In Praise of Compassion

A New Deal—Conservatives vs Liberals

by Thea Halo

Justice will not be served
until those who are unaffected
are as outraged as those who are.
— Benjamin Franklin, (1706-1790)

When did we become a country in which so many citizens seem to hate each other and reject compassion? Perhaps it’s time to remind everyone that the Constitution begins with the words: We the people. It doesn’t begin with, We, some of the people. And although many like to compare themselves to Abraham Lincoln, as Donald Trump has done on numerous occasions, they seem to forget that Lincoln freed the slaves and his Gettysburg address famously ends with the words: “… government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln did not end with: …government of some of the people, by some of the people, for some of the people…

Many who consider themselves Conservatives seem to hate the notion of ‘Liberalism.’ So perhaps we should explore a society ruled by Liberals. If we look at history—our history—it was under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s government—a government many called ‘Socialist’ at the time—that Americans were saved from the most economically devastating era of our nation’s history, i.e. The Great Depression. In a few respects at least, it’s comparable to what we’re living through right now during this Pandemic, although then it was far worse. Rich and poor alike were affected, although the poor and middle classes are always the most affected.

The banks were failing and on the verge of collapse. A few investors even leaped from rooftops when they realized their entire savings were gone when the stock market crashed. There were runs on the banks by a multitude of people who most certainly would have lost their entire life savings. The banking crisis threatened to destroy America’s economy. FDR confronted his greatest challenge on his first full day in office.

“Declaring a ‘bank holiday,’ he temporarily closed all the nation’s banks. Then he called Congress into special session to pass emergency banking legislation. Treasury officials feverishly began work on the Emergency Banking Act. Rushed to Congress four days later, it was approved within hours. The Act gave the government authority to examine bank finances, provide needed capital, and determine which banks were fit to reopen. The healthy banks were authorized to reopen on March 13. But would people trust them? On March 12, FDR went on nationwide radio to reassure Americans. His appeal worked. The following morning, when the banks reopened, depositors lined up to return their money. The banking crisis was over.”1

FDR’s temporary Emergency Banking Act was followed by the 1933 Banking Act, or Glass–Steagall Act, which established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). It was signed into law by Roosevelt on June 16, 1933.2

At the time of the Great Depression, some people were feeding their children from what they could glean from garbage cans. There was no work for millions of Americans. Long lines at soup kitchens were a common sight. Songs were written with words such as:

“Once I built a railroad, I made it run
I made it run against time.
Once I built a railroad, and now it’s done.
Brother can you spare a dime?”3

Farmers also suffered. The ‘Dust Bowl,’ made worse by inefficient farming practices, devastated both the farmers and the economy. Many Americans seem to forget that almost every American whose family lived in the US during the Great Depression, including the families of some of our Politicians, were saved by the policies of that so-called Socialist, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

While fighting his own battle with the effects of Polio, FDR jumped into action and enacted some of the most sweeping programs in our nation’s history. And who was to pay for them? The wealthy. Roosevelt, known as The Great Communicator, famously said:

“We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”4

Today one might conclude that we are back where we started. As long as our politicians are forced to raise millions of dollars in order to run for office, “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, [and] war profiteering,” have surely taken over government interests.

Although FDR was a wealthy member of the ruling class, he set to work designing programs for struggling Americans. FDR created work programs that put millions of Americans to work, and it was work that benefited the entire society, i.e building roads, managing the forests, building walls in Central Park and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. My stonemason father was given work on those two projects. Although they may seem like small accomplishments to some, they stand in my memory of him as part of his lasting contribution to his new country. He is long gone, but the walls he helped build still stand.

“In the first six years …WPA employed about 8,000,000 workers. Monthly earnings for all types of workers averaged $41.50 in 1935 and $50 in 1939. The New Deal paid special attention to the nation’s dispossessed youth. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) put approximately 2,750,000 idle young men to work to reclaim government-owned land and forests through irrigation, soil enrichment, pest control, tree planting, fire prevention and other conservation projects. The young men earned a dollar a day, and they had to send part of their wages to their families back home.”5 In 1930, $1 was equivalent in purchasing power to about $15.60 today.

