for as FDR said all those years ago, "when there is no vision, the people perish."

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

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Corey Robin Calls on Progressives to Reclaim Freedom

Apr 8, 2011

Roosevelt Institute Visiting Fellow Corey Robin articulated a plan for progressives to conquer politics in The Nation that falls exactly in line with the goals and work of the Roosevelt Institute and us here at ND20. Taking a page from FDR himself, Robin calls on progressives to talk about the state not as an equalizer, but as an enabler, and to view the enemy not as the Republican party, but as businessmen who subject American workers to their whims.

Roosevelt Institute Visiting Fellow Corey Robin articulated a plan for progressives to conquer politics in The Nation that falls exactly in line with the goals and work of the Roosevelt Institute and us here at ND20. Taking a page from FDR himself, Robin calls on progressives to talk about the state not as an equalizer, but as an enabler, and to view the enemy not as the Republican party, but as businessmen who subject American workers to their whims. After all, he notes, in FDR's 1936 acceptance speech at the DNC, "he was careful to take aim not simply at the rich but at 'economic royalists,' lordly men who take 'into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor -- other people’s lives.'"

The problem is that Republicans claim freedom equals free markets, and rather than confront the allure of this idea, liberals have "tried to co-opt the discourse of traditional values." And the results of this are clear: "When right-wing ideas dominate, we get right-wing policies," he notes. It's time to get on the offense about what we stand for and how progressivism not only helps but empowers the average American.

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Robin posits questions to the reader: "First, how do we formulate this argument in an age when capitalism goes unquestioned?... Second, and perhaps more important, can we formulate this argument at all?" ND20 and the Roosevelt Institute will answer him with a resounding yes through the people and ideas that question unbridled markets and empower Americans.

Take some time to read the full article: "Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom".

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The Tragedy of Defensive Politics

Apr 8, 2011Jeff Madrick

The challenges the Obama presidency has faced are an opportunity to get mad, not to compromise.

The challenges the Obama presidency has faced are an opportunity to get mad, not to compromise.

A New York Times story today is titled, "On Budget Dispute, Obama Casts Himself as Mediator in Chief." To me this is chilling, if obvious. He has long been the mediator, as if he were a Sunday morning talk show host. The attitude that he must always appear calm, always work toward compromise and avoid at all costs appearing to be a rabble-rouser, is now taking an enormous toll.

Like today's media, he gives equal time to the opposition. Now we have someone representing the anti-gravity point of view, says the allegedly objective talk show host. Tell us, why do you believe gravity is a myth? Obama wants to compromise with the anti-gravity extremists rather than calling them out in a loud and angry voice, calling them what they really are.

Many of his supporters lament that Obama took the presidency in the face of a daunting agenda, from wars to a credit crisis. The truth is something of the opposite. All these were extraordinary opportunities. He could have come down hard on the banks, but he didn't. He could have wound down the war in Afghanistan, but he didn't. He could have closed Guantanamo, as he said he would, but he didn't. And on. He could have won the people's backing for real reform, a new day in America. He didn't even fully stick up for his original Obamacare program.

Has it been all bad? No. He did get the stimulus passed in early 2009. We do have something of a universal health care system, if one full of potential potholes. He has at least avoided a gung-ho American chauvinism about Egypt and Iraq.

But the so-called unprecedented number of hurdles were, as I say, the perfect opportunities to get angry, to tell Americans who was really undermining their dreams and security -- the perfect opportunity to get Americans angry at those who harm them.

Why didn't he get angry over the lightweight and damaging Paul Ryan proposals, which so many in the media called courageous? Why isn't he attacking Republicans hard for even the threat of closing the government?

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He has chosen the mediator path. This has always been his way. But the new element is the election campaign. He is playing defensive politics, and America is suffering badly as a result. Better I compromise than chance alienating some of those in the middle. At least if I lose some major battles I will keep a Republican from winning office.

Years ago, there was a good book published on how to manage investments. It took its lessons from tennis. If you are a club player, you will win if you play defensively. Don't go for winners, just avoid mistakes. That was also the best way, the author insisted, to manage a mutual fund, for example. Slow and steady, defensive, no big ambitions, don't try to beat the market badly. That's now the Obama game plan.

The budget confrontation is not about economics, of course. Budget cuts in the midst of a weak economy are dangerous and potentially tragic. The long-term budget deficit should be addressed when the economy is running strongly. And it should be addressed honestly -- rapidly rising health care costs are the issue.

The confrontation is simply the same old Republican game. Starve the beast. It is all about reducing government, nothing about economic health. It is about ideology, not prosperity. It is bad economics, in fact.

Will lower taxes produce economic growth sufficient to reduce the unemployment rate rapidly? No. It seems people can't get this simple fact in their head. After the Bush tax cuts at the start of the last decade, the U.S. economy grew more slowly than in any other expansion since World War II. If we had better data, it would be probably show that it was slower than any other expansion since the 1870s. This is between the end of the last recession and the beginning of the new one in 2007, when the economy was growing. It does not include the credit crisis debacle and Great Recession, for which Bush deserves plenty of blame.

The creation of jobs was unprecedentedly weak as well. Employment grew far more slowly than in any other expansion, as did industrial production. Even capital investment, despite rising profits, grew more slowly than in all but one previous expansion.

So this budget exercise, and a Paul Ryan budget plan of big tax cuts, is likely a disaster. And whatever you do, don't think this confrontation is purely about economics. It is entirely about cutting the size of government and those awful social programs. Down to the wire, we now know the Republicans' real strategy is to attack abortion and the anti-pollution regulation. It is not even about budget balancing.

Obama is again being outmaneuvered. As a close friend says, Obama is playing checkers, the other guys are playing chess. But the root causes are the insupportable strategy of being calm 24/7, avoiding angry attacks, and ultimately accepting compromise with those who don't believe in gravity. This is not leadership. I yearn for FDR more every day.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the author of The Case for Big Government.

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