Lessons from FDR

Tony Badger had an interesting article in the January 26 print edition of the Nation which I have just finished reading.  The history lesson and the review of the politics FDR had to deal with are instructive, but the lessons he draws for President Obama are to the point and worth noting.

First, in an economic emergency, however distasteful it may be, you have to bail out the bankers and corporations. Second, any economic recovery package has to be bold–to create jobs, you have to spend a lot. Third, infrastructure investment works–as the New Deal’s public works programs showed in highways, education, cheap electrical power and flood control. Fourth, while you do not have to postpone much-needed reforms, you don’t have to get all your reforms passed at once. Finally, you cannot expect a recovery program, no matter how well prepared, to sail through unchallenged. You have to be nimble enough to accept some of the things Congress will insist on that you may not like. But there may be new and unexpected crises that can, as in 1933, offer opportunities to a president willing to take them.

Badger is the author of the new book FDR: the first one hundred days which I have not read yet, but I believe I heard or read somewhere that Barack Obama was reading it.

Republican Stimulus

I have Chris Matthew’s Hardball playing in the background.  He is interviewing two Republicans are still pushing business tax cuts and the same old Republican agenda.  One of them wanted to know what the money for the arts will do to create jobs. The answer is every musical or theatical production, every symphony orchestra, every movie employs people other than the artists.  Look at the jobs created- and the lasting contribution made –  by the art projects funded by FDR.  Arts money can also be used to maintain arts programs in the schools – which will employ teachers.  Jobs.

The whole “this is a Democrat bill” drives me nuts.  Didn’t the Republicans lose the election?  Luckily Paul Krugman had some advice in his column from January 26:

…So as a public service, let me try to debunk some of the major antistimulus arguments that have already surfaced. Any time you hear someone reciting one of these arguments, write him or her off as a dishonest flack.

First, there’s the bogus talking point that the Obama plan will cost $275,000 per job created. Why is it bogus? Because it involves taking the cost of a plan that will extend over several years, creating millions of jobs each year, and dividing it by the jobs created in just one of those years.

It’s as if an opponent of the school lunch program were to take an estimate of the cost of that program over the next five years, then divide it by the number of lunches provided in just one of those years, and assert that the program was hugely wasteful, because it cost $13 per lunch. (The actual cost of a free school lunch, by the way, is $2.57.)

The true cost per job of the Obama plan will probably be closer to $100,000 than $275,000 — and the net cost will be as little as $60,000 once you take into account the fact that a stronger economy means higher tax receipts.

Next, write off anyone who asserts that it’s always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money.

Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.

Today Bob Herbert calls the Republican arguments “The Same Old Song“:

What’s up with the Republicans? Have they no sense that their policies have sent the country hurtling down the road to ruin? Are they so divorced from reality that in their delusionary state they honestly believe we need more of their tax cuts for the rich and their other forms of plutocratic irresponsibility, the very things that got us to this deplorable state?

The G.O.P.’s latest campaign is aimed at undermining President Obama’s effort to cope with the national economic emergency by attacking the spending in his stimulus package and repeating ad nauseam the Republican mantra for ever more tax cuts.

My favorite line of the Herbert column is

The truth, of course, is that the country is hemorrhaging jobs and Americans are heading to the poorhouse by the millions. The stock markets and the value of the family home have collapsed, and there is virtual across-the-board agreement that the country is caught up in the worst economic disaster since at least World War II.

The Republican answer to this turmoil?

Tax cuts.

They need to go into rehab.

Where is the Center?

There has been a lot of chatter about Barack Obama “moving to the center” or “governing from the center”.   Victor Navasky wrote in a Comment  for the Nation reacting to all the pundits saying that Obama’s Cabinet appointments and Inaugural Address showed he was moving to the center:

First, as our friend and backer Paul Newman used to remind us, The Nation was valuable because it helps define where the center is. The center can shift. When Obama added to his ritualistic description of America as “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus” a new category–“nonbelievers”–it was almost unbelievable, as he quickly helped redefine where the center was.

Second, based on what we know about Obama–his books, his initial intuitive stand against the war in Iraq, his Senate voting record, his campaign, his inaugural speech–I don’t believe it. At most, he seems to me a liberal wolf in centrist sheep’s clothing.

