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Vail Daily column: Fight for a fair deal

Jack Van Ens

President Barack Obama’s primary aim is make the U.S. a fairer nation. His policies decrease income disparity and help the disadvantaged. He believes a more socially just country produces a stronger nation, even if the wealthiest 1 percent pays higher taxes.

“Fighting for a fair deal for every American,” reports historian Walter Isaacson,“goes to the core of what he (President Obama) believes, rounds out the narrative of his presidency, secures his historical legacy and leads naturally into what is likely the be the mission of his post presidency” (Time magazine, “Don’t run out the clock,” Aug. 25).

Attempts to curb capitalism’s excesses run into a buzz saw of protest. Republicans chafe when government partially manages the economy, spreads concentrated wealth a few big banks control, and passes fiscal legislation that shrinks the private sector.

None of these arguments against curbing capitalism’s excesses are new. Republicans hurled them against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, which raised the U.S. from the Great Depression. FDR, like President Obama, “shared a conviction that their task was not to dismantle the American capitalist system, but to save it from its own excesses,” reports historian Michael Hiltzik (“The New Deal: a Modern History”).

FDR believed citizens’ ability to achieve economic security was society’s collective responsibility, working through effective government. He had confidence that citizens achieved dignity when government regulation protected them from Wall Street’s greed. His GOP adversaries turned this conviction on its head, arguing that capitalism’s market competition stripped of government regulation produced jobs that raised citizens’ dignity.

Roosevelt’s dynamic personality charmed radio listeners who tuned in to his fireside chats. “It was not so much a conception of government or a set of ideas that made Roosevelt’s words so appealing,” writes historian Robert Dallek in “Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy: 1932-1945.” “It was the man behind the language; the broad-shouldered, smiling, buoyant optimist with the up-tilted head offering reassurance and hope. After his death (in 1945), people mourned the loss of communication with their president. ‘He used to talk to me about my government,’ one man told Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Few in the country could forget the contrast to his dour, uninspiring (Republican) predecessor Herbert Hoover. ‘A rose would wilt in his (Hoover’s) hand,’ said a critic of his doleful manner.

Presidents Roosevelt and Obama took office when grim economics gripped the nation. The Great Depression (1930s) and the Great Recession (2008) were preceded by wild speculation in housing and with financial assets. Major banks and investment firms hyped paper profits, bundled worthless mortgages and sold them. Then came the financial collapses came in 1929 and 2007-2008.

Roosevelt faced financial misery in 1933. Unemployment hovered at 25 percent, almost quadruple today’s level. The Dow Jones Industrial Average had plummeted to a tenth of its 1929 pre-crash level. Almost half of the farmers couldn’t pay their mortgages. Banks threatened foreclosure. Industrial production fell to half its previous level.

Rex Tugwell, one of FDR’s financial advisors, recalled, “The economy was seized with an incurable illness much as an individual is. And the economic doctors had no more helpful advice than medical doctors have when faced with approaching death.”

During these desperate times, FDR used fiscal measures which appeared counterintuitive. On the surface, they didn’t seem to make sense. The president intentionally increased the national debt in order to rescue the moribund nation. He spent millions on government-sponsored programs, increasing national debt to get out of it.

Since 1919, British economist John Maynard Keynes had advanced these unorthodox measures for relieving national debt. During depressionary cycles, Keynes substituted government deficit spending for what Republicans advocated — private investment.

Keynes recommended kicking government spending into high gear when the economy contracts. People employed through by massive public works programs will use their earnings to buy goods which, in turn, will create new businesses. These firms will hire workers, reducing unemployment. People with new jobs will spend more. In turn, heftier tax revenues will fill government’s coffers. This prosperous cycle will rev up the U.S. economic engine and slowly rescue the nation from its fiscal doldrums.

During economic retrenchment, FDR opted to spend rather than heed Republican’s reliance on thrift. President Obama used this New Deal game plan to rescue the U.S. from a crippling Great Recession.

Both leaders answered the biblical call “to loose the bonds of injustice … to share your bread with the hungry” (Isaiah 58:7), using government and private enterprise to help the poor.

As more Americans lost jobs in the Great Depression, Republicans appealed to states to care for the less-fortunate. In 1934, at least four of the states’ old-age pension funds had run out of money. Others coughed up a pittance: a $14.34 monthly pension.

Neither FDR nor Obama have crimped capitalism. Both have urged capitalism and government join hands to fight for a fair deal so that more Americans prosper.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.


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