Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Sign of the Times

We’ve been working on our chicken coop this weekend (and by “we” I mean my husband and youngest daughter have been doing the physical work and I’ve been thinking about and organizing what else needs to be done). Right now I’m concentrating on the flooring, spatial arrangement, and safety features for the ladies. But mostly I’m preoccupied by the all important chicken sign that will hang above the coop doors.

In s l o w l y reading The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes, I think I found the perfect words to grace our coop: The Schechter Poultry Corp.

Perhaps few will understand the reference to A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corporation v. United States, the Supreme Court battle between four brothers in Brooklyn and the massive regulatory NRA (National Recovery Administration), one of the first alphabet soup bureaucracies of the New Deal established under the NIRA (National Industrial Recovery Act) of 1933. It might, however, prompt some questions from curious visitors.

The Schechter case is fascinating not only in its outcome, but in its very existence. Four kosher butchers from Brooklyn were besieged upon by federal inspectors who were determined to find violations to the newly enacted NRA code of fair competition. After interfering with the Schechters’ business for months, the inspectors made a report detailing 60 code violations. When the case, pursued by the FDR's administration as a test case for the constitutionality of the NIRA, finally went to the Supreme Court, the effective violations were reduced to one sick chicken, according to Shlaes, but the Schechters’ business was ruined.

The case of the Schechters resulted in three determinations by the Supreme Court: 1) “Extraordinary conditions do not create or enlarge constitutional power.” 2) “The Congress is not permitted to abdicate or to transfer to others the essential legislative functions with which it is thus vested.” 3) “We are of the opinion that the attempt, through the provisions of the Code, to fix the hours and wages of employees of defendants in their intrastate business was not a valid exercise of federal power.” The Court had effectively overturned the overreaching NIRA.

While more recent cases may have lessened, if not overridden the impact from the Schechter decision, it is important to remember a time when the Supreme Court was willing to uphold the principles of the Constitution rather than succumb to the notion of the emergency breach necessitated by “modern needs” and social justice.

We may not see that rigor again for quite some time.

As an aside, it is worth noting that businesses which supported the NRA code were encouraged to proudly display the blue eagle insignia of the NRA. It soon became that those who didn’t were thought unpatriotic and in some cases boycotted. This is a just a simple example of how voluntary government programs effectively become compulsory with just the right nudge.

You can view an interesting New Deal era promo for the NRA courtesy of Jimmy Durante and Metro Goldwyn Mayer here.

As for us, the sign will be a reminder that we should never allow the fox to guard the hen house.

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