American Elephants


“When Big Government Saved America” and Other Lefty Myths by The Elephant's Child

While following a link to an article that turned out not to be of any interest, I ran across an article entitled “When Big Government Saved America.” I do try to keep up with the wandering of leftist minds, but this noxious notion made me curious.

The recent bridge collapse along I-5 north of Seattle was in some ways a freak accident, yet to many Americans it seemed emblematic of a public sector in crisis. As gridlock and dysfunction reign, the U.S. government seems to lack the capacity to adopt even the most popular and necessary measures—even to maintain the physical structures upon which American life depends. In the meantime, this crisis of the public sector is mirrored by—and fed by—Americans’ lack of faith in public institutions.

The recent bridge collapse along I-5 north of Seattle was in some ways a freak accident? No it was a freak accident. a Tractor-trailer with a too-wide load hit a major support on one section of the bridge, and it collapsed. I knew they were trying to make a big deal of it. It was not “emblematic of a public sector in crisis,” and the physical structures “upon which American life depends,” which had been surveyed in the previous 6 months, was replaced in two weeks with a temporary span.

Eighty years ago this month as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first “hundred days” wound to a close amid the Great Depression, the United States was in far worse shape than it is today. And yet, then, the American government responded to economic catastrophe not by treating public services as extravagancies to be traded off in the name of “belt tightening,” but rather by expanding them dramatically. They not only built what by some measures was the most generous social spending regime in the world, but also a political culture in which public institutions were trusted and esteemed far more than they are today.

There was certainly generous spending. Roosevelt set right off in 1933 with the National Industrial Recovery Act (the NRA), the most revolutionary act ever. It allowed American industrialists to collaborate to set the prices of their products, the wages and hours that went into making them. Antitrust laws were suspended. Leaders of industries were invited to sit down together and write “codes of fair competition” that would be binding on everyone in their industry, and subject to a fine or jail term if he violated the code. So what you had was a conspiracy against the public, and that went well.

FDR never had to work, and always had an allowance from his mother. Everyone who knew him agreed that he had no business sense and no financial sense. He failed in every business venture he undertook, and did not learn from his mistakes. But he was charming.  FDR was quite sure that price-fixing was a good idea, and that competition was a bad thing. As Henry Morgenthau, the Secretary of the Treasury, and one of the architects of the New Deal said:

We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. …We have never made good on our promises. I say after eight years of this administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started…and an enormous debt to boot.

Mason Williams, the author of this piece, and of a new book about New York City, FDR and La Guardia is apparently a newly-minted PhD in History, who will begin his first teaching job in the fall. He is a victim of conventional leftist wisdom that FDR saved America from the Great Depression. He didn’t. FDR’s vast experimentation made things worse, and the depression far longer than it needed to be. Nor did World War II end the depression. The assumption was that all the war work at home, building military equipment that put people back to work ended the downturn. But during the war wages and prices were fixed, goods were rationed, and the war materials the factories turned out were consumed in the course of the war. It took quite a few years after the war for America to recover, as UCLA economist Lee Ohanian and Harold Cole have shown. Price-fixing never, never works.

There was a scene in Anton Myrer’s great novel of World War II, Once an Eagle, of the day Roosevelt died. When they heard the news on the radio, the woman said” The President was carrying everything on his hands. Everything. Now the fat will be in the fire, along with everything else He was so brave,” she murmured.

“FDR? Baloney” said her government insider companion, “He was a power-drunk egocentric and the prince of political manipulators. But he could make them go the way he wanted.”

That was just a novel. The myth of Roosevelt’s deft handling of two of our worst crises — the Great Depression and World War II — has endured, and encouraged the left to always try to emulate his failed policies— to our great misfortune.  That was eighty years ago, and some learn from history, while others never examine their presumptions and prejudices.

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