[Editor’s note: Our good friend, awc, elaborating on this comment, sends along the following from the far eastern edge of the American West. Thanks, awc.]
Politico’s recent feature on Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man is an example of one of my pet peeves: the evaluation of economic policy in terms of statistical factors like growth, the stock market, and unemployment rather than systemic qualities like equality. The piece discusses the popularity of the book among D.C. conservatives, briefing mentioning Professors Rauchway and Krugman, who have skillfully defended the efficacy of New Deal recovery policies. When Shlaes responds that she intended the book to question the ethics of the New Deal, not just its utility, Politico simply drops the pretense of debate. They ask neither scholars nor ordinary folks to evaluate her celebration of the poor beleaguered corporation. The result is an article that presumes that New Deal laws can be defended only as spurs to recovery, not as devices for promoting a better society.
This narrowly economic approach is worse than conservative; it’s ahistorical. New Deal staffers cared about raising wages, protecting workers, ending poverty, conservation, recreation, and a hundred other things aside from recovery. They didn’t view themselves as failures when the jobless rate rose. And while Republicans made significant gains in the 1938 elections, the overwhelming majority of Americans still endorsed the Roosevelt administration. Then and now, policy isn’t solely about GDP per capita.
The journalistic focus on utility is also phony. The press is fixating on a technical question, namely the effectiveness of government stimulus. While this discussion is inevitable, the Republican affection for Keynesian tax cuts suggests the real disagreement is moral. Today, historians usually defend the New Deal not just because it helped end the Great Depression, but also because it relieved human misery, promoted social equality, and strengthened the nation for its confrontations with Nazism and then Communism. Shlaes disagrees, and to her credit, she wants to have this argument. But journalists keep pulling the debate back to the unemployment numbers. They’re just looking for a policy that will return us to the status quo ante.