I had an interesting conversation in Chicago last Monday evening with Michael Barone of U.S. News and World Report about Shlaes. His comments only reinforced the points I have been making, although his vantage point is a bit different from my own as you might imagine. Smart fellow, that Barone. One reason her book The Forgotten Man is so light on the reader’s palate is that she intersperses stories about her heroes with her villains. Shlaes gently contrasts Calvin Coolidge, poor prosecuted gentle man Andrew Mellon, and most notably Wendell Willkie (TVA fighter), as well as select seeming victims of New Deal programs (such as the working class Schecter brothers in detailing the ultimate defeat of her NRA hydra) in between her modest attacks against FDR and the New Dealers (most noticeably Rex Tugwell and Felix Frankfurter) that reaches a crescendo only at the end of the book. She also uses the same old dubious economic analyses of the Depression. Of course more recent economic analyses provided by Conrad Black (no bleeding heart liberal himself), footnoted by Jean Edward Smith in his new FDR biography (mentioned below), that completely undermine Shlaes’ attacks against the New Deal are nowhere found in her book. In other words, Schlaes’ book is like a snowball rolling down a slope. When it gets to the bottom of the hill it takes on a boulder size dimension of misinformation. But you just cannot publish a book these days, you have to do the media tour. As such, Shlaes is all over the media with op-ed and talking head appearances bolstering her book and arguments. Now others, such as George Will, are taking up the charge. That’s the next layer of New Deal assault — have other credible conservatives such as George Will advance Shlaes’ analysis. Let me point out again that there is not one shred of new information in Shlaes’ book — it is a gentle retelling of right wing propaganda that if only FDR had been another Coolidge (Shlaes even disses Herbert Hoover in here book as a hapless “FDR-Lite”), American business would have rescued itself in a quarter of the time the New Deal attempted to deal with the hard economic realities of the times. I suppose the long-term economic and social institutional reforms managed through the New Deal leading to the record sustained economic prosperity following World War II don’t matter either? (Shlaes ends her analysis in 1940). I suppose that including the work programs of the New Deal into unemployment figures actually showed approximately 4 percent unemployment by 1937 doesn’t matter either? And I suppose that when FDR briefly returned to a “balanced budget” mentality after his 1936 re-election, leading to a recession which was turned around only when FDR went back to his New Deal agenda doesn’t matter? In other words, in Shlaes’ recent publication we have a much more gentle, yet equally dubious, retelling of Jim Powell’s FDR’s Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression. Powell’s incredible bias is evident from page two; Shlaes’ is not even at page three hundred and two (the boiled frog).
To make matters worse, Shlaes’ book was published on the heels of a noteworthy new single biography of FDR by Jean Edward Smith (simply entitled FDR), which was also reviewed by George Will, who now picks up on Shlaes’ work to discredit the New Deal. Will’s opinion in this regard piece appears below. Curiously, however, it was this same George Will who reviewed Smith’s book with these words: “Jean Edward Smith, author of acclaimed biographies of John Marshall, the definer of the nation, and Ulysses Grant, whose sword saved the nation, now provides this study of Franklin Roosevelt, reviver of the nation. It will secure Smith’s standing as today’s foremost biographer of formidable figures in American history” [italics added]. How can Will’s FDR, the reviver of the nation, be the same FDR who achieved his successes by making the “insecure” securely dependent?
What to do about this? I will give Jim Powell credit for one interesting point when he wrote a few years ago in a review of Conrad Black’s excellent FDR biography (Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom): “Black’s work comes long after the tidal wave of pro-FDR books which swept across the American literary landscape from the 1940s through the 1970s… Included were memoirs by dozens of New Dealers, almost all of whom are gone, and multi-volume works by pro-FDR political historians like James MacGregor Burns, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Frank Freidel and Kenneth S. Davis, who are either dead or in the twilight of their careers.”
What we are now experiencing with the likes of Powell and much more effectively with Shlaes is the resurgence of the right wing revisionist histories of FDR and the New Deal. Yet these persons are not historians but rather newspaper/television op-ed columnists/personalities and conservative think tank fellows (such as Powell, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute; and Shlaes, a visiting senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations). These conservative think tanks are by definition a response to the perception of the academy as a bastian of liberal bias, so it is not surprising that the recent anti-FDR attacks are emanating from these sources and not the academy. Note that those whom Powell attacks are/were real academics (Burns, Woodrow Wilson Professor (emeritus) of Political Science at Williams College; Schlesinger, professor of history at Harvard and Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at City University of New York Graduate Center; Freidel, Charles Warren Professor of American History at the University of Washington; and Davis, professor of history at Kansas State and the University of Kansas, as well as visiting professor at my undergraduate alma mater Clark University).
