Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Fireside Chats with FDR

Franklin Roosevelt used his Fireside Chats to help explain his policies to the US populace. He came into the homes of each family to connect with them on a more personal basis. In the midst of the Great Depression and then World War II this was an important connection that many Americans needed to their government to feel that someone was trying to help and guide them. I think that we might all feel more in touch with our government if the President was explaining policy to us and what his plan for the country was!

Let’s concentrate on one of FDR’s Fireside Chats from 1937. I think these chats can be a great way to introduce New Deal polices to students as the “alphabet soup” quickly gets overwhelming!

FDR starts by explaining what the people want from the government:

The overwhelming majority of our citizens who live by agriculture are thinking (very) clearly how they want Government to help them in connection with the production of crops. They want Government help in two ways -- first, in the control of surpluses, and, second, in the proper use of land.

He then goes on to explain how the taking some land out of production can be good for the economy and the farmers – an idea that still gives us trouble today:

Crop surplus control relates to the total amount of any major crop grown in the whole nation on all cultivated land, (good or bad) good land or poor land -- control by the cooperation of the crop growers and with the help of the Government. Land use (on the other hand) is a policy of providing each farmer with the best quality and type of land we have, or can make available, for his part in that total production. Adding good new land for diversified crops is offset by abandoning poor land now uneconomically farmed.

Something that many students have trouble understanding is why the government used the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) which paid farmers to plow under fields and kill livestock, which seems counter productive to many modern students. But in one year the AAA managed to double the price of cotton and raise the price of pork and corn. The slaughtered excess pork (100,000,000 pounds) was then distributed free to the poor by FERA. I really like how FDR explained this idea in 1937 (which actually wasn’t the AAA anymore – the AAA was declared unconstitutional in 1936, but they were still working to raise prices of major crops):

The total amount of production largely determines the price of the crop, and, therefore, the difference between comfort and misery for the farmer. Let me give you an example: If we Americans were foolish enough to run every shoe factory twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, we would soon have more shoes than the Nation could possibly buy -- a surplus of shoes so great that it would have to be destroyed, or given away, or sold at prices far below the cost of production. That simple (law) illustration, that simple law of supply and demand equally affects the price of all our major crops.

He then goes to explain how helping the farmers will help everyone have a steady food supply at a steady price:

And when we have found that way to protect the farmers' prices from the effects of alternating crop surpluses and crop scarcities, we shall also have found the way to protect the nation's food supply from the effects of the same fluctuation. We ought always to have enough food at prices within the reach of the consuming public. For the consumers in the cities of America, we must find a way to help the farmers to store up in years of plenty enough to avoid hardship in the years of scarcity.

FDR’s simple and straight-forward explanations to the nation can reach students in the same way. I think primary sources like this can really touch you in a way a textbook paragraph can never come close to.


Michael said...

I can understand why the agriculture industry was allowed price protection during the depression.

However, I think government subsidies have perhaps made farmers to dependent on federal handouts or price controls.

I do not know what the right balance is between the two extremes. How do you help encourage a thriving agriculture base without handing out too much farmer welfare?

I will give FDR credit for trying. Clearly, something did need to be done for farmers at that point of American history.

Jennie W said...

It is a tough decision. Modern agriculture is almost all "corporate" farming now - huge farms run by corporations rather than the small family farm. You can make money on a small farm anymore. It is sad to see the loss of the family farm (and the family business for that matter), but we are protective of our independence.