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Security is Social Because Wealth Isn't Worth

FDR's Slaying of the Puritan Ethic

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, April 20, 2005.

He died before my birth, but until Kennedy’s election many people still referred periodically to “Roosevelt” when they meant to say “the President.” People who’d fought in the Second World War had had him for President thirteen years, the longest we’ll ever have. Franklin Delano Roosevelt won four Presidential elections. He divided the nation as much or more than Bush or Clinton, and he united the nation as no President ever had, including Reagan, who idolized him. In my family, my father hated him and could never articulate why, and there was a clear resentment and feeling of betrayal along with reluctant but mandatory and grudging respect. I never really thought about this till recently.

What prompts this is listening to President Bush try to rework Social Security, to supposedly put it back in the hands of the people but really retrieve it for the profit of bankers and stock companies. It’s a disingenuous venture, one widely and correctly suspect in the mind of the populace, whose reaction against it is based on emotion rather than history, although no less accurate for that. After all, if the people can be trusted to do the right thing, and the capitalists to responsibly profit from it, how did the need for Social Security rise in the first place? Can it be because people aren’t responsible and get ripped off by those who prey upon them? Well, yeah.

It’s difficult to recall or reconstruct the American mindset of the 1930’s, given that some of us are still amazed that a working office in the 1970’s includes no cell phone, no fax, no phone answering machine, computer or internet. When we dwell on these improvements, it’s mildly jarring. How in the world did we get along without Treo phones? Well, we did. Giants walked the earth then.

It was very, very different seventy years ago. Not a few and maybe most of us have had to face the horrors of caring for aged parents or friends who don’t have resource of their own, but none of us during a Great Depression. Caring, these days, sometimes means a boring weekly visit, phone calls to doctors, checking up on the institutions that care for them and making sure Medicare and Social Security checks are going where they’re supposed to. For some, it’s much worse, of course, but in the 1930’s, it was all much worse for the vast majority. Life spans, shorter then, were probably cut shorter by expediencies not reflected in family bibles. Old people lived poorly, despite the gossamers thrown over it in film and literature. It was damned tough to be blue collar or rural back then.

Back then, the Puritan ethic – shared or claimed by most Americans - demanded families take care of their own, with handouts from parish or congregation. It was hobbling, it was often demeaning, and it didn’t work well. When Social Security arrived, based upon taxes, it relieved a great burden from many people, relieved family stress. It was the most important social innovation since Arthur Balfour inadvertently gave the Western world the weekend a quarter century previous. It guaranteed that people would not fall victim so much to get-rich-quick schemes to fund their golden years. It happens all the time still; but the money involved is seldom food money.

Roosevelt didn’t invent Social Security, but he led the charge to get it approved and instated. When it became law in this nation, he had admitted the advantages - in some few areas of commonweal responsibility - of socialism. It’s really a no brainer, in retrospect. How much expense and social disruption came from caring for the old in American Society? Quite a bit. So, let’s make sure everyone has money for room and board at the milder expense of a gently leveled playing field. Over-simplified, but true. Mandate employees and employers prepare for the future. It’s a handy tool for studying how medical care is apportioned in this nation today, but let that pass.

But in so doing, Roosevelt presided over the official breaking of the Puritan ethic, something that laced all walks of American life. You only have to read the popular literature that the folks of the 1930’s grew up reading. He separated wealth from virtue and stomped on predestination fantasies applied to life here. He clearly did not believe that being born to wealth was a sign of God’s approbation in and of itself. There were many born to wealth who did not want to think otherwise. It is that group who provided the Roosevelt haters who lasted a half century after his death.

So on Hitler’s birthday, and the anniversary of Columbine, I’d like to honor FDR, who shook off all the preconceptions of his class and education and rose to the occasion when someone had to. That he failed to rise to every occasion, and that he stayed too long, can be patted into shape and folded into the basket on the back of his wheelchair. If we’re smart and decent we’ll remember what he learned and acted upon and examine the actual motivations behind alleged need for change today.