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Franklin Roosevelt Explains Today's Economic Crisis

By       Message Rodger Knight     Permalink
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 It was French writer, Alphonse Karr, who, in his novel, Les Guêpes, wrote, "The more things change the more they stay the same." He was absolutely right.  Compare what Franklin Roosevelt said in a speech to the Democratic National Convention in October, 1936, to the dark Reagan and post-Reagan decades:
"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. And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minuteman.
The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor,  these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship. The savings of the average family, the capital of the small-businessmen, the investments set aside for old age -- other people's money -- these were tools which the new economic royalty used to dig itself in. Those who tilled the soil no longer reaped the rewards which were their right. The small measure of their gains was decreed by men in distant cities. Throughout the nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly. Individual initiative was crushed in the cogs of a great machine. The field open for free business was more and more restricted. Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise.
These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.
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."

These were the problems Roosevelt faced when first became president, problems he had spent his first term addressing.  They were the result of twelve years of governmental neglect and a lack of regulation and oversight that allowed irresponsible banking and investment practices to bring down a financial holocaust on America.  They were also the result of an attitude of acquisition spurred on by a decade of social upheaval and excess, a decade during which the accumulation of goods and wealth became not only a goal but an end unto itself.  It was a decade in which greed was no longer a deadly sin; it was respected and rewarded.

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The 1920s was a decade of flappers, fads and prohibition and it was a decade of  prosperity but only if you were in on the fix.  Businesses and industry showed remarkable gains in sales and productivity but workers got a very small share of the pie.  Between 1923 and 1929, manufacturing output per person-hour increased by 32 percent but workers' wages grew by only 8 percent. Corporate profits shot up by 65 percent in the same period and the government let the wealthy keep more of those profits.  Huge cuts were made in the top income-tax rates.  The Revenue Act of 1926 cut the taxes of those making $1 million or more by more than two-thirds.  By 1929 the top 0.1 percent of American families had a total income equal to that of the bottom 42 percent.  It all had to end; it was inevitable and the beginning of the end arrived on October 29, 1929, a day that would come to be known as Black Thursday.

To a large degree the phenomenal increase in growth the country enjoyed during the 1920s was   propelled by a new concept, credit.  Mass production required mass consumption and credit allowed the consumer market to thrive.  Credit is, however,  just another word for debt and it fueled the growth only until many had accumulated so much debt that they could no longer buy the goods industry was producing.  The output of American manufacturing plants was cut almost in half from 1929 to 1932.  Unemployment in those years soared from 3.2 percent to 24.9 percent (over 50 percent for African-Americans), leaving more than 15 million Americans out of work. Some remained unemployed for years; those who had jobs faced major wage cuts and many could find only part-time work.

The attitudes and practices of business and their results that Roosevelt described are strikingly similar to the attitudes and practices that characterize the period from 1981 through 2008.  They're similar because greed had again became a driving force.  Many of the most important laws and specifically those reining in unethical, irresponsible and even criminal banking and investing practices, were repealed.  The fundamental economic truths the nation had learned through the suffering of so many were ignored by the same party, the Republican Party, that had led us into the Great Depression and for many of the same reasons.  The Republicans were successful because they were masters of the great lie, that what was good for the rich, the economic royalists, was good for everyone.   Roosevelt had a message and a waning for us in 1936 and that warning still applies.  Those protesting in Zuccotti Park understand this.  They understand that the rights stolen from us by the royalists won't be returned freely; they'll have to regained through rebellion.  Hopefully, Occupy Wall Street is the beginning of that revolution.  If we're fortunate, the revolution will peaceful but it will be, if not now,soon.  People will tolerate oppression for just so long.
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Rodger Knight is a retired probation officer and amateur historian with a particular interest in the Depression and war years. He has a BA in English and History from Cal State University, San Bernardino and, for two years, was a graduate student (more...)
 

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