Mom and Dad Create the World: Intermission
As I share pieces my family’s story as an avatar of the World War II generation, now is a good time for a frank truth: that my parents and their entire generation got a big assist from government. A visionary President (Roosevelt) instituted reforms driven by the collapse of the American economy (and the world’s) in 1929. While the Great Depression was due largely to excess speculation, lavish lifestyles and margin gambling among the rich elites, the impacts were visited most devastatingly upon the poor and powerless.
The more things change….
Roosevelt’s visionary reforms — social security, the GI bill, protections for collective bargaining, government investment in infrastructure and job creation, income redistribution, business and banking regulation for the common good — did not, as his critics in the Republican Party continued to insist, “destroy” America. Instead, they laid the foundations for the first American generation that found opportunity, access to capital, education, safety, and lifelong economic security in unprecedented measure. This security and stability, coupled with the hard work of 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants working alongside Americans imbued with our longtime cultural values, combined to create the greatest, most durable middle class in history.
(Note to Americans sensitive to our national shame with race: yes, you guessed it: people identified as Negros or mulattoes were systematically deprived of these advantages due to the fierce manipulations in Democrats in Congress of the so-called Southern Caucus that was busy building and sustaining the apartheid “Jim Crow” society.)
What a shame that so many people in the “greatest generation” forgot to include this truth in their personal stories: that they achieved what they did with government help and protection! In our individualistic hero-myth society it is always more comfortable to imagine ourselves as pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, rather than confessing that government-led attempts to create economic security and opportunity may have had any part in our success.
Even my normally keen-sighted dad, in his later years, became captive of Fox “News,” including the government bashing, tax slashing, economy destroying rants about the evils of “liberalism” and “big government.” Yet he and his company glided to success on the guarantee of housing for a booming middle from the VA and FHA, which thereby provided the post war generation the springboard for economic success, as well as the enormous wealth-building available in the construction industry and trades.
The Republican outrage at the untrammeled success of income redistribution and Keynesian economics, soon morphed into a solipsistic “ideology,” a fiction propagated by the likes of Ayn Rand and her cohort, which survive as intellectual remnants — apologists for the rich and powerful to this day (Alan Greenspan was one of many). In spite of their fictions, it is beyond argument that the anti-historical buoyancy of the American middle class was created not exclusively by steely-jawed individuals, but in substantial part by the incredible amount of salt dissolved in the water (to succumb to metaphor for a moment) by FDR government programs — including the government-financed industrial production miracle of World War II itself — all of which interventions taken together apparently created so much buoyancy that everyone emerged from that postwar pool thinking they were just great swimmers!
As we wax nostalgic about Make America Great Again, it may be an unwelcome truth, but it is healthy to remember that the progress of the middle class and our standard of living that took place in the ’50’s and ’60’s was built as much on government intervention and redistribution as it was on the moxie of the American worker and entrepreneur. Sorry, Ayn.