An important and politically significant guide to the Great Depression

Summary:  the combination of intense political polarization and a long deep economic downturn has made the events of the Great Depression important again — both as part of both parties’ positioning and for lessons about the appropriate public policy response.  One book has become an rallying point for Republicans, from which they derive their proscriptions for the current crisis:  “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression” by Amity Shlaes (2007).  This post looks at two reviews that provide insights both about her book and the history of the Great Depression.

These are both brief excerpts of articles which I strongly recommend reading in full.  The NYRB’s excerpt is short, but you can click thought to read it — since they have generously unlocked this subscribers-only webpage for a few months.  Take advantage of it!  It is worth reading both as a review of Shlaes politically important book and as a quick look at this vital and relevant period in our history.

Chait’s review is far more hard-hitting than the charitable and academic tone of Friedman’s review.  Taken together they provide a good foundation to read about today’s political and pol-economic conflicts.

  1. FDR & the Depression: The Big Debate“, Benjamin M. Friedman, New York Review of Books, 8 November 2007
  2. Wasting Away in Hooverville“, Jonathan Chait, The New Republic, 18 March 2009


(1)  FDR & the Depression: The Big Debate, Benjamin M. Friedman, New York Review of Books, 8 November 2007 — Excerpt:

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes HarperCollins, 464 pp., $26.95
Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal by Robert D. Leighninger Jr. University of South Carolina Press, 265 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Shlaes … follows what has become standard conservative thinking in denying that Roosevelt’s programs had anything to do with the recovery. … Indeed, focusing on unemployment and the stock market rather than production and incomes, she mostly writes as if no recovery occurred at all. Her view of Hoover is more unusual (although it too owes something to earlier treatments). In her account, Hoover as president was an activist, to be lumped together with Roosevelt. His policies made the depression worse, but for the same reason that Roosevelt’s impeded the subsequent recovery: “From 1929 to 1940, from Hoover to Roosevelt, government intervention helped to make the Depression Great.” Both men stand equally condemned for their policies, and both are seen as having morally unattractive personalities.

Several problems prevent Shlaes’s argument from being fully credible. …

About the author: Benjamin M. Friedman is the William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy at Harvard. His most recent book is The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. (November 2008)

(2)  Wasting Away in Hooverville“, Jonathan Chait, The New Republic, 18 March 2009 — Opening:

A generation ago, the total dismissal of the New Deal remained a marginal sentiment in American politics. Ronald Reagan boasted of having voted for Franklin Roosevelt. Neoconservatives long maintained that American liberalism had gone wrong only in the 1960s. Now, decades after Democrats grew tired of accusing Republicans of emulating Herbert Hoover, Republicans have begun sounding … well, exactly like Herbert Hoover. When President Obama recently met with House Republicans, the eighty-two-year-old Roscoe G. Bartlett told him that “I was there” during the New Deal, and, according to one account, “assert[ed] that government intervention did not work then, either.” George F. Will, speaking on the Sunday talk show “This Week,” declared not long ago, “Before we go into a new New Deal, can we just acknowledge that the first New Deal didn’t work?”

When Republicans announce that the New Deal failed–as they now do, over and over again, without any reproach from their own side–they usually say that the case has been proven by the conservative columnist Amity Shlaes in her book The Forgotten Man. Though Shlaes’s revisionist history of the New Deal came out a year and a half ago, to wild acclaim on the right, its popularity seems to be peaking now. Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard recently called Shlaes one of the Republican party’s major assets. “Amity Shlaes’s book on the failure of the New Deal to revive the economy, The Forgotten Man, was widely read by Republicans in Washington,” he reported. “So were her compelling articles on that subject in mainstream newspapers.”

This is no exaggeration. The Forgotten Man has been publicly touted by such Republican luminaries as Newt Gingrich, Rudolph Giuliani, Mark Sanford, Jon Kyl, and Mike Pence. Senator John Barrasso was so eager to tout The Forgotten Man that last month he waved around a copy and announced, “in these economic times, a number of members of the Senate are reading a book called The Forgotten Man, about the history of the Great Depression, as we compare and look for solutions, as we look at a stimulus package.” Barrasso offered this unsolicited testimonial, apropos of nothing whatsoever, during the confirmation hearing for Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Chu politely ignored the rave, thus giving no sign as to whether he had heard the Good News. Whether or not The Forgotten Man actually persuaded conservatives that the New Deal failed, in the time of their political exile, which is also a time of grave economic crisis, it has become the scripture to which they have flocked. …

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.

Originally published at Fabius Maximus and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

4 Responses to "An important and politically significant guide to the Great Depression"

  1. Beatrice Poling   May 4, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Please note, in addition, the following recent and older reviews of Miss Shlaes’s book.,28124,25391432-5013868,00.html Mail on Sunday:The title of Amity Shlaes’s new book is brilliant because what she means by the Forgotten Man is not what you would expect.Lovers of old movies will recall the phrase from the barnstorming conclusion of Gold Diggers Of 1933, as Joan Blondell laments what the Depression had wrought on the conscripts of the Great War: Remember my forgotten man You put a rifle in his hand: You sent him far away, You shouted, ‘Hip,hooray!’ But look at him today! This was Warner Brothers’ big picture for the year of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration as President of the United States, and it was a tribute to the famous promise in FDR’s first radio address as presidential candidate: to stand up for ‘the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid’. Shlaes, however….And also, Shlaes’s own rebuttal to the unemployment point: more on:

  2. Irini Fountoulaki   May 5, 2009 at 10:21 am

    I find the debates on these matters rather silly. After all, we live in a very different world today than then. The US is a major debtor country and outsourced a large part of its production to the Far East. We have a global economic system.So why is the New Deal such a big deal today?Nobody really wants to debate the real issues like the policies of debt inflation, lame duck industry subsidies and crony capitalism that plague the US. They prefer these kinds of politicized fantasy debates.

  3. Guest   May 13, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    Please tell me what I read in this article is not true? So, scary. Let me guess is next the South really won the civil war?Well, they can preach all they want about there bible, doesnt make a difference they lost control of the ship, (because they crashed it).Its simply not their turn anymore. When will they get that?

  4. Guest   May 13, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    This is absolutely hilarious,Gentlemen that claim to be Professional Politicians dont know this History of Hoover in Australia?Does Shlas know? How the duck quacked there?Not a very reliable historian.