A Tale of Political Economics

By Steigerwald, Bill | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 16, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Tale of Political Economics


Steigerwald, Bill, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Amity Shlaes' new book, "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression," has been praised by George Will for supplying Americans with just what they need -- "a fresh appraisal of what the New Deal did and did not accomplish." A syndicated columnist for Bloomberg News who writes about politics and economics, Shlaes is a former Financial Times columnist and Wall Street Journal editorial page staffer. I talked to her Thursday by telephone from New York City:

Q: Who exactly is "The Forgotten Man"?

A: Roosevelt had a specific definition of "the Forgotten Man." His definition he gave in an early 1932 campaign speech. He spoke of the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid. The man who wrote that line was Ray Moley, a wonderful speechwriter and friend of Roosevelt's -- a brain-truster. Moley wrote to his sister that he wasn't exactly sure where he had got that phrase, "forgotten man." But it was in the air and there was an original place from which it came. When those men -- Moley, Roosevelt -- were babies or just about to be babies, there was a national best-seller in the United States called "The Forgotten Man." Its author was a fellow named William Graham Sumner. He was a Yale professor and he had a different forgotten man in mind. Sumner's "Forgotten Man" was the forgotten taxpayer who subsidizes the perhaps dubious project for the poor man. These two concepts were in opposition. People in the New Deal period knew both sides and they debated it throughout. The question was: Does the New Deal help more men than it hurts? And "Is what seemed legitimate then producing too many forgotten men of the taxpayer variety now?"

Q: What is your 60-second synopsis of what your book is about?

A: My book is about the Great Depression. I went back to look at it and I found a few things that will be surprising to us. One is the extent to which the New Deal hurt the economy; government intervention made the economy worse. It made the Depression great in magnitude. That government intervention started with (President) Hoover and went on to Roosevelt. That's the big story. But I also discovered that the traditional history that we learned of the executives obscured a second history of this smaller man, the forgotten man. I tried to portray him too in the period. Two of the forgotten men I focused a lot on were a cult leader from Harlem named Father Devine and Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Both men preached that you could get through bad times by turning within or to your community.

Q: What does your book tell us about the Depression that we should know about today?

A: The first is that government intervention can often hurt. Here we are in a situation now where things may go worse in the housing market, maybe because of the course of the U.S. dollar, maybe because of a larger, escalating war. We don't know much about the lessons of the 1930s. But what they discovered was actually that the government intervention of the period prolonged the Depression, and the economy might have righted itself earlier had there been less intervention.

Q: Do Americans in general today have a clue about the Depression, its causes, its cure?

A: Viscerally they do. Intuitively Americans know that you have to help yourself across a bad patch. There was a component to the Great Depression that was like Hurricane Katrina that you couldn't do anything about. That component was the banking component, the international component, the monetary component. But there were other components, such as what Washington did -- and they did all sorts of crazy things -- that did slow things down. There is this general view of the 1930s that the New Deal made everything magical and it was a good thing that Americans suspended disbelief and followed Roosevelt all those years. But that wasn't the reality. The suspension of disbelief also shut out common sense. …

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