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David Brook's Take on the Progressive Era is Right On

Teddy Roosevelt Progressive
teddy roosevelt(r) the progressive candidate

David Brooks wrote a great article comparing today’s America with that of the progressive era called, “Midlife Crisis Economics“.  In it, Mr. Brooks provides a very cogent analysis of the fallacy in comparing initiatives from the progressive era with those of today.  He notes that the current administration, long enamored with comparisons to the New Deal era, has now realized that this period comparison has led to many false paths and much political baggage and is now promulgating  comparison to the Progressive Era.  Mr. Brooks very capably points out why these analogies are also in error.  I will not rewrite Mr. Brooks article as I encourage you to click the title above and read his more than capable work. However, I would like to discuss this seemingly current trend in a much broader context. While the current administration may have taken the historical analogy as justification for current actions to a new and perhaps much more dangerous level; this is more likely the culmination of a long term trend in seeking justification for a continually failing set of policies.  While it is very easy to bash democrats for this at this point in time because they are the party of the current occupant of the White House, this is in no way just a one party problem.
Both sides of our professional political class have tried to capture the glory days of their bygone eras as rhetoric to stir the masses to their cause in this current period. The main problem, as Mr. Brooks points out so well in his article, is the times have changed and along with the times; the character of our country, underlying economy, and issues that we are solving for have also changed.  Further, the entirety of our government has morphed into that of a professional political class.

I don’t know about you but I am sick to death of the phrase, “the greatest financial crisis since the great depression!”

At the height of the progressive era, a republican, Teddy Roosevelt, was the spur in the rump of the American Horse.  The ideals of progressive-ism were targeting specific sets of problems and solutions using a specific and timely set of tools and actions. If you look forward to the period of “the Great Depression” you find the same thing. The methods that were chosen to try to solve the problems under F. D. Roosevelt’s reign were also specific and timely.  One of the biggest laughs I get out of discussions about the current economic or health care crisis is when modernists begin to espouse what F.D.R.’s position would be.  Since I have spent quite a bit of time on the issues of healthcare I will point to one example. Over the past couple of years, as the debate for “universal healthcare” centered on a national governmental healthcare system, so called “single-payer” system, one pundit after another, and in some cases supposedly well respected congressmen and women, have said this is what F.D.R wanted.  Well that is just so much–what was it the ‘Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf called it?  Oh Yeah, Bovine Scatology!
Franklin D. Roosevelt was fully and distinctly anti socialist and anti communist.  While he proposed many programs that historically we now see in some kind of socialist light, in almost every case what he was advocating for and what we have now are not comparable.  Some of the recognizable  stalwarts, like Social Security, he advocated for but as  temporary solutions. In the area of healthcare, the distinctions are even more stark.  Roosevelt was not solving for the problems we have today.  In fact, it is likely that from his historical perspective he would marvel at how well our current system has improved over the problems he faced in the provision of healthcare to the country.
During this period, the big problems were access to care, and the quality of the care being provided.  While cities could economically support hospitals and therefore provided good places for doctors to congregate, conduct research and solve the needs of the populace, rural areas could not. The profession of physician and doctor had merged into one, hospitals had become vitally necessary for most of them to practice comprehensive quality care and they were expensive to build and maintain.
During Teddy Roosevelt’s era physicians could finally charge for services rendered at hospitals. Rural hospitals were few and far between and the few that did exist were often staffed with the substandard physicians who could not get hired in the cities or in other more egregious cases–outright charlatans.    Compounding the problem was that cash and money payment in rural communities was still not a wide spread practice. Both as a result of custom, and the depression, cash was not a favored form of transaction in rural communities. Many people simply did not have cash or ready access to it. Many still bartered for goods and services.  It was nearly impossible to construct a hospital, fund its expenses, and attract good physicians to an economy where cash played an often secondary role. F.D.R. was solving for access to quality healthcare in rural communities. He failed to get his proposed solutions through congress in his second New Deal legislation before his death.
It was Harry Truman who finally got the Hill Burton Act passed that stimulated the construction of rural hospitals and helped increase the quality and availability of care in these under-served areas.  It is very easy to say, as Michael Jackson did in his song, “They Don’t Really Care About Us” ‘that if Roosevelt was livin’ he wouldn’t let this be, No No No….’ But it is probably just not true.
In the song, Jackson is referring to racism, but even in this area, historians point out that Roosevelt was not quite the staunch humanist we now perceive him to be; and in fact contemporaneously was repeatedly accused of being racist. In the end, it is never a good idea to believe that historical figures would immediately support any of the solutions we propose today. Often, they would marvel at what we have achieved and find ridiculous some of the ideas our politicians now choose to rail about.
From racism to healthcare, from the economy to poverty, historical figures would probably strongly suggest we appreciate a bit more of what we have.  They would be lost in a world where political correctness gets parsed to which words are used to reference a problem.  They would be horrified at the areas we are allocating so much of our money–spending huge amounts to support politically correct causes while allowing many other real problems to get under-funded or unfunded.
None of these historical progressives believed in debt, nor in the deference to those who lack personal responsibility.  While our historical figures were long on helping the downtrodden and the helpless, they had no patience for the avaricious nor the clueless.