Even school children benefited from the New Deal. “Through the National Youth Administration (NYA) the government made it possible for 1.5 million high school students and 600,000 college students to continue their education by providing them with part-time jobs to meet their expenses.”6 Even artists were hired to create public works.7

FDR also set up a commission to teach farmers how to better manage their farmland by teaching them better plowing methods that would reduce the erosion of the soil during wind storms. And FDR created “the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which produced and sold cheap electric power and fertilizer in a seven-state area (about four-fifths the size of England), whose farms were among the nation’s poorest and least productive, and where only a fraction of the inhabitants possessed electricity to light their homes and operate their equipment.” The TVA soon forced the privately owned power companies to substantially lower their rates.8

One of FDR’s most lasting initiatives, is Social Security, an essential safeguard that many claimed was threatened during Trump’s presidency. Imagine working for your entire life at a low paying job, or even a mid-level job, only to find yourself unable to pay your rent or feed your family when age made it difficult or impossible to continue working. Without Social Security, those who weren’t fortunate enough to have worked at a job that ensured a pension—as members of congress enjoy—or hadn’t been able to save for their old age, were poverty stricken when they could no longer work. Social Security gave the elderly the dignity to go on without the embarrassment of becoming beggars.

First Lady Eleanor was also a first rate activist. The “First Lady successfully advocated for expanded roles for women in the workplace, the civil rights of African Americans, and the fair treatment of Asian Americans, and championed the rights of World War II refugees.”9 Eleanor famously said: “A woman is like a tea bag — you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

FDR’s New Deal initiatives were extraordinary achievements during an extraordinary time in our nation’s history. FDR didn’t ask if the recipients of his initiatives were Republicans or Democrats. He didn’t ask to which social class they belonged. They were Americans in need at a very desperate time. That’s all FDR needed to know.

On July 30, 1965, another Democrat, President Lyndon B. Johnson, signed Medicare and Medicaid into law. Medicare and Medicaid guaranteed that elderly Americans and low-income Americans would have access to medical attention regardless of their ability to pay.10

Those who call themselves Conservatives should also ask themselves why they are so opposed to programs that help their fellow Americans and, in fact, help themselves. Republicans often cite government deficits as the reason for cutting social programs. However, according to a study published in the New York Times, the annual non-farm growth under Democrats was 4.8% as opposed to 1.0% under Republicans. The G.D.P. was 4.6% under Democrats as opposed to 2.4% under Republicans.11

In fact, the deficit history of the last 40 years tells a powerful story as to who is more fiscally responsible, Democrats—with their more liberal policies—or deficit-minded Republicans.

“Reagan took the deficit from $70 billion to $175 billion. Bush 41 took it to $300 billion. Clinton got it to zero. Bush 43 took it from zero to $1.2 trillion. Obama halved it to $600 billion. Trump got it back to a trillion.”12

Being opposed to social programs is tantamount to “cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face” as the saying goes, since social programs actually help all Americans in big ways and small. Some even argue that they help the rich and middle classes more than they help the poor. Consider the poem called A Quiet Life by Baron Wormser, which is only partially reprinted here. It so aptly explains all that went into the simple act of boiling an egg.

What a person desires in life
is a properly boiled egg.
This isn’t as easy as it seems.
There must be gas and a stove,
the gas requires pipelines, mastodon drills,
banks that dispense the lozenge of capital.
There must be a pot, the product of mines
and furnaces and factories,
of dim early mornings and night-owl shifts,
of women in kerchiefs and men with
sweat-soaked hair.
13

The wealthy should ask themselves if they could have achieved their wealth without the labor and inventions that went into the products and services that helped them achieve their wealth.

