A serial journal of cogent reflections and irreverent insights on the social effects of capitalism and the roots of partisan politics. Pairing prose with HDR photography and “flash points” drawn from current and historical perspectives, the author seeks to recover lost wisdom and courageous action beyond the shouting and noise of today's headlines.
Chapter Four, Part Two:
Out of Depression and War, a New Vision of Wealth Distribution
Time Range: 1929-1944, 2012
The economic bill of rights highlighted
a scar in the American psyche. Roosevelt’s time in office, which included a
failed coup d’état directed against him, deepened the resolve of factions
opposed to government intervention. From
this moment on, a widening split would cleave those who believed in federal
intervention from those who perceived arrogance in a government that addressed
questions of economic distribution.
got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Mitt
Romney fell on this Obama quote like an NFL lineman on an end zone fumble
during the Super Bowl. And understandably so.
was no gaffe, said Romney, this is what Obama believes. This is straight out of
the catechism. Obama thinks that had not the government created the
preconditions, none of us could succeed. We all depend on government. None of
us can make it on our own.
been channeling Isaac Newton–”If I have seen further than others it is because
I am standing on the shoulders of giants”–or John Donne — “No man is an island,
entire of itself”–many would have nodded in agreement.
Obama seemed to be saying–indeed, was saying–was that, without government, no
business can succeed.
that statement rubs against a deeply ingrained American belief–that the people
built the nation–Obama and his acolytes are charging that Romney ripped his
words out of context.
Here is Obama’s full quote:
“If you were successful, somebody along the line
gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody
helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed
you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a
business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made it happen.”
Conservatives, as opposed to liberals, proclaimed that people had a right to own what they owned and government should be on a very short leash. Government intervention should be held to the strictest criteria for determining what benefited the nation as a whole, especially in regard to infringing on private property and wealth accumulation.
The danger of deviating even a little from this principle, they warned, would unleash a swarm of another form of special interest groups, mostly those not very good at earning a living. This meant limiting what government should do and how much taxes it should collect.
If Roosevelt argued the moral and
political basis for ensuring freedom from want, conservatives argued the moral
and political basis for ensuring freedom of individual rights and protecting
those who succeeded on their own without government assistance. If one side
argued against the special interests of business and corporate influences, the
other side argued against the special interests of labor and minorities.
The interdependence of the whole was
visible to some and invisible to others. Both felt the success of the nation
was at stake. Both sides felt varying
degrees of contempt for the other, to the point where even the same words would
appear to have entirely different meanings.
US Supreme Court: Closing Arguments Regarding Health Care Mandates
New York Times, March 30, 2012
“Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. concluded his defense of the law
at the court this week with remarks aimed squarely at Justice Kennedy. Mr.
Verrilli said there was ‘a profound connection’ between health care and
“‘There will be millions of people
with chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease,’ he said, ‘and as a
result of the health care that they will get, they will be unshackled from the
disabilities that those diseases put on them and have the opportunity to enjoy
the blessings of liberty.’
“Paul D. Clement, representing 26
states challenging the law, had a comeback. ‘I would respectfully suggest,’ he
said, ‘that it’s a very funny conception of liberty that forces somebody to purchase
an insurance policy whether they want it or not.’”
To complicate matters further, discussion of the
proper role of government also pinched a nerve in the neck of the county’s
individualistic orientation. Going back to Henry David Thoreau, the view of
government was that it was the least capable of social institutions to do
anything right. Government was no more than a body of collective incompetents
compromised further by having to compromise with each other. Thoreau, a
naturalist, was not very fond of what he observed of human behavior,
particularly in regard to group behavior on the political stage.
So the mold was cast:
individualism, the right of private property, and state's rights against those
who believed in groups, collective interdependence, and federal government
intervention. Hopefully the problems would just go away, because the lines were
drawn in such a fashion that no resolution was possible.
Health Care Reform and the Supreme Court
New York Times, June 29, 2012
The Supreme Court largely upheld President Obama’s health care law, the Affordable Care Act, in a mixed decision. The conservative chief justice, John G. Roberts, joined the
majority in affirming the central legislative accomplishment of Mr. Obama’s
Chief Justice Roberts ruled that the key provision in
question, the so-called individual mandate requiring all Americans to buy
insurance or pay a fine, failed to pass constitutional muster under the
Commerce Clause, which was the heart of the administration’s arguments in favor
of it. But the chief justice declared that the fine amounted to a tax that the
government had the power to impose, and that the mandate could survive on that
The decision did
significantly restrict one major portion of the law: the expansion of Medicaid,
the government health-insurance program for low-income and sick people. The
ruling gives states some flexibility not to expand their Medicaid programs,
without paying the same financial penalties that the law called for.
debate over health care remains far from over, with Republicans vowing to carry
on their fight against the law, which they see as an unaffordable infringement
on the rights of individuals. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee,
Mitt Romney, has promised to undo it if elected.
Next Week: A shining City on a Hill, 1952-2956
In a dozen short years removed from FDR’s last State of the Union address,
the economic landscape had changed dramatically, or so it seemed. The brilliant
Robert L. Heilbroner, economist and
economic historian, could write that what distinguished the capitalism of the United
States from all others was its refutation of Marx’s assumption that government
could not be an impartial arbiter. American democracy, he proclaimed, tolerated and allowed
for an open discussion of class struggle without class warfare.