Amity Shlaes: FDR Was a Great Leader, But His Economic Plan Isn't One to Follow





[Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression."]

One evening in the 1930s, a 13-year-old named William Troeller hanged himself from the transom of his bedroom in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

William's father was laid up in Kings County Hospital awaiting surgery for an injury he'd suffered on the job at Brooklyn Edison. A federal jobs program was paying William's older brother Harold for temporary work. But the amount wasn't nearly enough to make ends meet. Gas and electricity to the family's apartment had been shut off for half a year. Harold told a New York Times reporter that both hunger and modesty had driven William to act. "He was reluctant about asking for food," read the headline in the paper.

The surprising part of this story is not that it happened; most Americans know that after the 1929 stock-market crash, hard times sometimes led to suicide. The surprising part is that William Troeller killed himself not in 1930, when Herbert Hoover was president, but in 1937, in Franklin D. Roosevelt's second term. The New Deal was almost five years old, but the economy was not back. In fact, the country seemed farther from recovery than before. A new sense of futility was overcoming Americans. The British magazine the Economist sneered that the United States "seemed to have forgotten, for the moment, how to grow."

The date matters, because our new president has made it clear that his model is Roosevelt. Barack Obama has spoken of creating 3 million jobs with his stimulus plan. As a new president in 1933, Roosevelt spoke of creating "one million jobs by October 1" through his spending packages. At about $850 billion, Obama's stimulus represents about 5.9 percent of gross domestic product. The spending programs of Roosevelt's National Recovery Administration amounted to almost precisely the same share. Then as now, the country was in what we might call an "illions" moment, when a nation contemplates federal spending of a magnitude previously unimaginable. The only difference is that today, we're discussing trillions instead of billions....

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