Book Review: “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression” by Amity Shlaes
How much government is too much government? Far back in China’s Han Dynasty(汉朝), the “Discourses on Salt and Iron(盐铁论)” attempted to resolve this issue but failed. It was no surprise, given the fact that the arbiter was the reigning emperor himself. Then, as now.
In America, now as then, upsizing or downsizing governments at all levels depends on voters, ultimately. Voters are out there to be turned on or turned off. Whoever in power has to be powerful in persuasion.
Imagine that, as a time traveler, the author of this book waged a small-government campaign against the big-government presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) for the better part of the 1930s.
The author’s campaign would have zero effect on FDR’s presidency in the face of a Depression. The D word called for big bold action, which elevated FDR to a historic height.
Meanwhile, the author would still be free to carry on her quixotic campaign, thanks to this nation of democrats with a small “d”.
To me, the author sounds like a Reaganite when it comes to politics and economics.
So let me quote President Reagan’s most memorable line from his First Inaugural Address (1981):
“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Reagan inherited an economy tumbling in stagflation, which was a two-legged stool. Better put a three-legged stool in place. But how?
Reagan took the Supply Side: Get government out of the way, and creators of wealth and jobs would take care of themselves. This was Reaganomics. It worked. Keynes, on the Demand Side, would have his heart eaten out if still alive in the 1980s.
Keynes was alive and kicking in the 1930s when his economics became the cornerstone of FDR’s New Deal. As per Keynes, the New Dealer-in-chief desperately propped up demand as the panacea for the sinking economy.
This, needless to say, runs counter to the author’s Reaganomics. But Reaganomics as such was nonexistent in the 1930s, not to mention that Reagan himself was then a New Deal Democrat.
Of course, that has not stopped the author from tuning up her Reaganomics to show the downside of New Deal.
According to the author, FDR’s New Deal ineptly slowed economic recovery, thus hurting “the forgotten man” most.
“The forgotten man” in her book had a double identity. He could be a recipient of state benefits, helplessly at the mercy of the New Deal bureaucracy. Alternatively, he could be a taxpayer obliged to bloat the New Deal bureaucracy. Either way, he was a victim of Big Government, so the author argues. Fair enough.
But, the author must be aware that the Reagan administration upheld Social Security, arguably the most treasured legacy of FDR. Understandably, Reagan needed the New Deal idea of Social Security to keep Democrats on board, who gave him, a Republican, two landslide victories back-to-back.
Idea translates into vote. Ideology translates into politics.
In American politics, both sides of the aisle have to compete for voters who put idea before ideology. New Deal as an idea was popular enough to let FDR win four presidential elections in a row.
Suffering from the Great Depression, voters took costs and benefits seriously. Their decisions were more rational than the author suggests. Voters for FDR were not a Kool-Aid drinking crowd.
By the author’s account, there was one case of death from hunger in the Great Depression years. Hunger was more devastating in John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath”(1939). Fact or fiction, it is a shame to lose even one single life to starvation in America.
In deeply troubled times Americans cannot afford an aloof government, will not tolerate a failing president, and do not give up on themselves.
FDR knew this well. His fireside chats on the radio warmed his audience up for idea, for policy, but mostly for hope.
Hope resonates with hopeful people, although they will not simply put fear aside, when fear is so personal, so viral.
Living with fear, living with hope, Americans who know about the President of the Great Depression also have likely read about the President of the Civil War:
”We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”(Lincoln, 1861)
That last best hope of earth was America, and still is.
In the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, many U.S. Marines were carrying rifles handed down from the First World War. They got what they got to fight the good fight, to keep alive the last best hope of earth. These heroes were children of the Great Depression.
We always remember them because we always owe them.