Friday, May 23, 2014

May 22, 1964; Five Decades Ago Yesterday, President Johnson Unveiled the Great Society

President Lyndon Johnson delivered the commencement address at the University of Michigan 5 decades ago on May 22, 1964. He unveiled the Great Society to graduates, who like almost all graduates at commencement probably failed to understand what the speaker was talking about, if they were even listening. “Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we will build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only to the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society. The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning. The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.” He challenged the audience:” Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society, to prove that our material progress is only the foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit?” He appealed to the eternal optimism of the American people 50 years ago – the belief that the people working with the government could solve all problems, including poverty. A disillusioned American public now knows better with little faith in government. Why the University of Michigan? As President Johnson alluded in his speech, four years earlier during the primary campaign for President, then Senator John F. Kennedy stood on the steps of the Michigan Union at 1:00AM and unveiled the Peace Corps. America was soon to witness the transformation of American Society. The young LBJ emerged out of the Texas Hill Country as an ardent supporter of FDR and the New Deal. He never forgot his poverty roots. President Johnson was in a position to expand the New Deal. President Roosevelt’s goal was to save capitalism, create jobs, and expand the rights of workers. President Johnson’s goals were to expand the New Deal, eradicate poverty, and the civil rights of Americans, especially African Americans. His support for African Americans was a shocker to those who knew him as a segregationist in his years as a Congressman and Senator, but he never forgot his roots. (Didn’t I just say that?) He unleashed a flurry of legislation not seen since the early days of the New Deal, and not emulated since. President Johnson obtained passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbad discrimination in employment and places of public accommodations on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity and sex. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought the vote in the South to African Americans. Southern politics were changed forever. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination in housing on the basis of race. The Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965 committed federal funds to our schools while other measures provided scholarships, grants and work study money for higher education. President Roosevelt gave us one major entitlement program, social security. President Johnson created two, Medicare and Medicaid. The Great Society brought us Head Start, Vista, Upward Bound, legal assistance for the poor and food stamps, as well as aid to public transit. He created funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Some of his programs did not work. Others were eliminated or consolidated over time. The vast majority of the Great Society forms the foundation of modern American society. LBJ would go down as one of the greatest presidents in American history, except for the quagmire of Vietnam. That was his war and his continuing legacy. The Great Society and the accompanying War on Poverty did not end poverty in America, but it did raise the living standards of the lower classes. Think of how many poor have cars, cellphones, and HD TV’s today. And yet, we easily forget the first major act of President Johnson. He knew that while America was affluent in the early 1960’s he would be unable to finance the Great Society without growing the American economy. Therefore his first priority was the enactment of President Kennedy’s proposed tax cuts. The resulting Kennedy-Johnson Tax Cut of the highest marginal rate from 91% to 70%, coupled with reductions in the lower marginal rates and the corporate income tax rate set off an explosion in the American economy, just as the subsequent Reagan tax cuts and Bush Tax cuts. Tax cuts increase tax revenues by expanding the economy – a lesson that politicians such as President Obama never understand.

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