Not since Abraham Lincoln has the need for effective leadership and prompt, vigorous action been more imperative.
With the adjournment of Congress we may pause for a moment to review the remarkable record of Mr. Roosevelt, who in less than four months in office has to his credit a larger and better-rounded program of legislation than any other President in this century has obtained in four years. Not only has he obtained all the major legislation which he sought, including much which is experimental and drastic, but— with the exception of a slight compromise in regard to benefits to veterans —he has been able to get his measures enacted practically as he presented them. In doing this Mr. Roosevelt has been vastly assisted by circumstance. After four years of disastrous drift under Herbert Hoover, the nation realized itself to be desperately in need of action, and Mr. Roosevelt correctly interpreted his overwhelming electoral majority as a mandate from the people to inaugurate almost any policy which he thought fit within the framework of existing government and without scrapping the profit system in industry. But though greatly aided by circumstance, Mr. Roosevelt must receive full credit for the prompt, adroit, vigorous way in which he used and dominated popular psychology. Immense power was granted to him by the people almost on a non-partisan basis— provided he used it at once. He showed great ability in capitalizing the moment. But so far the President has won only the first heat in the race. The real contest lies ahead. Except for emergency action in regard to the banks and a start toward organizing the forestry corps, Mr. Roosevelt’s program is still almost entirely on paper. Will he be able to vitalize it so as substantially to revive industry, and if so, will the revival have the elements of permanence or be only a wan smile before industry sinks again into coma? Rather than try to answer directly either of those questions, perhaps it is more profitable to consider what the program as a whole aims at and by what means President Roosevelt hopes to realize it.
Elsewhere in this issue we present a summary of the more important legislation passed at the recent session of Congress and a special editorial discussion of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which is the keystone of the structure. Of the program as a whole, it may be said here that it abandons openly what in fact we have, without admitting it, been bit by bit abandoning for years—the theoretical policy of keeping government out of business. Federal control of business has now frankly been assumed in many new directions, but it is only temporary in character and does not envisage socialization of industry or elimination of the profit system. The emphasis is all on reviving industry, which manifestly cannot function without some assistance. Any benefit to the worker must trickle down from the top, which is no profound change from what we have had.
Of course those who defend Mr. Roosevelt for not going farther, for not profiting by the unique moment in history when he could easily have nationalized the banks and really kept the money changers out of the temple as he so bravely announced in his inaugural, may allege that he was not elected to initiate a collective society. And it may be therefore deemed pointless to criticize him for not doing so. But it is also fair to say that the American public in its overwhelming electoral revolution of last November was seeking relief— relief from economic disaster— and that it would not have cared in what form or under what formula such relief had been secured. The Nation feels that Mr. Roosevelt could have and should have moved farther to the left, and that his program will fall short of success for that very reason. Certainly the beneficiaries of the profit system which his program seeks to restore have never shown any disposition to permit a sufficiently broad distribution of wealth even to insure their own preservation. One tendency is noticeable in President Roosevelt’s entire program which we surmise may prove eventually to be its greatest weakness. Mr. Roosevelt has lacked the courage or the wish to relieve distress or absorb losses through public moneys. Even within the limits of his platform and principles, we believe that he could and should have begun a system of public borrowing as extensive as that initiated, with much less justification, to finance the World War. It might have been backed safely with increased income taxes in the higher brackets and perhaps a capital levy. As it is, the government resources for direct relief to persons in distress are tragically inadequate, and the problem is approached almost wholly by means of “public-works,” which offer support only to a few groups and that after a slow process of organization. Mr. Roosevelt’s idea of liquidating national losses seems to be to let the weakest go to the wall. That happened in connection with the banks. Generally speaking, depositors in strong banks were saved as against those in weak banks; depositors in big-city banks were saved as against those in country banks; depositors in the East were saved as against those in the Middle West. The same tendency of “the devil take the hindmost” is seen in the new farm-mortgage and home-loan legislation. Those laws appear to hold out more help for mortgage holders than for those whose property is mortgaged.
If inflation of the currency ever goes far and prices rise largely in consequence, the benefits will go to bankers and brokers, manufacturers and merchants, and probably also to farmers. Wage- and salary-earners will be ground between rapid and big increases in prices and slow, inadequate gains in pay. Thus far the cost of industrial depression and consequent unemployment has been borne primarily by wage workers— in hunger, homelessness, and misery— and by the middle classes in the wiping out of their savings. It looks as if a return of “prosperity”— if attained— would arrive by the same route. That is, the poor will pay for it out of their hides and the middle classes out of their pocket-books. Yet such may be the only means which the profit system knows, and if so, believers in that technique—as most Americans appear to be— ought not to grumble.
Neither do we imagine that they will grumble —much— if the greater number of our 15,000,000 unemployed are finally reabsorbed into industry. If Mr. Roosevelt can accomplish that miracle, he will not be held closely accountable for the means or the human cost. If he fails, his widely famed “brain trust” will pass into history as so much brain rust.