Saturday, September 10, 2011

A President confesses error and defends democracy

Let's say that you were a supporter of Barack Obama in 2008, now disillusioned. You credit the main thrust of the liberal brief against him and discount administration defenses. You believe that  the 2009 stimulus was too small and too tax-heavy (and that a decisive leader could have put through a much more effective package), that the healthcare reform process took way too long (and that decisive leadership could have radically foreshortened it), that the President was eighteen months late in refocusing on jobs and let Republicans set the agenda, and that he got disastrously rolled in the debt ceiling deal.  Should you then write him off as a failure, a disaster for Democrats and the country, a man unequal to the challenges of his historical moment?

No. All presidents err terribly. They err in emphasis, in tactics, and in overall direction.  Theodore Roosevelt said he would be happy if he made the right decision 55% of the time.  You have to weigh the successes against the failures (and the politically possible against the ideal) and determine which way the scales tip -- perhaps slightly.  And given Obama's tendency to favor long-term priorities over short, you might have to wait a year or decade or two before making an assessment.

In a recent post, I noted that FDR not only tipped the U.S. into a brutal recession by cutting spending in 1937, as Krugman and others have been reminding us for years, but reversed course only halfheartedly and rather ineffectually -- both because of his own ambivalence about deficit spending and because he had squandered political capital on his court-packing scheme and a war on conservative Democrats. Moving the story along: by early 1939, the economy was perking up because the war machine was starting to crank.  Roosevelt gave a memorable State of the Union address. I it, he implicitly confessed to two major errors over the previous several years -- though he cast those errors as collective ones, which they also were.

The 1939 SOTU is a beautiful speech. Anyone who has swallowed the canard that Roosevelt had a first class temperament but a second class mind should read it. Its keynote is an expression of faith in democracy at a time when many saw ample evidence that dictatorship was more efficient and feared that democracies could not compete.  The confession of error flows implicitly from the defense of democracy.  What Roosevelt showcases, along with the unity that comes from governing with the consent of the governed, is democracy's ability to self-correct.

Roosevelt begins by tying together three societal virtues on which human welfare depends:  freedom of religion, democracy, and "international good faith."  The three are interdependent:
Where freedom of religion has been attacked, the attack has come from sources opposed to democracy. Where democracy has been overthrown, the spirit of free worship has disappeared. And where religion and democracy have vanished, good faith and reason in international affairs have given way to strident ambition and brute force.
The strength of a democracy, he asserts, depends on its functioning as a commonwealth:
A strong and united nation may be destroyed if it is unprepared against sudden attack. But even a nation well armed and well organized from a strictly military standpoint may, after a period of time, meet defeat if it is unnerved by self-distrust, endangered by class prejudice, by dissension between capital and labor, by false economy and by other unsolved social problems at home.

In meeting the troubles of the world we must meet them as one people--with a unity born of the fact that for generations those who have come to our shores, representing many kindreds and tongues, have been welded by common opportunity into a united patriotism. If another form of government can present a united front in its attack on a democracy, the attack must and will be met by a united democracy. Such a democracy can and must exist in the United States.

A dictatorship may command the full strength of a regimented nation. But the united strength of a democratic nation can be mustered only when its people, educated by modern standards to know what is going on and where they are going, have conviction that they are receiving as large a share of opportunity for development, as large a share of material success and of human dignity, as they have a right to receive.
Roosevelt goes on to assert that the New Deal has established institutions that foster such community and shared purpose. Then he makes the connection between unity of purpose and the capacity to learn from collective experience:
Above all, we have made the American people conscious of their interrelationship and their interdependence. They sense a common destiny and a common need of each other. Differences of occupation, geography, race and religion no longer obscure the nation's fundamental unity in thought and in action.

We have our difficulties, true--but we are a wiser and a tougher nation than we were in 1929, or in 1932.
Never have there been six years of such far-flung internal preparedness in our history. And this has been done without any dictator's power to command, without conscription of labor or confiscation of capital, without concentration camps and without a scratch on freedom of speech, freedom of the press or the rest of the Bill of Rights.

