Revisiting the WPA to Remind America of its Potential

Feb 7, 2011Gray Brechin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Son of Reagan: More Nonsensical Right-wing Rhetoric

Feb 4, 2011Harvey J. Kaye

new-reagan-revolution-coverMichael Reagan's new book rewrites history and attacks prominent liberals like the best of them.

In recognition of Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday on Sunday, February 6, 2011, his two boys have written books about their father.

new-reagan-revolution-coverMichael Reagan's new book rewrites history and attacks prominent liberals like the best of them.

In recognition of Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday on Sunday, February 6, 2011, his two boys have written books about their father.

In My Father at 100, younger son Ron, a former ballet dancer and liberal talk radio host, offers a memoir of his dad and considers the values and qualities that made him a leader. And in The New Reagan Revolution: How Ronald Reagan's Principles Can Restore America's Greatness, Michael, an arch-conservative radio host, recalls his father's politics and presidency and argues in favor of resurrecting his ideals and vision to recover American freedom, renewing national prosperity, and reasserting American power and influence. Media attention has focused on the former work for suggesting that President Reagan began to show signs of dementia while in office. But the latter book -- bearing a foreword from new-right champion Newt Gingrich -- deserves notice as well for registering the lack of clear thinking characteristic of the right today.

Abusing the past in a way that would make his father proud, Michael Reagan appropriates radical founders Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson to the cause of the right and the Tea Party, targets liberals and progressives past and present (how many times can you lie about FDR and the New Deal?), and presents the Reagan years in terms that make them out to be the Golden Age of the late twentieth century -- you know, "Morning in America." But somehow the son of Reagan ignores the Reagan Recession and the devastation it wrought on American working people's lives, families, and communities; the legacy of ballooning deficits and widening inequalities in which the rich got much richer and the rest of us barely kept up; and the corruption of the public good and neglect of the public infrastructure that marked the Reagan administration -- all of which continue to plague us.

And yet, there's something else in Michael Reagan's rhetoric that leads one to wonder about the mindset -- if not sanity -- of the right.

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By his own account, Reagan is a "hothead." He recounts an episode in 1976 in which he physically attacked his father's former campaign manager John Sears. As Reagan tells it, Sears had "jumped ship" to work for the Republican nominee, President Gerald Ford, following the party's national convention and was now actually blocking Michael himself from speaking to the Young Republican Convention in Memphis. In reaction, Michael confronted Sears in his hotel room, but apparently Sears "could only blather and stammer" in response. Still, Michael could not control himself. As he writes:

I reached out, grabbed him by the lapels, and shoved him against the wall. Then, nose to nose, I said: "If you ever do that to me again, I will find you wherever you are, I will walk into your office, and I will kick your ass!"
He gulped hard.
"And one more thing," I added. "If my father ever calls me and wants to talk to me about the conversation you and I are having right now, I will find you wherever you are, I will walk into your office, and I will kick your ass for that too!"
I let go, and he slid to the floor...
Now, some people tell me I shouldn't tell that story in this book. They say it makes me look like a hothead. Well, so be it.

"Hothead"? No, Michael, I'd say it makes you look like a thug.

While he offers no further tales of losing his temper and pushing people up against the wall, Mr. Reagan's "thuggery" continues. In a chapter titled "We win, They lose," he urges his right-wing readers to follow his father's example: "Maintain your principles and your good character: Whenever people go up against a dangerous enemy like Communism or Islamofascism or Nancy Pelosi, there is a dangerous temptation to get down in the gutter and fight as dirty as the enemy does. Don't let your enemy change who you are. Stick to your moral principles."

How can he lump Nancy Pelosi in with Stalinists and Islamofascists?

And there's more. Reagan joins the Glenn Beck mob and goes after not only financier and progressive movement benefactor George Soros, but also the 79-year-old, radical-democratic sociologist Frances Fox Piven. She, with her now late husband Richard Cloward, championed the rights of welfare recipients and strategized voter registration campaigns back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Happy Birthday Ronald Reagan -- from your boys!

