By Gary Berg-Cross
Like many recent events have reminded me enough of the Great Depression. You don’t have to be economist Paul Krugman to know that the economy of the last 4-5 years bears a resemblance to the late 20s and some of the 30s. They differ in degree but less in kind with a Stock market prices crash, failing banks, stalling manufacturing, large and persistent unemployment, people losing houses and markets stalled. The dismal scene confronting Obama was a bit like what faced FDR with a few wars thrown in early and an opposite that is not apologetic or remorseful about its role in creating and solving the mess. In an open letter to the newly elected President Krugman drew attention to the comparison:
“The last president to face a similar mess was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and you can learn a lot from his example. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should do everything FDR did. On the contrary, you have to take care to emulate his successes, but avoid repeating his mistakes.”
We’ve had too like of both emulation and error avoidance and as Krugman (and others) have pointed out the “recovery” economic conditions today bear a strong resemblance to the 2nd economic dip of 1936-37 with slowly growing output, some prices rising, and unemployment still very high. The government cut back its fiscal stimulus before there was a full recovery which locked in high unemployment for years. Krugman, an unabashed supporter of FDR’s New Deal, is good on the history but understand what Krugman was writing about I picked up a library copy of Adam Cohen’s Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Day that Created America. It’s a timely narrative that provides a picture of Roosevelt’s first Hundred Days through the biographic eyes of an inner circle of five men and one woman. I learned something about each of them (e.g. committed liberals Henry Wallace, Harry Hopkins, along with conservative Lewis Douglas) and their relationships but was particularly struck by his female appoint – Elizabeth Warren. Wait it wasn’t Elizabeth Warren it was Frances Perkins, the first woman to hold a cabinet position – Secretary of Labor. It’s just that Frances reminds me of Elizabeth. As they say Frances Perkins is no longer a household name, but many see her as one of the most influential women of the 20th century if only because of the ways she found to help people through government problems. Cohen provides a vivid portrait of Frances Perkins arriving in Washington in 1932 by train with no one to guide her to the days’ events or means to get there. With gritty determination she pulls a Department together and works to sway the president to back large-scale public work programs. This was difficult since FDR had an anti-dole oriented to the projects. Hopkins, Perkins, and Wallace worked together on the progress idea that government, especially in times of crises, should take an active role in improving the lives of its citizens - workers, the poor,youth, the unemployed, and farmers. A conservative Douglas at Treasury backed a Hoover like approach favoring, low taxes, laissez faire economics, and small government. While Douglas one the early battles the latter part of the 100 days belongs to the progressives. In his introduction, Cohen neatly sums up this up:
"While the public story line of the Hundred Days was about how Roosevelt, through his eloquent public statements and legislative initiatives rallied a desperate nation, behind the scenes his advisers were battling over what shape the New Deal would take. Perkins, Wallace, and Hopkins worked with members of Congress, farm leaders, union officials, and other progressives to promote their agenda. Douglas worked with business leaders and other conservatives to pull Roosevelt in the opposite direction. In the first month of the Hundred Days, through the passage of the Economy Act, Douglas’s side prevailed. For the rest of the Hundred Days, Perkins’s side did. While Douglas won the early battles, Perkins, Wallace, and Hopkins won the war."
Perkins and the Progressive team were able to win FDR’s support for progressive legislation that launched massive public works projects. Over time these created millions of jobs for unemployed workers. As a new type of Secretary of Labor, one not under the thumb of bosses, she advanced work for all workers. But she also invigorating the labor movement. Perhaps her greatest monument was creating Social Security. This and her other successes like unemployment compensation, child labor laws, and the forty-hour work week still provide the basis for a social safety net.
Which brings me back to Elizabeth Warren who seems to combine the same degree of pluck, competence number of skills including management and PR along with a vision of what needs to be done. Like Perkins her vision and role is challenged by conservatives. Like Perkins she has crafted ideas and helped with legislation (Dodd-Frank reform law) about how federal agency that can protect people and help in times of crisis, In Warren’s case it is protecting consumers from flawed financial products – the type of thing that got us into our problems such as predatory sub-prime mortgages. Like Perkins she has the ear of the President and some in Congress who she has lobbied to turn her vision into a reality. Like Perkins she can recognize talent and attract it take on hard jobs. She also recognizes non-talent in the merely political and recognizes the damage it can do And now, working inside the Executive Branch she is busy setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which should come to life soon. We can only hope that she like Francis Perkins will be working inside a long time.