Friday, June 27, 2008

An OPA Lawyer Has His Doubts, Part 1

"Of all the consequences of war, except human slaughter, inflation is the most destructive," declared William O. Douglas for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944. The principal agency charged with minimizing the destruction was the Office of Price Administration. The OPA was a massive undertaking, with special advisory boards for business, labor, and consumers and local bodies coordinating the activities of some 78,000 volunteers. As the historian Meg Jacobs writes, "With its billions of ration stamps and thousands of field officers, OPA had more regular contact with citizens than did any government agency, even the United States Post Office or the Internal Revenue Service. Consumers felt the presence of the government at each step in the consumption cycle, from gathering coupons to checking price lists to recycling fat. Moreover, OPA reached down into communities and households everywhere and enlisted thousands of shoppers as its main shock troops in the fight against inflation."

The OPA was also an extraordinary chapter in the legal history of the United States. It assembled a huge legal staff--an estimate in November 1942 placed the total at between 1,700 and 1,800 lawyers, 500 of whom were based in Washington. Some of the brighter lights in the firmament of the postwar legal academe worked there, including Carl Auerbach, David Cavers, Brainerd Currie, Thomas Emerson, Henry Hart and Nathaniel Nathanson. (So did Richard Nixon, whose sour experience is detailed in Roger Morris's Richard Milhous Nixon.) Particularly in its early operation, when the economist Leon Henderson was Price Administrator and wunderkind David Ginsburg (pictured at right) was General Counsel, the OPA's Legal Division was also a New Deal garrison in an increasingly business-dominated war effort. They put into the Emergency Price Control Act of 1942 everything they had learned about administrative law and practice during Franklin D. Roosevelt's first two administrations; just how much they drew upon their New Deal experiences in their daily work is apparent from Thomas Emerson's published oral history, Young Lawyer for the New Deal (1991).

In its principal mission, OPA was a success: by August 1945 prices had risen only 31 percent, half of what they had jumped during the United States's much briefer participation in World War 1. But rationing chafed many citizens--such as the man hauled before a Pittsburgh rationing board for unlawful pleasure driving, pictured at left. (Note the photographer's ironic commentary on the proceedings by including Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" posters in the shot.) And because price regulation encouraged many producers to skimp on quality, the OPA lawyers regulated production, too, including a kind of lawyer's guide to the cutting of meat, which infuriated the nation's butchers. "Determined to administer the unadministerable," the historian Barry Karl wrote, the OPA's lawyers "introduced Americans to a concept of bureaucratic rigidity they would come to associate with all federal management."

Not every "price lawyer" was as enthusiastic a regulator as Karl's quotation might suggest. Particularly in the field offices, attorneys sometimes had their doubts. One was Sigmund A. Robinson, the chief price attorney in OPA's Indianapolis office--and my maternal grandfather. Here is a memo from my family's collection.