I survived public school. For a long time I’ve wanted a t-shirt with that message printed on the front. The back would read: I’m ok… but just barely. I’m part-joking, part-serious because while it’s kind of humorous after the fact, it was a challenging experience to live through. My parents raised me in a Christian home with conservative values and politics. It doesn’t take a rocket-scientist to recognize my dilemma. Let’s just say my upbringing didn’t jive with the messages taught to me in the classroom. If, by chance, you can’t relate to my experience, it’s very likely you’re left-leaning both religiously and politically.
Surely there will be time later for Tales of the Public School (no need to cram too much into a single post =)). But for now I have a relevant question to ask you, the reader: What were you taught about President Franklin D. Roosevelt and The Great Depression?
For me, elementary school happened in the late 1980’s, and junior/senior high happened in the 1990’s, which put my education at half a century after The Great Depression. The subject was taught numerous times, and even as a young student I can recall how important it was. All of my teachers gave me the distinct impression that it was a time like no other in American society.
What was I taught? Lessons went something like this: “America had success in the 1920’s right up until the stock market crashed. People lost their investments and jobs, and unemployment levels were high. Soup lines formed across the country and things looked bleak on every front. Enter President FDR, who saved the day. His New Deal brought about the needed changes to transform and revitalize the nation. He inspired Americans with his famous Fireside Chats. President Roosevelt instituted many government projects to give people jobs, and he led our great nation back to greatness.”
Yes, I know this is abbreviated and selective, but bear with me as I make a point. Time and again I was taught to believe that America was unable to recover on its own and we desperately needed the government to step in and save the day. The massive increase in the size of government through regulations, laws and programs was said to be a good thing … even essential.
Rabbit Trail: Ronald Reagan’s two terms as President spanned from ‘81-’89. It brings a smile to my face knowing that most of my teachers who later taught me about The Great Depression had to cope with a conservative in office. *Scurrying back to the main trail*
Last week I finished reading The Forgotten Man: A New History of The Great Depression by Amity Shlaes. This book caught my attention after watching an interview of the author about her work. Assuredly, the subtitle reveals her underlying bias, and I’m thankful for the honest clarity. It’s refreshing. We all have our own biases, and it’s healthy to recognize and state them clearly – I’m lookin’ right at you authors and publishers who claim otherwise! =)
Shlaes’ work is excellent. From the standpoint of history, it’s well documented and while her bias is present she includes enough facts to make her case. If I could summarize the premise of the book in a single sentence, I would quote Schlaes who put it like this:
“FDR put the ‘Great’ in The Great Depression.”
I’ll raise my glass to that. My politics have always been somewhere on the Conservative spectrum, and I’ve believed for many years that big government is harmful to free societies and Capitalism. And when it came to President Franklin Roosevelt, I knew he made the government much larger. What I learned from The Forgotten Man is how massively he increased the size of the federal government. The other shocking revelation involves his sporadic experimentation of the American way of life.
His sticky fingers touched so many things I will only take the time to give some highlights. Arguably, one of President Roosevelt’s most famous sayings is his “fear itself” line from his first inaugural address in 1932: “This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” I very much appreciate Schlaes’ response to this statement: “But Roosevelt’s commitment to experimentation itself created fear” (Schlaes, 9). And Roosevelt boasted that he would bring about “bold, persistent experimentation.” And experiment he did.
In fact, the President was keenly interested in the Soviet Union’s willingness to experiment. Some of his brain-trust met with Stalin and toured the Soviet Union. They were impressed with Soviet successes. It’s almost unbelievable to write this, but when FDR won the Presidency the New York Times ran the headline: “Russians Hopeful of ‘a New Deal.’” Isn’t it comforting to know the Soviet leadership wanted FDR to win the election?
