Thursday, April 09, 2009

Old Verses to an Even Older Song: The Budget Battle

When President Obama's budget comes up for a vote in the next few days, expect the same predictable attacks from the right. GOP politicians will try their damndest to saturate the cable news airwaves with an rabid outrage bordering on overkill. I would guess that many of these attacks will, no doubt, be some variation of the same arguments used against The New Deal back in the early 1930's. Allow me to include a few applicable quotes to better underscore my point. Each of these comes from Adam Cohen's book Nothing To Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America.

The Wagner Bill immediately drew Republican attacks. "It is socialism," Representative Robert Luce of Massachusetts protested. "Whether it is Communism or not I do not know."

How many times have we heard THAT complaint in the last nine months? While it is true that the reform measures pushed by the Obama Administration represent a growth in government oversight, federal spending, and government intervention in the private sector, it'd be pushing it to say that these program represent anything close to true Socialism. Americans, by in large, have a healthy suspicion and distaste of complete government control of anything. Furthermore, it would really be an exaggeration to state that the budget bill is a manifestation of Communism, irregardless of what Glenn Beck says.

Senator Simeon D. Fess of Ohio, whose unswerving loyalty to the Republican Party earned him the nicknamed "Faithful Fess" complained that "Uncle Sam is looked upon as a Santa Claus to give alms."

Until The New Deal, it was widely believed that poverty was little more than a moral failure. Those who were unemployed and living in squalid conditions, as the argument went, deserved exactly what they got because their gaping character flaws and deliberately slothful behavior was what created their state of being. These days, I'm not sure we're quite so callous and cold-hearted towards the poor, but there is still a strain of thought in the American condition whereby we assume the poor have no desire to work, no compulsion to increase their station, and are instead content to live off of the public welfare. FDR himself was hesitant to institute a large-scale system of relief because he held many of these same reservations. Quite simply put, he believed that a European-style welfare system gave an incentive for people to live off the system and not put in their fair share. The reforms he favored along these lines advanced work over monetary payments, though through the crusading efforts of progressive Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, he did establish a system of public relief that involved unemployment payments. The arguments for and against them is a debate that has been raging for a good while.

Southerners, led by Senator Hugo Black of Alabama, insisted that states be given full control over how their funds were spent, to ensure that federal administrators could not require that blacks and whites be treated equally. Conservatives demanded that no new federal bureaucracy be created to manage the problem.

Even if you remove the racial component, attitudes like this still characterize the political mentality of the southern states. Southern natives, I being one of them, recognize the reasons why politicians frequently invoke the tenth amendment and state's rights to serve their own interests; to wit, the region wishes to run its own affairs alone without anyone's oversight. The problems in this circle-the-wagons mentality arise when a kind of entrenched, stubborn provincialism creates an unwillingness to work together for anyone's common good. Arguably, the south has never known true democracy for this reason and its leadership has never wished to work together with Washington, DC, or surrounding states, even for a noble purpose.


I imagine what it must be like to be part of Obama's Brain Trust at the moment in time. If I were in that vaulted inner circle, I'd be excited to shape public policy to a degree that hasn't been done since The New Deal. Rather than sit on the outside and throw rocks, an attitude that has given rise to the careers of so many armchair politicians and cable television pundits, I'd rather seek to understand the game plan of the Obama Administration. Perhaps I've never sold into a gloom and doom way of thinking or wanted the role of the mad prophet forecasting the end times. As Frances Perkins herself said, "You've no idea how much more human beings can endure, particularly if they see a ray of hope."

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