September 20, 2011

At Hyde Park, N.Y., this past weekend, hundreds of young and old New Dealers gathered to mark the 70th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech. Delivered in January 1941, it laid out a bold commitment to freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Roosevelt followed it three years later, amid World War II, with his remarkable elaboration of a basic “Economic Bill of Rights” for all Americans. This is still the message of tomorrow.

In so many ways, FDR’s leadership offers more than nostalgia. He demonstrated what we yearn for so clearly now: a moral voice, grounded in basic values; a clear stance on the side of working people; and a willingness to challenge the entrenched interests that stand in their way.

Over the past few weeks, President Obama has reached for that voice. He has now framed an argument that, given its scornful rejection by Republican leaders, will define the 2012 election debate. He would “jolt” the economy now to put people to work, by investing in teachers and infrastructure, cutting taxes on payrolls and small business, and extending help to the unemployed. Republicans dismiss these common-sense and popular proposals, calling for more spending cuts and less regulation.

To get our books in order, Obama would raise taxes on the rich while gaining savings by ending the wars abroad and reducing Medicare and Medicaid’s unnecessarily high payments to drug companies. Republicans rise in defense of tax cuts for the wealthy and insist that deficit reduction come solely from cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and other “entitlements.”

The president stands for shared sacrifice; the Republicans for sheltering the privileged few. Progressives will have no problem standing with the president in this fight.

But with a head filled with the clarity of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and Economic Bill of Rights, I can’t help challenging the definition of this debate. Shared sacrifice has become the establishment trope, and it is used by liberals in contrast with the Republican politics of privilege.

But shared sacrifice in the circumstances of this country, where the rewards of the economy are not shared, isn’t a moral posture. It is a moral outrage.

Look at the past thirty years. America has grown, but grown apart. The few have captured virtually all of the rewards of growth, while most families have struggled to stay afloat. The median wages of men age 25 to 64 declined by nearly 30 percent over the past 40 years.

A bipartisan conservative consensus, enforced by powerful corporate interests, defined our politics. Corporate trade policies purposefully exposed working people to global competition, while launching a war on unions. CEO remuneration purposefully gave executives multimillion-dollar personal incentives to cook the books, or to merge and purge their companies. Bankers freed themselves from adult supervision and opened the casino. The few benefited enormously, while most of us fell behind.

This ended, of course, in a financial wilding — the housing bubble — with bankers peddling what they knew was junk. They kept dancing, in the famous words of hapless Charles Prince, former president of Citibank, hoping to get out in time. But they danced with the confidence that if they blew themselves up, the government would put the pieces back together. And so it did.

The resulting crash wiped out about $8 trillion in housing value and blew up the economy. Unemployment soared, as did federal deficits as tax revenue plummeted and payments for food stamps and other support for the jobless rose. From 2007 to 2010, the national debt increased as a percentage of GDP from 64.4 to 93.2.

No one should forget. Wall Street and big corporations had the party. They rigged the rules. They pocketed the rewards. They created the mess. They got taxpayers to save them. The conservatives argue that the vulnerable should pick up the whole tab. And even some liberals call for a “shared sacrifice” that would mean the most vulnerable in the society — the seniors, the poor, the disabled and the sick — should help to clean up the mess.

The fact is that most Americans have already sacrificed. They are the victims of bad policies skewed to benefit the privileged. Real shared sacrifice would require that we send the bill to those who had the party and created the mess, and ask them to pay their fair share.

That’s where Roosevelt’s clarity is so important. It reminds us that we must ground our policies in moral vision — the freedoms that we would protect, the economic justice that we would champion. Let us build our policy out from there, not by positioning carefully to contrast with an extreme right. Let our values — not our extremists — drive our policies.