Dear Mr. Roosevelt: A reminder of when government was not considered the enemy

In Much Ado by Catherine Landisleave a COMMENT

I grew up on a mountain overlooking Chattanooga at a time when a brown haze covered the valley. Today, the city is practically famous for its vibrancy. Sen. Bob Corker was Chattanooga’s mayor at one point during the transformation and was partly responsible for some effective public/private investment. I give him credit for that. But I remember the brown haze. I remember when Chattanooga was deemed America’s most polluted city. That was in 1969. A year later, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed. I contend the success of both the city and Corker depended on the EPA and its enforcement of the Clean Air Act.

Government regulations were welcomed then by ordinary people who appreciated things like clean air and water and maybe some curbs on banks and protections from abusive employers. Since then, the blunt force of lazy rhetoric has vilified regulations, by definition, as job and freedom killers. Before January, some of that was still just talk, but now we’ve got a president and a crop of legislators determined to dismantle regulations in critical sectors including banking and finance, labor, civil rights, health care, and the environment. We’re in big trouble.

The Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN) is just one local organization using regulations such as the Clean Water Act to protect the health of our communities. One recent success will keep the Holston Army Ammunition Plant in Kingsport from exceeding its permit to discharge RDX, a compound used to create explosive materials, into the Holston River. You don’t have to know much about RDX to know you don’t want it in your drinking water. It’s going to be harder to monitor the state’s concentrated animal feeding lots (factory farms) since our state Legislature recklessly removed permitting requirements this spring. What might be the harmful consequences? Without government oversight, who knows?

Regulations can be a hassle and no doubt many are unnecessary, but to perpetuate the meme that all are job-killing monsters is irresponsible. It’s not even true.

“Regulations drive innovation and create jobs,” argues TCWN’s executive director, Renee Hoyos. In Knoxville, for instance, storm water regulations have spawned storm water management companies. Local engineering and construction firms make money on environmental clean-up. The result is a healthy environment and new jobs. An economy without regulations grows stagnant, Hoyos says. In any case, we should grow up and acknowledge that no action is free of trade-offs. If the loss of 10 jobs were to save 100 lives, which would you choose?

And let’s not forget the staggering number of green-energy jobs we’ll be sending overseas as we race backward at breakneck speed toward more coal and oil extraction. I began writing this column on the day Donald Trump, with stupefying ignorance, abandoned the Paris Climate Agreement, which was the same day Paul Ryan came to town to scoop up money to continue the Republican project to demolish our government. This is the story they’re trying to tell: You should trust Comcast, Verizon, Cigna, Goldman Sachs, Exxon, Merck, and United Airlines more than you should trust the EPA, the CDC, or Sally Yates. In this story, the bad guy is government with its evil regulations, although like one’s trash is another’s treasure, regulations on things like women’s health are fine. Just don’t regulate anything that keeps them from the true goal their pretty story seeks to hide: concentrating wealth.

There is another story. I was reminded of it by a letter sent to my sister-in-law’s grandfather, the Rev. F. E. Clark, in Grundy, Va. on Sept. 24, 1935. The following is an excerpt:

Reverend and dear Sir:
… I am particularly anxious that the new Social Security Legislation just enacted, for which we have worked so long, providing for old age pensions, aid for crippled children, and unemployment insurance shall be carried out in keeping with the high purposes with which this law was enacted. It is also vitally important that The Works program shall be administered to provide employment at useful work, and that our unemployed as well as the nation as a whole may derive the greatest possible benefits.

I shall deem it a favor if you will write me about conditions in your community. Tell me how you feel our government can better serve our people.

We can solve our many problems, but no one man or single group can do it. We shall have to work together for the common end of better spiritual and material conditions for the American people.

May I have your counsel and your help? …

Very sincerely yours.
Franklin D. Roosevelt

For my sister-in-law, the letter is a newly discovered family treasure. For me, it’s a heartbreaking reminder of how twisted the notion of our government has become. Then, like now, government can be responsible for great harm, (see segregation, Japanese internment, Vietnam), but there was balance. Some problems can be best solved by government. Some can’t. It depends on the problem.

Our current government is broken, not because government is intrinsically bad, but because it no longer works for actual people in Grundy, Va., or Ferguson, Mo., or Knoxville, Tenn. It works only for the sliver of our population that controls the most money. Of course, regulations could help with that.

Oh, wait. One dare not controvert the story: GOVERNMENT IS THE PROBLEM AND REGULATIONS KILL JOBS!

So, never mind.

President Roosevelt cared enough about the effects his actions were having on ordinary people that he wrote a letter to a Presbyterian minister in Grundy, Va. to find out. His was not a perfect government but it was a government trying to work for the common good. What we should want in a democracy is not a weakened government but a more responsive one. I don’t know how we’re going to cure our current system of its cancerous money problem, but we’ll never succeed until we start telling ourselves a different story.

Catherine Landis

With Much Ado, Catherine Landis examines how political decisions and social trends affect the lives of the people around her. She is particularly interested in issues concerning feminism, civil rights, education, the environment, and immigration reform. A former newspaper reporter, she has published two novels, Some Days There’s Pie (St. Martin’s Press) and Harvest (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). She lives in Knoxville.

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