And finally, faced with the ever-more-dire economic crisis, his commitment to a Keynes-based economic stimulus and renewed regulatory rigor (see his inaugural reference to not letting the market “spin out of control”) suggests that, at a minimum, he flunked Centrism 101.

As Navasky (and Paul Newman) both know, the center moves.

Michael Tomasky writing in the Guardian (the whole piece is very interesting by the way) points out

Now we are in the age of Barack Obama. Now it’s conservatism that has broken down and contracted into a narrow ideology. And Obama’s project is nothing less than to revive this pre-1970s conception of liberalism as an ongoing civic project to which all contribute and from which all benefit. It was there in his inaugural speech when he spoke of “the price and the promise of citizenship”, and it’s present in his early proposals. The stimulus package that he began negotiating with congressional leaders last week is an audacious experiment along these lines. Let’s invest these billions together, he is saying, and in time the investments will bear fruit and benefit everyone.

I’m hoping that Navasky and Tomasky are right.  I’m hoping that just because John McCain is now whining about not liking the Recovery and Reinvestment bill, President Obama and the Congress will not cave.  When I heard McCain I started screaming at the radio, “But you lost!”

“Racing Odysseus”

Racing Odysseus: A college president becomes a freshman again is the story of one semester Roger H. Martin spends at my alma mater, St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD.(Class of ’69).  I have conflicting feelings about both about what he did and how he did it, but I’m happy for his conclusion about the value of a St. John’s education.

Mr. Martin was 61 when he began his adventure.  The same age I am now.  Last summer Bob and I returned to read the Iliad with 5 seminars over 4 days.  It was exhilarating and exhausting. So I have some sympathy for him and understand maybe why he limited himself, but I was disappointed that Mr. Martin seems to have only attended one lab session and no Greek or math tutorials.  At least, that is all he wrote about. He basically went to Seminar, maybe  lecture (he wrote about only one on Homecoming Weekend) and rowed.  So as a book about a peer surviving cancer and looking for new challenges both intellectually and physically, it is a good and interesting book.  Mr. Martin did not, however, become a freshman and did not really experience the St. John’s program.  He experienced one semester of seminar and some extra-curricular activities.

St. John’s College (Annapolis and Santa Fe) is the Great Books school.  Everyone reads pretty much the same books (the list does change and evolve – more women  and non-dead white male writers have been added since my time which is good) and studies the same Greek and French, math, science, and music.  It is a very small school with small classes – there is nowhere to hide if you aren’t prepared.  It is difficult to keep up and absorb everything and looking back, much of my time seems wasted.  One wonderful thing about St. John’s is that when one goes back as Bob and I did last summer and is in a seminar with alumni from many different classes rereading something we had all read before, there is an automatic common bond.

I’d be interested to talk to Chris Nelson (President of St. John’s) about what the deal was.  Mr. Martin did not talk in seminar and I gather that was part of the deal.  But he didn’t seem to know about the Freshman Chorus requirement until the very end.  Did Mr. Martin go to lecture every Friday night?   While he mentions a fellow student talking about Euclid in seminar, it is not clear he ever went to class.  Mr. Martin does capture the seminar experience pretty well including the fact that some night, seminar is horrible.

Mr. Martin mentions several times the analytical and leadership skills that students develop there.  I got one of my first professional jobs because the person interviewing me was fascinated by the school and the idea that there was actually a place where student have to learn to think for themselves.  As I tell people who are thinking about St. John’s:  for the right person, St. John’s is the right place – not the perfect place, but the right place. 

I hope Mr. Martin’s book serves as an introduction to some student who enrolls or more likely serves the purpose that the once famous Saturday Review article served for me.  My father read the article and told me and my sister that if we could get in, he would send us.  I took the challenge and have never regretted not going to a more conventional college.

State Quarters

Yesterday Bob from FortRight brought me home a present.  It was the last quarter I needed to complete my collection of state quarters – the one from Hawaii!  I started collecting in 1999 and have circulated coins only.  None of this buying mint copies.  We found all of mine in change.

Have you noticed that President Obama is from Hawaii and got elected the year the state quarter was issued?  Pretty cool.