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HarveyJKaye

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FDR Drew on Thomas Paine in the Most Difficult of Times

Jan 28, 2011Harvey J. Kaye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harvey J. Kaye is the Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, from which these paragraphs are drawn. He is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HarveyJKaye

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China’s Emergence as a Great Power Began with FDR

Jan 21, 2011David B. Woolner

Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

In his remarks at the ceremony welcoming Chinese President Hu to Washington, President Obama took note of "China's rise as a strong, prosperous and successful member of the community of nations." He also observed that at a time "when some doubt the benefits of cooperation between the United States and China, this visit is also a chance to demonstrate a simple truth. We have an enormous stake in each other's success. In an interconnected world, in a global economy, nations -- including our own -- will be more prosperous and more secure when we work together."

With China now possessing the world's second largest economy and with more and more talk of the importance of the "G2 relationship" in the post-Great Recession world, no one would doubt the veracity of the president's statement. China, and the Chinese-American relationship, has indeed become critical to the world's peace and prosperity. Nevertheless, for most Americans recognition of China's status as a "Great Power" is something that has occurred rather slowly and relatively recently, within the last decade or so. But one individual who never doubted that China would play an important role on the world stage was Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was FDR, in fact, who perhaps more than any other world leader first recognized China's potential as a world power.

FDR's interest in China was in some respects linked to the history of his own family, as his maternal grandfather, Warren Delano II, was involved in the China trade in the 19th century. But it was the onset of the World War II in Asia that greatly intensified his interest in the region. The Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China proper in 1937. It was the US refusal to recognize the Japanese conquest of Manchuria, as well as the former's desire to dominate China (along with US insistence that Japan pull its troops off the Asian mainland), that eventually placed the two countries on a collision course. This led to the dramatic events of December 1941 -- and turned the Second World War into a truly global conflict.

Following the American entry into the war, FDR and a number of his advisors placed great hopes in the possibility that China might serve as America's principle ally in the Pacific. Given China's proximity to Japan, for example, the US Army Air Force hoped to launch bombing raids on Japan from air bases located on the Chinese mainland in areas not under Japanese control. But given the overall weakness of the Chinese nationalist forces (which stemmed in part from their long struggle with the Japanese and in part from their on-again-off-again struggle with the Chinese communists), these hopes were soon dashed. The Japanese were able to put a quick stop to the raids by overrunning the air bases from which they were launched.

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Due to this and other failures, the emergence of China as a major theatre of military operations in the US effort to defeat the Japanese never really materialized. This did not mean, however, that China was not important to the war effort or that FDR had given up on the possibility of her emergence as a Great Power once the war was over. On the contrary -- and unbeknownst to most Americans -- roughly four fifths of the Japanese army was located in China during the Second World War. It was critical, therefore, that China stay in the conflict, if only to keep the Japanese troops tied down.

Moreover, in spite of the difficulties China experienced during the war, FDR never lost sight of her potential. In part out of this belief, and in part to encourage the Chinese nationalists to keep up the fight, FDR began to promote the idea of China joining the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union as one of the world's four (later five) policemen that would help keep the peace once the war was over. It is for this reason that China today holds one of the five permanent seats on the Security Council at the United Nations.

There is, of course, something of a paradox in all of this. Having built up China's wartime image through numerous references to the country as a key US ally and as one of the powers who would help maintain the peace after the defeat of the Axis, it is not surprising that the resumption of the Chinese civil war in 1946 and the defeat of the nationalists at the hands of the communists three years later would be regarded as a major blow to US foreign policy and one of the starting points that added to the onset/intensification of the Cold War. In this sense, one could argue that FDR's legacy with respect to China is negative, particularly in light of the oft expressed wartime fear that we might "lose" China as an ally if we did not make a concerted effort to keep her in the war.

But did the nationalists' defeat really mean that we had "lost" China? Certainly in the geo-political sense the answer is no. Once again, FDR's basic assumptions were correct, some would say tragically correct. China -- communist or not -- was indeed more likely to line up with the Americans than with the Soviets in any major showdown among the Great Powers, as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were to discover some thirty years later.

FDR was also correct when he predicted, as President Obama confirmed earlier this week, that China would emerge as one of the world's leading post-war powers. She is a power that we must engage with if we hope to make progress on host of international issues.