We see things now that we could not see along the way. The tools of government which we had in 1933 are outmoded. We have had to forge new tools for a new role of government operating in a democracy--a role of new responsibility for new needs and increased responsibility for old needs, long neglected.
Out of that connection comes the element that I find so interesting just now: the confession of error, collective but also implicitly personal. FDR alludes to errors both in the international and domestic spheres. With regard to the former:
We have learned that when we deliberately try to legislate neutrality, our neutrality laws may operate unevenly and unfairly--may actually give aid to an aggressor and deny it to the victim. The instinct of self-preservation should warn us that we ought not to let that happen any more.
The "lesson" came from the effects of the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, 1937 and 1939 -- and the loopholes in those hand-tying laws that allowed U.S. businesses to sell material to Mussolini while he was invading Ethiopia and to Franco throughout the Spanish Civil War. The U.S. on Roosevelt's watch did not lift a finger to help buck up Britain and France to resist Hitler's occupation of the Rhine, the Sudetenland, or the remainder of Czechoslovakia.  While Roosevelt opposed the first Neutrality Act, he refrained from vetoing it -- in part because he was up for reelection the next year, and national sentiment was strongly isolationist. Over the long course of his weaning the United States off its well-rooted isolationism, he led very much from behind.   This speech marks the launch of a three-year effort to prepare Americans for war in which Roosevelt often tacked, paused and waffled.

On to the domestic 'confession.' Recognizing that looming wars would depend on industrial production, Roosevelt next addresses the dictatorships' apparent superior success in mobilizing their workforces. That leads to a fairly technical defense of deficit spending -- in the wake of the now-infamous spending cuts of 1937 (10% of domestic spending!) that jacked the unemployment rate back up to 19% after it had fallen to 14%.  Embedded in the case for renewed deficit spending is the second confession, marked with my italics:
The other approach to the question of government spending takes the position that this Nation ought not to be and need not be only a sixty billion dollar nation; that at this moment it has the men and the resources sufficient to make it at least an eighty billion dollar nation. This school of thought does not believe that it can become an eighty billion dollar nation in the near future if government cuts its operations by one-third. It is convinced that if we were to try it, we would invite disaster--and that we would not long remain even a sixty billion dollar nation. There are many complicated factors with which we have to deal, but we have learned that it is unsafe to make abrupt reductions at any time in our net expenditure program.

By our common sense action of resuming government activities last spring, we have reversed a recession and started the new rising tide of prosperity and national income which we are now just beginning to enjoy. If government activities are fully maintained, there is a good prospect of our becoming an eighty billion dollar country in a very short time. With such a national income, present tax laws will yield enough each year to balance each year's expenses.
In Roosevelt's peroration, the extended exercise of the whole speech, Keynesian lesson and all, stands in for democracy itself. Rather oddly, he conflates the difficulty of exercising free thought with the difficulties of acceptiving economic risk -- and paying taxes: 
I hear some people say, "This is all so complicated. There are certain advantages in a dictatorship. It gets rid of labor trouble, of unemployment, of wasted motion and of having to do your own thinking."

My answer is, "Yes, but it also gets rid of some other things which we Americans intend very definitely to keep--and we still intend to do our own thinking."

It will cost us taxes and the voluntary risk of capital to attain some of the practical advantages which other forms of government have acquired.

Dictatorship, however, involves costs which the American people will never pay: The cost of our spiritual values. The cost of the blessed right of being able to say what we please. The cost of freedom of religion. The cost of seeing our capital confiscated. The cost of being cast into a concentration camp. The cost of being afraid to walk down the street with the wrong neighbor. The cost of having our children brought up, not as free and dignified human beings, but as pawns molded and enslaved by a machine.

If the avoidance of these costs means taxes on my income; if avoiding these costs means taxes on my estate at death, I would bear those taxes willingly as the price of my breathing and my children breathing the free air of a free country, as the price of a living and not a dead world.
It's a defense of democracy, capitalism, and the welfare state rolled into one. In other words, vintage FDR.

See also: FDR was Hoover, too

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful post, but in some ways you undercut your first point, that all our presidents are terribly fallible.

    I hope people who are disappointed with Obama will carefully weigh the effect should they withdraw support. Very few people can live up to the standard set by FDR or by Lincoln, but they can still be doing a lot of good (and preventing harm by those who aspire to power).