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New Deal critics enjoy their work to a fault, or two

January 05, 2008|By ALLAN POWELL

It has been asserted that "history is an argument without end." This is as it should be because, although all parties in arguments about incidents in history may agree on the facts, they may violently clash over the interpretation of those facts. This became evident when I heard author Amity Shlaes review her book, "The Forgotten Man: A History of the Great Depression," on C-Span. Since then, she has expanded her perspective in several articles in major newspapers.

Her judgment about President Roosevelt, his "brain trust" and the various attempts to ameliorate the dehumanizing effects of a deep depression are largely negative. According to Shlaes, "Americans have an exaggerated sense of respect for the New Dealers who created the original Social Security model." She seems not to have noticed that both houses of Congress gave their approval to this piece of legislation and that a multitude of Americans still have this "exaggerated respect" for Social Security.

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Shlaes then gives an insulting generalization that is unworthy of any claim to scholarship: "The most useful economic philosophy for understanding what went on is not Keynesian. It is the public choice theory of James Buchanan and others that says that government is a competitor that will annihilate what comes in its path." There surely are governments that do in fact "annihilate what comes in its path," but it was not the engineers of the New Deal. Shlaes surely must be aware that, with several notable exceptions, we retained our basic democratic values during the Great Depression and World War II, while other countries succumbed to very destructive totalitarian regimes.

Shlaes recites the usual litany of New Deal failures. These were disclosed by students of the period long before she joined the ranks of those who dislike the Rooseveltian remedies for ending a depression. It is quite true, for example, that by 1933, unemployment had reached the staggering figure of 25 percent. Yet, as late as 1938, unemployment was still at 20 percent. World War II was more responsible for the dramatic reduction of unemployment than all of the efforts of the "alphabet agencies" of the New Deal.

Shlaes' blunt dismissal of the gifted British economist, John M. Keynes, is totally unwarranted. He wrote two letters to President Roosevelt advising him of ways to reverse the Great Depression. Roosevelt followed Keynes' suggestions and created the make-work agencies (WPA, CWA, CCC, NYA, etc.) to provide employment and inject purchasing power into a seriously lagging economy. This was certainly preferable to handing out doles to prevent starvation.

Shlaes' real problem is that she writes in the safe, secure and prosperous environs of a well-known conservative think tank and is, no doubt, a stranger to gnawing hunger and poverty. I'll wager that she is tainted by an effete snobbery that is proportionate to the distance from the downtrodden.

Those who opposed government intervention because of an "exaggerated respect" for a free market economy urged President Roosevelt to have patience and allow market forces to turn the economy around. They argued that, "in the long run, the market would righten itself," as Adam Smith had predicted, "as if by an unseen hand." Roosevelt reminded them that "people eat every day - not in the long run."

Memories of the Great Depression are quite clearer than reading about it in order to write a book. We four brothers delivered milk each morning before attending school. We are as one in being a bit weary when hearing smug remarks by the more fortunate about how misguided the New Deal correctives were for the nation.

We chuckle now at the many "make-work" projects we created to survive. We sold bags of corncobs retrieved from Stickells' Mill to be used as kindling for kitchen stoves. In winter there was always a chance to shovel snow off sidewalks. In the spring we would haul wheelbarrow loads of ashes from the many homes that burned coal. We even stooped to selling nightcrawlers to fisherman for one penny each.

One has a hunch that if Shlaes had lived in the south end of Hagerstown during the Great Depression and had experienced cold winters and inescapable, wrenching hunger, she might have had more empathy for efforts to give relief to the American underclass. She might also have more understanding for those who grasped at any idea that would make life better for those caught in a force over which they had no control. She, like many other critics of the New Deal, bask in the sunshine of their own glory, but do so by forgetting that they are fortunate to write from hindsight and have avoided the experience that traumatized a nation.

Allan Powell is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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