Jonathan Chait: Quit lying about FDR





A generation ago, the total dismissal of the New Deal remained a marginal sentiment in American politics. Ronald Reagan boasted of having voted for Franklin Roosevelt. Neoconservatives long maintained that American liberalism had gone wrong only in the 1960s. Now, decades after Democrats grew tired of accusing Republicans of emulating Herbert Hoover, Republicans have begun sounding ... well, exactly like Herbert Hoover. When President Obama recently met with House Republicans, the eighty-two-year-old Roscoe G. Bartlett told him that "I was there" during the New Deal, and, according to one account, "assert[ed] that government intervention did not work then, either." George F. Will, speaking on the Sunday talk show "This Week," declared not long ago, "Before we go into a new New Deal, can we just acknowledge that the first New Deal didn't work?"

When Republicans announce that the New Deal failed--as they now do, over and over again, without any reproach from their own side--they usually say that the case has been proven by the conservative columnist Amity Shlaes in her book The Forgotten Man. Though Shlaes's revisionist history of the New Deal came out a year and a half ago, to wild acclaim on the right, its popularity seems to be peaking now. Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard recently called Shlaes one of the Republican party's major assets. "Amity Shlaes's book on the failure of the New Deal to revive the economy, The Forgotten Man, was widely read by Republicans in Washington," he reported. "So were her compelling articles on that subject in mainstream newspapers."

This is no exaggeration. The Forgotten Man has been publicly touted by such Republican luminaries as Newt Gingrich, Rudolph Giuliani, Mark Sanford, Jon Kyl, and Mike Pence. Senator John Barrasso was so eager to tout The Forgotten Man that last month he waved around a copy and announced, "in these economic times, a number of members of the Senate are reading a book called The Forgotten Man, about the history of the Great Depression, as we compare and look for solutions, as we look at a stimulus package." Barrasso offered this unsolicited testimonial, apropos of nothing whatsoever, during the confirmation hearing for Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Chu politely ignored the rave, thus giving no sign as to whether he had heard the Good News. Whether or not The Forgotten Man actually persuaded conservatives that the New Deal failed, in the time of their political exile, which is also a time of grave economic crisis, it has become the scripture to which they have flocked.

When they say that the New Deal "didn't work," conservatives almost always mean New Deal fiscal stimulus. (Other policies, such as Social Security or clearing the way for unions, clearly succeeded on their own terms, whatever their ideological merits.) And then, in turn, they confuse New Deal fiscal stimulus with Keynesian economics, which is also not exactly the same thing. So let me step back and briefly explain for the uninitiated what Keynesian economics means. We may not all be Keynesians now, but we would all benefit from knowing what a Keynesian actually is.

Prior to Keynes, the economy was held to be self-correcting. The only cure for a recession was to let wages and prices fall to their natural level. The prevailing attitude, as Paul Krugman writes in his recently re-issued book The Return of Depression Economics, was "a sort of moralistic fatalism." Keynes upended the orthodoxy in a way that was every bit as dramatic as Galileo challenging geocentrism. He insisted that recessions are not a natural process, or the invisible hand's righteous judgment against our sins, but a simple failure of consumer demand....


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