Of Many Things

By the late spring of 1932, Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president. He already had the support of more than half the delegates to the upcoming Chicago convention, and his closest competitors were Al Smith and John Nance Garner, the also-ran and might-have-been, respectively, of 1928. With the unemployment rate stuck at 20 percent and the most unpopular incumbent president since, well, ever, F.D.R. had what politicians like to call the luxury of ambiguity: Voters were so desperate for change, any change, that he didn’t have to spell out a legislative program, just flash his now-familiar jaunty smile and let the electoral clock run out.

But Roosevelt took it one step further. He made his lack of a legislative program the centerpiece of his campaign: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands, bold, persistent experimentation,” Roosevelt said that May at Oglethorpe University’s commencement. “It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” At Oglethorpe, then, Mr. Roosevelt came out as that almost always beloved American character: the bottom-line pragmatist, the guy who cuts through the cant and simply asks, “What works?” This was a very different approach from that of his fellow political practitioners elsewhere in America and in Europe, where the ideological warfare of the 1920s and ’30s had literally turned into a blood sport.

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Mr. Roosevelt’s legacy, then, isn’t some dusty, dogmatic form of American market socialism but rather a principled, though unapologetically nonideological pragmatism. In that sense, F.D.R.’s approach is not entirely unlike Catholic social teaching, which also stresses the “must” and the “why” but largely leaves the “how” to the community to decide. “What are the most effective, just means to a more just and peaceful world?” Catholics are meant to ask, while deploying all the resources of our tradition in order to answer the question in a given political context.

That is the exact opposite of an ideological approach to politics. For an ideology, regardless of whether it originates on the left or the right, always answers its own question. This self-enclosed systematic worldview is often expressed as “the belief that everything that happens is explicable in terms of the relevant structure,” writes Kenneth Minogue. That is what makes these intellectual idols so popular. By virtue of their circular explanatory power, ideologies are seemingly omniscient.

Although ideological thinking is popular, it should be clear that it and the political narcissism that almost always accompanies it are essentially incompatible with a Catholic worldview. We share a vision of the political life that is centered on the common good, as Bishop Robert McElroy reminds us in this issue: “The sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more readily and more easily.... [E]very group must take into account the needs and legitimate aspirations of every other group, and still more, of the human family as a whole.” A more down-to-earth, or practical way of putting that perhaps is what Helen Alvaré writes in her debut column, also in this issue: “It might go a long way if Catholics managed to avoid two political tics: speaking as if a particular candidate or party embodied Christ-like love for all people; and forgetting how many proposed laws are a complex mix of good and bad.”

All in all, that’s pretty good political advice. We might try it out in the next election cycle. As someone once said, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

