Remarks on Receiving the NECLC Tom Paine Award

Monthly Review, February 1995 | Go to article overview

Remarks on Receiving the NECLC Tom Paine Award


The National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee was founded in 1951 to respond to the legal needs of the McCarthy period repression, when the American Civil Liberties Union had surrendered to the cold war pressures of the time. The Committee has given the Tom Paine Award annually since 1958 in connection with its annual dinner, this year to Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy. Prior award winners have included, among others, I.F. Stone, Bertrand Russell, Justice William Douglas, and the singing group Peter, Paul, and Mary. The comments Harry and Paul gave at the dinner on 3 December 1994 follow:

REMARKS BY HARRY MAGDOFF

Thank you very much indeed for the Tom Paine Award. I feel deeply honored and am especially appreciative that this is tied in with an attempt to revitalize interest in the Economic Bill of Rights proposed by President Franklin Roosevelt in his last State of the Union Message to Congress. A political bill of rights is severely limited in the absence of economic justice.

At the end of the Second World War there was fear of a return to the Great Depression and an intense awareness that plans needed to be laid for government activity to avoid mass unemployment. The idea that measures should be taken to achieve a full-employment economy was on the agenda. One heard such talk in group sessions with Charles Wilson, president of General Electric Company, when he was head of the War Production Board. The Morgan partners issued a letter to their clients discussing the aim of full employment. A larger role for government in directing the economy was part of the program of the Committee for Economic Development, a newly formed organization of the more forward-looking sector of the business community. And even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recognized the need for government to play a stabilizing role in the economy.

In January 1945 Senator James Murray of Montana introduced the Full Employment Bill of 1945. The proposed bill proclaimed the right of all Americans able to work and seeking work to useful, regular, and full-time employment. Moreover, the government was to guarantee that right. At the request of some members of Congress a government committee was formed to help during various stages of the drafting and amendment of the bill. I was on that committee as a representative of the Commerce Department. You may be interested to know that Tom Emerson, one of the founders of the NECLC, was also on that committee. Some members of the committee argued strenuously that the guarantee would be meaningless unless the legislation provided teeth for its enforcement. Such proposals were dismissed as politically impractical. Eventually, when the Chamber of Commerce and Congressional committees got through with new drafts, a wholly ineffectual bill was passed. The watered down version wouldn't even use the term "full employment." Instead the goal became "maximum employment," whatever that may mean. And instead of an employment guarantee, reliance was placed in the magic of interest rates and the government budget as trustworthy stimulants of employment opportunities. That kind of tinkering was supposed to keep the ship of state and the economy on an even keel.

Underlying this approach was a myth--a myth that persists to this day, deeply embedded in the consciousness not only of the academic world but in the population at large. It is taken as axiomatic that what is produced will be consumed, and that the profits made will be invested so that, except for a glitch now and then, there will be unending growth and plenty of job opportunities.

This way of thinking is based on an abstract model of the way the economy is supposed to work. Solutions are sought for an economy that runs primarily on manufacturing industries, where price competition among business firms is rampant and the domestic economy is relatively independent. The first two decades after the Second World War helped to sustain this way of thinking. …

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