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The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal (The Politically Incorrect Guides) Paperback – March 31, 2009
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We all learned in school that the 1920s were a time of unregulated capitalism that led to the stock market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Herbert Hoover was a laissez-faire ideologue who did nothing to alleviate the crisis--even as citizens starved and were forced to live in "Hoovervilles." And the interventionist policies and massive spending programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal gradually lifted us out of the Depression, until World War II brought it to a definitive end.The only trouble with this official narrative--taught in most history textbooks, and proclaimed as gospel by the media--is that every element of it is false. Worse, this unsubstantiated myth is now being used to justify a "new New Deal" in response to today's economic crisis that could lead to a Greater Depression even deeper and longer than the first. But in The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal, economist Robert Murphy fact-checks the myths, shows why they're wrong, and delves deep into history to set the record straight. His "politically incorrect" conclusion? It was government, not free markets, that caused the Great Depression--and the New Deal only made it worse. The real "lessons of the Great Depression" are not what you've been taught.
* The Crash of `29 was caused not by capitalism, but by the boom brought on by the newly created Federal Reserve's easy money policy (sound familiar?)
* Hoover made the Depression "Great" precisely by abandoning the laissez-faire approach that previous presidents had followed and that kept depressions short
* The bank runs of the 1930s were caused by government intervention in the banking system
* Government efforts to prop up wages and prices led to a full decade of double-digit unemployment
* FDR's arbitrary policies toward businessmen resulted in net investment of less than zero for much of the Depression
Might Barack Obama be the new FDR? You'll know, after reading The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal that if he is, that's nothing to celebrate.
Top Customer Reviews
After briefly discussing the three main schools of thought about this crisis in American history, Murphy is quick to dismiss with the Keynesians. The argument that government spending was what saved us from the Great Depression, and that a lack of spending by Hoover caused the problem is fairly easy to disprove. Historians have long known that Hoover was a staunch interventionist in the economy and he rejected the advice of his own Secretary of the Treasury to simply let the bad investments liquidate themselves, a policy that had worked wonders in the earlier contraction of 1921. (Indeed, some historians of a left wing bent have chosen to praise Hoover for his intervention, most notably Joan Hoff Wilson in her classic study Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive.) Of course, we cannot know if the economy absolutely would have recovered in the absence of Hoover's many interventions into the market. All we can say for certain is that he was not a laissez-faire president who did nothing while the economy contracted around him. Those who make this claim, most notably Paul Krugman, are either astoundingly ignorant or fundamentally dishonest. I tend to lean (charitably) towards the former position. As an ironic aside, Hoover was anti-interventionist only in foreign policy. Yet the institute that still bears his name is now a hot bed of neo conservatives who favor intervention everywhere in the world. But as a politican he did remarkable work at trying to set a floor for wages and prices, created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and ran budget deficits that make those of today under Bush and Obama seem modest by comparison. Hoover rightly claimed he was the first President to not let the economy go its own way and four years later we were in the midst of the worst economic downturn in the nation's history.
Of course, there was some initial recovery during the early Roosevelt administration, but nowhere near to the extent seen in any previous downturn, even on a percentage basis. Indeed, one of the strong points of this book is that, unlike most economic histories of the period, Murphy examines several of America's large downturns, including the dramatic economic collapse of the 1870s in order to give some sense of comparison. Eventually of course, the early gains of the New Deal collapsed in 1937 and the economy right back to where it was under Hoover. Indeed, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau rightly recognized that all the New Deal policies had failed, though they had left the US with an enormous debt. He was far more honest than many of today's leftists who share similar political positions.
So on the whole, the thesis that government spending mitigated against the Great Depression, and ultimately helped end it is simply not supported by the evidence. We cannot say for certain that even more government spending would not have solved the problem, and that is precisely what many today are advocating. But we can say that this was the first time the government responded to a downturn using these policies and not coincidentally, this was the first time (and hopefully the last) that instead of quickly realigning resources, the market fell into a quagmire. But easy as it is to dismiss with the Keynesians, one of the strengths of this book is that it also takes to task the Monetarists who many naively believe are the opposite of the Keynesians.
