Thursday, September 25, 2014

All Roosevelt All the Time

My 87-year swimming buddy at the gym asked if I had seen the Ken Burns docu-series on The Roosevelts. I replied – “What’s the rush? I know how it turns out.” To keep up with him, I binged watched it over the weekend. 14 hours in essentially one sitting. The story telling and subject matter is compelling – and Burns uses an A-list cast of voice talent that adds texture and life to their words. The photographs and archive footage are great, though some images were repeated liberally. I’ve produced a few documentaries myself, and been honored with some awards, so I definitely appreciate the skill and nuance that went into the opus. I know the series was good because days later I’m still completely agitated by the damage to the United States that FDR inflicted during his reign.

The United States Government role from its founding until the New Deal was nominal in the direct lives of Americans. FDR empowered and directed that the Government have a hand in people’s day to day lives in a very active way. Such action was justified by the Great Depression and has continued and expanded.

When President Roosevelt swept into office he pushed through a series of legislation that aggressively put the Federal Government in a position of providing for its citizens. Work programs, food programs, housing programs, etc. were all started. The country was in despair – nearly a third of adults were unemployed, millions hungry, being thrown out of their houses. FDR was able to get the country to work as a collective for the first time in its history, and it worked. All of those programs were then found to be unconstitutional, so FDR tried to restructure the Supreme Court.

When the programs stalled and panic began to set in again, Roosevelt pivoted towards another variation of the same idea. The U.S. had been adamantly isolationist. There was Wilson’s World War I which was highly unpopular and afterwards the feeling from the country was even stronger: no more war. So much so that Congress prevented the President from selling equipment to allies unless they were prepaid. When the British couldn’t pay, FDR “loaned” them the planes and boats anyway.

Roosevelt was the John McCain of his time. He may not have been as much of a warmonger as the Arizona senator, but FDR loved the military industrial complex. It took him several years of warnings and threats and scare tactics, but he got the U.S. into World War II. He ignored intelligence warnings about attacks on the U.S.. For the man who came to office proclaiming “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” he certainly mastered cornering the American population into a war it didn’t seek and didn’t want. Once at war the collective came together and succeeded.

FDR was elected four times – less a testament to his political strength and more an example that the media abdicated its responsibility. Much was made in the documentary (as in all coverage of him) about his polio and physical ailments. The most striking (and galling) information was that he was re-elected in the midst of war lying about his health, with his doctor confirming it. He knew he was dying and the country had a right to know. The media knew he disappeared from Washington for months, lost weight and accepted the reports of him being in good health. The result of this omission was that Vice President Truman became President, learned about the nuclear bomb after taking office and then used it. He then started his own war in Korea.

What Truman did militarily has continued on – the U.S. is now an interventionist in global affairs thanks to FDR. His token attempt at preventing war, the U.N., should have a role in those affairs but never had the authority from its member countries to do so.

Economically and socially the collective gains that were made to stabilize the economy worked for a time. The problems happened when those gains became the baseline expectations, otherwise known as an entitlement. Social Security is a perfect example. Instituted to help older employees get off of the work rolls so that younger members of society working in post-Depression America, it was designed to cover minimum living expenses for the final 3 to 4 years of life. It was a cost-effective way to energize employment that never envisioned what to do 20, 30, 100 years later. Today that program now funds people for 25 to 30 years – a level that it was never intended to and never designed to or funded for.  Congress and Presidents have been unable to make changes. Whenever a change has been proposed – to increase the age at which people might be eligible, or increase the contributions that people have to make to fund the program or otherwise decrease benefits, there’s a huge hue and cry. The collective is not willing to contribute as they once were because the greater good is no longer the goal, it is an expectation, a given. Entitlements now consume 2/3rds of the U.S. budget.

It proves that the concept of the collective is good, and in certain instances has worked, but in the long run doesn’t. Today’s political fights of the role of Government aren’t nearly as draconian as the rhetoric would have one believe. The Republicans want to take money from the public and spend it one way, the Democrats want to take money from the public and spend it another way. There’s some differences in how much is to be taken and where it would be spent but the underlying philosophy is the same: it’s All Roosevelt All the Time. Talk about a binge.

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