on June 15, 2007
The Forgotten Man (TFM for short) is not a polemic. It is not an argument for a particular theory or economic interpretation of the Depression. Instead, the author steps back and lets the story tell itself. She has sifted through memoirs and contemporaneous accounts in order to carry the reader back into the mindset of the 1930's. She focuses on a diverse selection of protagonists from that period, including opponents of Roosevelt like Andrew Mellon and Wendell Wilkie as well as members of Roosevelt's "brain trust" like Paul Douglas and Rexford Tugwell. Note that in the context of that time, "trust" meant the same thing as cartel (as in anti-trust laws). Roosevelt was claiming that with his advisers he had cornered the market on brains. If so, then after reading TFM, my sense is that there was not much value in this particular monopoly.
I came away with three major conclusions.
1. For better or worse, much of the country saw the Depression as something akin to a natural disaster, and people accordingly lowered their expectations for their standard of living.
2. Economic ignorance among policymakers was much worse than I had realized. I was steeped in the myth that the reason the Depression was so bad was that only Keynes had the answer, and he had to overcome the resistance of "the classical economists," such as Irving Fisher. But the differences between Fisher and Keynes seem small when compared to the differences between the policymakers and both economists. In physics, it would be like watching an academic debate over the meaning of quantum mechanics while policymakers are unable to grasp the simple concept of gravity.
3. The struggle over economic policy in the 1930's was really an episode in the long, historical conflict between business participants in the market and anti-business academics. Roosevelt gave free rein to the professors, until the start of the Second World War led him to realize that he would need the tycoons to help mobilize to defeat Hitler. I suspect that one reason that Roosevelt and the New Deal come off so well in the conventional wisdom is that history books are written by professors, not by entrepreneurs.
I should stress that these are my own views, and that TFM is much less prone to making generalizations and drawing conclusions. Readers with a variety of backgrounds and predispositions can appreciate the book and learn their own lessons.
on June 27, 2007
For offering a critical view of FDR's policies in her terrific new book THE FORGOTTEN MAN, Amity Shlaes has been taken to task by those who say that his charisma helped lift American spirits and get us through the Great Depression. FDR certainly had charisma, but what were the effects of his New Deal policies?
Dozens of economists, including two Nobel Prize winners, have evaluated the consequences of New Deal policies. Empirical research at many universities raises suggests that the New Deal actually prolonged the Great Depression. Consider some key questions like these:
1. Why did FDR triple federal taxes during the Great Depression? Federal tax revenues more than tripled, from $1.6 billion in 1933 to $5.3 billion in 1940. Excise taxes, personal income taxes, inheritance taxes, corporate income taxes, holding company taxes and "excess profits" taxes all went up. FDR introduced an undistributed profits tax. Consumers had less money to spend, and employers had less money for growth and jobs.
2. How much net benefit did the New Deal provide ordinary people who paid most of the costs of the New Deal? For instance, the biggest New Deal welfare programs were funded before 1936, when federal excise taxes on beer, wine, cigarettes, soft drinks, chewing gum, radios and other things purchased by millions of ordinary people, generated more revenue than the federal personal income tax and the federal corporate income tax combined. According to the standard reference work HISTORICAL STATISTICS OF THE UNITED STATES FROM COLONIAL TIMES TO THE PRESENT, in 1936 the federal government collected $674.4 million from the personal income tax, $753 million from the corporate income tax and $1.5 billion from excise taxes. Despite big income tax hikes, the federal excise tax continued to be the single largest source of federal revenue until after the United States entered World War II. So FDR's New Deal was mainly financed on the backs of the middle class and poor people who bought things subject to the federal excise tax. To hear one of FDR's "Fireside Chats," Americans had to pay a federal excise tax on a radio and a federal excise tax on the electricity needed to run it.
3. Why did FDR discourage investors from taking the risks of funding growth and jobs? As Robert Higgs (Independent Institute) pointed out, frequent tax hikes (1933, 1934, 1935, 1936) created uncertainty that discouraged investment, and FDR further discouraged investors by denouncing them as "economic royalists," "economic dictators" and "privileged princes," among other epithets. No surprise that private investment was at historically low levels during the New Deal era.
