November 15, 2002

For a quick itemization of what a wreck the so-called conservative government of George W. Bush has made of the U.S. economy, see Buzzflash Perspectives.

Hold on to your hats, it could get very rocky.

For a historical perspective, Buzzflash delved into the history files and pulled out a speech of Harry Truman in 1948, the year he had to defend the presidency he inherited upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In Truman's speech he delineates the essential differences between the Republicans and the Democrats in the preceding 20 years. This is an important historical perspective most younger Americans are probably not aware of. Here's what Truman had to say:

The Republicans wrote part of their record from 1921 to 1933. They led the country to depression, poverty, and despair. It is easy to forget what the black days of the depression were like. Let us recall a few, just a few of the bitter facts.

In 1932, after 12 years of Republican bungling, more than 12 million men and women were unemployed. In 1932 the average worker in manufacturing industries was making 45 cents an hour--if he was lucky enough to have a job. In coal mining, the most hazardous of all occupations, miners were making 52 cents an hour--if they were lucky enough to have jobs. The workingmen and women in this country could not do much to help themselves, because the strength of their unions had been broken by the reactionary labor policies of the Republican administration.

The Republican bubble burst in 1929, and when it burst:

--There was no minimum wage to cushion the blow.

--There was no unemployment compensation to carry the workingman's family along.

--There was no work relief program to help people through the crisis.

--But the party of privilege was ready to carry big business through the crisis. It created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation for that purpose. The banks, the railways, the insurance companies--they got relief, but not the American people.

--For the unemployed, it was Hoovervilles and soup kitchens. Veterans were encouraged to go into business for themselves-selling apples.

That is the Republican record. Most of us well remember it. The Democratic part of the record begins in 1933, when the Democratic Party began to build prosperity for business, labor, and agriculture.

We wrote into law the right of the workingmen and women to organize in unions of their own choice, and to bargain collectively.

We put a floor under wages.

We outlawed child labor.

We created a great insurance system to protect workingmen and women against the hazards of unemployment and old age.

We wrote into law a system of price supports for farm products, so that the bottom would not drop from under the farmer's income the way it did in the 1920's.

We put a curb on Wall Street speculation, and stopped the money changers from gambling with people's savings.

With these reforms and many others, the Democratic Party brought the country to the greatest period of prosperity ever known in the history of the world.

Things are far different now from what they were in 1932.

(For the entire text of the speech, see The Truman Library.)

Ronald Reagan's big achievement was to begin aggressively dismantling the social systems that were established in response to the catastrophe of the Great Depression. Bush I continued the process, and under Clinton it continued with the gutting of the welfare system. This effectively returns the U.S. to 1932 or so, to a world in which the Robber Barons, a small ruling elite had the nation in the palm of its hand, while millions suffered and struggled to survive.

This means that in a world in which the economic system is controlled by forces far beyond the power of the average man, there is very little of a support system for people who fall into unemployment because of macroeconomic dislocations.

Whenever the economy becomes productive enough that unemployment drops below a certain level, the Federal Reserve chairman will put on the brakes by increasing interest rates. That means full employment is not acceptable in this system. And if the free market will produce enough work for everyone, the Fed will artificially manipulate the economy to push unemployment back to "acceptable levels." When there are plenty of jobs, wages go up by simple supply and demand, and that is not acceptable to the powers that rule.

Manipulating the economy to control inflation is one thing. But if you are controlling the economy like that -- that is, if you are operating a command economy like the Soviet Union did rather than letting the free market run its course -- then you must make some provision for the people you have forced into unemployment and destitution. In a civilized country that forced a certain percentage of its people out of work to control the economy, there would be a basic support system to provide the means to survive for the unemployed. If that is not provided, then of course people will do what they must to survive, which means in some cases, that they will turn to crime.

The cost of that crime to society easily outstrips any savings that comes from gutting the social welfare system and giving all the money in the treasury to the rich, as the Bush tax cuts have done. Most of the rich apparently would rather have the extra millions than live in a society where they don't have to fear all the hungry people. It's rather irresistible, though short sighted.

But after one's needs are met many times over, as in the case of the rich who constitute George W. Bush's real constituency, it would seem natural to look beyond increasing one's own wealth and focus on improving the quality of the society one lives in. Forcing poor people into crime and then incarcerating a huge percentage of the population does not create the most pleasant kind of society. However, privatized prisons are a growth industry and have provided good investment opportunities for those so inclined.

At some point as we decline into a 19th century robber baron aristocracy, Americans need to try to recover that history and consider that way of looking at the world that was held by men who followed in the tradition established by Roosevelt. John F. Kennedy said we owe it to ourselves to create a better society than one in which some children go to bed hungry. We owe it to ourselves. To the greedy rich Republicans I would say, it's not all about how much money you have, how many things you own, how much you can make people bow and scrape to you. At a certain level of maturity, one must think about what kind of world one wants to live in, or to pass on to future generations, and must take whatever action is possible to help bring that kind of world into existence. The Republican vision, as demonstrated by the political actions of the Bush administration, leads to a barbaric, violent, inhumane society.

We can do much better.

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