Suddenly, everything old is New Deal again. Reagan is out; FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) is in. Still, how much guidance does the Roosevelt era really offer to today’s world?
The answer is: A lot. But Barack Obama should learn from FDR’s failures as well as from his achievements. The truth is that the New Deal wasn’t as successful in the short run as it was in the long run. And the reason for FDR’s limited short-run success, which almost undid his whole programme, was the fact that his economic policies were too cautious.
About the New Deal’s long-run achievements: The institutions FDR built have proved both durable and essential. Indeed, those institutions remain the bedrock of US’ economic stability. Imagine how much worse the financial crisis would be if the New Deal hadn’t insured most bank deposits. Imagine how insecure older Americans would feel right now if Republicans had managed to dismantle Social Security.
Can Obama achieve something comparable? Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s new chief of staff, has declared that “you don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste”. Progressives hope that the Obama administration, like the New Deal, will respond to the current economic and financial crisis by creating institutions, especially a universal health care system, that will change the shape of American society for generations to come.
But the new administration should try not to emulate a less successful aspect of the New Deal—its inadequate response to the depression itself.
Now, there’s a whole intellectual industry devoted to propagating the idea that FDR actually made the Great Depression worse. So, it’s important to know that most of it is deliberate misrepresentation of the facts. The New Deal did bring relief to most Americans.
That said, FDR did not, in fact, manage to engineer a full economic recovery during his first two terms. This failure is often cited as evidence against Keynesian economics, which says that increased public spending can get a stalled economy moving. But the definitive study of fiscal policy in the 1930s, by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist E. Cary Brown, reached a very different conclusion: Fiscal stimulus was unsuccessful “not because it does not work, but because it was not tried”.
This may seem hard to believe. The New Deal famously placed millions of Americans on the public payroll via the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps. To this day Americans drive on WPA-built roads and send their children to WPA-built schools. Didn’t all these public works amount to a major fiscal stimulus? Well, it wasn’t as major as you might think. The effects of federal public works spending were largely offset by other factors, notably a large tax increase, enacted by Herbert Hoover, whose full effects weren’t felt until his successor took office. Also, expansionary policy at the federal level was undercut by spending cuts and tax increases at the state and local level. And FDR wasn’t just reluctant to pursue an all-out fiscal expansion—he was eager to return to conservative budget principles. That eagerness almost destroyed his legacy. After winning a smashing election victory in 1936, the Roosevelt administration cut spending and raised taxes, precipitating an economic relapse that drove the unemployment rate back into double digits and led to a major defeat in the 1938 mid-term elections.
What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs. This history offers important lessons for the incoming administration.
The political lesson is that economic missteps can quickly undermine an electoral mandate. Democrats won big last week—but they won even bigger in 1936, only to see their gains evaporate after the recession of 1937-38. Americans don’t expect instant economic results from the incoming administration, but they do expect results.
The economic lesson is the importance of doing enough. My advice to the Obama people is to figure out how much help they think the economy needs, then add 50%. It’s much better, in a depressed economy, to err on the side of too much stimulus than on the side of too little.
In short, Obama’s chances of leading a new New Deal depend largely on whether his short-run economic plans are sufficiently bold. Progressives can only hope that he has the necessary audacity.
©2008/The New York Times
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