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Coolidge Hardcover – February 12, 2013
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A Dialogue Between Amity Shlaes and Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank
Amity Shlaes: I like Coolidge, but do you, Paul, think he matters? Coolidge was president in the 1920s. That’s a long time ago.
Paul Volcker: Well there are some parallels to current times. During his time, Coolidge was under great pressure, much like today. Even before he was president, as governor of Massachusetts, Coolidge was forced into the Boston police strike. He took a principled stance.
AS:You mean, he fired the police, who were good people. But he felt he had to fire them, because Boston fell into chaos when they left their post.
PV: Yes, that attracted a lot of attention, and for good reason. He was a good man himself. Sometimes I wish we had more principled men serving in government now.
AS: Is that kind of principled action even possible today?
PV: It is obviously difficult. But in the area of monetary policy the received wisdom has been that by removing decision-making a bit away from raw political life, you have a better chance of following reasonable, disciplined policy, and taking a longer term view. That is the hope.
AS: Coolidge tried to live a clean life. Harding had partied. Does that matter?
AS: What about the Federal Reserve Bank’s policy in the late teens and early 1920s? The Fed’s boss then, W.P.G. Harding, took a lot of criticism for supporting tightening.
PV: Central banking theory was not very well developed in those days, and it certainly was not well developed in the United States. But there was a sense that since there was inflation, raising interest rates was appropriate. The policy was not terribly active; there were no concerted open market operations in those days. The Federal Reserve was more reactive than an initiating instrument. It so happened they had a big inflation followed by a big, but short, recession. There are debates to this day as to whether the Federal Reserve failed to react soon enough given the depth of the recession or whether the hands-off attitude led to the rapid recovery after they dealt with the inflation.
AS: At the Federal Reserve W.P.G. Harding raised interest rates 300 basis points, which was basically doubling it, to squeeze out inflation.
PV: 300 basis points is nothing anymore (laughs).
AS: Congress blamed the fed’s head back then for the recession. Is it hard to be the Fed Head when people blame you for recession? You had recessions.
PV: Of course! You’re willing to experience it once, you don’t like to have one twice.
AS: Are there ways Coolidge was better than Ronald Reagan? Or, at the least, does Silent Cal warrant an upgrade?
PV: Coolidge is forgotten and Reagan is a hero. Coolidge had the police strike, Reagan had the strike of the air traffic controllers. Coolidge didn’t like to spend money, Reagan liked to reduce taxes.
AS: What’s important?
PV: Coolidge balanced the budget. Saving, we don’t do that anymore. Instead we rely on Social Security and government. Now we fight about all the entitlements, those programs didn’t even exist back in Coolidge’s day.
AS: What’s your summary?
PV: What we understood was that Coolidge was kind of a do-nothing president. He took over for Harding, he was an honest guy, he was kind of open and frugal, but that was it. But in fact there’s so much to learn from Coolidge. Any president is going to face a lot of problems and Coolidge faced up to them. He produced, after Harding, honest government. He contributed to some degree of trust in government. Americans today need to read Amity’s biography to learn more about him.
Rated below average in historians’ polls, Calvin Coolidge was a satisfactory president to the 1920s electorate, which certainly would have voted him back had he run in 1928. That he declined fit with the self-restraint of Coolidge, whose roots in rural Vermont Shlaes explores in this comprehensive biography. She infuses her narrative with Coolidge’s abhorrence of debt and practice of parsimony, personal principles he scaled up to federal size with his budget-cutting, tax-reducing policies. In addition to frugality, law and order was another salient Coolidge precept, which made him presidential timber when, as Massachusetts governor, Silent Cal broke a Boston police strike with the lapidary saying, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” Behind the stern public visage, Shlaes shows a Coolidge of feelings, close to his father, pained by the deaths of a sister and a son, and, at times, jealous of his attractive, gregarious wife. Wedged between Progressives and New Dealers, Coolidge may be fated to be a laissez-faire anachronism, but one whose record Shlaes meticulously and fluidly presents for history readers to judge. --Gilbert Taylor
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Top customer reviews
Shlaes does a great job detailing his life, making it both informative and entertaining.