4. Why did FDR channel government spending away from the poorest people? Research by Gavin Wright (Stanford University), Robert Tollison (Clemson University), John J. Wallis (University of Maryland), Jim F. Couch (University of North Alabama), William F. Shughart II (University of Mississippi) and others documented how political influences skewed New Deal spending away from the poorest people. The South, America's poorest region, received significantly less than would have been the case if New Deal spending were allocated according to the amount of poverty. More New Deal spending went to political "swing" states in the West and East, where incomes were more than 60% higher.
5. Why did FDR make it more expensive for employers to hire people? By enforcing above-market wages, introducing excise taxes on payrolls and promoting compulsory unionism, the New Deal increased the costs of employing people about 25% from 1933 to 1940 -- a major reason, as Richard K. Vedder (Ohio University) and Lowell E. Gallaway (Ohio University) showed, why unemployment averaged 17 percent during the New Deal era. Demanding that employers pay above-market wages created incentives for employers to introduce more machines, go with part-timers or independent contractors or otherwise avoid expanding full-time payrolls.
6. Why did FDR destroy all that food when millions were hungry? FDR promoted higher food prices by creating scarcity -- paying farmers to plow under some 10 million acres of crops and slaughter and discard some 6 million farm animals. The New Deal food destruction program mainly benefited big farmers, since they had more food to destroy than small farmers. This policy and subsequent New Deal programs to pay farmers for not producing victimized the 100 million Americans who were consumers. As William E. Leuchtenburg (University of North Carolina) reported, "Only the war rescued the New Deal farm program from disaster."
7. Why did FDR make everything more expensive during the Depression? Americans needed bargains, but FDR signed the National Industrial Recovery Act to establish some 700 industrial cartel codes that forced consumers to pay above-market prices for goods and services. Moreover, FDR banned discounting by signing the Anti-Chain Store Act (1936) and the Retail Price Maintenance Act (1937). During the New Deal, Americans were actually prosecuted for cutting prices!
8. Why did FDR break up the strongest banks? George Benston (Emory University), Eugene White (Rutgers University), Lester V. Chandler (Princeton University) and others showed how FDR's banking laws had different consequences than what had been intended. FDR broke up the strongest banks, which had diversified with both commercial banking and investment banking. FDR's federal deposit insurance didn't stop bank failures. Rather, New Deal federal deposit insurance undermined the incentives of bankers to manage their businesses prudently, and it transferred the cost of bank failures to taxpayers who, among other things, had to pay the $500 billion tab for the S&L debacle during the 1980s. About 90% of depression era bank failures occurred because of unit banking laws that prevented small banks from diversifying through branches. Canada, free from branching restrictions, didn't have a single bank failure during the Great Depression.
9. What was the point of New Deal securities laws that made it harder for employers to raise capital and didn't help investors to do better? Employers desperately needed to raise capital, but FDR authorized costly regulations for issuing stocks. These regulations impeded the raising of capital. As George J. Stigler (University of Chicago) and Greg A. Jarrell (University of Rochester) showed, the average rate of return from new stock issues failed to improve after the SEC was established. Since securities fraud reduces the rate of return for investors, the SEC's failure to increase the rate of return implies either (1) that there couldn't have been much fraud before the SEC was established, or (2) that the SEC has been ineffective. Supposedly the SEC's primary mission has been to protect investors. Yet for decades, the SEC enforced price-fixing on Wall Street by preventing securities firms from discounting their commissions.