Making Change

There is a new sheriff in town and his name is Barack Obama.  I think he made that clear yesterday when he told the Republican Congressional leaders (after listening to their laundry list of what was wrong with his Recovery Act proposal), “I won.”

So far President Obama seems to listen to lots of points of view and then make a decision.  I saw an interview with General Powell recently in which he described Obama’s leadership style:  Lots of internal discussion and disagreement.  Then Obama makes a decision and the drama is over.  At least this is what happened during the Transition and the campaign.  There is no reason not to think this will continue.  So “no drama Obama” seems to apply only to what we see in public and there are lots of dissenting voices before decisions are made.  There is nothing like former President Bush’s  (I love writing that!) way of decision making.  In one of his exit interview, Bush was asked if he called people like General Powell before he made a decision after 9/11 and he basically said, “no.  I knew what they thought.”  I can’t imagine this happening with President Obama.  A change.

People can quibble about whether he’s going far enough to end torture and certainly whether his immediate waiver of this lobbying executive order for a former Raytheon lobbyist was a good thing, but I say, so far so good.

I am on the side of those who would like to see prosecutions of those who ordered torture.  But I think (I hope) I see the tactic.  Don’t come out and say you are going to prosecute before Congressional investigations are completed and before there are reports about what Justice, Defense, the NSA and CIA find in internal memos.  Collect the evidence first.

David Sirota wrote

Cut through the meaningless platitudes describing our new president as a post-partisan, post-racial pragmatist, and you find an inspiring leader who organized us around optimism. Then consider that leader’s behavior since the election, and you run into that nagging speck of doubt. His less-than-inspiring Cabinet appointments, his support of Bush’s Wall Street bailout, his embrace of nonsensical corporate tax cuts – these moves raise questions about whether Obama is willing to differentiate between his two campaign themes: hope and change.

While both those things have lately been in short supply, the distance between them on policy is the gulf separating ambition and realization. Hope is a bill peppered with “may” – the word that merely asks banks or polluters to regulate themselves. Change is a statute teeming with “shall” – a term forcing its targets to comply. Hope is telegenic glamour, winning smiles, and poignant one-liners. Change is all the grinding work and uncomfortable confrontations that come with challenging power and enacting transformative laws.

The reason so many cried this week is because we can finally glimpse that change in the distance. And yet, those pangs of concern linger. They don’t undermine the euphoria or diminish Obama’s promise. But they do recognize that we worry about hope’s mirage – and pray there are no illusions this time.


Pete Seeger at the Lincoln Memorial

The concert at the Lincoln Memorial was a wonderful start to the festivities.  My favorites were Garth Brooks (who knew he could do gospel?) and Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen leading everyone in Woody Guthrie’s This Land is My Land

I grew up with Pete Seeger both with the Weavers and as a solo.  He used to come and perform at the annual Bucks County PA Peace Fair and I recall selling him Italian Ice at least once.  John Pareles wrote in his review of the concert in the New York Times

Its penultimate song had the 89-year-old folk singer Pete Seeger, who survived being blacklisted during the McCarthy era, leading a singalong on a full-length version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” with one of his admirers, Mr. Springsteen, by his side.

And Joanna Weiss  in the Boston Globe

But the penultimate act seemed to suit the day best: Pete Seeger, 89, standing by Springsteen and the youth choir, feeding the crowd the lines to “This Land Is Your Land.” In his multicolored cap, gazing out on the scene, he wore an expression that veered toward glee.

But the most important piece was posted today in The Nation by Peter Rothberg.  Rothberg is promoting Seeger for a Nobel Peace prize for his decades of work.

Seeger has been an inimitable ambassador for peace, social justice and the best kind of patriotism over the course of a remarkable lifetime. As a prominent musician his songs have engaged people, particularly the youth, to question the value of war, to ban nuclear weapons, to work for international solidarity and against racism wherever it is practiced, and to assume ecological responsibility.

A particular hero to the civil rights movement on whose behalf he worked so tirelessly, Seeger made his first trip south at the invitation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1956, and returned in ’65, again at King’s personal invitation, to join the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Amid the tension and heat, Seeger went from campfire to campfire when the march stopped for the night, raising people’s morale with rollicking sing-alongs of new freedom songs.

 Check out  nobelprize4pete.org and ask the American Friends Service Committee to nominate him.