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

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

Jan 19, 2011Harvey J. Kaye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harvey J. Kaye is the Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HarveyJKaye

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FDR is #1

Jan 19, 2011Bryce Covert

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

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

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

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

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

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In Times of National Trauma, the Nation Looks to the President

Jan 14, 2011David B. Woolner

Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

President Obama's stirring address at the memorial service for the victims of the Arizona tragedy reminds us that the president of the United States is much more than merely the head of government. He is also our head of state -- the national figure we look to for guidance and comfort in times of national trauma.

Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

President Obama's stirring address at the memorial service for the victims of the Arizona tragedy reminds us that the president of the United States is much more than merely the head of government. He is also our head of state -- the national figure we look to for guidance and comfort in times of national trauma.

Over the course of his twelve years as president, FDR found himself having to address an unprecedented number of national and international crises that required equally unprecedented leadership qualities. First and foremost, of course, was the trauma caused by the crash of 1929 and the subsequent rise of the Great Depression. In the midst of the profound anxiety and fear that had gripped the nation by the time Roosevelt assumed office in 1933, he famously rejected the harbingers of despair and instead counseled that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." This line would not only go on to capture the imagination of a generation, but would also set the stage for the long struggle that lay ahead as the nation worked its way out of the worst economic crisis in history. In years that followed, FDR would return to this theme time and time again in speeches, major addresses, and via his famous "Fireside Chats" on the radio. By reminding the American people that they need not fear the challenges they faced and in fact had "conquered fear," FDR gave them the one thing they needed more than anything else: hope. Hope in themselves and in the future; hope in their ability to lift the nation out of its economic malaise; hope that together, the people and their leaders could transform the American government into an active instrument of social and economic justice.

But coping with the economic crisis was not the only challenge FDR had to face. He also had to guide the nation through the most destructive war in human history. For six long years, the forces of liberal democracy struggled against the anti-democratic forces of fascism in Europe and Asia. During these dark days, it is no exaggeration to say that democracy itself teetered on the brink of catastrophe, especially in the early years of the conflict. FDR understood this. He never doubted for a moment that the war was about much more than conquest or the mere acquisition of territory. It was, first and foremost, a moral conflict that threatened to bring about the destruction of modern civilization. Throughout his tenure as a war president, therefore, FDR insisted on couching the conflict in moral terms. It was for this reason that he joined Winston Churchill in drawing up the set of guiding principles known as the Atlantic Charter in August of 1941 to govern the conduct of Great Britain and the United States during the war. It was a document which, among other things, not only made it clear that neither government sought "aggrandizement, territorial or other" in the conduct of the war, but also insisted that "all peoples have the right to choose the form of government under which they live."

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FDR's most famous wartime address -- which came six months before the Atlantic Charter -- was animated by the same spirit. Here, the president, in asking the American people to make further sacrifices in support of Great Britain's effort to resist Axis aggression, did so not merely because such a sacrifice might serve to shield the United States from the ravages of war. Rather, he did so because he wished them to join a wider effort to secure a future based on four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear -- "everywhere in the world."

Inspired by the president's simple yet eloquent language, the American people embraced the Four Freedoms as the war aims of the United States and, once in the conflict, would not rest until the forces of democracy would go on "to win through to absolute victory." In the process, they also came to appreciate that the United States could no longer afford to turn away from the rest of the world, but must accept its share of responsibility to provide the moral, political and economic leadership required to advance FDR's vision put before them in the dark days of January 1941.

Judging by the reaction of the press on both the left and the right to President Obama's moving remarks in Tucson, it appears that he too has risen to the occasion. His heartfelt speech not only crystallized the mood of the nation, but also reminded us of our common responsibilities as citizens, of the values we share and of the need for each and every one of us to use this tragic occasion, as he said, "to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy" and to never forget "all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together."

The president is right when he says that "only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation" in a way that would make the victims of this senseless tragedy proud. Only time will tell if his compassionate words will serve as a guide for us in the future.

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

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Why Right-wingers Rave about the Gold Standard: A History

Jan 13, 2011Frank L. Cocozzelli

golden-coffer-150A distaste for Keynesian economics lies at the heart of conservative calls for a return to the gold standard.

golden-coffer-150A distaste for Keynesian economics lies at the heart of conservative calls for a return to the gold standard.

