Brother Can You Spare A Dime

Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.

In the 20s and 30s, nations tried to keep all the economic woes out of their borders. Nations competed with ever higher tariffs on imports to try to protect their internal economies. The result of course was to crash international trade, hasten and deepen the Great Depression.

In 1931 Yip Harburg wrote the working man’s anthem:

Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

Not just depression, cruel as that was. Nazism and dictatorship took over much of Europe, by coup, by arms, even by election. Americans feared Nazis here at home. The brutal history of the twentieth century was written in national reactions to the worsening economic crisis and the Great Depression.

Here we got the economy to bottom out by the 36 election when people urged Roosevelt to start shrinking the national budget and the national debt. The economy immediately plunged again. An economy is people. People plunged to the depths of despair, homelessness, starvation and often death.

By then John Maynard Keynes was explaining how and why pump priming works. For the next 70 years this country followed Keynes’ advice. Now the Tea Party in its infinite wisdom dances around the ghosts of the Great Depression as if its spirit should be recalled from the depths, and pays homage to the suits who urged Roosevelt to cut back, in a ghoulish effort to recreate the despair of 37.

Harburg referred to the veterans:

Once in khaki suits … Half a million boots went slogging through Hell … Buddy, can you spare a dime?

But cut, cut, cut, Tea Partygoers cry.

  • A program reduces the rate of violent crime. Cut – government is too big.
  • People could have jobs, to rebuild roads, bridges, trains, the electric grid,
    without which nothing works. Cut, cut, cut – government is too big.
  • People could build new energy sources to fight global warming. Cut, cut, cut – government is too big.
  • People have been washed out of their homes by a hurricane. Cut, cut, cut – government is too big.

The answer to everything is to cut, cut, cut. That’s called “garbage can decision making” – take whatever’s in the can and claim it’s the answer.

That’s not from understanding the economy. It’s failure to understand and lashing out at everyone who does. Bush made monumental mistakes so Obama must be wrong about everything he says. Clinton cut the deficit, and Bush rebuilt it, so everything Obama says must make no sense. Reagan cut a different budget so these cuts must be right. There is a huge non sequitur here, an enormous failure of logic and understanding. Tea Partgoers lashing out without reason or thought – the mental process of the mob.

Harburg ended:

Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?

The Wrong Wing of politics must be defeated so the American people won’t be. It’s time to come out swinging, to take back the Congress, and to consign the Tea Party to the landfill of history – with exhaust pipes for all the off-gassing.

– This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 27, 2011.


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