Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Bad History

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This picture came my way on Facebook. It was too bad not to hang on to.

.. when you did what?

.. when you did what?

What’s wrong with it? Well, let’s review.

Ending the Depression

Roosevelt did not end the Depression; World War II did. See this article for the actual unemployment data.

Unemployment was never under 10% from the time FDR took office until war spending began in earnest in 1940. The economy went into a relapse in 1937, as Roosevelt’s Second New Deal created uncertainty and investment slowed. Amity Shlaes summarized it this way:

The story of the mid-1930s is the story of a heroic economy struggling to do recuperate but failing to do so because of perverse federal policy.
— Shlaes, The Forgotten Man, p. 392.

This is not a story you will hear on PBS specials or read in a high school textbook. But both the statistics and the memory of the generation that lived through the Depression substantiate it. My mother and others of her age cohort used to say that wars were good for the economy. That is obviously untrue: in a war, you take wealth out into a field and blow it up. But that is the way their generation experienced relief from the Great Depression.

Creating the Middle Class

In what universe do people making minimum wage constitute the middle class? The middle class as we came to know it by 1970 was created by World War II and the economic boom that followed it.

At the end of the war, it was not clear at all that there would be economic prosperity. The outcome considered most likely was inflation once prices were free to rise and money earned in wartime production that could not have been spent during the war was loosed to bid up prices. This did not happen, and the fact that it did not was the accomplishment of Harry Truman and Federal Reserve Chairman Marriner Eccles.

Ending Elderly Poverty

I reckon that this claim is factual, as far as it goes. Over the next 80 years, Social Security did end elderly poverty — by transferring wealth from the young. If this scheme were managed by a private enterprise, it would be fraud; but since the government is in charge, everything is just dandy.

Was Roosevelt a Socialist?

Many of his opponents accused Roosevelt of being a socialist, but the evidence does not really stack up.

You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does … and furthermore I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.
— FDR to Henry Morgenthau, 1942. Quoted in Fleming, The New Dealers’ War.

Before the war, Roosevelt was willing to mislead if it would help perpetuate him in office. Even if he had left a body of political thought, it would be risky to put too much stock in it. Roosevelt has to be evaluated on his actions.

The actions of the Roosevelt administration were fundamentally corporatist. Under corporatism, government, business, labor, education and social organizations would work together to plan the economy and implement these plans. What’s wrong with that? For starters, plan the economy is a pleasant euphemism for plan your daily life.

At the time, the smart money believed that planned states had inherent advantages over liberal republics because the former could realize cohesive action. This was augmented by the work of Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936), one of the early thinkers in sociology. Tönnies distinguished between the Gesellschaft and the Gemeinschaft. To give a quick-and-dirty distinction, think of the Gesellschaft as a market town or bustling port, whereas the Gemeinschaft is closer to a rural village with deep traditions, where “everybody knows everybody, and everybody looks after everybody.” Also where everybody sticks their nose into everybody else’s business, but some people like that.

 The 1930’s are remembered as the Red Decade. Democracy itself appeared to be inadequate to the task of managing the modern nation. The idea of Gemeinschaft was in vogue, and in Italy, Mussolini appeared to be having success implementing his vision of corporatism — if you didn’t look too closely or ask what happened to people who didn’t get with the program.

The form of U.S. corporatism was thus gradual, incremental, societal corporatism, not the abrupt, authoritarian state corporatism of so many of the interwar European countries. And it was “loose”: pragmatic, piecemeal, nonideological, pluralist, with few sanctions or tight controls, and very American. It tended to be advisory rather than compulsory, but that changed over time.
— Howard Wiarda, Corporatism and Comparative Politics, p. 138.

Corporatism offered Roosevelt limitless avenues to expand his power. The government could sit as mediator and honest broker in disputes between two large industries, or between big business and big labor.

However, World War II permanently associated corporatism with fascism, and the National Socialist implementation of Gemeinschaft led to war and genocide. That did not mean the methods had to be abandoned, just that they needed to be rebranded and repositioned.

Why Don’t People Know This?

Why should children believe what they learn in American history, if their textbooks are full of distortions and lies? Why should they bother to learn it?
Luckily, … they don’t.
— James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, p. 297.

Very few people want to hear that FDR’s programs were not effective in defeating the Depression. In part, this is because Progressives have a preponderance of control of the education system and the media, but there is a more basic reason. If it took a global war to see off the Depression of the 30’s, what will it take to defeat the next one? The fact is that we don’t know how to cure a large-scale economic depression, which is why government policy has been focused on making sure another one does not happen.

Books about the Roosevelt administration typically concentrate on what historians call the First New Deal, which ended in 1935 with the Schechter decision that voided Title I of the National Industrial Recovery Act. Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment focuses on the first Hundred Days. Adam Cohen’s Nothing to Fear contains one chapter that covers the time after 1933; it summarizes the standard legislative achievements that are revered among Progressives, including the Social Security Act, but does not discuss their effectiveness. Only Amity Shlaes stands out as a historian of the entire Depression.

The reason why we need to get the history right is simple. If we don’t even understand the history, we have almost no chance of learning from past mistakes. If we tell ourselves that the actions were not really mistakes, there is nothing to learn from.

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Written by srojak

June 5, 2016 at 12:34 am

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