10. How did the Tennessee Valley Authority become a drag on the economy? FDR taxed 98% of the American people who didn't live in the Tennessee Valley, then used this revenue for the TVA power-generating monopoly, exempt from federal and state taxes and regulations. Like other big public works projects, the TVA mainly provided jobs for well-paid engineers, heavy equipment operators and others with technical skills. The TVA was slow to produce electricity - the first TVA dam wasn't finished till three years after the TVA law was passed, most TVA dams were finished after the Great Depression was over, and many TVA dams provided power for war-related government projects, not poor farmers. To the extent that the TVA-subsidized electricity affected poor farmers, it gave them an incentive to remain in farming. Battelle Memorial Institute senior scientist William U. Chandler reported that non-TVA Southern states such as North Carolina and Georgia experienced faster growth of jobs and incomes than TVA states, because there was a faster exodus out of farming and into manufacturing and services, which offered higher incomes. In any case, to improve their lot poor farmers needed tools like tractors and hay bailers, powered by internal combustion engines rather than TVA electricity. As for flood control, the TVA seems to have flooded more acreage (behind the dams) than it protected from flooding (below the dams). According to economist John Moore, the TVA flooded an area about the size of Rhode Island. Thousands of people, including black tenant farmers, were forced out of their homes.
11. Why did FDR disrupt companies employing millions? In 1938, FDR authorized an unprecedented barrage of antitrust lawsuits against about 150 employers and industries. There were lawsuits against the milk, oil, tobacco, shoe machinery, tires, fertilizer, railroad, pharmaceuticals, school supplies, billboards, fire insurance, liquor, typewriter and movie industries, among others. But the antitrust crusade was a flop. The government won few cases, and they dragged on as long as 13 years. FDR's antitrust crusade disrupted a depressed economy, making it harder for employers to recover and provide more jobs.
More than 6 decades have passed since FDR died, and it's past time to consider the New Deal in light of the consequences of his policies.
There's a substantial economics literature about the consequences of New Deal policies, steadfastly ignored by political historians who continue to build their narratives with personalities, speeches, correspondence and other traditional sources, and ignore evidence from outside their field, even when writing about a major economic event like the Great Depression.
In THE FORGOTTEN MAN, Shlaes has dramatically connected findings about New Deal policies with the lives of ordinary people during the Great Depression.
Many books have showed what it was like to suffer from unemployment, drought and other aspects of the Great Depression, but Shlaes - telling her story like a good novelist -- is perhaps the first to show what it was like to suffer from the era's misguided policies.
The lessons are particularly important now that presidential candidates are urging us to support more big, complex, costly government programs which, like the New Deal, are likely to be loaded with unintended consequences affecting us all.
Bravo, Ms. Shlaes!
-- Jim Powell, author of FDR'S FOLLY
on June 15, 2007
Amity Shlaes has written an enormously important book. She offers abundant evidence that both the Republican Hoover and the Democrat Roosevelt unwittingly worsened the Great Depression. They opted for policies preventing the economic system from self-correcting. These two American leaders foolishly relied on the advice of elites infatuated with the Soviet Union. They essentially thought that the graduates of our best schools should manage the country. To be blunt, the elites were supposed to be our benevolent dictators.
Pay particular attention to Shlaes analysis of the Schechter brothers' confrontation with intellectual thugs associated with Harvard University. The author never mentions the vastly overrated works of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Nonetheless, The Forgotten Man is something of a direct attack on the late historian's less than admirable scholarship. Did Franklin D. Roosevelt save our nation? He admittedly may have done so in our fight against the fascists during WW II. Roosevelt's attempts to manage the American economy, however, almost destroyed our democratic institutions. The road to hell is sadly often paved with good intentions. We should learn form history---and never let this happen again. Regular citizens must be willing to check and balance the behavior of those most inclined toward arrogant ego-tripping and power seeking. The Forgotten Man deserves three cheers. You should obtain a copy immediately.
on June 13, 2007
Amity Shlaes: The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression HarperCollins, 2007, 433pp
This is a remarkable book which will forever change your understanding of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's role and the lessons to be learned from government intervention.
Amity Shlaes makes a compelling case that Hoover and Roosevelt actually lengthened the Depression. They did this, Shlaes argues, by following bad monetary policy, which further deflated the currency, and by raising tariff barriers, which broke up world trade and reduced economic activity everywhere.
Shlaes makes the best case I have seen that business confidence is the key to economic expansion and that each step of the New Deal was a further blow to business confidence.
She also explains the view of the pre-government control entrepreneurs and investors who had created an extraordinarily successful country prior to 1929.
