I believe in the power of government to be a force for good. I’ve learned it through my own life experience as well as that of my forbears, dating back the better part of a century.
When the Great Depression started, my grandfather, Henry A. Wallace, was America’s most prominent agricultural leader. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt sought his advice on how to rebuild the farm economy, and then asked him to serve as Secretary of Agriculture. The programs that my grandfather pushed through Congress used government to aggressively regulate US agriculture. He created crop subsidies, production regulation, soil conservation, food stamps, school lunches, land use planning, and even helped design Social Security — some of the most successful and enduring interventions of the New Deal.
Unlike the previous Republican administrations’ “laissez faire” style of government, which had let Wall Street run free and crash the economy, this new activist government came down on the side of ordinary working people. It curbed monopolies, regulated the stock market, prescribed minimum wages and working conditions, banned child labor, and empowered unions.
The reason my grandfather believed so strongly in the positive power of government intervention came from his own father, Henry C. Wallace, who held the same job under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. He was a Republican from a long line of Republicans, who nevertheless pushed for programs to help individual family farmers during the farm crisis of the 1920’s, and was fought every step of the way by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, protector of big business and eventual father of the Crash of 1929.
After Harding’s death, President Coolidge frequently sided with Hoover. He longed to fire Wallace, but feared antagonizing his great farm following. My great grandfather spared him the trouble, succumbing to a stress-induced heart attack in office in 1924.
His son, my grandfather, always blamed Hoover for his father’s death, and went on to wage titanic struggles with FDR’s Secretary of Commerce, Jesse Jones, big business’s best friend in government.
My grandfather’s great success in fighting for ordinary Americans made him a hugely popular political figure, and led FDR to pick him for Vice President in his third term. In that role, he presided over new agencies set up by FDR to convert American business to war production. He famously smacked down conservatives crowing about American exceptionalism and how America should rule the world. Instead of the conceit of an “American Century” after the war, he called for a “Century of the Common Man.” He warned of the dangers of “American fascism,” when corporate interests join with government “to keep the common man in eternal subjection,” and called for “economic democracy,” and equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender or race.
For his apostasy, party bosses ensured he was tossed off the ticket in 1944, in favor of the more malleable Harry Truman. But he loyally campaigned for the President’s reelection. And when FDR offered him his choice of any cabinet position (other than State, already occupied by FDR’s dear friend Cordell Hull), he chose Commerce – ending Jesse Jones’ career (which I always figured must have felt like pretty sweet justice for what Hoover did to his father).
In my own life, I have seen the value of government and its potential for good. As a young lawyer, I clerked in federal district court, helping to administer justice on issues ranging from environmental enforcement to corporate malfeasance, to sex discrimination and criminal law. Then I worked in the US Senate, for the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the Judiciary Committee — with jurisdiction over essential programs like patents, immigration, and the courts, corrections and juvenile justice systems. I worked as a Senator’s aide , dealing with budget and appropriations across the entire federal government, which forces you to understand the value of what each agency and department actually does, to advise your boss on the merits of increasing or decreasing their funding.
After the Senate, I worked as a lobbyist for civil liberties organizations trying to influence legislatures and agencies to take better care of the interests of ordinary people. I spent a decade at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, which presses government to fund legal services for the poor in civil and criminal cases. There I worked closely with the Justice Department and court agencies on projects to prioritize drug treatment and mental health services over incarceration. We trained thousands of government-funded lawyers to better navigate court systems on behalf of their indigent clients facing loss of public housing, employment, immigration rights, or their very liberty or life.
Now, alongside my wonderful wife Christy — who worked for 20 years in the US diplomatic corps in Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe — I run a foundation founded by my grandfather over a half century ago. (It is funded with assets from a very successful hybrid seed company he founded before he entered public service). The Wallace Global Fund supports organizations and movements that demand government to be transparent and accountable, and to work for ordinary people, rather than corporations and the wealthy.
For the past decade, we have lived half the time in South Africa, a young democracy that once inspired the world with a constitution and a government truly by and for the people, now teetering on the edge of oligarchy. We also focus on Zimbabwe, where real democracy is but a fetus, and on the US, where democracy is a battered and cynical senior citizen. Everywhere, we try to empower the people to demand a government that works for them, not the elites or the corporations.
In my life, I have learned that government matters a lot – both for good and ill. (A stark reminder: the same year that conflict-ridden South Africa chose reconciliation and democracy, nearby Rwanda chose a bloodbath).
Sometimes, when I try to recruit other Patriotic Millionaires, I get the reaction, “Why would I want to pay more in taxes? I hate some of the things our government spends money on” (take nuclear weapons, for example). But I’m sorry, under the Constitution, only Congress gets to pick and choose where your tax dollars go. It’s a package deal. If you want Medicare, interstate highways and people like Bernie Madoff locked up, it comes with the Pentagon and salaries for people like Dick Cheney. And count your blessings: the current top tax rate of 39.6% pales next to 91% under Eisenhower, 70% under Nixon and Ford, and even 50% through most of the Reagan years.
The point is, paying for government is a collective responsibility, and we all have to pay our fair share. When Warren Buffett’s secretary is paying a higher “share” than he is, that’s not fair. And that’s why I’m a Patriotic Millionaire.
Henry Scott Wallace is Co-Chair of the Wallace Global Fund, based in Washington DC and Cape Town, South Africa.