If you want to really, really understand Coolidge and what made him tick you will enjoy all of this book. I would have been content in just understanding him and the rest of what Amity shares about his time in office from his Vice Presidency.
Reading both books will provide insight into a period in United States (and world) history which certainly was important, and everyone who pulls a lever to vote should understand better.
Taken together Ms. Shlaes has done an admirable job of enlightening those who care enough to understand better. How often have I been told that in order to understand history, you must understand the people who "made it." Ms. Shlaes does a great job to get you there.
In her new book on Coolidge she looks at a President who took office as the country was winding down from a period of pointless war and in the aftermath of a deep recession (1920 to 1921), not unlike our experience in the 2009 to 2013 period. She reveals how government can most certainly respond to those circumstances by ratcheting back on the size and scope of government to its pre-war level, including cutting tax rates dramatically, rather than ascending to a newly heightened level of permanently sustained government as we have done by 2013. Her detailed analysis shows that such an alternative Coolidge strategy led to a boom in the economy as opposed to a period of pitifully weak economic growth that we have today. The economy was transformed during the 1920s from 5.7 million people out of work to one with 1.8 million people out of work and from a cumulative debt of $28 billion down to $18 billion.
Shlaes starts with Coolidge’s simple upbringing and his process for learning the value of thrift and savings and the scourge of debt which informed his later capacity in getting the federal government’s budget under control. In her detailed account, she shows that Coolidge is not unlike leaders like Reagan and Thatcher who grew up as a product of relatively modest means as opposed to some of the plutocrats that have been the Republican standard bearers in recent days (the Bushes and Romney).
The book then traces his political development as he matured during the Cleveland Administration and began to advance in politics during the Progressive period of Theodore Roosevelt. His later presidency would actually seem to show him to have learned much from Cleveland and his hesitancy to have the government spend in areas where the constitutional basis was questionable and the use of the pocket veto. In his later years he clearly moved away from the populist, interventionist tone (both domestically and internationally) of the Roosevelt days.
As the book moves into the Coolidge presidency after the brief tenure of President Harding, the extraordinary detail that is revealed regarding the effort of Coolidge in scrutinizing and bringing under control the federal budget with his budget director Herbert Lord is probably the most memorable storyline covered throughout the period of his presidency, along with the related sale of his plan by Treasury Secretary Mellon to cut tax rates from the sky high levels of the war (top rates in the 70s down to top rates in the 20s). It is hard to imagine our most recent two Presidents getting their hands dirty in applying this degree of scrutiny to the budget as Coolidge did. The book also reveals Coolidge’s fortitude in standing up to spending on veteran pensions and flood relief, two areas that were subjec to demagoguery by those who opposed Coolidge, but he was right to stick to his position that these were both areas where the states should take the lead.
The book also shows the clear contrast between Coolidge and his successor, Hoover who he derided as a wonder boy who was much more willing to take an “activist” position in addressing issues such as government spending and (ultimately) an economic downturn that would occur after Coolidge’s time in office.
Some areas that were a bit weak for me that I was interested in hearing more detail about in the Coolidge years was his stance on tariffs, which Shlaes briefly describes along with his conclusion that protectionism had been “successful in practice.” Clearly this was one area where Coolidge strayed from a market approach and it may have contributed to the economic problems during the 1930s. It also gives minimal coverage to immigration issues another area where Coolidge diverged from a market approach in signing the Immigration Act of 1924 which imposed quotas on immigration. But, overall it is an excellent study in contrast of our 30th president.
It is written in a most palatable style and reads, to me, more like a novel! She has an extensive appendix which is helpful if you wish to explore certain events more intimately too.
I love Erik Larsen's books and this one is right on par with his books.
This should be a required book in all high school or college American history classes as it makes our past come alive!