This is a superb book well worth reading, studying and then thinking about for a long time.
One reviewer characterizes The Forgotten Man as a "party line polemic," while another says it is "not a polemic." I hold to the latter view, but am not sure this is a plus. Maybe we need a polemic (argument or controversial discussion) about "the Great Depression" to counter some of the nonsense that has been written about it.
Amity Shlaes's book follows a cast of characters from 1927 (Herbert Hoover takes command of the great Flood on the Mississippi) to 1940 (FDR wins reelection to a third term). The players include government planners (Rex Tugwell, Harold Ickes), capitalists (Andrew Mellon, Wendell Wilkie, Alfred Loomis), economists (Irving Fisher, John Keynes), jurists ("the four horsemen," Felix Frankfurter, Robert Jackson), small businessmen (the Schechter brothers), labor leaders (John L. Lewis), social activists (Father Divine), and politicians (Herbert Hoover, FDR, and ultimately Wilkie).
Many of the incidents related are unflattering to the persons involved, including both Hoover and FDR, but Shlaes does not appear to have a partisan axe to grind. Indeed, she spends more time discussing the foibles, dreams, and conflicts of the characters than assessing their accomplishments. The narrative jumps around from person to person in a manner resembling "the grapevine" segment of the Brit Hume Show on Fox News.
The point is made (repeatedly) that the Depression went on longer than might have been expected if the Roosevelt administration had not sought to intervene in so many areas of the economy. Such a conclusion seems rather obvious, however, and it is hardly novel. If you are looking for an insightful analysis of what caused the Depression or the merits of the New Deal, you will not find it in this book.
Still, The Forgotten Man provides many interesting and at times telling details about the leading figures of the period across the political spectrum. It is worth reading for that purpose.
on August 16, 2007
Tariffs, tax rate increases, wage and price controls and tight money. Government vacillation and unpredictibility. That these policies undermined business confidence and blocked economic recovery was lost on Hoover, FDR and their elite advisors. Ms. Shlaes makes a compelling case that but for those policies the 1929 downturn would have self-corrected by the early 30s, rather than drag on through the remander of the decade and into the next.
Another major theme of the book is the vast growth of government under FDR, including goverment subsidized and controlled projects (mostly utilities) that unfairly competed with the private sector. She also discusses FDR's successful (and cynical) strategy for the 1936 campaign, including persecution and condemnation of big business and catering to various targeted voting blocks (farmers, big labor, pensioners, women and blacks). Sound familiar?
The book is generally well written, although the focus drifts from time to time and more analysis would have been welcome. She also includes too many names and mini-resumes of peripheral players.
The Forgotten Man (a term that morphed under FDR from the taxpayer to the unemployed) is recommended for those who want a better understanding of the economics and politics of the 30s to correct some long standing myths (e.g. depression a failure of capitalism, FDR "brought us out" of the depression) and better understand today's economic and political issues.
Amity Schlaes is well chosen to begin the contemporary reappraisal of the Depression, its causes and the role Roosevelt played. She does not support the theory, described elsewhere, that the Federal Reserve System, itself, over-reacted and worsened a financial panic into a full blown collapse. She blames a lot of the problem on Hoover, but not for the usual reasons given. He is often described as passive in the face of a crisis. She points out that this is not accurate and he acted vigorously but wrongly to deal with the problem. Macroeconomics was not understood and the fact that deflation was the problem was ignored by everyone. New for me was her opinion that Hoover and Roosevelt acted in very similar ways that worsened the problem. Balancing the budget was one misguided step. Taxes were raised at a time when no one but a few had any money and business needed capital to keep going. Roosevelt's attacks on businessmen caused those who could afford it to pull back and avoid investing. Many of the rest failed and added to the unemployment lines. Her research added greatly to the picture of the times. I learned in grammar school about the Smoot-Hawley tariff and the harm it caused. I wonder if schoolchildren today would recognize the term ? I doubt it. Her descriptions of the Schecter Brothers and Andrew Mellon filled in the detail that history must have to be understood. I hope that economics professors are adding this to class reading lists. It can be a bit tedious in places but is highly recommended to anyone who wants to understand this period in American history.
