Exclusive: FDR Got Us Out of the Depression? Hardly.

by TOM MCLAUGHLIN May 20, 2009
For 30 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 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. Its size was less than 2 percent of the national economy.”
According to usgovernmentspending.com, federal spending is over 40 percent 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 34 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 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.
Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Tom McLaughlin Tom is a history teacher and a regular weekly columnist for newspapers in Maine and New Hampshire. He writes about political and social issues, history, family, education and Radical Islam. E-mail him at tommclaughlin@fairpoint.net.

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