Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Got us out of the Depression? Uh-uh

For thirty years, I’ve sent out students to interview elderly people here in the mountains of western Maine. One question is: “Who was the best president during your lifetime and why?” Every year, Franklin Roosevelt is cited most because “He got us out of the Depression.” True or not, people believe it. Growing up a Boston-Irish-Catholic-Democrat whose father and uncles who worked in Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, it was unquestionable. Now that I’m a history teacher and a former Democrat, I don’t believe it anymore. Roosevelt’s big-government intervention prolonged the Great Depression.

Much I’m seeing and reading persuades me. I watch what big government does to public schools. I watch the Obama Administration take over the economy and ignore the rule of contract law. My changing view makes me an anomaly with fellow teachers and New Englanders, both increasingly left-of-center and enthralled with interventionist policies of Presidents Roosevelt, Johnson, and Obama.

A few recent books may help to change public perception of Roosevelt’s New Deal. One is “The Forgotten Man” by Amity Shlaes. Published a year before the 2008 financial crisis that Obama rode into the White House, it’s haunting how Shlaes lays out the mistakes of the New Deal now being magnified by President Obama and Congress in their haste to “spread the wealth around.”

Describing Coolidge’s America, she writes: “Compared to the private sector, the federal government was a pygmy. It’s size was less than 2% of the national economy.”

According to usgovernmentspending.com, federal spending is over 40% of GDP in 2009.

Shlaes describes Vice President Coolidge’s lesson that doing nothing is usually best: “During the Harding administration, recession had hit, and the downturn had been hard: one in ten men lost his job. But struggling firms had cut costs by reducing wages, and the country bounced back fast. By 1923, it was hard to find an unemployed man.”

Unemployment is still below 10% in this recession, but Obama is virtually taking over the economy, even dictating what should be printed on a Cheerios box.

In an interview, Shlaes described how she got the title “Forgotten Man” from 19th century Yale economist William Graham Sumner:

Sumner said A wants to help X, with X being the man at the bottom. And B wants to help X too. That’s our philanthropic impulse, we want to help. There’s nothing wrong with that. We all have that impulse to provide charity. It becomes a problem when A and B get together and pass a perhaps-dubious law that coerces C into funding their maybe-good project for X. In Sumner’s original version, C is the forgotten man, the man who pays, the man who prays, the man who is not thought of.

Though it’s a necessary evil, there’s nothing government does better than the private sector. Government takes the Yankee aphorism: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and changes it to: “If it ain’t broke, we’ll keep fixing it ‘til it is.” During thirty-four years in the classroom, I’ve seen fairly competent, relatively efficient local schools “fixed” by big government. Unfunded federal mandates suck up local tax money and turn teachers into bureaucrats who pack filing cabinets with paperwork. Other bureaucrats check it to make sure locals do only what the feds want them to whether it works or not. Meanwhile American kids barely keep up with students in Slovakia.

Endlessly invoking the New Deal, President Obama believes “only government” can shake us out of recession. In February he said, “The federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back into life.” Rahm Emmanuel and Hillary Clinton say “never waste a good crisis” that enables federal government to increase power and influence. The president and Congress borrow and print trillions of “stimulus” dollars funding Democrat boondoggles.

What will America will look like in four years? Look at California today. That formerly golden state is an exemplar for the same leftist-interventionist policies Obama, Pelosi and Reid ram through Congress. According to Realclearmarkets.com: social spending in California is “about 70 percent more per capita than the national average.”

California happens when an over-regulating welfare state with open borders overtaxes the productive and endlessly expands government. Though it has the world’s 8th largest economy, it’s bankrupt. During the 20th century, entrepreneurs brought their ideas to California. In the 21st century, they’re leaving.

Another book persuading me is Mark Levin’s “Liberty and Tyranny.” On the back, Levin quotes Abraham Lincoln:

We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others, the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name - liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names - liberty and tyranny.

Myths die hard. The myth that the New Deal saved us is driving economic policy today - driving us right into bankruptcy. If we “forgotten men” out here don’t exercise what liberty we still have to shatter the myth, that liberty will be gone.


Steve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve said...

@ Sam - You're so profound at analyzing Tom's work. Perhaps your insightful view of the state of our economy will include links, articles, books, and personal experience in public education?

Tom - I don't always agree but I enjoy your writing style and conviction. Keep up the good work!

aliledar said...

Excellent piece, Tom, and so very true. Both books you mention are great - I have read them both and would recommend in addition Mark Puls book Samuel Adams, Father of the American Revolution to see how far this country has strayed from its founding principles.
With respect to sam's foolish comment,- no, it's the country that has lost with Obama and Co. and I don't plan to get over it.

Anonymous said...

Today's body politic is proof that history has taught us exactly nothing. Nothing from Germany's pre-war hyperinflation, nothing from Italy's faschism. Above all, we have failed o recognize that there is no free lunch, and the grifters (aka poverty-pimps & all politicians), that offer it are simply there to steal you wealth & freedom. Cloward-Piven & Alinsky aside, life really is just that simple.

Anonymous said...

...you know you're doing good Tom when the airheads come out of the wood work and can't formulate a sentence over 4 words long.


Nathan Pitts said...

When I read this in the Sun some days back I was going to comment but lost my train of thought with other pressing matters.

It is obvious to any serious student of history that Obama's ideas haven't worked in the past and won't work now and in the future.

I am a bit dissapointed as I thought when I looked at the comments that Susie might have chimed in to protect the "chosen one" from Tom's criticism.

Maybe next time.

Mark in Fryeburg said...

I think the reason that so many people believe that Roosevelt's policies helped get us out of the Depression is that it's true. Unemployment dropped by about 5 points per year, the economy grew at nearly a ten per cent annual rate, and we got a lot of schools, bridges, hospitals, dams, roads, and power grids, which kind of seem to have made possible the prosperity of the postwar years. Oh yes, and Roosevelt's useless socialistic make-work also built the Yorktown and the Enterprise; I'm still inclined to think that winning Midway was a pretty good thing, by and large. There's been a lot of yammering lately by conservatives of late about how the New Deal somehow prolonged the Depression; does this mean that they've finally given up on the Roosevelt-knew-about-Pearl-Harbor-in-advance nonsense they tried to peddle for so long? Tom, if you happen to take any interest in American history you might want to do a bit of reading and pick up a fact or two. It's never too late to start learning. :)

Tom McLaughlin said...

Thanks for the feedback Mark