Sunday Book Review: FDR’s Folly

September 25, 2011

Many years ago, when I was doing my undergraduate degree in History, I read “The Historian’s Craft,” by the great French historian Marc Bloch. One lesson he taught that’s stuck with me all these years is that “objective” history is a myth; the historian, by declaring what is significant through his choice of what facts to include in his work, inevitably suffuse the work with a subjective viewpoint — his opinion.

Careful historians take this inevitable bias into account and look for facts that contradict their thesis, evaluating them against those that support the historian’s point of view and thus reaching a reasoned synthesis. But, again almost inevitably, certain perspectives gain wide enough acceptance that they go from being opinion and argument to unquestioned “received wisdom.”

The history of the New Deal is an example of this. According to the standard telling, the era of vast government intervention in the economy under Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt saved the nation from economic collapse after the reckless laissez-faire economics of the 1920s and a series of “do nothing” Republican presidents. People found jobs, the hungry were fed, and labor gained their just rights. This was the orthodoxy pushed by liberal historians such as Arthur Schlesinger and Frank Friedel, whose works influence the teaching of history in high schools and colleges down to today.

In recent years, however, works by conservative and libertarian authors have challenged this orthodoxy to argue that the New Deal was not nearly as effective as proclaimed, perhaps even a total failure. Actually analyzing the application and results of New Deal policies, rather than just concentrating on the politics, a few years ago two UCLA economists published a study arguing that FDR’s policies lengthened the Depression by seven years. Journalist Amity Shlaes authored “The Forgotten Man,” an important revisionist history of the Great Depression that questions many of the standard assumptions.

Into this latter, revisionist literature in 2003 came Jim Powell’s “FDR’s Folly: how Roosevelt and his New Deal prolonged the Great Depression.” Powell is a scholar with the libertarian Cato Institute, and he approaches the New Deal with a very skeptical eye. His thesis is that the New Deal was a failure because its diagnosis of the problem, that the economic collapse was caused by prices (both of goods and labor) being too low and that the way to fix the problem was to regulate the economy to maintain prices at a higher-than-market value. He shows instead that this contributed to the problem by making labor too expensive, thus pricing less-skilled workers out of the market and thus keeping unemployment high. (By some estimates, unemployment never went below 13-15% during the Depression. If a program is to be judged by its results…)

Powell also criticizes the vast expansion of federal power under FDR, an expansion made necessary because of the administration’s belief that free markets had failed, that unrestrained competition had brought about the crisis, and that the only way out was to highly regulate all aspects of the economy. This had the effect, Powell argues (I think correctly), of severely weakening economic liberty, for example the freedom of two or more parties to agree to a contract, and the rights a property owner, such as  a factory owner, has over his own property. What had previously been the inherent rights of the individual guarded under the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments were gutted by a succession of Supreme Court rulings, particularly after FDR was able to appoint several sympathetic Justices, who argued that “economic rights” were less important than political rights, such as free speech.

Powell organizes his book in a series of questions, which are then explored to attack one aspect or another of the New Deal orthodoxy. Here are some samples:

  • “What did FDR borrow from Hoover?” (1)
  • “Why did FDR triple taxes during the Great Depression?”
  • “Why did the New Dealers destroy all that food when people were hungry?”
  • “How did New Deal labor laws throw people out of work?”
  • “How did FDR’s Supreme Court subvert individual liberty?”
  • “How did New Deal policies cause the Depression of 1938?”

It’s become a cliché to describe a book as “eye-opening,” but that’s the effect Powell’s book had for me, clearing the scales of liberal orthodoxy away from my eyes by stepping outside the accepted history and daring to ask questions and hold the New Dealers accountable for the results of their policies. And, with the full-throated resurgence of statism under Obama and the progressives, this eight-year old book has a new relevance. Believe me, just change a few of the names and dates, and you’d swear Jim Powell was writing about Barack Obama.

Maybe Time was right to say Obama is the new FDR.

Summary: FDR’s Folly (2003, Three Rivers Press) — recommended.

(1) Yes, the orthodox view of a laissez-faire Hoover is all wrong.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)

Hey, kids!

September 19, 2009

Did you know the Republican Party was composed of sadomasochistic religious fanatics who had been abused as children and who want revenge on the world? Don’t take my word for it – those are the words of columnist for The Daily Beast Max Blumenthal:

By creating a belt-wielding army of millions, [Focus on the Family’s Dr. James] Dobson created the next generation of Republican shock troops, who are more radical than before. And sadomasochism—I know this sounds a little strange—is what defines the essential character, you know, that—this is what—at least what I’ve discovered—of the Republican follower of today. They’re sadistic in that they want to lash out at deviants, at people who are weaker than them, homosexuals, immigrants, foreigners, socialists. At the same time, they’re masochistic. They are followers of a higher cause, of a strong leader, a magic helper like Dobson or George W. Bush or the macho Jesus archetype that they worship. And this is what defines this movement.

So many of the people that Dobson has been able to get close to and work with in the Republican Congress and in American culture have been viciously abused as children. And he understood that by advocating violence against children, deliberate violence, he was creating this sensibility, which would produce a radical generation of political followers.

So, there you have it. Republicans are self-loathing tools of a whips-and-chains plot to take over the world! (And I never knew The Brain was into S&M. Or religious.)

For context, Blumenthal was flacking his new book “Republican Gomorrah,” which purports to show how the Religious Right has taken over and destroyed the Republican Party. The interview, fittingly, was broadcast on the progressive Pacifica Radio network, whose local affiliate, KPFK, is lovingly referred to as Radio Moscow. Blumenthal also has a bit of a credibility problem, if that clip above doesn’t make it clear: he also is one who spread unsubstantiated rumors of FBI investigations and a soon-to-break scandal behind Sarah Palin’s resignation as governor of Alaska, relying on nothing more than unnamed “Alaska political circles.” Rumors that dissolved like snowflakes in the sun when the FBI said “umm… No.” As far as I know, Blumenthal never retracted his story nor apologized for his libel.

And we’re supposed to take him seriously as an analyst of modern American political parties? Yeah, right. Not talking

For The Record: In case anyone is wondering, no, I am not in any way a religious person. I haven’t been inside a church, other than for weddings or funerals, for decades. I am not a fan of James Dobson or Focus on the Family. I am a Republican and a fan of Sarah Palin. What prompted me to write this was the unmitigated, puerile bigotry masquerading as serious political analysis. This is a smear of people who are religious and who honestly hold opposing views, and is just as vile as the charge of racism that’s being thrown around. It stuns me that anyone grants Blumenthal an iota of credibility.