Tag Archives: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

The liberal critics of Big Government

What does it mean to be a “progressive” or “liberal” in America today? More than anything else, perhaps, it implies a determination to defend the signature achievements of the New Deal/Great Society eras: Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and a collection of related programs. And that’s just the problem, say their critics on the right: for progressives, government is the answer for everything. But are conservatives the only ones concerned about the growth of the administrative state—of bureaucracy? Should progressives be worried as well?

We’re used to conservatives, from Ron Paul to Rush Limbaugh, complaining about Big Government. Believe it or not, however, there was a time when liberals—social scientists, lawyers, some members of the Roosevelt administration, even the philosopher John Rawls—worried about the consequences of a liberal state built on regulation and government services and the people’s loyalty to the institutions responsible for them. Anne Kornhauser’s new book, Debating the American State: Liberal Anxieties and the New Leviathan, 1930-1970 (University of Pennsylvania Press), reintroduces the liberal critics of Big Government, arguing that their concerns are still relevant today, particularly since Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency refocused concern on the surveillance bureaucracy.

Discussing the implications of her book for today, Kornhauser, a historian at City College of New York, ticks off a number of other areas where the New Deal institutions and their progeny are not fulfilling their expected role, including health care and regulation of the financial services sector along with national security. Continue reading The liberal critics of Big Government

The Meaning of Harry Reid’s Departure

For the last decade, Harry Reid has been a bulwark against efforts by Republicans and members of his own party to send the core of the New Deal achievement down the road to oblivion. Other Democratic lawmakers may be equally committed, but almost none have the same close emotional ties that he possesses to the Rooseveltian state.

When Senate minority leader Harry Reid announced last week that he won’t run for reelection in 2016, the first thing that flashed through my mind was his age: he’s 75. Only nine senators are older than Reid, and only two of them are Democrats. That underscores how few people still serving in the Senate were born during the New Deal, the period that formed the modern US government, with its social protections, administrative apparatus, and (not so happily) military-industrial complex. For the past 35 years, roughly corresponding to Reid’s career in electoral office, the legislation that Washington enacted during the Great Depression has been a war zone, Continue reading The Meaning of Harry Reid’s Departure

Social Security in Dorothea Lange’s America – and Today

Dorothea Lange, the great documentary photographer, traveled to Oregon in 1939 as part of her ongoing project to record the plight of the rural poor for the federal Resettlement Administration. Among the many stunning, often heartbreaking images she captured was the one reproduced here. The exact location isn’t known, but it shows an unemployed lumber worker and his wife in the shelter they were then living in. The tattoo on his arm is his Social Security number.

Before questioning the necessity of any institution, it’s usually a good idea to review the conditions that made that institution necessary to begin with – and ask ourselves how much has really changed. When Dorothea Lange began her historic project in 1935, the Social Security Act was just clearing Congress and heading to Roosevelt’s desk. In budgetary terms, Old Age Insurance, the section that evolved into today’s national retirement system, was a tiny portion of the whole. The checks that the elderly Continue reading Social Security in Dorothea Lange’s America – and Today

Health Care Reform, Act II

Progressives should be happy their health care reform bill came out far from perfect. In some ways, it’ll benefit them more than if they’d got all they wanted.

Conservatives are denouncing health care reform as a ruthless power grab, propelled by “the single purpose of permanently expanding the American entitlement state.” They know whereof they speak. Ever since the New Deal, the great engine of Democratic electoral success has been the creation of new and improved services by government that the private sector cannot or will not provide in an equitable way.

Social Security, unemployment and disability insurance, Medicare and Medicaid, a vast expansion of public education: all were products of the great period of Democratic political dominance in the U.S. that stretched from the Roosevelt through the Johnson administrations. These programs directly benefited millions of working families and sealed their loyalty to the Democratic Party.

None were perfect from Day One. And that was the beauty of it.

Take Social Security. It didn’t much resemble today’s program when it was first passed in 1935. Benefits were tiny and not indexed to inflation. About the only category of individuals who were well covered were white, male industrial workers. Although it started collecting payroll tax contributions right away, benefits weren’t even supposed Continue reading Health Care Reform, Act II