Franklin Roosevelt (2)

Sunday May 13, 2007

Almost 10 a.m. Okay.

[FDR:] People seek distinction. They like to keep score, and like to have something that they are the best at, or can be proud of. It may be a nice lawn, or raising successful children, or being a good woodworker, or selling record amounts of life insurance, but they want to succeed at something. And they want to be seen as succeeding at something. I don’t care if it is bird-watching, people get a kick out of being the best birdwatcher, if they can. Fishermen make jokes about the ones that got away or they make rueful stories about them – but the ones that don’t get away, they mount, or at least they talk about them. It doesn’t matter if it is luck or skill, you may be sure it will talk about it, and the more they tell the story, the more the skill or luck – depending on how they want to play the story (instead of the fish).

If you have a million ways for people to distinguish themselves, then everybody can be happy, because everybody can succeed at something. That is what “bragging rights” is all about. If I harvested the best apple crop in the country, believe me you are going to hear about it, and even if you don’t – I will. I will know, and it will give me a glow of pleasure, and the world will feel like that much better a place. This can happen by the millions, all over, and you have a reasonably contented and satisfied people.

But when everything is measured by money, what a lot of bad results follow. For one thing, what percentage of the people can be rich? You just can’t have everybody be above average, let alone be rich. That’s just plain sense.

If you have a million ways to distinguish yourself, everybody could find something. If there is only one, what are you going to do?

And if that one is possession of wildly more money than you could ever spend,this is where conspicuous waste sets in. That is what “money to burn” means. It isn’t enough to have enough, if you are using money as your measure – you want to have enough and show you have enough, and more than enough. After all, to bring the argument to an absurdity – how could one meal be worth a million dollars? There is a natural limit to most things, and if it becomes necessary to your happiness for you to continually push those limits, God help you. The nouveau riche are silly and even contemptible not because they now have money and previously didn’t but because, having acquired money, they have no idea how to dispose of the excess. Old money has learned to think of itself at the top of the pyramid because it has the trappings that only old money can have. If it is educated, it is educated from birth. If it lives in quiet comfort, it has done so from birth. If it wishes to enter into society, or commerce, or even politics, it does so from a position prepared for it from birth, and there is no mistaking it.

It is a temptation here to wander from the point. The point is that what I called “economic royalists” are those who measure everything by money and therefore see it as inevitable and therefore right that those who own, direct. It is their country, and everyone else with less money live there more or less on sufferance. This is not a matter of inherited wealth but of an inherited or acquired disposition. I was born of a moderately wealthy and distinguished old family, but I was not an economic royalist, because I admired Lincoln and I had great faith in the common people – or perhaps I should say I had too much acquaintance with those who called themselves the elite to confuse them with their own ideas of themselves! And many a poor boy of ruthless ambition is as firm an economic royalists as the oldest of plutocrats. It is a matter of temperament as much as anything.

To return to the main point: When money measures everything, the scramble for money intensifies and broadens, corrupting everything it touches. People cease to do what they want to do, and instead do what “pays.” They find that they cannot respect themselves if they do not succeed in amassing. The age of shabby gentility becomes inconceivable.

And all of this is only the one side of the coin, the search for distinction. The other side of the coin is grimmer and more certain, and that is the fear of destitution.

You have never seen a poorhouse, but in my day everybody knew of them, and many people knew people who lived there.

It was a central concern of mine to put some sort of floor beneath everybody, so that no one need fear utter destitution. We didn’t abolish poverty – didn’t imagine it possible to do so – but we did abolish the poorhouse, and the country was the better for it.

Social Security was social rather than individual security, and it was meant to assure that anybody who had worked would at least be able to count on having something. Perhaps they would have no pension, perhaps no savings, perhaps no family or no family willing and able to help – they would have something. That was good for the country and it was good for the families and it was good for individuals. You can’t imagine how bad people had it in my day, and it is at least partially due to Social Security that you can’t.

Everything we set up, we set up with the idea of putting a floor beneath the individual and the family, so that they weren’t always on the edge of disaster and starvation. If you were thrifty, we wanted your banks to be sound. If you had a house, or wanted to buy a house, and you had the right habits, we wanted to make it possible. If the people working together could arrange for millions of families to have access to electricity, we wanted that to happen. If we could create jobs, if we could help people get back on their feet and stop having to depend on charity – we wanted to do it.

Did we know what we were doing? Did we know just how to move this lever to produce that effect? Maybe we did, maybe we didn’t, but we had to try. If we made mistakes, all right, we could go back and try again, but whatever we tried that worked, we would have on the credit side of the ledger.

You see? You’ve read a lot of things good and bad about the New Deal, but I’m giving you the key to it. Something was broken and nobody quite knew what it was, but we had to try to fix it. My predecessor believed that it wasn’t broken, and he had three years to show that natural forces would bring things back into balance – but they didn’t! The people were desperate, and they didn’t know where to turn. They didn’t know if I knew what I was doing, or if I meant them well or ill, but they voted me into office because they didn’t know what else in the world to do.

You don’t need a history lesson, and you don’t need to give one here. You know how I took advantage of the temporary panic of the Congress and crammed every bit of action I could into that first three months – the hundred days, so called. It was all aimed at the one thing – stop people from dying today, and maybe we could figure out how to fix the machine tomorrow. So we tried a whole lot of things: the AAA, the NRA, and the whole alphabet soup of agencies, and we thought we would see what worked. One thing we knew, doing nothing hadn’t worked, and Hoover’s attempt to redirect the machine hadn’t worked. The answer had to be some fundamental redesign, and who could know in advance what that would wind up looking like? If we had been able to plan, in other words, if we had known what was wrong and how to cure it, things would have been a whole lot easier. We didn’t. We just knew we had to try any ideas that had promise and if it didn’t work out, too bad.

So when you think about your worldwide anti-slavery society, remember two things: millions of ways for people to excel and be valued by others and value themselves, and larger safety nets, greater security against destitution.

Whew. That came hot and heavy. Tired now. Thank you, Mr. President.

You’re welcome, and thank you for listening. A Journal-side chat, a first for me. It is good to tell my side of it. I made mistakes, and a lot of them, but anyway I acted.

You did that, and we thank you for it.

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