Monetarists tend to be somewhat more sympathetic to a free market, though not as much as many people suspect. Friedman, for example, was not opposed to a welfare state as such. He rightly argued that a negative income tax was a more "efficient" way to obtain the goal of an income floor for people than our current hodgepodge of programs, but his argument was pragmatic, not principled. Similarly, he supported government funding of schools and his still controversial voucher system would have made this program even more universal than it is today. He did not consider the fact that with government funding comes government regulations governing the use of that funding, a policy that would have effectively killed the innovations found in many private schools. But it is only when one looks at Friedman's big claim to fame, his monetarist theory of the Great Depression, that one realizes just how similar his perspective is to the Keynesian one. Friedman argued the Fed sat and did nothing (similar to the Keynesian claim about Hoover) while the economy contracted. Had they been more actively interventionist, he argues, we could have avoided the depression altogether. But, like the Keynesian argument, Friedman's claim simply does not stand up to historical scrutiny. The Fed dramatically lowered interest rates immediately following Black Monday, and they continued to do so throughout Hoover's reign. By contrast, in the 1920-21 contraction, the Fed had actually increased rates! And in the final analysis, both the Keynesian and monetarist claims essentially state the same proposition: government inaction caused the depression. And the historical evidence suggest both are wrong: government inaction simply did not happen during the Great Depression.
On the other hand, the Austrian claim that government intervention in the market caused the depression, is far more substantiated. Beginning in 1927, the Fed decided to inflate US currency in order, of all things, to assist the bank of England in preventing devaluation of the pound sterling. But this inflation, which went through the banks, had the effect of making many investments that were not profitable appear so, and a stock market boom followed. When the bust inevitably came, rather than allowing these bad investments to liquidate, as had happened in all previous busts, the government boldly tried to keep inflating the currency, with disastrous results. And, as Murphy points out in the close of his book, the same could easily happen today. Many are calling upon President Obama to become the new FDR and based on the early days of his reign, he seems quite happy in this role. Already, bailouts of businesses (a bad policy that began under the Bush administration) is proceeding apace, and the administration has even made tenative steps towards nationalizing the largest banks. Promises of tax cuts for the middle class and pay as you go spending, so widely trumpeted during the campaign, now appear to be temporary, in terms of the former, or completely forgotten in terms of the latter.
There are, however, some signs of (real) hope. Several Senate Democrats have refused to sign on to the proposed cap and trade carbon tax, a boondoggle for the economy if there ever was one, and it seems unlikely a tax hike will occur until the 2010 Bush tax cuts expire. And more citizens are becoming increasingly skeptical of the whole bailout agenda. That is a good sign, and books like these are a good place to start if you want to understand why a new "New Deal" is the last thing this country needs.
But alas, nothing is perfect. Murphy's book is troubling in two respects: 1. the reader wants/needs more - I literally could not put the book down... I wanted to keep going - his style makes for such easy and interesting reading! 2. his analysis of the current US state of affairs vis a vis 70-80 years ago is downright scary! He certainly does not exude confidence in our current "leaders."
Released in an exceptionally timely manner and well styled, the reader will have trouble telling the book from a newspaper. Similar to his earlier The Politically Incorrect Guide(tm) to Capitalism (Politically Incorrect Guides) (Paperback), the author covers a large amount of history and theory together, never losing the reader's attention or confusing us with tedious theoretical minutia. Instead you'll find the simplest of graphs that make the most profound of conclusions by themselves. Quick reviews of familiar topics are followed by shocking details few have heard before. Always radical, but never dry or confusing, the subjects fall into each other smoothly. The history itself is right-on, with some of the latest research seamless with the more conventional subject matters.
The book starts with the Hoover administration, covers the crash, Hoover's response, and then details the whole Roosevelt administration, providing important points on earlier and later history throughout. Coverage is quick but exhaustive--every major political and economic development is mentioned.
Some of the PIG series tend to be trite with their arguments, but not this entry. Discussion of the classical gold metal standards' value and the working mechanisms of floating currency exchange under it were new, even to a well-read history hobbyist. The analysis of the sudden end of the New Deal is fresh and leads one to want to look further into this profound yet neglected development of our history.
Any short work has its drawbacks, however. Major discussion points are left open and wanting for more detail. The author's redundant quoting of Coolidge reminds the reader of a kitten discovering a new toy. Worse, the critically needed demonstration of how this history may be repeating itself today--the cause célèbre of the work--is given only short attention.
Anyone familiar with the contemporary research on the Great Depression knows that the history we were all taught in middle-school is almost complete myth. Anyone also familiar with the news today knows that few understand this. Educated laymen would do well to dispel these myths and grant themselves a chance to look at contemporary events without a false view of the past blurring their vision. As Einstein wrote, "No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew." For anyone interested, this book would be an excellent opportunity to do so.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I find it the author's enthusiasm for liquidating a bit excessive.Read more