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J Cosgrove
3 years 4 months ago
Father, I believe you are very wrong about President Roosevelt on several things.
The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands, bold, persistent experimentation
This ia probably the single biggest reason that the Depression lasted so long and why it should be avoided at all cost today. This experimentation lasted till 1946. after World War II had ended when FDR died so he could not do any more "experimentation." The uncertainty created by all of Roosevelt's experimentation essentially froze the job creators as they did not know what was coming next. Any policy takes probably a year or two to start taking effect, but the constant changing and anti-business nature of the changes paralyzed the economy. It has been referred to as the "regime uncertainty." We are in a similar situation now as Obama's executive actions, the Affordable Care Act (regulations still being written) and the coming regulations of Dodd-Franks has created lots of uncertainty and has lowered the prospects of investment providing an adequate return.
This was a very different approach from that of his fellow political practitioners elsewhere in America and in Europe, where the ideological warfare of the 1920s and ’30s had literally turned into a blood sport.
FDR was probably one of the biggest ideologues of any president. It was an ideologue of the left and a major one. Wilson and Obama may be more so but Roosevelt was definitely a committed ideologue. His endorsement of government solutions rather than the market was a major part of everything he did. He was anti-business and it wasn't till he died that business could afford to invest again knowing that they would reap the benefits of this investment. We are in a similar situation today and it may not end till Obama is gone from power and some certainty comes back and will let the country grow again. We have pumped several trillion of dollars into the economy via money printing and it has gotten very little except a healthy stock market. But the country has been regulated to death with health care, environmental and banking regulations. There is no major investment. The only thing saving us from a major disaster is the oil production bonanza due to fracking and horizontal drilling and innovation from the digital revolution which is still going on. Moore's law is still working. Otherwise we would be in very bad shape.
Louis Candell
3 years 4 months ago
To J Cosgrove: Nonsense.
J Cosgrove
3 years 4 months ago
I stand by everything I said. In recent years there has been several new histories of the Roosevelt years which lay out a different story of what happened. The original histories of the Depression and Roosevelt were written by Progressives like Roosevelt and treated what happened very favorably. However, they do not stand up to closer inspections. These in no way exonerate Hoover, who was also a progressive and believed in massive government intervention into the world. He signed Smoot Hawley which is considered one of the major causes of the Depression. He had made his name intervening into society during World War I and in the 1920's with flood relief of the Mississippi states. As president, Hoover, was constantly meddling with the economy in order at first to achieve desired goals (Smoot Hawley) but then to offset the massive unemployment that happened almost over night. Hoover was a Keynesian before Keynes. Roosevelt continued most of what Hoover began but intensified government's role in fixing things. Roosevelt created an alphabet soup of government agencies. Hoover believed in the free market in most ways and encouraged business activity but Roosevelt did not. So both were progressive ideologues but not of exactly the same stripe. One of the best books on this is Robert Higg's
Depression, War, and Cold War: Challenging the Myths of Conflict and Prosperity
Here is the link to it on Amazon. Read the first review which is quite extensive to get a feel for the book. http://www.amazon.com/Depression-War-Cold-Challenging-Independent/dp/1598130293/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1402757055&sr=8-1&keywords=higgs+depression There are several other books which tell essentially the same story. Roosevelt's meddling and anti-business attitude essentially prolonged the Depression another 14 years. Yes, there was full employment during World War II but about 40% of GDP was creating things to destroy other things. Necessary during a war but not real growth in an economy.
Chuck Kotlarz
3 years 4 months ago
FDR’s “experimenting” perhaps was not without merit. Eight of the nine worst economic downturns since 1856 started prior to FDR. Marriner Eccles (FDR's Federal Reserve chairman from 1935 to 1948) felt a properly managed plan of government expenditures (social security, unemployment insurance, etc.) was essential to preventing economic depressions. So too was a system of taxation conducive to a more equitable distribution of income. Eccles was a successful businessman and millionaire at age 22 (Warren Buffet was a millionaire at 25).
J Cosgrove
3 years 4 months ago
Eccles was a main part of the problem as he along with Roosevelt championed a false cause for the Depression, namely under consumption. To offset this false narrative, he advocated massive government spending. So acting on a non-existent cause was a major factor in prolonging the Depression. We have paid the price of Eccles' folly every since as government spending has become the mantra of the liberals since Roosevelt with little or no evidence that it does much that is positive and lots of evidence that it has negative consequences. The result is too much power, financial and otherwise, in an institution that is inherently inefficient. If you want to understand the various banking crisis that have plagued the United States since its beginning, read Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit by Charles W. Calomiris and Stephen H. Haber. http://www.amazon.com/Fragile-Design-Political-Princeton-Economic/dp/0691155240
Chuck Kotlarz
3 years 4 months ago
"...government spending has become the mantra of the liberals..." During the last 45 years there have been five budget surpluses, all five were from Democratic Presidents. If taxation levels were the same today as we had under Clinton, we would have a balanced budget. “…a false cause for the Depression, namely under consumption.” Al woke up in the middle of the night to check out a sound he heard coming from the kitchen. Al was one of twelve siblings in the 30’s growing up in New York City. He found his mother sobbing at the table…there was no food or money. Al turned 18 in 1937 and through FDR’s CCC program fought forest fires in California. Al later served in WWII. On May 29th, 1943, Joe’s B17 was returning from Rennes, France. The plane had sustained extensive damage from enemy fire. Enemy fighters spotted the planes trouble and came in from all sides. FDR’s CCC program provided jobs for Al, Joe and nearly three million 18 year olds. Many resumes of America’s greatest generation perhaps would note FDR’s CCC.
J Cosgrove
3 years 4 months ago
Mr. Kotlarz, Thank you for your comments and insight. i appreciate them because they reinforce everything I have been saying. There seems to be a problem with the software the controls the comments. I can be signed in on one page and it will not recognize that I am signed in on another even if the page is refreshed after the signing in. I mentioned on another thread how comments can get deleted and this was verified by others. My guess is that this is a software glitch.

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