“Don’t pee on my leg and tell me its raining!”

We should look to history to review the things that were tried and whether or not they succeeded. But the blanket application of those historical fixes and the dishonest misrepresentation of the issues and the solutions from then to today are dangerous and duplicitous.  We need more than this kind of behavior from all of our politicians today.
Perhaps, we need to get rid of the professional political class we know have and go back to the very same type of citizen politician who they now wish us to say they emulate. We need leaders that can propose solutions!  We need leaders that have learned the lessons from history and can apply those lessons to the problems we face today and help us come to the hard realizations we need to make in order to pull ourselves back to a viable path.  We need those who can both tell us the truth and apply the learning not just rehash the historical solution because as both Mr. Brooks and Bob Dylan said,

“The times they are a changin”

What we all need to focus our attention on is eliminating (please pardon the crude analogy–but I think it applies) any political party or professional politician, who simply “pees on our leg and tell us its raining!”

20 Responses

    1. I made at least two arguments one is related to healthcare and the other is related to Social Security. My premise is not partisan. You seem to think it is. I can see why you would come to that conclusion since much of what is said is partisan. I am simply stating that we need to be very careful in invoking what historical figures would think or say as the times they lived in were very different, we were a very different people and the tools that were available to answer problems then were also very different in capabilities and limitations. You are more than free to disagree. If you wish to look honestly at the issues you would see the underlying problems are not being addressed by the partisan solutions from either side.
      You may want to read some more of my articles to get a flavor of what I advocate for before you go to a blanket dismissal of any argument that runs counter to any defined dogma. I am not suggesting that you would do this as I do not know you, but I do see this quite a bit in what some argue. I am a firm believer that all need to view the issues for themselves and that we all need to stop listening to the partisan rhetoric from both sides. I believe that Mark Twain and others were on to something when they declared themselves Mugwumps in the 1890s.
      At the end of my article I simply reiterate my long held belief that we need to cut through the shams and rhetoric and get to real honest answers. I am not advocating against or for either party at this point as they are both duplicitous and complicit in the issues we face today.
      I would ask you to re-read this article without a partisan view and see if you still find the essay in error. It strikes me as a bit knee jerk to say the argument is not convincing as I did not think I was arguing any particular point other than we need to be leery.

      1. Well, let’s take a look. The only major bills passed by the Obama administration are the Stimulus, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and Dodd-Frank. Right-wingers act like there is a new socialism bill every month, but in reality, they’re still complaining about bills passed during Obama’s first year.
        So just how extreme are these bills?
        The Stimulus was about $800 billion — one third of which was tax cuts. I thought tax cuts were conservative. Another one third was non-discretionary payouts for unemployment benefits. Note the adjective “non-discretionary.” That means it would have been spent no matter who was president. So that leaves the final one-third, which was contracts, grants, and loans. Much of it went towards improving our infrastructure; some went towards upgrading our power grid; some prevented layoffs of teachers and other government workers; some went to green energy R&D (only $1/2 billion went to Solyndra, which was .00006 or .006% of the Stimulus).
        When you look at the actual facts of the Stimulus, it’s not all that progressive and not radical at all.
        How about Obamacare? Most of us are sick of the abuses in the insurance industry. People shouldn’t have their insurance canceled when they get sick or be denied insurance if they have a pre-existing condition. But to fix that problem requires a mandate, which right-wingers have been whining about for three years. If you already have insurance, being required to have insurance has no effect. And if you don’t have insurance, you’re just a freeloader because the rest of us have to foot the bill when you get sick. There are other things that make insurance more affordable for small businesses such as co-ops.
        So what’s so radical about the Obamacare? Nothing. Doing nothing is radical when the system is broken.
        How about Dodd-Frank? If you don’t think we needed some regulation after the near total collapse of our economy due to abuse by Wall St, you’re as radical as they come.
        So what else is there? There’s a lot of propaganda out there about Obama, but that’s just manufactured outrage, which is pretty radical. People are angry over things that aren’t even true. Obama is actually a moderate conservative. We’d be better off with a real progressive, but this was the best we could do considering our current political climate.