on October 22, 2012
I read this book back in 2008 as a requisite for better understanding the Great Recession that was just getting started. Prior to this, my thinking was primarily influenced by what I had learned in high school and college history classes. Our school learning basically tells us that despite the great and noble effort by FDR, the depression was so bad that it defied any cure, and the only thing that could cure it was a world conflagration. So the question on my mind in '08 was, is it necessary to repeat this same history? Are we destined to suffer a full decade of miserable economic performance and to have it capped by a world on fire? Wouldn't it be better if we all took a more exhaustive look at history in order to avoid a foolish repeat? This book takes an unvarnished look at the Great Depression an uncovers a multitude of bungling and missteps our leaders made during this era. It's a must-read for anyone with a discerning spirit.
The book starts with a cameo story about a young man who commits suicide. The note he leaves behind reveals the despairing mood of the time. The reader fully expects (like we learned in our sugar-coated stories in history classes) that this story will be contrasted with the story about having a brave and heart-lifting man elected as the US president, and he is soon revelling the masses with hope and optimism and heartwarming fireside chats. The shocking truth is the setting is not in 1932, it's 1939! The brutal truth is that the late 30's was even worse than the early 30's. During the late 30's the US suffered a recession within a depression. FDR had been the champion for the Forgotten Man for nearly a full decade, but things only got worse.
The book then does a rewind and begins a detailed and honest look at FDR history in order to catalog his war on the rich, flirtation with Communism, court packing and power grabbing, and an honest revelation of the economic history of the era. At this point, a reader might be perplexed. If the depression was so awful, why was FDR elected to 4 terms? If the answer was hinted at in this book, it wasn't clear to me. BUT! I feel this question is more directly addressed in the book, "FDR, New Deal or Raw Deal?", by Burt Folsom, Jr. The short answer is that socialism is a vote buying scheme, pure and simple. Beyond that, elected officials can (and will) divvy out taxpayer financed rewards to where they will buy the most votes.
The author also gives an account of the origins of the Forgotten Man theory, and how FDR bastardized it for his own use. Let's see if I can get the original theory right without looking at the book. Person A and B are socialistic do-gooders and want to help distressed person X. Instead of A and B contributing directly to the plight of X (or convincing Gates or Buffet that X is a worthy cause), they con their gov't to prey on C to finance the cause. C is the forgotten man! He's the middle class working stiff struggling to make ends meet through honest endeavor. Despite this, he is bludgeoned into forking over what little wealth he has, by socialistic do-gooders who are too cowardly to put their own money where their mouths are. C is the forgotten sap who is forced to pay for contraceptives for promiscuous brats who think that big gov't is the answer to everything.
Oops! I just fully revealed my strong conservative bias. All the better, I guess. If asked, I would offer with no embarrassment that I strongly dislike socialism. It's not I begrudge a better life for those in distress. But who would be so foolhardy as to trust big government with their hamfisted inefficiency to handle such delicate and lofty goals? You need to ask yourself: How good a job is our gov't doing with core responsibilities like protecting our borders, balancing the federal checkbook, and saving us from gross predators like like Madoff? Yet our political leaders would have us believe that with little funding they can heal the sick and raise the dead! Thank God I am a conservative!
With that in mind, I have to confess my frightening vision for the future. I can't help but shake my head negatively when I see so many parallels between FDR and the Obama admin. The hallmarks are class warfare, creeping socialism, and extreme deficit spending. It's like Obama is repeating FDR's script. And it seems like we are reaping the same results - the economic suffering seems protracted and Europe and the middle east are sinking into a contagion. Am I wrong to think that our elected leaders are suspects when I hear them say, "Let no good crisis go to waste"? Hey! You say predatory lenders, I say PREDATORY GOVERNMENT!
