Saturday, March 26, 2011

New Deal or Raw Deal by Burton Folsom, Jr.-a book report

The author is a professor of history at Hillsdale College. He is a highly respected historian. I was given a copy of this book and another entitled “The New Deal” which includes thoughts of eight authors including Professor Folsom.
The occasion was a visit to Tucson by Mrs. Ellen Donovan, the Executive Director of the Founders Campaign. I have been receiving the monthly copies of Hillsdale’s publication Imprimus since the mid 70’s. I was recovering from pneumonia at the time and a friend gave me a copy to read and enrolled my name on the mailing list. I enjoyed reading it and the hundreds of copies since. I was also invited to attend a two day seminar last year in Tucson. I admire the college’s commitment to excellence and in particular adhering to the principles as outlined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. All students are required to take a course with this as the subject. To maintain integrity the college refuses all funds from the Federal Government. It is able to do so thru the contributions of like minded supporters. During our breakfast session I enjoyed our conversation. It was a good give and take. I was able to present my ideas and in fact gave Mrs. Donovan a copy of my latest book “Still Angry”. She later wrote that she enjoyed reading. Feeling full of myself I later mailed her copies of my first two books. I also took the occasion to continue contributing financially.
Realizing that Mr. Folsom’s book would be negative, I expressed that I would read them, but knew I would not enjoy it as FDR was my boyhood hero. I was 13 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He was our trusted leader. We had full confidence that under his leadership that we as a nation would prevail over our enemies. The record shows that this was true. I was too young to have knowledge of the “New Deal”, but remember chills would run up and down my spine as I listened to his “Fireside Chats”. His charisma and enthusiasm calmed the nation and galvanized all of us to work together in our common cause. Except for the too few years of John F. Kennedy’s presidency no other President has been able to create solidarity as did FDR. I even exclude President Reagan. He was a good leader but he did not create the same unity of purpose of Americans.
This book only briefly covered WWII. It was mostly about the 30’s starting with President Hoover and then FDR. It chronicles many programs which were not as effective as they should have been. I will not argue with the facts as presented. The conversations reported undoubtedly took place and the failure of some of his programs did occur.
In stating my comments I want to start by suggesting that Professor Folsom is younger than I and therefore whatever information he possessed to publish this book was garnered from other sources. It is immediately evident that for whatever reason he started this project with an intense dislike of FDR. He starts by pointing out that he came from a wealthy family, was an average student or athlete. FDR’s passion it seems was politics which started at an early age. The author makes the point that FDR was a liar and had a mistress and therefore unworthy of the office of President. My response is that FDR liked to use stories of made up people to drive home a point similar, if I may be so bold, as Jesus Christ did with his parables. Those were not true stories, they were meant to drive home a message. As to the mistress, I will not fill up these pages by listing the many other Presidents who transgressed in a similar vain. My position on this subject is that we are all earthly creatures with needs and wants that need to be fulfilled one way or another. In FDR’s situation his marriage was for convenience, not love, at least not of a physical kind. I judge a person, not by indiscretions, but by deeds. The ultimate answer rests on whether the world was a better place because of that person’s effort. In my opinion FDR certainly qualifies.
When he took office America was in a deep depression partly as a result of the extravagant policies of president Hoover. Of particular concern were the extremely high tariffs enacted the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. The direct result was retaliation from the other major countries. FDR campaigned against it. The author’s dissatisfaction with FDR was the length of time he took to lower tariffs. He tried a country by country approach which while effective was not done as quickly as it perhaps should have been.
There is a chapter of the favorable response from the news media as if they were not doing their job of assessing him critically enough. He mentions that they did not photograph him as the cripple he was nor did they expose his love affair. FDR believed he needed to be seen as a strong leader not one crippled from polio. My reaction to this is that there were unwritten rules of conduct in those days and respect. I find that far more preferable than today when every aspect of a leader’s life is exposed causing concern to citizens when they should only be concerned with leadership or lack thereof. I did not like reading that the Administration used licensing of air ways to reward or punish radio stations depending on their support or lack thereof. I was also disturbed that the various agencies such as WPA determined the disbursement of funds for political advantage. I know he wasn’t the first or the last to use his position to garner political support. The author admits this but justifies his criticism that FDR had more options than previous administrations. Politics is not pretty. All thru our history parties and politicians have taken every advantage to improve their chances. Gerrymandering voting districts is one example. To this day it is par for the course. It is the voter’s responsibility to understand and sort thru the rhetoric as they make their decisions.
