February 18, 2009
Awaiting the Awakening of the Forgotten Man
It took less than a month for the default leadership style of President Obama to appear. How long will it take for the forgotten man who believed in him to awaken to the consequences? Amity Schlaes has written an excellent history of the Depression entitled The Forgotten Man, detailing the futility of FDR's supposed cures. So as we face Obama's leadership, it is imporant to remember the forgotten man of our era.
Millions of votes cast by the forgotten man helped elected Barack Obama. Many among those postulated that, if elected, he would govern from the center. Some conjectured that he would, once in office, distance himself from the most liberal in his party, and convert his campaign promises into more moderate actions. He would, many a forgotten man thought, bring a refreshing breeze of bipartisan collegiality to a redundantly strident political environment.
One forgotten man I know speculated that Congress, with at least one chamber controlled by Republicans, would be a brake on Obama plans that aimed too far left.
Many a forgotten man heard Obama's promises to control spending, cut taxes and bring fiscal responsibility, and liked what they heard. They heard his plans for huge federal government initiatives in, for example, health care and education. And they accepted most as worthy issues that would, over time, be openly debated and vetted on their merit by the body politic. Voters would have, they were told and believed, many opportunities to register their thoughts and ideas via that most avant garde of public forums, on-line.
They presupposed that he would make good on his promise to post pending legislation five days (then it was two) before congressional votes (then none). He would appoint no lobbyists to his administration. Ethics would rule supreme - except in matters of paying one's taxes. He would scour the nation for the best and brightest and not rely on the same old Inside-the-Beltway denizens to walk the halls of his administration. But they're back.
Many a forgotten man listened, and liked what they heard. Obama sold them.
And when the votes were counted, many among the forgotten men breathed a sigh of relief that, at last, long-awaited change had come.
Now, less than a month in office, in the wake of the fast, forced-feeding of a gigantic spending bill that no member of Congress is known to have even read, one wonders if any among the forgotten man has awakened to the consequences of what has happened, and will happen.
Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has repeatedly called upon President Obama to be the reincarnation of FDR, but more aggressively active for bigger government. Krugman wants a newer New Deal on steroids. He titled one of his articles "Franklin Delano Obama."
It was FDR who first appealed to the cause of the forgotten man in national politics. It happened on April 7, 1932 during a radio address from Albany, New York. Running for what would be his first of four presidential terms, FDR said,
"These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power, for plans like those of 1917 that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid."
Later in that speech, he leveraged class envy and juxtaposed the small forgotten man to the large banks and corporations, saying,
"Here should be an objective of Government itself, to provide at least as much assistance to the little fellow as it is now giving to the large banks and corporations. That is another example of building from the bottom up."
So, for FDR, the forgotten man was the "little fellow" oppressed by rich bankers and corporations. He, if elected president, would rescue the forgotten man from "an emergency at least equal to that of war."
Truth be known, Roosevelt didn't invent the notion of the forgotten man. That's credited to William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), a Yale professor. In an essay entitled "On the Case of a Certain Man who Is Never Thought Of" (1884), Sumner began with this definition of the original Forgotten Man.
"The type and formula of most schemes of philanthropy or humanitarianism is this: A and B put their heads together to decide what C shall be made to do for D. The radical vice of all these schemes, from a sociological point of view, is that C is not allowed a voice in the matter, and his position, character, and interests, as well as the ultimate effects on society through C's interests, are entirely overlooked. I call C the Forgotten Man.For once let us look him up and consider his case, for the characteristic of all social doctors is that they fix their minds on some man or group of men whose case appeals to the sympathies and the imagination, and they plan remedies addressed to the particular trouble; they do not understand that all the parts of society hold together and that forces which are set in action act and react throughout the whole organism until an equilibrium is produced by a readjustment of all interests and rights.They therefore ignore entirely the source from which they must draw all the energy which they employ in their remedies, and they ignore all the effects on other members of society than the ones they have in view. They are always under the dominion of the superstition of government, and forgetting that a government produces nothing at all, they leave out of sight the first fact to be remembered in all social discussion - that the state cannot get a cent for any man without taking it from some other man, and this latter must be a man who has produced and saved it. This latter is the Forgotten Man."
So the first Forgotten Man was not a subject of governmental pity, but the pocketbook for government charity to "others of whom they make pets."
"The friends of humanity start out with certain benevolent feelings towards ‘the poor,' ‘the weak,' ‘the laborers,' and others of whom they make pets. They generalize these classes and render them impersonal, and so constitute the classes into social pets. They turn to other classes and appeal to sympathy and generosity and to all the other noble sentiments of the human heart. Action in the line proposed consists in a transfer of capital from the better off to the worse off....All schemes for patronizing ‘the working classes' savor of condescension. They are impertinent and out of place in this free democracy. There is not, in fact, any such state of things or any such relation as would make projects of this kind appropriate. Such projects demoralize both parties, flattering the vanity of one and undermining the self-respect of the other."
While the New Deal was a good faith effort to bring aid to FDR's forgotten man, New Deal initiatives helped lengthened the time that Sumner's forgotten man suffered through the Great Depression, despite repeated assertions to the contrary by Krugman's selective reading of history.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in 1933 there were 12,830,000 (24.74%) unemployed Americans. Five years later, in 1938, after a myriad of legislative and programmatic New Deal initiatives, there were 10,390,000 (18.91%) unemployed Americans. That year the nation was in the midst of a new recession within the longer-running Great Depression. It was also the year my father had to hock his only winter coat so that he and my mother could eat.
Most of Sumner's forgotten men and women who voted for Barack Obama, who will pay the expanded interest on the nation's new debt burden, have yet to awaken. A few have. Sadly, some never will. But to many, an awakening will eventually come, after time, and considerable pain. But it will come.