The right wing “think tanks” (such as Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Project for the New American Century, Heritage Foundation, Council on Foreign Relations) are producing the authors penning these revisionist anti-FDR treatises, while most of the credible FDR/New Deal works come from the academy. Perhaps the integration of the Roosevelt Institution with FERI will help to address this issue, but the bottom line is that we need a resurgence of the Burns, Freidels, Schlesingers and Davis’s to keep the legacy of the New Deal intact, and not compromised by the poor and economically dubious works as we see appearing lately.
Will’s opinion piece appears below:
George Will: FDR’s legacy of special interests
WASHINGTON — Some mornings during the autumn of 1933, when the unemployment rate was 22 percent, the president, before getting into his wheelchair, sat in bed, surrounded by economic advisers, setting the price of gold. One morning he said he might raise it 21 cents: “It’s a lucky number because it’s three times seven.”
His treasury secretary wrote that if anybody knew how gold was priced “they would be frightened.”
The Depression’s persistence, partly a result of such policy flippancy, was frightening. In 1937, during the depression within the Depression, there occurred the steepest drop in industrial production ever recorded. By January 1938 the unemployment rate was back up to 17.4 percent. The war, not the New Deal, defeated the Depression. Franklin Roosevelt’s success was in altering the practice of American politics.
This transformation was actually assisted by the misguided policies — including government-created uncertainties that paralyzed investors — that prolonged the Depression. This seemed to validate the notion that the crisis was permanent, so government must be forever hyperactive.
In his second inaugural address Roosevelt sought “unimagined power” to enforce the “proper subordination” of private power to public power. He got it, and th
e fact that the federal government he created now seems utterly unexceptional suggests a need for what Amity Shlaes does in a new book. She takes thorough exception to the government he created.
Republicans had long practiced limited interest-group politics on behalf of business with tariffs, gifts of land to railroads and other corporate welfare. Roosevelt, however, made interest-group politics systematic and routine. New Deal policies were calculated to create many constituencies — labor, retirees, farmers, union members — to be dependent on government.
Before the 1930s, the adjective “liberal” denoted policies of individualism and individual rights; since Roosevelt it has primarily pertained to the politics of group interests. So writes Shlaes, a columnist for Bloomberg News, in “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.” She says Roosevelt’s wager was that, by furiously using legislation and regulations to multiply federally favored groups, and by rhetorically pitting those favored by government against the unfavored, he could create a permanent majority coalition.
In the process, says Shlaes, Roosevelt refined his definition of the “forgotten man.” This man had been thought of as a general personality, compatible with the assumption that Americans were all in it together. “Now, by defining his forgotten man as the specific groups he would help, the president was in effect forgetting the rest — creating a new forgotten man. The country was splitting into those who were Roosevelt’s favorites and everyone else.”
Acting with what Shlaes calls “the restlessness of the invalid,” Roosevelt implemented the theory that (in her words) “spending promoted growth, if government was big enough to spend enough.” In only 12 months, just one Roosevelt improvisation, the National Recovery Administration, “generated more paper than the entire legislative output of the federal government since 1789.”
Before Roosevelt, the federal government was unimpressive relative to the private sector. Under Calvin Coolidge, the last pre-Depression president, its revenues averaged 4 percent of GDP, compared to 18.6 percent today. In 1910, Congress legislated height limits for Washington buildings, limits that prevented skyscrapers, symbols of mighty business, from overshadowing the Capitol, the symbol of government.
In 1936, for the first time in peacetime history, federal spending exceeded that of the states and localities combined. Roosevelt said modern “civilization” has tended “to make life insecure.” Hence Social Security, which had the added purpose of encouraging workers to retire, thereby opening jobs to younger people. Notice the assumptions of permanent scarcity, and that the government has a duty to distribute scarce things, such as work.
In 1938, when the New Deal’s failure to spark recovery made Roosevelt increasingly frantic, he attempted to enlarge the Supreme Court so he could pack it with compliant justices. He said Americans had the right to “insist that every agency of popular government” respond to “their will. ” He included the court among “popular,” meaning political and representative, institutions.
Roosevelt’s overreaching called forth an opponent whom Shlaes rescues from obscurity. Wendell Willkie, who would be Roosevelt’s opponent in a 1940 election overshadowed by war, called upon Roosevelt to “give up this vested interest you have in depression” as the justification for a “philosophy of distributed scarcity.”
War, as has been said — and as George W. Bush’s assertion of vast presidential powers attests — is the health of the state. But as Roosevelt demonstrated and Shlaes reminds us, compassion, understood as making the “insecure” securely dependent, also makes the state flourish.
George Will is a nationally syndicated columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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