A few Excerpts
When accepting the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 1932, Roosevelt proclaimed "a new deal" for the American people. Once in office, he began radically transforming the federal government while seeking to ameliorate the nation's woes. He pushed subsidies for farmers, changed the banking system, and created the National Recovery Administration, which regulated many aspects of business until it was declared unconstitutional in 1935. Through the creation of the Social Security system and related programs, Roosevelt vastly expanded the scope and size of the federal government and created the political world in which we live. The shift was so complete that even as vocal a foe of big government as Ronald Reagan, who started his political career as a New Deal Democrat, approvingly wrote to Congress in the early 1980s of the "nation's ironclad commitment to Social Security" and praised FDR's visionary leadership in creating the program.
In her meticulously researched new history of the Depression, The Forgotten Man (HarperCollins), journalist Amity Shlaes describes the received catechism of the era: "Roosevelt made things better by taking charge. His New Deal inspired and tided the country over. In this way, the country fended off revolution of the sort bringing down Europe. Without the New Deal, we would all have been lost..The attitude is that the New Deal is the best model we have for what government must do for weak members of society, in both times of crises and times of stability." But that conventional account, she writes, fails to capture "the realities of the period." Shlaes shows how both Hoover and Roosevelt "overestimated the value of government planning" and intensified and prolonged the very problems they were seeking to fix.
One of the important things about the existing argument is that it's all about Keynesianism, about whether government spending can cure the economy when it's ill. Scholars have overlooked the cost of uncertainty in an economy, what we would now call the "unknown unknowns." Both the Hoover and Roo-sevelt administrations (but especially the Roosevelt administration) were so unpredictable. That hurt the economy very much, and when I went back and saw the extent I was astounded. Uncertainty is a factor that I thought needed to be explored. There were lots of people who said, "I will not invest 'til I know what's going to happen." ...
Roosevelt's advisers didn't know Stalin was a monster, or at least not so much, and very naively they copied him. In the book I trace how some of the characters go to the Soviet Union in 1927 and are bowled over by Stalin. They get six hours with him and they come back and you see them, especially [former Columbia University professor] Rex Tugwell, implementing things they learned from fascist Italy or from the world of Stalin. The influence of these European entities from Russia to Italy was not parenthetical. These people were not working for Moscow, but they were influenced by Moscow.
One of the members of the junket was a very well-known writer named Stuart Chase, an accountant who wrote about economics. He wrote a book called The New Deal, and it appeared in 1932, and that's where Roosevelt got the phrase. The last sentence of Chase's book is, "Why should Russians have all the fun remaking a world?" So you see the continuity.
There was a romance with the economy of scale, and not just in America. FDR's advisers said that having so many different states and so many different ways of doing things was inefficient. If you had 50 flowers blooming, as federalists would have, they bloom differently and it makes for a messy garden. There was this sense that the economy couldn't grow further unless there was rationalization, standardization. Even now you'll see businessmen fighting for standardization: "Just make the rule!" they say.
The most important thing for our generation is that the New Deal will come back to bite our children when they pay yet higher payroll taxes because we did not dare to reform Social Security and other entitlements. There are not enough people to pay for Social Security, and Social Security is set up so that you can't fix it just by growing the economy.
This is a moment of choice for us, our generation and the younger people. We have to look again at Roosevelt. Roosevelt was inspiring. He was right on World War II, but we do not have to have false nostalgia for his wrongheaded policies in the '30s. We should warn our children and help to change Social Security, but you don't see that in the presidential candidates. You don't see daring on Social Security.
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