Politicians who object so strongly to immigration and programs that help the poor and middle classes, should ask themselves how much wealth their own ancestors brought with them when they first came to the US. One of Trump’s plans on immigration would have greatly cut down on visas for immigrants without advanced skills.14 However, Donald Trump’s own grandfather was banned from returning to Germany because he fled to avoid the national draft. The Independent reports that Trump’s grandfather: “started working as a barber in the US, before going on to run a restaurant, bar and allegedly even a brothel — enterprises that made him wealthy.”15 Donald Trump’s mother, who billed herself as a domestic, or maid—again hardly considered skilled labor—fled poverty in Scotland to find a better life in America.16 Had she been denied entry, Donald Trump would not exist, since it was in America, working as a maid, that his mother met and married Donald Trump’s father.

It was not always easy for the new arrivals. Many Americans resented each new wave that came from other countries. Yet, all except Native Americans came from someplace else during the last 400+ years, often at a time when so many were struggling just to put food on the table. That means many were destitute when they arrived. Think of the Irish who fled Ireland because of the Irish Potato Famine, also known as The Great Hunger. The Irish Potato Famine was not caused by the Irish who suffered the blight.17 Around one million Irish died in Ireland during that time, and about two million fled the country to find safe haven. Around one million Irish arrived in America, most of whom were probably destitute. The same search for safety and a better life holds true for Jews who arrived in the US during or after the Holocaust. And it holds true for Greeks and Italians, and so many others who fled abuse, poverty, wars, and famines in their native lands.

It would be interesting, and perhaps a profitable project for the US government to estimate how much it would cost to help alleviate some of the problems in the South and Central American countries from which so many migrants or refugees flee. They flee from poverty and violence. They don’t walk thousands of miles with their children in tow—with no guarantee of acceptance—for the fun of it. As British Somali poet Warsan Shire wrote in her perfect poem called ‘Home’: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”18 If we wish to lessen the onslaught of these disparate people, perhaps we should ask if there is something the US could do to make it desirable for them to stay safely in there own countries. The remedy may cost less then a wall that is not only unfinished, but many claim is ineffective.19

The inscription at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty doesn’t say: Give me your rich White Scandinavian professionals who hope to rake in millions in America. It famously reads: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

Yet today, some of the offspring of those “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse” have raked in millions, and some of their offspring hold important positions in science, industry, education, the arts, banking, and government, thereby contributing to the wealth and prestige of the nation.

Of course, there must be sensible immigration policies. However, sensible immigration policies shouldn’t translate into abusive immigration policies where children are taken from their parents and put in cages, while their parents are deported with no known contact info for reuniting the family in future.20

It would also be interesting to know whether the parents or grandparents of those members of Congress—who are so adamantly against social programs—lived through the Great Depression and whether the policies of that old ‘Socialist’ FDR helped them survive, and even prosper. We do know that Mitch McConnell’s great great grandfathers owned 12 slave.21 Yet Mitch McConnell was famously opposed to reparations for the descendants of slaves.

Without humane programs such as those initiated by FDR, America would be a much different place today. Because of the Coronavirus Pandemic, the US is once again at one of those crossroads. It’s now up to President Joe Biden and VP Kamala Harris to undo some of the failed policies of the previous administration. And it’s incumbent on the Republicans in Congress not to make this a partisan fight. Everyone in congress took an oath to uphold the Constitution. The country does not belong to one party or the other. It belongs to the American people.