Of the many experiments FDR was involved in, setting the price of gold was one of them. “One morning, FDR told his group he was thinking of raising the gold price by twenty-one cents. Why that figure? His entourage asked. “It’s a lucky number,” Roosevelt said. “Because it’s three times seven.” As Morgenthau later wote, “If anyone knew how we really set the gold price through a combination of lucky numbers, etc., I think they would be frightened” (Schlaes, 148). My annotation here in the book: “my goodness – nonsense.” I agree with Morgenthau! It is frightening to know that FDR was price fixing gold at all, but even more how he was choosing a price.
Like everyone, President Roosevelt did some things that I agree with, such as the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the ending of Prohibition. (Glad I got that out of my system…) *innocent grin*
Change, change and more change: “The main tasks Roosevelt assigned himself were simple. The first was that there be a broad sweep of activity; Americans must know Washington was doing something. If there were contradictions between experiments and within them, well, that did not matter” (Schlaes, 149). When government gets big it seems to forget its limits. FDR set up the new Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which was designed to “relieve the national emergency by increasing purchasing power” (Schlaes, 153). What this meant in reality was that farmers were to sell less to artificially drive up demand and prices. How would farmers make ends meet? Answer: The AAA would offer farmers favorable loans to show restraint. As one might imagine with a new government agency, they had found it tough to stay in their lane. One remarked: “the name of his department was the Department of Agriculture, not the “Department of Everything” (Schlaes, 155). Touche, lol.
How do you think this experiment fared? Not well: “The AAA got its first serious negative publicity after Americans learned that a total of six million young pigs were killed before reaching full size over the course of September. “It just makes me sick all over,” one citizen would write,” when I think of how the government has killed millions and millions of little pigs, and how that has raised pork prices until today we poor people cannot have a piece of bacon” (Schlaes, 168). I don’t have the right words to respond to this. It’s a disgusting abuse of power.
Do you recall the whispers of President Biden desiring to increase the number of justices to the Supreme Court? I could not believe my eyes when I read that FDR tried this decades ago. Because of opposition to aspects of his New Deal legislation, he wanted to raise the Supreme Court from 9 to 15 justices! Fifteen! I have the distinct sense that President Roosevelt had no respect for American tradition; this goes for the structure and role of the branches of the federal government, Capitalism and economic liberty for individual citizens.
I don’t have the time to spend writing about the creation of social welfare systems, like the monster-sized entity we know as Social Security. But I hope I’ve been able to communicate just how much change Roosevelt brought to American life. “In the period of a year, 10,000 pages of law had been created, a figure that one had to compare with the mere 2,735 pages that constituted federal statute law. In twelve months, the NRA had generated more paper than the entire legislative output of the federal government since 1789” (Schlaes, 202). Whoa.
The 32nd President was wildly successful at producing change with his experimentation. In creating change, he played the political game of winning the American people’s perception. How else can one explain that he won four terms as President? People were desperate, and here was a man willing to make drastic changes claiming to remember “the forgotten man.” Schlaes makes a solid point when she writes: “All the changes brought by the New Deal meant that the United States seemed a less reliable place” (336). This makes sense because while FDR is famous for creating temporary government jobs, such as infrastructure building projects, all of these were temporary. And a consequence of temporary work is one doesn’t have time to settle down. This, in turn, created its own instability. “The 1930s came to be known as the always recovering but never recovered decade” (Schlaes, 395).
Nearly a century later, it’s an odd thing to reflect on how things have changed since the 1930s. The America before FDR is very different from the America we know today. Again, I don’t mean that all changes he brought about were bad, though many were. Most notably, the tremendous bloating of the federal government into what it is today. If anything, The Forgotten Man has made me even more grounded in my conservatism. With most media wanting to shove a leftward message down our throats, this book was a breath of fresh air.
Recommend? Oh yes. If you’re at all interested in the time period or topic, it’s a page turner.
Rating? 5 stars.
Ending on a funny note. A contemporary of the time wrote a book of alphabet rhymes about the New Dealers: “T stands for the Taxes we’ll all have to pay” (Schlaes, 277).
If you stayed with me to the end, thank you for coming with me on this journey. Until our next meeting…