Reassessing the costs of FDR's New Deal policies
The children raised during the 1930s are facing the end of life. Among them, you'll find many who revere the name of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The New Deal brought a Social Security check to the house. A government agency employed a dad to cut grass. But come now the grandchildren of that generation. A gentleman would not ask a lady her age, but I suspect that Amity Shlaes, a financial journalist and the author of The Greedy Hand, grew up during the years when FDR's statist liberalism was roundly discredited by critics from William Buckley Jr. to Ronald Reagan. In her latest book, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, she pronounces the New Deal an economic failure, which it largely was, and a cultural calamity. More on that last below.
The reader will require some facility with math to follow the author's arguments about measures of misery. But the gross proofs, with which she prefaces each chapter, undercut any claim that the Roosevelt Administration beat the crisis of unemployment. Only preparation for war did that. Shlaes faults one bad decision after another of the New Deal planners. Their greatest mistake, she insists, was to undercut the powerful economic engine that had built the wealth of the 1920s. Playing a significant role were the entrepreneurs who took advantage of open markets, like Samuel Insull and Wendell Wilkie. These two, according to Shlaes, had in their capability the most bountiful industry of all, electrical power generation and distribution. Another hero of this book is Andrew Mellon, whose wealth he turned back to establish a research center for innovation in business and a national art gallery for the United States.
Roosevelt's New Deal sought to punish financiers for the Crash, and so looked with favor on the prosecution of Insull for shareholders' losses. Wilkie and his privately held Commonwealth and Southern Corp. were driven out of business by the taxpayer-funded TVA; Mellon constantly had his income audited by the federal government.
And there is the forgotten man of the title, which is verbally ironic. This does not refer to the victim of hard times, but the unwitting average citizens whom the New Deal coerced into funding dubious social projects. Here, Shlaes profiles the comical but determined Schecters, poultry middlemen of Brooklyn, who just wanted to sell their chickens to whomever would buy until an NRA Codes enforcer intervened. They sued and the humble bird brought down the Blue Eagle, when the Supreme Court declared the National Recovery Act with its police powers unconstitutional.
According to Shlaes, Roosevelt redeemed his failed policies by putting together a coalition of interest groups which certain New Deal actions did indeed reward: farmers, organized labor, black Americans. Although the author does not say so, she clearly invites us to consider the New Deal as the forerunner of today's America, split along lines of race, gender and class.
A short review hardly does justice to a book of this complexity and depth. None will read this book for the felicity of its prose style. But everyone who thinks and studies and writes about these traumatic years what some have called another American revolution will have to take The Forgotten Man into account.
James Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.