Let’s help them get it right.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

  1. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Saving the Banks. http://www.fdrlibraryvirtualtour.org/page05-02.asp
  2. 10 Major Accomplishments of Franklin D. Roosevelt: https://learnodo-newtonic.com/fdr-accomplishments
  3. Edgar Yipsel Harburg (born Isidore Hochberg; April 8, 1896 – March 5, 1981) was an American popular song lyricist and librettist who worked with many well-known composers. He wrote the lyrics to the standards “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (with Jay Gorney), “April in Paris”, and “It’s Only a Paper Moon”, as well as all of the songs for the film The Wizard of Oz, including “Over the Rainbow”.[1] He was known for the social commentary of his lyrics, as well as his liberal sensibilities. He championed racial and gender equality and union politics. He also was an ardent critic of religion. Wikipedia.
  4. history.com https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/new-deal
  5. Harry Kelber, How the New Deal Created Millions of Jobs To Lift the American People from Depression, The Labor educator, May 9, 2008.
  6. Harry Kelber, How the New Deal Created Millions of Jobs To Lift the American People from Depression, The Labor educator, May 9, 2008.
  7. WPA Art Collection. US Department of the Treasury. https://home.treasury.gov/about/history/collection/paintings/wpa-art-collection
  8. Harry Kelber, How the New Deal Created Millions of Jobs To Lift the American People from Depression, The Labor educator, May 9, 2008.
  9. Anna Elenor Roosevelt, https://www.eleanorroosevelt.org/ The Japanese internment camps remain a blight on FDR’s legacy.
  10. CMS. gov. https://www.cms.gov/About-CMS/Agency-Information/History
  11. David Leonhardt, Good morning. Why has the U.S. economy fared so much better under Democratic presidents than Republicans? The New York Times. February 2, 2021.
  12. Daniel Funke The Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact, July 29, 2019. According to The Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact, these figures are only slightly off. https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2019/jul/29/tweets/republican-presidents-democrats-contribute-deficit/
  13. A Quiet Life” by Baron Wormser, from Scattered Chapters. © Sarabande Books, 2008. Seen on The Writer’s Almanac, with Garrison Keillor, June 2, 2008. https://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php%3Fdate=2008%252F06%252F02.html
  14. Margaret E. Peters, Why did Republicans become so opposed to immigration? Hint: It’s not because there’s more nativism. The Washington Post. January 30, 2018.
  15. Harriet Angerholm, Donald Trump’s grandfather was banished from Germany, records reveal President-elect’s relative pleaded to stay in the country — but was refused. Independent. Monday 21 November 2016.
  16. Michael Kramish and Marc Fisher, Trump Revealed: The Definitive Biography of the 45th President. Scribner; Reprint edition (January 10, 2017.
  17. Mark Thornton, What Caused the Irish Potato Famine? The Libertarian Institute. Mar 18, 2017
  18. https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/home-433/
  19. K. Grace Hulseman, Trump’s Border Wall Is an Expensive, Ineffective Application of Eminent Domain, Center For American Progress. April 25, 2019. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/news/2019/04/25/469026/trumps-border-wall-expensive-ineffective-application-eminent-domain/
  20. Parents of 545 Children Separated at the Border Cannot Be Found, New York Times. October 21, 2020.
  21. Yaron Steinbuch, Mitch McConnell’s ancestors owned slaves: report. New York Post. July 9, 2019.

Thea Halo is the author of Not Even My Name; a former news correspondent for WBAI in NYC; and a former member of both the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) and the International Network of Genocide Scholars (INOGS). Ms Halo’s historical papers are published in a number of Academic books: Genocide in the Ottoman Empire; Sayfo 1915: An Anthology of Essays on the Genocide of Assyrians/Arameans during the first World War; and an upcoming anthology on the Genocide of the Pontic Greeks (during the first World War in Ottoman Turkey). You can view one of her presentations at the Boston State House @ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzBfcE4PjTM


One thought on “In Praise of Compassion

  • February 10, 2021 at 10:01 am
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    The comparison of Trump’s policies are sharply contrasted with the 1930s when FDR inspired America with his New Deal. Halo highlights the lack of constructive schemes for employment and social care to protect the vulnerable during Trump’s recent presidency against the backdrop of FDR’s America, when the protection of its citizens, from all walks of life irrespective of their political beliefs, was the main priority. Halo proves her point objectively, yet again, via relevant and pertinent historical evidence.

    Reply

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