Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Forgotten Man by Amity Schlaes

This is billed as a "new history of the Great Depression" and it is. Schlaes' book is nothing -- almost nothing -- like the history I learned in school. FDR is always presented as this bullet-proof magician who did what he had to do to get us out of the Great Depression. In fact, Schlaes' book is a tour de force showing that FDR's mercurial -- almost child-like -- tinkering with the economy made the Depression worse and seems to have turned a 3or 4 year correction in the economy into an extended period of misery.

Schlaes tells the story through a series of brilliant vignettes and mini-biographies. Some people grew in my estimation: Andrew Mellon, Wendell Wilkie and Calvin Coolidge come to mind. Others fall: FDR, Felix Frankfurter, and Robert Jackson especially. I learned to admire Jackson in law school through his participation in the Nuremburg tribunals after WW2 and his principled concurrences in Korematsu and the Steel-Seizure cases in the 1950s. Jackson was FDR's attack dog and the worst kind of prosecutor as an AUSA and Asst. AG in the Dept. of Justice. Single-mindedness in trying to win a trial is admirable. Jackson went on persecutions of Mellon and others basically because he viewed wealth as a moral failing. Mellon was treated abominably by the federal government -- and still loved this country until his death. There were many times FDR and his advisers planned the demise of the rich from Roosevelt's personal yacht. The irony was lost on them all.

Also appalling was FDR's treatment of the economy as a toy. "Extra constitutional" does not begin to describe it. His legend making -- starting during his governorship of New York in the early 1930s -- has lasted until today. He set the foundation for his own myth aided by circumstance. The naivete that marked him at the Yalta Conference late in the War was always there. His assumptions that big business was evil, that the rich had only gotten that way by immoral or amoral means -- despite his own patrician roots -- and that central economic planning would work -- were early marks of his rose-colored view of the role of government power in the life of a nation. FDR is a mixed bag. He sincerely thought a strong hand was needed, that he had to try something -- anything -- to get the country going. The temptation to use the power was great and he succumbed in many cases. His naivete -- and great failing was in believing that government intervention could solve the problem. This included his near maniacal distrust of the private sector and punitive taxing schemes.

She also introduces a lot of interesting characters: Father Divine, Bill W., Rexford Tugwell and many others who played major and minor roles in the 1930s. Her treatment of economic principles is accessible for those who are not economists, which was perfect for me. I learned more about monetary policy, deflation, taxation, etc. than I would have ever otherwise.

As I mentioned a few days ago... this book is the perfect follow-up to Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism. Revisionist history is in the air and that's a good thing, because the Left has had control of the discussion and the texts for far too long.

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