As I See It
Twice in the last century, the United States was rescued from a severe economic crisis by a president named Roosevelt – Theodore Roosevelt (a Republican) in 1903, and a distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (a Democrat) in 1933.
As vice president under President McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt became president on the assassination of McKinley in September 1901. On completing the remaining three years of that term he was elected to a full term, serving until 1909.
The rapid industrial expansion which followed the Civil War saw the rise of powerful corporations which controlled the railroads, banks, mining, lumbering and manufacturing. Because of the monopoly which these corporations had over virtually every facet of the United States economy, the wealth of the country pyramided into the hands of a few elite families, until by 1900 they controlled 60 percent of the net worth of the United States. They were powerful enough to subvert the country’s political system to their own benefit as well as the nation’s economy. They took advantage of cheap immigrant labor by making them little more than serfs – overworked, underpaid, and laboring under deplorable health and safety conditions. Any attempt by labor to improve their lot was answered with violence against them and their families. It is little wonder that the captains of industry were labeled the “Robber Barons.”
At the time when Theodore Roosevelt became President, things had reached the sorry state where Americans were convinced there was one law for the corporations and another for the people; one law for the rich and another for the poor. A New York newspaper in retrospect stated that “the United States was never closer to a social revolution than at the time Roosevelt became President.”
Soon after taking the reins as President, Roosevelt launched a crusade against these bastions of organized wealth – the banks, the coal mining industry, the railroads, the United States Steel Corporation, the Standard Oil Company, the food and drug industry and many other corporations engaged in oppressive business practices. His objection to these corporations was not to their size but to their wrongdoings.
The excesses of unregulated capitalism following World War I culminated in the get-rich-quick philosophy which dominated the stock market in the late 1920s. As President Calvin Coolidge (1923-29) put it, “The business of America is Business.” Once again a major portion of the country’s wealth was accumulated by a very small segment of the population, who were taking advantage of an unregulated stock trading system. All this ended abruptly with the October 1929 stock market crash that plunged the country into the worst depression in our history.
Once more a Roosevelt came to our rescue. Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President in 1932 by an enormous margin. Conditions were so desperate for the American people, with unemployment approaching 20 percent (double that in some areas), that so many people were seeing socialism and even communism as their only hope for their future that it was becoming a serious threat to our economic and political system. Roosevelt’s genius was recognizing the crisis the country was facing and blending enough socialism and reform into our capitalism to save it from its own excesses.
Now in the new century, the United States is again plagued with abuse of the capitalist system, once more pyramiding a major portion of the country’s wealth into the hands of a relatively few. Only this time instead of corporations feeding on the people, it is corporate executives feeding on the corporations, leaving empty shells for their employees and stockholders.
All three of these economic crises, which have shaken the confidence of the American people in our economic system, are directly traceable to unquenchable greed and a total lack of any conscience to control that greed. The frenzy to accumulate personal wealth beyond any rational need is once again putting our system to the test. How our government responds will determine our future.
Congress and the president are busy congratulating themselves on passing legislation to close the barn door after the horse has been stolen. Despite warnings from Federal Reserve System Chairman Alan Greenspan that the practice of giving huge stock options to highly placed executives is the fuel which has driven them to cook the books so they can cash in on artificially inflated stock prices, the politicians have been careful not to outlaw this abuse. After all, those who have amassed ill-gotten gains by this practice have been generous campaign fund contributors.
What this country needs is another Roosevelt to take effective action against this latest form of corruption. What we sure don’t need is another Bush.
Glenwood Springs resident Hal Sundin’s column runs every other Thursday in the Post Independent.
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