        1. Wow Ben, you really got a lot of discontent into your response. I can see why you are so angry. But none of your dialog had anything to do to address my article and your objection to it. You defend the actions of the current administration who I don’t attack. You also attack republicans who I don’t defend.
          I simply said that we need to be careful of applying historical solutions to modern day problems. And to point out again when I said that in the original article I said both sides are duplicitous and complicit it in our current problems.
          I understand your anger. Believe me I feel the same and in a variety of ways perhaps for the same reasons. I just think that the issues at the core are not partisan they ate of our own making. Both parties pander to our prurient interests and we have continued to allow this. Often unknowing because we choose not to know.
          There are some who feel it is the other guys fault. I think it is all our fault. I think it is time to eschew party pitied and actually vote for the best options not the most popular or easiest.
          I don’t think you advocate to the contrary, by the way.
          I kind of marvel at how much of the things that anger you were inferred in your read of the article.
          Good luck. In the long run we all want our country to succeed. Perhaps if we stop reacting we can accomplish that goal together.

      2. I was just showing that Brooks’ entire column is a logical fallacy. He complains about Obama’s activism, but the reality is: Obama is a moderate and hasn’t done enough. Get the connection?

        1. Well Ben,
          I did not read Mr. Brooks’ column the way you did. You see much more at work behind the screens.
          Be that as it may. I enjoy your comments. I do not mind critique nor criticism. I do discount the people who immediately revert to ad hominum when faced with contrast. You do not seem to do that–a big plus. Conversations shut down when that happens don’t you think?
          Comment anytime!

  1. mugwumpism may have adressed problems in 1890, but the times have indeed changed. business interest superseed national needs and we are at their mercy. learning from the past is unlikely in this environment. we are on our own

    1. Well Willy I could not disagree more. The control of the businesses in 1890 was much worse than today. The Sherman Act was passed in 1890 to break the grip if the cartels and trusts. Even with the new laws it was 10 years before the first cases were brought. That gives some idea how powerful they real robber barons were.
      The point of mugwumpism is not party based. It is not liberal nor conservative. It is based on voting for the best resin or plan regardless if the party. Some said then in spite of the party.
      In the long run it is not what you vote for that I worry about. It is that you fully consider the issues, study the possible solutions and in the end vote for whom or what you think us best for the country not you the individual’s.
      I know you do this anyway so the comment is a general one.

  2. well some would say wall street is a more sophisitcated version of the robber barrons. the mugwup idea is a historic response. the point is there are many similarities with frd’s new deal etc and what needs to happen now. you have often said that fdr didn’t expect social security to last. if that is true why didn’t he include an end date for making the payments. once you pay in, it is not an entitlement etc. i’m very proud of mr obama and when he speaks of other times in american history althought they may be different than now it is part of our national dna., not unlike the mugwumps. when i hear the idea of mugwumps i think of ross perott. most people who voted for him would have perfered bush1 over clinton so it’s a hard thing to take beyond philosophy and make practical, as alway your politically passionate friend

  3. hey if i might add one more thing, not necessarily about mr brooks blog. (he was graet on charlie rose by the way) this mugwump thing. i got into several arguements about the lock out in congress over the tax relief for the middle class, and here is where your intrest in the mugwump concept comes in. both sides were blaming the other over this bill, (2 months vs a year) it was all about the attachments to the bill. the pipeline and such. everyone seemed to agree that the payroll tax relief was a good idea. if bills were one item and not full of pork and such they would know what they were voting on. it would lift the vail on so many arguements. which seems to be what the mugwump idea is driving at. at the polls we can only guess what ideas will be pushed forward. it all happens inside the bills. thats where the truth is.

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