Thursday, April 30, 2009

Revisionism and FDR

Recently, a revisionist meme has sprung up in the pundit community claiming that FDR-era New Deal programs not only failed to lift America out of the great depression, but actually prolonged it or even made it worse. Of all the sillyness being thrown against Obama's wall, this one wins the cupie for being at the same time most obviously wrong and most predictably asserted. 

The Great Depression ran from 1929-1941-ish in the US, and President Franklin Roosevelt was in office for most of it. FDR instituted a series of big spending "stimulus" programs in order to revive the economy. The programs were collectively known as the New Deal. Hence, the logic goes, if the New Deal was a dud, so is Obama's "newNew Deal.

Problem is that the New Deal actually worked pretty well. Economic figures vary depending on source, but most more or less agree that New Deal programs had a tremendous positive effect on employment, the GDP, manufacturing, and private investment, returning levels either close to or surpassing pre-crash numbers by 1941, when the US entered WWII. The war definitely put a cherry on the recovery, and powered the launch of the economic juggernaut the US would become, but it was not the Depression-buster some have anointed it. 

If there was any need to further kick the coffin lid down on this one, we could inspect the mini-recession of 1937. From 1933 to 1936, Roosevelt was full speed ahead on stimulus programs, and the economy responded dramatically to the positive. Then, FDR began to listen to some of his more partisan advisors, and slashed stimulus spending. The economy tanked once more. As soon as he reversed course and instituted new spending- hey presto, the economy shot up again. That there's a direct cause-and-effect thingy. But don't take it from me. That economist guy Krugman said it, and he got a Noble for knowing about such things.

Lastly, we could ask some experts in economics and history. A 1995 survey from Economic History Services asked, "Taken as a whole, government polices of the New Deal served to lengthen and deepen the Great Depression."  27% of economist surveyed agreed, and 51% said "you be smoking something." The economic historian response was even more revealing: only 6% agreed. 74%  began gravesite pre-rolling in anticipation of being offed by revisionist questioning, and the remaining 20% fence-sat themselves into irrelevancy.

So where does this rather noxiously perennial claim of a market-busting, capitalism-tanking, red-loving FDR come from? Well, strangely enough, from the hard right, who have never really gotten over the fact that spending money on poor people and infrastructure actually makes the country work better. Specifically, a 2007 book by Amity Shlaes, a few university professors (I thought those guys were all liberal kool-aid drinkers. Who knew?), assorted economists, and that great bastion of fair balancing, Fox News, are the key offenders. 

Fox needs no real debunking because they got their info from the other sources I mentioned. Shlaes book, the professors, and most of the other economists gripes are founded on cherry-picked statistics, and have been thoroughly discredited on those grounds. As much as I hate to lay down a big old url, if you want more detail on this, go see There, you will satisfy your every wonkish desire.

Opportunistic revisionism like this oozes out of think tanks from both sides of the aisle on a regular schedule, depending on who's in power. That said, the current spate of rewrites, led mostly by the angry teabag fringe, is particularly damaging to the GOP.  Debating the justification for spanking Bill Clinton is one thing, but balls-out nonsense, such as slinging mud at settled history from 80 years ago, or Bill O'Rielly's recent claim that Nixon never met Mao Zedong, (they were photographed shaking hands, and yes, ol' Tricky was smiling-), is just further proof that the GOP is allowing radicals to dictate their policy. 

That's not good. 

Principled opposition is key to a healthy democracy, and ideological revisionism of documented facts is the political equivalent of Swine Flu. Fortunately the vaccine is available: it's called a history book. 


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