In the wake of the Panic of 1893, the nation was suffering from a period of deflation -- the downward spiral of prices and wages. Farmers were among the hardest hit. Crop prices dropped to the point where many faced financial ruin. Something was needed to raise their incomes, since the infamous laissez-faire "invisible hand" was not working for them.

The 1896 Democratic Party presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan campaigned against the Republican economic plan of setting the value of the dollar to the value of the amount of gold the United States held in reserve. The GOP – then as now – were tied to credit interests who are advantaged by the high value of debt. In accepting the nomination, Bryan gave his famous Cross of Gold Speech, in which he declared, “Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." Bryan was accusing the Republicans of failing to employ commodity or "demand-pull" inflation (as opposed to wage inflation, an increase in prices for commodities such as agricultural products, petroleum or minerals) as a means if checking deflation.

Back then, before the creation of the Federal Reserve System, Bryan was arguing for a monetary standard based upon bimetallism -- one that would have established a fixed rate of exchange between gold and silver. The economic landscape has changed since then, but the role of governmental action to improve the standard of living remains an issue.

Now, more than a century after Bryan's historic speech, and almost eighty years since FDR ended it, the gold standard is rising in our national discourse like a zombie from the grave in a bad horror movie. It is again the mantra of the right, ranging from libertarians Ron and Rand Paul, to Mama Grizzly Sarah Palin, to the populist ramblings of Glenn Beck and even to some on the religious right such as Robert P. George. Interestingly, it was one of several anti-government rants echoed by Tucson shooter Jared Lee Loughner.

But why would conservatives fear the judicious use of inflation? I suspect that their real concern is Keynesian economics.

Inflation pegged to increases in worker productivity is the reason why a couple that bought a house in 1960 saw their fixed mortgage become more manageable with each passing year. Moderate increases in wage inflation make debt more manageable for the employed. It also reduces the reliance upon tenuous credit. In other words, a judicious amount of annual inflation is a vital component of wealth creation and thus, economic liberty for the many, not just the few.

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The web site The Aporetic explains why the right is then getting so gold buggy:

People who like the idea of a gold standard like the idea that gold has "real," "intrinsic" value, which is a fancy way of saying it just is valuable, in the same way that lead is heavy. "Value," they argue, is a property installed in gold by God or nature. An economy based on gold is thus an economy founded in natural law: gold bugs dream of an economy which government can't tamper with. All values will be "real" values. The government can't issue more gold, so it can't create debt by simply printing more money.

Slate ran a good piece on what would happen if we returned to the gold standard. You can add to that rapid deflation and spikes in interest rates. Deflation sounds good, except that interest rates would spike while the prices manufacturers and businesses could get for their goods would collapse. Deflation was precisely the problem in 1932. But one set of people would benefit to a remarkable degree, and that is, those who hold capital, e.g the rich. The value of their money would sky-rocket, as would the price they could demand for lending it.

Get it? As wages go down, workers rely more and more on credit instead of their own earnings to obtain property and services. In short, the American economy goes from being one made up of upwardly mobile individuals to larger numbers of debtors living in one huge company town. This is not exactly the concept of individual liberty envisioned by Adam Smith in 1776, but instead, dependence.

There is no better example of the way the right is campaigning against the controlled use of inflation than recent comments by Sarah Palin. Palin, echoing Glen Beck, attempted to take on the Wall Street Journal over the rising costs of groceries, erroneously implying that food prices are a reliable indicator of overall inflation. The problem with her analysis is that food and fuel costs are so volatile that they are not counted as a core indicator of inflation. Paul Krugman pointed out, for example, that over the past decade, food prices have not been that far afield of the general rate of inflation, which in and of itself is practically non-existent. If anything, there is a much greater risk of overall deflation.

What the gold bugs won't acknowledge is that the economy could use a bit of moderate wage inflation, the type that does not exceed increases in the percentage of worker productivity, but keeps pace with it. The reason they won't say anything about it is that it requires the use of the other defamed economic tool, taxation. Using deficits to create aggregate demand and then judiciously using taxation to pay down the resulting debt (which simultaneously applying the brake to any possible resulting inflation) has a proven track record.

