Running into Roosevelt

Written by: Terry Link

Primary Source: Possibilitator

On my weekly visit to the MSU Libraries new book shelf, I’ve been running into books that in some way or another bring up Franklin Roosevelt and his presidency. One of my more recent finds is Professor Scott Myers-Lipton’s Ending Extreme Inequality: An Economic Bill of Rights to Eliminate Poverty (Paradigm Publishers, 2015).

Myers-Lipton looks at the proposed Bill of Rights put forth by Roosevelt in his 1944 State of the Union address and builds the chapters around the six rights:

  • The Right to a Job
  • The Right to a Living Wage
  • The Right to a Decent Home
  • The Right to a Good Education
  • The Right to Adequate Medical Care
  • The Right to Adequate Protection from Economic Fears of Old Age, Accident and Unemployment

As Myers-Lipton reviews each of these rights he updates us on the current economic status in employment, wages, housing, etc. In each section he reviews the history, earlier attempts to address the issue, and some currently proposed solutions. He is not an armchair scholar nor a pessimist. But that doesn’t make him an optimist either. He has helped raise the minimum wage in San Jose where he teaches from $8 to $10 an hour and founded the Gulf Coast Civic Works Campaign, an initiative to develop 100,000 prevailing wage jobs for local and displaced workers after Hurricane Katrina.

In his short two page epilogue, he makes a compelling argument for using the Economic Bill of Rights as a framework for ending extreme inequality.

The United States takes pride in being a democratic nation and the leader of the free world. However, I argue that if the United States is to continue on the path of becoming “a more perfect union,” it must now turn its attention to implementing the constitutional commitments first set out by President Roosevelt seventy years ago in his 1944 State of the Union address. Otherwise, the United States is destined for plutocracy, where the top 1 percent of income earners controls the vast economic wealth and political power, and the 99 percent are left with economic scraps and little political power. For as Louis Brandeis, a former Supreme Court justice, postulated, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”(p.135)

In addressing the question that many pundits and critics would lob at him, how will the nation pay for it, especially with a  projected deficit of $492 billion in 2014 and a deficit of $17 trillion he responds.

It is my belief that once people begin to organize around the implementation of an Economic Bill of Rights, and begin to educate and convince the majority of the US population that this is a necessary step in the country’s development, the nation will find the money. And we will find it because we will develop a sound tax policy that has shared responsibility, where corporations and the economic elite pay their share of taxes. Just sixty years ago, corporations paid over 30 percent of all federal taxes, and the 1 percent had a top marginal tax rate of 90 percent and an effective tax rate of 60 percent. Today corporations pay 9 percent of all taxes, and the top 1 percent now has a marginal tax rate of 39.6 percent (up from 35 percent from 2012) When there is more shared responsibility, our nation’s deficit will be decreased, and the pundits will not be able to claim that the nation cannot afford an Economic Bill of Rights. (p.136)

I wish our Michigan Legislature and the governor would read this book as they have been assaulting the low income citizens while relieving the business and economic elite of responsibility. They have recently passed legislation outlawing prevailing wage contracts by cities/and counties in the state. They are proposing total elimination of the Earned Income Tax Credit that benefits the working poor stuck at minimum wage. And they have all but eliminated business taxes in recent years. No wonder they can’t repair the roads, funds the schools, or help those struggling to house, feed, and care for their families.Their playbook is destroying our communities and creating ever greater gaps between the poor, the middle class and the elite.

Which brings me to another tome I stumbled upon and finished recently. The Unsustainable Presidency: Clinton, Bush Obama and Beyond (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2014) Political science faculty members William Grover and Jospeh Peschek review the role of recent presidencies in the context of dominant theories of the presidency within political science.

What they argue is fascinating. Their concluding chapter begins with an interesting hypothesis:

“If Senator Bernie Sanders(I-VT) were elected president in 2016, “what do you think that would do?”

As they demonstrate in the review of recent presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, the presidency is captured by forces of power, that regardless of political rhetoric or party, is constrained within narrow bounds of acceptable actions. While they demonstrate how this works across recent presidencies, their take on a president sanders election is most compelling.

On the morning after his election they note, “The most predictable immediate impact of a Sanders victory would be the sharp decline of global financial markets, as investors registered their displeasure, possibly panic, at the “reckless” decision rendered by US voters…. FOX News would be apoplectic with visions of impending “communism”, even terrorism leaping out of every news report…. The one economic bright spot would be a spike in sales of Sanders book The Speech, the full account of his historic December 10, 2010 senate filibuster, where for more than eight and one half hours he spoke against the agreement between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans that extended the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, lowered estate taxes for the  superrich, and diverted revenue from the Social Security through a payroll tax holiday.”(pp.141-2).

Grover and Peschek go on to describe in more detail how the powers that be would completely hamstring the Sanders presidency as they have Clinton, Bush, and Obama before him. Unlike Professor Myers-Lipton they seem more pessimistic.

“In short, we live in a catastrophic world. And unless a president — emboldened by a long term social movement and acting in concert with other world leaders __ is willing to challenge the interests of corporate power and financial capital that underlie our political economy, the office of the presidency will remain wedded to outmoded and destructive definitions of economic growth and national security. And theories of the presidency within Political Science will remain as intellectually imprisoned as Lindblom warned they were at the dawn of the Reagan Revolution. Neustadt once referred to Eisenhower as a sort of “Roosevelt in reverse,” discounting the possibility that public expectations for the president could ever be lowered save for very limited periods of time. Reagan also was characterized the same way, for mobilizing the powers of the office in the pursuit of conservative purposes. But for the American presidency to be really sustainable — for it to survive as anything more than a Kabuki drama off spectacle and self-defeating partisan ends — we need not a “Roosevelt in reveres.” Rather, we are in dire need of a Roosevelt reconfigured, a Roosevelt redefined. Absent that type of transformational leadership, the American presidency is likely to remain our Catastrophe-in-Chief — an unsustainable catastrophe of an office, situated in a catastrophic world. ” (p.154)

Which is why Myers-Lipton’s recipe is all the more compelling. But given Peschek’s and Grover’s keen analysis of the presidency those Bernie Sanders for President fans will need to more than get him elected.

They will need to build a movement that pushes him and the other elected representatives to act on behalf of ensuring an economic bill of rights becomes the practice, not simply an idea.

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Terry Link
Terry Link is a retired MSU librarian, former founding director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability, and co-founder and former chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment. He recently served as associate editor for the two-volume encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices(Gale/Cengage 2014). He has also served as executive director of a regional food bank and as a county commissioner. Currently he is president of Starting Now, LLC, a sustainability consulting firm, a Senior Fellow for the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and serves on numerous non-profit organization boards.
Terry Link

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