Great Society

After watching President Obama’s Ohio Speech on the Economy last week, I structured my Black Politics lecture around the contributions and obstructions of federalism – the union of state and federal power – to the “African-American quest for universal freedom.” In that context, we discussed four episodes in our nation’s history which speak to the expansion of federal power, and the utility of “Big Government.” They are: Reconstruction, The Great Depression and the Great Recession, and the Civil Rights Era.

Reconstruction was the first national effort at not only physical, structural renewal, it also was an attempt to redefine society – to no longer affirm the institution of slavery, and the indignity of human bondage. Whatever your feelings about Abraham Lincoln’s motives in supporting abolition, the decision to go to war over it required courage. Lincoln’s efforts stated firmly that the United States is, and not that the United States are. We were one nation committed to a singular destiny – namely, life, liberty, the pursuit of prosperity and happiness for all Americans.

The expansion of Federal power via FDR’s New Deal programs following The Great Depression signaled that government took seriously its social contract with the consented. It would indeed work for the people.

As in the Great Recession, which began somewhere around 2007, and from which the U.S. economy hasn’t completely emerged, the expansion of federal power after the Great Depression served to protect the people against thrill-seeking investors’ risky financial decisions. In the event that great risk did not result in great reward, and instead, exploded into calamitous, wide-ranging collateral damage, only the federal government had the economic fluidity and the moral imperative to lead the rescue.

The moral imperative to do what’s right for most people is what defines the role of government and distinguishes it from the private sector. Thus, during times of national economic crisis, “relief” from steadily rising unemployment and poverty is proffered by the only entity with the power and financial liquidity to do so – government. Social welfare programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the stimulus of 2009 (formally known as the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act) helped save the nation’s economy not from calamity and disaster, but from deepening calamity and disaster. I know that nuance doesn’t play well politically, but sometimes the best answer to “are things better?” is, in all honesty, “things are better than they could have been.”

And then there’s the matter of reform. Neither the Great Depression nor the Great Recession happened as a result of private industry’s concern for common folks. Business – corporations – have as their primary aim increasing the proportion of profit to loss, by any means necessary. The banking industry, through subprime mortgage lending and credit derivatives, exploited the natural aspirations of the American people. The prevailing narrative purports that home ownership is a critical component of achieving the American dream. The industry capitalized on our inability to discern wants and real needs. And for that, we share partial responsibility in the global financial collapse. It’s like this: the haughty aspirations of the American people had poisoned the well. And the banks saw an opportunity to capitalize on that thirst – selling back to us water from the poisoned well, an American dream that had an expiration date on it.

It was no problem for banks to approve loans for folks with credit scores of 500 and below because when or if they defaulted on the loan, the bank had already made its share of profit from the fees associated with having scores more applicants and approvals. The industry knew the game was rigged against the consumer, so it insulated itself against the potential fallout. In other words, if the house of cards ever fell, those responsible for brokering the shitty deals would get away relatively unscathed. If the consumer defaulted, the bank had already split up the risk a hundred ways, all across the globe.

FDR’s New Deal programs and President Obama’s Wall Street Reforms were government answers to private industry’s on again /off again relationship with public exploitation. Government gives a shit about you because that’s its job. Corporations make money; that’s their job. Government-imposed regulations on business practices are used to remind business that people are more than just dollar signs. It’s the caveat to caveat emptor - buyer beware; seller be fair. (dope. I just made that up…)

Be fair. This brings me to the Civil Rights era and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Think, for two seconds, about what a “great society” looks like, how it functions, what it’s priorities are. The Civil Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid, and the Head Start Program, among many others, made proclamations about who Americans are, and what we value. We decided we didn’t like the idea that minorities bore unequal treatment in our society, we weren’t comfortable with the idea that our elderly and underprivileged should simply limp away, out of sight and out of mind. And we understood that education – as early as possible and as much as possible, offered opportunity and advancement to the individual, to her community, and to society at large.

Great societies recognize the connection between the individual, the community, and society. And government’s role is to ensure that society’s rules of operation are reasonable and fair, such that the individual is able to flourish, and give back. That’s the positive feedback loop. It works the same in reverse. Now that we get to view President Obama and Governor Romney side by side, I see one candidate who understands that vision, and one who does not.

There’s a quote I love that goes: to the hammer, every problem’s a nail. For me, Governor Romney and the Tea Party Republican Party embody this perspective, constructing every solution from the position of privilege. Don’t raise taxes on millionaires who can afford it, and don’t dare regulate business, removing the hard-on it has for risk and exploitation given an opportunity. No, no. Instead, cut spending on services for people who need them most. Reduce or eliminate funding for programs in education, the arts, infrastructure, and science and research – all aspects of society that make it, well, great.

So I guess the question going forward isn’t who you’ll vote for in November. It’s bigger than that. It’s more like, what kind of society do you want to live in? Raise kids in? Grow old in? What values do you honor? Who advocates a “great” society for all of us, and whose position is summed up this way: “great society for me and my cohorts and we’ll make it great for you. Just trust me.” Once you answer those questions, who to vote for in November becomes a no-brainer.