Are We Suckers for 'Warped History?'

By Barnes, Bill | Nation's Cities Weekly, December 7, 2009 | Go to article overview

Are We Suckers for 'Warped History?'


Barnes, Bill, Nation's Cities Weekly


In the policy debates about the current Great Recession--debates in which cities and towns have much at stake--references to the Great Depression and the New Deal play important roles.

Without some understanding of the 1930s, citizens and officials alike are susceptible to arguments from what Washington Post book reviewer Jonathan Yardley calls "warped history that gets us into trouble" (July 12, 2009.) To paraphrase Ben Franklin, if we don't know something, we'll fall for anything.

Christina Romer, chair of Obama's Council of Economic Advisors, knows something. She has a considerable record of scholarship about the economic policy of the Depression era. In a June guest column in "The Economist," she recounted the errors of 1937: "an unfortunate, and largely inadvertent, switch to contractionary fiscal and monetary policy." Efforts to reduce the federal deficit and to increase bank reserves plunged the economy downward. She urged that we not make the same mistakes again.

In this case, there seems to be wide agreement among scholars and analysts that these policy turnarounds in 1937 did put a damper on a budding recovery. This consensus doesn't tell us what to do, but it does provide perspective on our options regarding the gargantuan federal deficit and debt.

In other cases, the historical record is more complex and contested, and that's where an acquaintance with the evidence, the stories, and the controversies becomes useful.

Interested readers, in search of better understandings of the 1930s, have a large pool of books to draw from.

Amity Schlaes, for example, made a big splash with "The Forgotten Man" (Harper Perennial, 2008.) She declares that neither the "standard history nor the standard rebuttal" about the effects of the New Deal are correct. Yes, the stock market crashed, but the "deepest problem" was governmental intervention in the marketplace. Schlaes lets her stories--from the suicide of a despairing 13-year-old to the legal troubles of the Schechter brothers' poultry business--carry her argument.

"Politico," a Washington insider news source, reported on April 21st that the book was a best seller among House Republicans because it provides "red meat for a party hungry for empirical evidence that the Democrats' spending plans won't end the recession."

In sharp contrast, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s classic, The Coming of the New Deal (Houghton Mifflin, 1958), is unabashedly positive about FDR's politics and policies. It focuses on 1933-34 and implementation of the policy reforms of the "first hundred days."

Robert Leighninger's "Long-Range Public Investment" (University of South Carolina Press, 2007) documents the physical legacies of the New Deal public building programs, relating the national policies to on-the-ground local outcomes that are often still in place. …

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