Economic Bill of Rights

I got speak on a panel for the BC Cooperative Association this week after a screening of Michael Moore’s new film, Capitalism: A Love Story. I thought it was quite well done, and better than I expected. Less of the MM kitsch and a fairly broad sweep over the history and current foibles of American capitalism. While this approach means it loses some overall cogency and rigor, I love the visuals and the human-scale stories that are hallmark of MM’s film-making.

Perhaps one major shortcoming in the film is a failure to bring in the environment, except for some Katrina footage near the end that is not overtly connected to climate change in the narrative, a shame given the approach of Copenhagen. Instead the focus is the financial crisis, the lead up to it through to the massive gifts to Wall Street in the dying hours of the Bush Administration. That focus on finance gets tied back to more mundane corporate capitalism in a number of ways throughout the movie, but leaves me wanting Moore to have interviewed Jim Stanford for the movie not the “Inconceivable!” guy from The Princess Bride.

The movie spoke more to alternatives than I thought it would, in particular a worker-owned manufacturing plant. It also covers workers who occupied their factory during the crisis to get, in the end, $6,000 of back-pay. But nor does the movie channel The Take, by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis, where occupying workers in Argentina actually become a worker cooperative. This is a movie about American capitalism not off-shoots in South America, nor the Scandinavian, Japanese or French versions, where the grotesque surge in inequality of American (and Canadian) capitalism since 1980 have not manifested (at least in terms of the share of income going to the top 1%).

Since Moore’s reference to “plutonomy” came up in a recent post, I’d add that one striking part of the movie that gives me some hope was the clip of FDR’s proposal for a second bill of rights. Here is the text:

Franklin D. Roosevelt

“The Economic Bill of Rights”

Excerpt from 11 January 1944 message to Congress on the State of the Union

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.

source: The Public Papers & Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt (Samuel Rosenman, ed.), Vol XIII (NY: Harper, 1950), 40-42


  • Canada has gone a long way towards achieving the rights on FDR’s list through the government provision of social services, a safety net, and a progressive tax code. There is still room for improvement, though.

    That said, I’m not sure I agree with the the first “right”. Do we really want government guaranteeing everyone a job? In a mixed capitalist society, I don’t see that as government’s role. Its role is help people when they’re down through social assistance (e.g. EI), and try and steer the macroeconomic ship (in conjunction with the BoC) such that the economy is persistently at or near the natural rate of unemployment.

    We do not want people having to live off government largesse for long periods of time. That kind of thing can breed complacency and is ultimately unsustainable if too many people suffer the misfortune of having to do so.

  • BTW, on the subject of MM’s film, I was disappointed. I found it incoherent and lacking in any tangible solutions. I enjoyed his previous films much more.

    I’m glad he pointed out the stunning conflict of interest with Paulson (former Goldman Sachs CEO) and the administration of the bailout. Why more people aren’t concerned about this is beyond me. One day he says the government won’t bail out any private firms, and Lehman goes bankrupt, precipitating in large measure the stock market crash. The VERY NEXT DAY, he bails out AIG to the tune of billions of dollars. We now know much of this money went directly to bail out Goldman Sachs, who was holding lots of AIG’s insurance in the form of credit default swaps.

    On the one hand, we want our finance and monetary authorities to have good knowledge of how the private sector works, which entails some experience. On the other hand, we should want to eliminate conflicts of interest in policy making. How do we reach a fair middle ground so that something like happened in the US can’t happen here. (I am not accusing Mr. Carney, himself a Goldman alum, of playing favourites…)

  • The bill of rights sounds like something that would be nice for everyone to have, and some (such as education and health) we currently buy into in Canada. But making some of those things “rights” could be disasterous.

    In particular, guaranteeing everyone enough to spend on food, clothing and recreation and guaranteeing every family a decent home, even if it cannot be afforded, would be very expensive to taxpayers and create huge incentives for people not to work. The subprime mortgage crisis should be a strong enough example to deter us from guaranteeing every family a house.

    The “right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living” also sounds ridiculous. There simply won’t be a high demand for some crops at the market. If we suddenly said we need to double the price of strawberries in order for a farmer to make “a decent living,” people would stop buying strawberries and buy other fruits instead, the strawberries would rot, and in order to fulfill the farmers’ “rights,” the government would have to pay farmers for the rotten strawberries. Hasn’t the wage-and-price-controls debate been settled by now?

  • I am sorry but it should be every humans right to a home, food, clothing, unlimited education and access to communication. As far as the farmer goes you would not have this food with out him. We all should be working on abundance not worrying about money as an incentive. It will be a while before we can abolish money, but seriously money in reality is worthless. We should be encouraged to learn about things that interest us as well as volunteer to keep society going. The major advances in civilization were made to achieve abundance not money(Nikola Tesla died poor).
    I think the main thing we need to eliminate from our economy is cyclical consumption and competition. We should not waste just so people keep buying and we should not compete because it causes people to be dishonest and win unfairly.

    Look up
    and watch

  • During one of his on the road shows Bernanke in his defense cited that 1929 depression was a recession until a bank in Europe failed. He was referring to the great Kreditanstalt of Vienna which collapsed in May 1931. I think he was looking for exoneration but instead it raises more questions. Same cycle gets repeated, relax credit, let the stock markets soar on irrational exuberance, then suddenly withdraw money from the market, let the stock market crash, banks fail,……..

    What I am surprised at is the lack of institutional memory of twentieth century recessions and depressions and the panics of the nineteenth century.

    These financial meltdowns are not a surprise or shock to those in the industry, otherwise why would they push for de-regulation and removal of safeguards while creating riskier innovative strategies.

    Credit Crisis Cassandra
    Brooksley Born’s Unheeded Warning Is a Rueful Echo 10 Years On

    Somehow I get the feeling she is still walking on egg shells, careful not to give the impression financial meltdown could have been prevented, had she prevailed in the reforms. Financial Sector is a formidable adversary.

    Since the industry claims to be blindsided by the incoming crash each and every time, it would be wise to watch the Ponzimeter and act accordingly.

    (If life gives you melons, you have dyslexia)

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