The Obama Watch

Rationing Both Jobs and Basketballs

Could this be the next great economic idea from the Obama White House?

By 2.2.10

Now that Obamacare has slipped into the ocean trench that lies just off the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, the president will turn his full attention to the issue of jobs. This can mean only one thing.

Now nobody's job is safe.

Soon we will all be out on the street -- in bread lines or moving into makeshifts shelters that our government, out of the kindness of its heart, has built for us. To add just a bit to the line in the old Willy & Waylon song about Luckenbach, Texas, it's time to get back to the basics of life on the dole.

FDR liked to visit the boys living in Civil Conservation Corps barracks. He had good time eating, joking, and making little speeches. Maybe Barack will do the same for us. Visit us in our shanty-towns, shoot some hoops, and flash that toothy grin.

FDR appreciated the propaganda value of these visits. Everyone looks so happy and content in their government-created work camps. That was one of the things the CCC did -- it created endless footage for the sole purpose of singing its own praises and paying homage to FDR. If you could look inside the mind of the typical progressive, you would find those old news reels playing an endless loop.

Only a couple of months ago, the president vowed that we would "spend our way out of this recession." Now he is singing a new tune -- calling for "austerity." How is one to reconcile the two sides of Mr. Obama's newly adopted public persona -- Mr. Spendthrift and Mr. Austerity? Actually, there is no difficulty here, because, either way, the president will decide what needs to be done, with little or no input from the private sector.

We may go ahead, for instance, with a multi-billion dollar light rail system not because it makes economic or business sense, but, far more importantly, because it has been "the Number One issue back on the Obama Citizen Suggestion Site."

Let me relate a story that I believe sheds some light on the other side of Mr. Obama: the hard, flinty, austere side. It concerns the friend of a friend, who left Wall Street to become a key member of the General Motors rescue team put together by Steve Rattner last spring.

When this man went into the Oval Office for the first time, he tried to engage the president in some friendly chit-chat, saying that he had a basketball court in his backyard and a bunch of athletic children who loved to play the game. "We have nine basketballs at our house," he boasted. Big mistake! Mr. Obama fixed the investment banker with an icy stare, and said, "No one should have more than one basketball."

That's it. That is Obamanomic austerity. The same president who wants to ration health care -- things like stents and hip replacements -- also wants to ration basketballs. There should be no more than one basketball per household -- and perhaps no more than one hip replacement for every 1,000 people between the ages of 60 and 69. And fewer for those between the less ages of 70 and 79, who are that much closer to the end. Let the government decide.

That's austerity, all right. You don't have to be a proponent of small government to favor austerity. Communists and socialists have been doing it for years. So, too, have the mullahs. They are excellent practitioners of the same kind of austerity that sneers at free choice and reliably produces shoddy products and grinding poverty.

Price controls, shortages, queuing and rationing -- all those are key elements in the socialist tool kit. Since this administration was already prepared to ration health care , CO2 emissions and incomes (with severe tax penalties for anyone making more than $200,000 or $250,000 a year), why not ration jobs as well.

FDR did so. He called it "work sharing." He set out to stop people from working a full week by forcing employers to reduce the number of hours per worker. Thus, he deliberately sought to limit jobs to less than one per person.

In his book How Capitalism Saved America, the economist Tom DiLorenzo provides a vivid description of how FDR's government went out of its way to discourage and penalize work. The government created a bureaucratic monstrosity called the National Recovery Administration (NRA) which required every business owner to observe a minimum wage, a maximum work week, and to take other nonproductive steps to spread work around. DiLorenzo quotes another writer (John T. Flynn) on the effect of such rules and regulations:

(Code enforcement police) roamed through the garment district like storm troopers. They would enter a man's factory, send him out, line up his employees, subject them to minute interrogation, take over his books on the instant. Night work was forbidden. Flying squadrons of these private coat-and-suit police went through the district at night, battering down doors with axes looking for men who were committing the sin of sewing together a pair of pants at night.

DiLorenzo writes:

The first New Deal was essentially a scheme to turn the U.S. economy into one massive, government-run system of industrial and agricultural cartels. At a time when underemployment or unemployed of resources (including labor resources) was of tragic proportions, the focus of government was to restrict output and employment even further with supply-reducing cartel schemes and limitations on hours worked.

In her best-selling book The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, Amity Shlaes paints a similar picture:

Roosevelt's National Recovery Administration, created in 1933, pulled wages up when perishing companies could not afford it; come 1935, the Wagner Act gave unions more bargaining power, forcing further wage increases on companies. Roosevelt's multiple tax increases caused businesses to postpone investment. Especially counter-productive was FDR's "undistributed profits tax," which punished firms for being cautious and forced them to disgorge cash at the worst possible moment.

From first-hand observation of the same events, Winston Churchill, then out of government and writing furiously to replenish his depleted financial resources, penned a long and fascinating story on FDR and his administration that appeared December 29, 1934, issue of Colliers. While bending over backwards to present the most flattering possible picture of the president, Churchill did allow some real criticism -- softened somewhat by humor and an arch tone -- to creep into the article. He wrote:

(British) trade unions have grown to manhood and power amid an enormous company of counterchecks and consequential corrections. But to raise American trade unionism from its previous condition to industrial sovereignty by a few sweeping decrees may easily confront both the trade unions and the United States with problems which for the time being will be at once paralyzing and unsolvable.

A second danger to President Roosevelt's valiant and heroic experiments seems to arise from the mood to hunt down rich men as if they were noxious beasts. It is a very attractive sport, and once it gets started quite a lot of people everywhere are found ready to join in the chase.…The pursuit is long and exciting and everyone's blood is roused by its ardor. The question arises whether the general well-being of the masses will be advanced by an excessive indulgence in this amusement.

Apparently, not wanting to upset his great wartime ally and personal friend, Churchill removed this profile of the American president from his book, Great Contemporaries, which was printed later in the 1930s. It was added to later editions of the book, published after the war and after Roosevelt's death.

Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt teamed up to create the worst depression in American history. They did so by stifling private enterprise and effectively killing the only kind of investment -- private sector investment -- that leads to growth and prosperity.

Let's hope we're not about to replay this same old song -- which is ironically known by the title Happy Days Are Here Again.

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About the Author
Andrew B. Wilson, a frequent contributor to The American Spectator, is a resident fellow and senior writer at the Show-Me Institute, a free-market think tank based in Saint Louis.