Update: 140616. Here we go again. History is repeating itself. A prolonged lagging economy, high unemployment caused by the administrations never ending class warfare and reckless high deficit spending. And now the Middle East is going up in flames and the Soviets and Chinese are flexing their muscles aggressively. Thanks to elected officials who love to milk a crisis for all it's worth and keep an electorate cowed in submission to big governement, the final results will be the same. Get ready for WW3.
on July 4, 2007
The revisionist view of the Depression, that it was not a crisis of capitalism so much as a crisis of perverse government, has long been persuasively argued and, at least in conservative circles, accepted. Contraction of the money supply instead of expansion, raising tariffs instead of lowering them, and perverse wage and tax policy all worked together to prevent the kind of rebound typical of previous recessions. What this book adds is the human face of this failure. I grew up in an Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. world. I was raised to think of the New Dealers as geniuses and saints. The school books of the 1950s, and college professors of the 1960s, taught me so. That myth is forever shattered by this book, and its depiction not just of the odd cast of characters who made the New Deal, but of the utter intellectual chaos and self-contradiction that underlay it. The New Deal was one failed improvisation after another. (One must remember, however, how much of the responsibility lay with Hoover and his own failed interventions, an aspect of the times that Shlaes emphasizes.)
Much of the entrenched bad policy that bedevils us today had its origins under FDR. Not even the great Ronald Reagan (whom I now see as channelling Andrew Mellon!) could do more than ameliorate it. Yet this sad story makes a great read. The personalities involved, the very texture of the 1930s, come delightfully alive in this book. It remains a mystery how a President as inept and unprincipled, as fundamentally disorganized, as FDR could have defeated Hitler and the Japanese. Or perhaps it's not such a mystery. Some of the qualities that made for a disastrous domestic policy may have served him well as Commander in Chief. The "fog of war" is better suited to the improvisatory approach. Perhaps Shlaes can address this in a book on the 1940s. She, at least, will not succumb to hagiography despite the wartime successes.
The audio version of this book, by the way, is very good, with an excellent reader.
on August 29, 2007
This is a fascinating book. Most serious historical writing about the Crash, the Depression and the New Deal has been either an essentially adulatory hymn to Roosevelt and his team (think Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.) or critical from a leftist perspective arguing the New Deal was too conservative (think Gabriel Kolko). Criticism of Roosevelt and the New Deal by contemporaries, to the extent it's read much anymore, has tended to seem overwrought (think H.L. Mencken on 'Roosevelt Minor'). Writing by economists has been better, but less approachable by the ordinary educated reader.
Shlaes provides a much needed perspective, a heavily anecdotal history of the run up to the Depression and the Depression which emphasizes the ideas about political philosophy and political economy held by, and motivating the actions of, the key players from Coolidge, Mellon, and Hoover, through Roosevelt and his Brain Trusters (including the execrable Tugwell) and executives and lawyers like Insull and Wendell Wilkie.
What I got from the book was a sense, for the first time, of why the incredible outrage that the New Deal generated in many people was fully justified: the capriciousness of both Roosevelt and his minions, their lust for power, the ineffectiveness of most of their nostrums, and, their indifference to the effect on actual citizens (as opposed to their idealized groups of downtrodden whom they hoped to recruit to keep them in power) that borders on Lenin's guffaw when talking about murdering kulaks (recounted by a horrified Bertrand Russell in his essay Eminent Men I Have Known in his 1950 Unpopular Essays). Those who realized what Roosevelt and his wunderkinder were doing were choleric at their own helplessness in stopping him or making people understand how counterproductive the New Deal really was.
When I first read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, I thought the portraits of the professors and government types ranged against Rand's heroes were almost cardboard caricatures, which was confirmed by my graduate school reading of historical scholarship on the New Deal. Now, after hearing Shlae's portraits, however, I am struck by how much like her cardboard characters the New Dealers actually were, based on their own words and recollections.
One caution: this should not be the only book you read on the New Deal. It's relatively short and not comprehensive. For the reader who has a solid working knowledge of the Depression and the New Deal (say the equivalent of a fresh, but careful, reading to the appropriate chapters in Morison, Commager aand Leuchtenburg's The Growth of the American Republic which is very favorable to the New Deal), Shlaes makes her argument by letting the facts and the protagonists speak for themselves. And a damning portrait it is.