There is nothing new about gold bugs. But what is new is religious right strategist and well-connected GOP neocon-turned-Tea Party avatar Robert P. George's emergence as a leader of the contemporary gold bug brigade. With neoconservatism at least for now being out of favor on the right, George has recently been advocating an alliance between social conservatives and a more libertarian-minded doctrine of classical, laissez-faire economics. That's why it is so significant that the gold standard is a featured issue of George's American Principles Project.

The goal of Gold Standard 2012 is "...to reach out to lawmakers to advance legislation that will put the U.S. back on the gold standard." They claim to be alarmed about the "...explosive growth of government and unrestrained deficit spending kicked into high gear by the Obama administration and the 111th Congress..."

Add to the argument the vital role that organized labor plays in increasing wages. We must remember that many of the economists Robert P. George and friends subscribe to (Amity Shlaes, Richard A. Epstein) believe that if workers would just work for lower wages, unemployment ceases to be a problem. This is economic conservatism's dirty little secret -- the exposure of which is liberalism's opportunity.

And this brings us back to William Jennings Bryan. He is speaking to us from the past, still warning us of the perils of wealth inequality built solely upon political power. To that end, in 1896 Bryan reminded the nation of who creates wealth:

When you come before us and tell us that we shall disturb your business interests, we reply that you have disturbed our business interests by your action. We say to you that you have made too limited in its application the definition of a businessman. The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer... The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, begins in the spring and toils all summer, and by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth, is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain. The miners who go 1,000 feet into the earth or climb 2,000 feet upon the cliffs and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured in the channels of trade are as much businessmen as the few financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world.

More than a century later, Bryan still refutes the zombie gold bug madness of Robert P. George, Glen Beck, and Sarah Palin. They and the economic royalists they represent once again aim to crucify common prosperity upon a cross of gold.

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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FDR's Second Bill of Rights: 'Necessitous Men are not Free Men'

Jan 11, 2011Harvey J. Kaye

fdrmain-150FDR envisioned a new definition of freedom and well-being -- one that we ought to remember.

fdrmain-150FDR envisioned a new definition of freedom and well-being -- one that we ought to remember.

On January 11, 1944 -- with American workers going "All Out!" on the home front and American soldiers, airmen, and seamen fighting European fascism and Japanese imperialism globally -- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his annual message to Congress on the State of the Union. In that speech, he reaffirmed his determination to pursue the Four Freedoms -- "Freedom of Speech, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear" -- both in the United States and abroad. He also articulated those freedoms anew, especially freedom from want and fear, in the form of an Economic Bill of Rights for all Americans.

Roosevelt knew full well that Congress, dominated by a conservative coalition of Republicans and Dixie Democrats, would never endorse it. And yet, based on polls commissioned by his administration, he had good reason to believe that most of his fellow citizens would support it. He also had reason to imagine that it would lead not only to victory in the upcoming November elections, but also to renewed efforts to extend and deepen freedom, equality, and democracy in a peacetime America.

Suffering from the flu and unable to go up to Capitol Hill to speak in person, the president sent the text of his message to Congress at midday and then presented it to the American people in a radio broadcast from the White House that evening. As ill as he was, he spoke vigorously and his remarks were reminiscent of a younger FDR.

He began by discussing his recent meetings with Churchill and Stalin at Tehran and the need to translate the wartime alliance into a permanent system of international security, and he then turned to the subject of the home front. To speed victory, but "maintain a fair and stable economy at home," FDR recommended five legislative measures to Congress, the first four clearly targeting corporate greed, the fifth evidently challenging labor. Specifically, he called on Congress to pass a "realistic" revenue act to increase taxes on profits; maintain the law allowing government to renegotiate war contracts to "prevent exorbitant profits and assure fair prices;" approve a law enabling government to more effectively control food prices; renew the Economic Stabilization Act; and enact "a national service law -- which, for the duration of the war, will prevent strikes, and... make available for war production or for any other essential services every able-bodied adult in this Nation."

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The president then looked ahead. Hoping to be heard on every front, he told Congress and the nation that, "It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known." And in favor of that, he proposed the recognition and adoption of a Second Bill of Rights.

He said: "This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights... They were our rights to life and liberty. As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however -- as our industrial economy expanded -- these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness." But, he continued: "We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.'" And evoking Jefferson and Lincoln, Roosevelt contended that, "In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident," and, "We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed." This Second Bill of Rights included, he proffered:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
The right of every family to a decent home;
The right to 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;
The right to a good education.

