Friday, June 30, 2017

Review: Pride, Prejudice and Politics: Roosevelt versus Recovery, 1933-1938 by Gary Dean Best, Praeger 1991

In the last few decades several excellent books have been published documenting the New Deal's failure. Amity Shlaes The Forgotten Man (2007) was a milestone because of its popularity. It's now impossible for anyone to state that the "New Deal got the country out of the Depression" with a straight face. Even "court" academic historian Alan Brinkley in his The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (1995) had to admit that the New Deal's commitment to "reform" over recovery caused immense hardship and damage to the country. Nevertheless, Brinkley remains a True Believer of modern "liberalism." 

One of the best deconstructions of the New Deal is Burton Folsom's New Deal or Raw Deal: How FDR's Economic Legacy has Damaged America (2008). Folsom ably goes through the militant irrationality of most major New Deal programs. After his thorough demolition job, there's little left of New Deal pretensions. It's a highly readable book that is infuriating in what it documents. In his acknowledgements, Folsom has the grace to note, "My starting point is Gary Dean Best. His books, his insights, and his knowledge of primary sources were very helpful to me at different points in my research." Other scholars on the New Deal have been rather churlish on their refusal to acknowledge Best's pioneering work. 

"The Roosevelt Recovery"

One of the best works on the New Deal is Best's Pride, Prejudice, and Politics. Gary was chairman of the University of Hawaii-Hilo's history department for many years. He is well remembered for his "regulation" tan shorts and black shirt. I met him a few times at local watering holes after he had retired from UHH. When I asked him for recommendations on good books on the cause of the Great Depression, he gave me a copy of Murray Rothbard's book America's Great Depression. He was a gentleman and scholar and is missed. 

In a nutshell, Best's thesis is that Roosevelt's hostility to and ignorance about business needlessly prolonged the Depression for years. If Roosevelt cared about or felt any guilt for inflicting massive amounts of hardship upon the American people, there is no historical record of it. His thesis is amply demonstrated by the use of primary documents. Most of the book's sources are from contemporary documents that illustrate the desperate straits business was pushed into by Roosevelt's policies. One investment banker testifying before Congress in 1935 on a particularly odious bill asked:

Is it the wish of the Government in Washington to advance recovery; to ease those who are seeing their income and their savings shrinking, to quiet fears that retard all progress, to do the utmost possible to help us out of this depression? Or is the desire to increase confusion and difficulties; to take advantage of opportunities to press its social theories and to distort the whole concept of American business? If the former, this Bill seems a mistake; if the latter - and all the indications of this Bill suggest it - then it is a success. (p. 87)

Best proves beyond all reasonable doubt that the banker's "latter" alternative is the correct one. Roosevelt's main goal appears to be the centralization of governmental power in the presidency. I say "appear" because the purpose of the power was to impose longstanding Progressive policies. In the election of 1920, the nation thoroughly repudiated the Progressives. Roosevelt was a Progressive who had served in the Wilson administration. Like his far more corrupt and evil political descendants, Roosevelt wasn't going to let a crisis go to waste. 

In 1932, Roosevelt ran as a moderate against the toxic Herbert Hoover. He even came out in favor of ending the Progressive hangover of Prohibition. Once in office, he tried to "fundamentally transform" the United States into Mussolini's Italy. In that endeavor, he had some successes and some notorious failures such as the NIRA. Roosevelt essentially bought the 1936 with a massive barrage of "targeted" federal spending while running against a hapless "me-tooing" Republican. The bill came due with the crash of late1937. 

Some historians, such as Alan Brinkley, have argued that the 1937 debacle forced Roosevelt to face reality and endorse a recovery/full employment policy. Best argues different. He documents how Roosevelt responded in 1938 with a anti-trust pogrom that certainly did not help business recovery. In fact, it was only large Republican gains in the 1938 Congressional races that forced Roosevelt's hand. What the suffering of millions of Americans couldn't do, the loss of some seats in Congress did. As Best observed: 

The war on business was ended, an international war was increasingly a prospect, and the Roosevelt administration quickly filled with advocates of recovery and preparedness, many of them from the business and financial world. (215)

This is an excellent and often brilliant work that belongs on the bookshelf of anyone interested in its topic or economic history in general. Unfortunately, Praeger's editions are very expensive. However, any decent university or public library system should have a copy. If not, tell them to get one on order!

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