The Black Bill and the Green New Deal

“When we first came to Washington in 1933,” FDR Labor Secretary Francis Perkins wrote in her memoir, The Roosevelt I Knew, “the Black bill was already before the Congress. Introduced by Senator Hugo L. Black, it had received support from many parts of the country and from many representatives and senators.”

The Black Bill was the Senate version of the Black-Connery Thirty-Hour Bill. On April 6, 1933, the Senate approved the measure by a vote of 53 to 30. Perkins was scheduled to appear before the House committee holding hearings on the Connery Bill:

Roosevelt had a problem. He was in favor of limiting the hours of labor for humanitarian and possibly for economic reasons and therefore did not want to oppose the bill. At the same time, he did not feel that it was sound to support it vigorously. But the agitation for the bill was strong. Its proponent insisted that it was a vital step toward licking the depression. I said, “Mr. President, we have to take a position. I’ll take the position, but I want to be sure that it is in harmony with your principles and policy.”

Roosevelt had another problem. The National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce were adamantly opposed to the Thirty-Hour Bill. Perkins offered amendments to the Connery Bill, the American Federation of Labor offered other amendments and business representatives “proposed crippling amendments that would have destroyed the purpose of the measure.”

On May 1, the administration withdrew its support for the Connery Bill. Roosevelt had concluded that organized business would not support the recovery program if the Black-Connery Bill were to become law. In its place, the collective bargaining provisions of Section 7(a) and wage, hour and labor standard provisions were added to the National Industrial Recovery Act through, in Leon Keyserling’s account, “a series of haphazard accidents reflecting the desire to get rid of  the Black bill and to put something in to satisfy labor.”

The Supreme Court ruled the Recovery Act unconstitutional on May 27, 1935. In its place, the “Second New Deal” consisted of a variety of policies, including, most notably, the National Labor Relations Act, the Works Progress Administration and Social Security.

The moral to the story is that “the” New Deal was improvised, it evolved, was not unitary and its original impetus came from a fundamentally different policy proposal that was anathema to the business lobby. The Thirty-Hour Bill was conceived as a solution to a problem that is no longer polite in policy circles to consider as a problem — “over-production.”

I am sympathetic to the intentions and ambition of the Green New Deal resolution proposed by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey. What I find especially compelling is the inclusion of social and economic justice and equality in the program goals. The vision isn’t just a proposal for “sustainable” business-as-usual, powered by wind and solar.

The day before Ocasio-Cortez and Markey announced their resolution, Kate Aronoff and co-authors presented a “Five Freedoms” statement of principles for a Green New Deal, modeled on Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms.from 1941. My favorite, of course, is number two: Freedom From Toil:

We can’t escape work altogether, and there’s a lot of work we need to do, immediately and in the long term. But work doesn’t need to rule our lives.

The great nineteenth-century English socialist William Morris made a distinction between useful work and useless toil: we need the former but should free ourselves from the latter. We can escape the crushing toll of working long hours for low wages to make something that someone else owns.

At present, there’s a lot of work that’s worse than useless — it’s toil that’s harmful to the people doing it and to the world in which we live. But even useful work should be distributed more widely so that we can all do less of it — and spend more time enjoying its fruits.

I suppose there always has been work that is “worse than useless” — bullshit jobs and all that. But there is cruel irony in the fact that the ultimate solution to the 1930s problem of over-production was perpetual creation of useless toil through credit, fashion, advertising, and government stimulus and subsidies. The original proposal had been… shorter working time!

Which brings me back to the peregrinations of the FDR New Deal. The 12-year deadline posited by the I.P.C.C. for keeping within the 1.5 degree centigrade limit brings us to the 100th anniversary of Keynes’s “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren.” Time has run out on his caveat:

But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.

We have been pretending long enough now for foul to become worse than useless and to convince ourselves that fair really would be foul. It is past time to stop pretending.

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