How does America dig out of the hole we are in? Surely the focus must be on first principles: how do we recreate an economy that works for working people? With the right talking about a return to the principles of the Constitution, it is worth remembering how Americans thought about first principles coming out of the last great economic calamity.
January 11 is the 67th anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s historic 1944 State of the Union address that put forth an Economic Bill of Rights for all Americans. (Michael Moore presented it to modern audiences in his "Capitalism: A Love Story.")
Roosevelt spoke as the Great War was drawing to a close. Attention was turning to the transition to peace, with widespread fears about whether the economy would revert to the depression that only the mobilization for war brought to an end. An entire nation had mobilized and sacrificed for war; what would peacetime bring?
Roosevelt argued that the sacrifices made in war demanded a strategy not only for "a lasting peace," but for "an American standard of living higher than ever before known" — and one that was as widely shared as the wartime sacrifices were:
We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people — whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth — is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.
Roosevelt presented the second Bill of Rights not as a new idea, but as"self evident," something that "we have accepted."
His argument was simple and clear. The Republic was built under the protection of certain inalienable rights — "among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures." They were our rights to life and liberty.
But as the nation grew and the industrial economy expanded, these political rights "proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness," the promise made in the Declaration of Independence.
We had learned that economic security was essential to political freedom and to peace. "Necessitous men are not free men," Roosevelt taught. "People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made." True individual freedom cannot exist, Roosevelt argued, without "economic security and independence."
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all — regardless of station, race, or creed.
"Among these rights" — Roosevelt did not pretend to be comprehensive — were:
- The right to a useful and remunerative job…
- The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
- The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
- The right of every family to a decent home;
- The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
- The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
- The right to a good education.
All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.
America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for all our citizens.
Roosevelt died before the war ended, but the country continued down the course he had set. The GI Bill opened the doors of education and training for a generation, and helped make homes affordable. Social Security was strengthened, and continues to provide a minimal level of security for retirees, widows, orphaned children and the disabled. America ran close to a full employment economy, while empowering workers to form unions and capture a fair share of increased productivity and profits. With unions at 30 percent of the workforce, their wage agreements helped set the standard for non-union employers, helping to build a broad middle class that was the marvel of the world. The minimum wage was raised to put a floor on payment for work. The Veteran’s Administration provided socialized medicine for veterans, but the guarantee adequate medical care for all was blocked under Truman, and stymied until the historic reform passed under Barack Obama last year.
After Roosevelt’s death, his wife, Eleanor, led the drive to get the United Nations to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and later the economic rights were codified in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. By 2003, 142 nations had ratified this covenant, but not the United States. Here it was entangled in the bitter domestic politics of the Cold War and torpedoed by Senators intent on defending segregation.
Now as we struggle to emerge from the worst economic decline since the Great Depression, we would benefit from returning to Roosevelt’s principles and vision.
Once more our economy is sapped by extreme inequality, with the wealthiest 1 percent controlling as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, and capturing fully two-thirds of the income growth of the five years before the financial collapse. Fifty million people go without health insurance, while health reform is under assault. The minimum wage has lost more than one-fourth of its value since 1968. Unions are down to less than 9 percent of the private workforce. Wages for most Americans haven’t kept up with prices even when the economy was growing. The size and concentration of the big banks — now with assets at 60 percent of GDP (up from 17 percent in 1995) — threaten our economy and our democracy.
The shared miseries of the Great Depression and the shared sacrifices of the Great War led many Americans to embrace the idea that basic economic rights are essential to freedom. In the wake of the worst economic downturn since that depression, we would be wise to revive Roosevelt’s call once more.