Farm subsidies are listed as misguided. He does admit that support for agriculture started with Hoover. I think he should write a book about this subject alone and how it has continued for 70 years since FDR increasing year by year. What FDR was trying to do was spare the family farmer from the vagaries of adverse weather and market deviations. By setting support levels he hoped to aid them. My own grandfather was a successful dairy farmer who lost his farm when the banks collapsed and lived the rest of his days in poverty in a tarpaper shack. Today’s subsidies go mainly to the super rich like Ted Turner who owns hundreds of thousands of acres in New Mexico. Farm families can no longer compete with the mega farms. I have written many times that aid should be restricted to the family farm but the beat goes on regardless of which party is in control. One of FDR’s real successes was bringing electricity to the farms. It was not economically possible without government assistance.
I was particularly upset with his attack on Social Security. He points out that early on people who had only paid a short while received multiple windfalls. Ida Fuller paid in $24.75 and received over her lifetime $22,888.92. He is outraged. I say wonderful. This woman was given the opportunity to live out her years in dignity. When my father died he took his pension with him. My mothers’ only source of income was $350/month from Social Security. My sister and I aided as best we could but both of us had three children to raise making it difficult. Before Social Security old people had nothing of their own. Could it have been better designed, probably, but regardless it fills a need even today. The fact that it is in trouble is not FDR’s fault, it is every Administration and Congress since his time to make necessary corrections to keep it solvent. FDR also wanted health care for all. He didn’t accomplish it. The Obama solution is an abomination in my humble opinion.
I agree with the general proposition that lower tax rates are good for the economy. It leaves funds available for individuals to spend on other than basic needs and it provides funds for industry to purchase equipment to improve their profitability. Lowering business taxes also improves the situation in regard to foreign competition. During the war FDR tried to get Congress to tax all personal income over $25,000 at 100%. The Congress balked but did set it at 90%. $25,000 was a lot of money back then. FDR did not believe it was right to profit extravagantly while 12 million men were in uniform putting their lives on the line. Contrast that with today when CEO’s and other top officers of companies rake in millions every year while our boys are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is what I call outrageous.
To prove his case that the New Deal was a failure he compares published unemployment statistics. The US was still at 19.8% in 1938. Guess what, Germany was at 2.1%. Looks like we would have been better off if we had started re-arming as Germany did.
FDR did not believe in relief without work except where absolutely necessary. That is why he promoted the WPA, CCC and other programs with the idea of providing useful work for those unemployed. I have hiked on trails and slept in shelters built at that time. Contrast that to today where millions have been receiving unemployment benefits of $300 or more per week to stay home. This is a continues program that is extended over and over to keep the funds flowing to people in their prime working years who could be contributing to our nation’s well-being.
He didn’t mention it but one of the greatest programs FDR got approved was the GI Bill of Rights. It enabled millions of veterans including myself to receive education to expand our opportunities. Together we transformed America.
In summation it comes down to this, within the framework of our Constitution, is it the responsibility of the Federal Government to take steps to correct problems or should it just sit by and let the markets run their course without stepping in to protect citizens? Just wait for the next war opportunity to do their thing. I say no. I also say that the government since Roosevelt has gone far overboard in asserting their authority such as Obama using the Commerce Clause to force citizens to purchase health insurance. It is now heading to the Supreme Court. Should they not find it un-constitutional then our great experiment in government will be over. The Dept of Energy was created in 1977 by President Carter to assure our independence in the field of energy. I understand it costs billions each year. You must know how successful that has been.
As I stated at the outset I knew I would be unhappy reading these books. It took awhile to accomplish as it was demoralizing to me. Roosevelt was my boyhood hero and even after reading these books I still feel the same. His philosophy was the same as mine during my leadership years. If there is a problem, gather together the best minds you can and brainstorm. When the best thought of solution is agreed to, assign it to staff with the knowledge and skill to enact. Should it not be the solution, then try again.
Did he make mistakes, certainly, as did I, but he kept searching for solutions? That is why the American people embraced him. He did his best. He was frustrated with the Supreme Court which kept him from enacting some of his programs which is why he foolishly tried to pack the Court. He lost a lot of support at that time. I will not condemn him for trying. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were our greatest presidents. John Fitzgerald Kennedy could have been the third but he was cut down before he could reach that level. All of them had personal problems but putting that aside they all strove for a better America and that is how I rate our leaders.

Jack B. Walters

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