This week saw my hundredth day in my new job, and in researching the origins of the concept of the “first 100 days” I happened upon the inaugural speech of Franklin D Roosevelt from 4th March 1933. It was FDR who first spoke about the importance of his first 100 days in office as President, as the period when the newcomer has the greatest opportunity to make radical changes. In his analysis of the first 100 days of Roosevelt’s presidency (during which he set out the basis for his New Deal to manage the US out of depression), Anthony Badger states that : “The first hundred days of the New Deal have served as a model for future presidents of bold leadership and executive-legislative harmony” (Badger A. : FDR – The first 100 days)
What is remarkable about the inaugural address from 1933, however, is the extent to which it could equally be applied to the issues facing the world today. From the opening paragraph, Roosevelt challenges the prevailing mood of hopelessness and helplessness that had overtaken the US population during the depression, and which pervades so much of the debate about economics and politics in the UK today : “first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”. This is the nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror that is fanned by so much of what passes as the popular press in Britain in 2013 : fear of immigration; fear of economic meltdown; fear of benefits scroungers; fear of terrorist attack and the end of civilisation as we know it. It is this fear that in turn leads to the hopelessness that anything can be done to meaningfully address the reality of these issues – which are nowhere near as acute nor as threatening as they are portrayed. Fear and hopelessness leads in turn to a sense of powerlessness and disillusion, an emotion eloquently described by Russell Brand earlier this week, even is his solution (some form of revolution to radically reshape the democratic process in the UK) was less well formed
Roosevelt recognised the drivers for the depression and described them with surgical precision : “The rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.”
It is worth reading that passage again – at it’s heart is the underlying reason for the financial crash that led to the current economic woes facing the world. There is a saying in quality management circles : if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got’. It is an irony that the response of governments around the world to the financial crash has not been to re-examine the values (or lack of them) that led to the problem in the first place, but rather, it has been to simply do what we were doing before, but this time with a bit more regulation in place. It seems almost inevitable that the ultimate result will be the same – a credit-induced bubble followed by a rapid and painful readjustment (and if you don’t believe this, take a look at what is already happening to house prices in the south-east of England)
“Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.” Roosevelt describes with eerie prescience the behaviours of politicians and financial leaders leading up to the latest market crash. Unfortunately, callousness and selfish wrong-doing continue to dominate the agenda – targeting welfare payments whilst reducing income tax rates for top-earners could almost be a definition of callous self-interest; and it is this naked self-interest that has seen confidence in the political class and systems fall to unprecedently low levels
Part of Roosevelt’s plan for bringing the economy back into balance, and then ensuring that it remained in equilibrium going forward, was something that sounds very close to nationalisation of the things that underpin the workings of the economy : “It can be helped by national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and of communications and other utilities which have a definitely public character… [B]ut it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly.” Utilities which have a public character are those which are frankly too important to be left the vagaries of an imperfect market. In the UK today, they must include energy, the National Health Service, the rail service (network and service provision), education (from pre-school to post-18), prisons, probation, welfare. These are all areas where the private sector is increasingly being invited to ‘compete’ with public provision in a market that is rigged, and to the detriment of service provision and the public purse in every case (and if you need evidence, look at the contracts for prisoner tagging; read about the additional cost that is being driven into the NHS through the disaggregation of services and the appalling private finance initiatives that have allowed off balance-sheet financing of hospitals that the UK public will be repaying (at punitive interest rates) for decades to come; Google search the use of unqualified teachers in ‘free’ schools; examine the financial success of the publicly operated East Coast main line railway service, and compare it with the basket case that is First Greatwestern; and I could go on)
The free market, neo-liberal philosophy that has dominated political and economic thinking in the US, the UK and elsewhere for the past 30 plus years is patently failing. Roosevelt knew it in 1933, and his prescription for a cure then seems equally valid today. Perhaps we need to go back to the future – or risk repeating the mistakes all over again