In sum, he stated, "All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being."

The vision and aspirations articulated by FDR and fought for by those whom we have come to call the Greatest Generation continue to resonate in American hearts and minds. It is up to liberals, progressives, and radicals to encourage their fellow Americans -- starting with Obama and the Democrats -- to pursue them.

Harvey J. Kaye is the Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America. Follow Harvey on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HarveyJKaye

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How Roosevelt Saved Capitalism: The 74th Versus the 112th Congress

Jan 10, 2011David B. Woolner

Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

Amid much fanfare, the 112th Congress convened for the first time last week. In his opening address, the new Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, urged his colleagues to move forward "humble in our demeanor, steady in our principles, and dedicated to proving worthy of the trust and confidence that has been placed in us." Reaching out to both sides of the aisle, he also observed that if the newly elected members of the House "brace ourselves to do our duty, and to do what we say we are going to do, there is no telling what together we can accomplish for the good of this great and honorable nation."

In the wake of the first midterm elections of the Obama presidency, it will be interesting to compare the 112th Congress's legislative accomplishments to those of the Congress that FDR inherited in the wake of the 1934 midterm elections. Like today, the 74th Congress convened at a time when the nation was in the midst of a continuing economic crisis and faced numerous threats abroad. Unlike today, however, the prevailing political philosophy of the 74th Congress -- and a good share of the public -- was vastly different. In 1935, thanks in large part to FDR's rhetorical skills and leadership, the people's faith in government as the protector of the common good was at one of its highest points in our history. United by a sense of common purpose and steadfast in the belief that government should act as the primary guarantor of social and economic justice, the 74th Congress gave us such landmark legislation as the Social Security Act, which not only provided old-age pensions and support for children and the handicapped, but also the established our country's first nationwide system of unemployment insurance. The same Congress also passed the National Labor Relations Act, which sought to stabilize labor relations and bolster unions' security. It guaranteed the right of workers to join unions and created the National Labor Relations Board, a three-member federal review board responsible for determining which unions would represent workers in specific industries or factories and for guarding against unfair labor practices by employers, employees, or unions themselves.

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The 74th Congress also passed many other important bills. It passed the Soil Conservation Act, which encouraged farmers to adopt more environmentally friendly practices in an effort to save one of nation's most precious natural resources -- its soil. The Rural Electrification Act brought the revolutionary benefits of electricity to the 9 out of ten farmers who did not have it when FDR took office. The Commodities Exchange Act established federal regulation of all commodities and futures trading activities and required all options to be traded on organized exchanges. The Public Utility Act facilitated the regulation of electric utilities. The Flood Control Act of 1936 committed the federal government to the protection of people and property on over 100 million acres of land through the US Army Corps of Engineers. And it passed the 1935 and 1936 neutrality laws, as well as five other significant pieces of legislation.

As even this brief summary of the work of the 74th Congress shows, under FDR's leadership these and other New Deal measures dramatically expanded the scope of the federal government's responsibilities in American life. Where Washington had previously been only a distant regulator of economic and social affairs, it was now the government's responsibility to maintain economic prosperity, mitigate the worst effects of unfettered capitalism, spread industrial and agricultural development to impoverished regions of the nation, guarantee workers' right to choose their unions, protect the bargaining rights of those unions, and conserve and develop the nation's vast natural and artistic resources.

Contrary to some critics' views, the New Deal was not intended to radically change the foundations of American capitalism. Rather, it revised that system in order to save it. Moreover, it did so not by abandoning government, but by strengthening it. For as FDR and the 74th Congress well understood, they had inherited a nation that was dominated by the forces of wealth and privilege. As a consequence, and as FDR once remarked, "[f]or 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." "Against economic tyranny such as this," he went on, "the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government."

A good share of the 112th Congress, particularly under the Republican leadership in the House, appears determined to take the country in the opposite direction. They would prefer to let market forces, rather than the "organized power of government," determine the social and economic fate of the nation. It is too early to tell whether their determination to reduce its role will succeed or whether the impact of these conservative forces on future generations of Americans will be as large as that of the 74th Congress. Over the course of its two-year tenure, that Congress passed a number of legislative initiatives that still benefit us today.

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

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