I’m taking the occasion of my little jaunt back home from the land of the Picts and Celts to catch up on my reading. As such, my focus is on study and writing, not so much on commenting. I will be away from the Internet for long periods of time and that is not a formula that is conducive to good back and forth discussion in the comment threads. I’m not deserting my positions or in fear of debating them, just not able to commit quality time to point by point conversations about them.
I rarely have time to finish a book in one sitting (or even get through it in a week or so) but I have been able on the plane over and through yesterday to finish a book that I started when it originally came out in 2007, Amity Schlaes revisit of the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man.
The title is not homage to the FDR terminology of “the forgotten man” of his famous speech of April 7, 1932. For FDR, the term was a PR and branding exercise as he looked for a memorable turn of phrase to describe the poor men who needed money and were not getting it, with the ultimate goal of promoting his New Deal programs and policies.
Schlaes’ use of the term more closely mirrors that of the Yale professor, William Graham Sumner. Sumner was a liberal in the classical sense, an unabashed supporter of the free markets and an ardent foe of the socialistic impulses that were becoming so avant garde during his time. Sumner had a different meaning of the forgotten man. His algebraic definition of the forgotten man was “c”, who is coerced into helping the man at the economic bottom “x”, by “a” and “b” who demand charity for “x”. In his The Forgotten Man and Other Essays, he explains:
As soon as A observes something which seems to him wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X, or, in better case, what A, B, and C shall do for X… What I want to do is to look up C… I call him the forgotten man… He is the man who never is thought of. He is the victim of the reformer, the social speculator, and philanthropist, and I hope to show you before I get through that he deserves your notice both for his character and for the many burdens which are laid upon him.
Schlaes’ account is not an academic tome. Writing in a review of the book in September of 2007, a favorite of mine, James Piereson, notes:
…she tells the story of the Great Depression and the New Deal through the experiences of some of the more influential figures of the period—Roosevelt men like David Lilienthal, Rexford Tugwell, Henry Morgenthau, Felix Frankfurter, and Harold Ickes; businessmen and bankers like Andrew Mellon, Samuel Insull, and Wendell Willkie—and of genuinely “forgotten men” like the Schechter family of Brooklyn, small-businessmen who ran afoul of FDR’s regulatory ambitions.
What emerges from these stories is a New Deal that was more experimental in its policies, more hostile to business, more vindictive toward its foes, and far less successful in reviving the economy than previous writers have acknowledged. The sluggish economic response to New Deal policies, Shlaes suggests, was due partly to Roosevelt’s need to bait businessmen and bankers for their supposed role in bringing about the crisis. They were “economic royalists” who had hoarded profits, exploited workers, fixed prices, and grown rich by speculation. FDR even egged on Morgenthau, his Treasury Secretary, to initiate tax-evasion cases against Mellon and Thomas Lamont (the head of J.P. Morgan), going so far as to urge prosecution for their having taken deductions that were perfectly legal when their tax returns were filed.
What was actually surprising to me was how little we have changed. Our political battles are exactly the same today as they were 80 years ago. Perhaps we “Lockeians” will always be at war with the “Hobbesians” of the world, locked (no pun intended!) in mortal combat. As it was in 1927, there are still forces that believe that for man to truly experience freedom, his existence must be planned into productivity and controlled behaviorally. Of course, this is the very essence of cognitive dissonance. It is also totally antithetical to the beliefs of both John Locke and our Founders. Since the late 1800’s, it seems that we are forced by this battle into alternating 20-30 year cycles of dipping our toes into Marxism and then spending the next cycle unwinding the damage that those forays do.
Then, just as today, the “progressives” were seemingly so enamored with the Marxist approach to economics and society that they simply could not acknowledge the damage that a Marxist state must vest on its people to make it “work”. Roger Nash Baldwin, the founder of the ACLU, was part of a junket of very influential men who travelled to Russia in 1927 to experience the glory of the Marxist revolution. Ninety-five people paid the princely sum of $1,000 to take part and all were associated with liberal causes and ideas. These individuals would come to significantly influence American policy and politicians and along with Baldwin, included people like Stuart Chase, Rexford Tugwell, John Brophy and Paul Howard Douglas.
Perhaps unintentionally ironic, Baldwin wrote this in support of the “successes” that he saw:
Everybody is poor together. There is much discontent, much regulation of life, but not much terrorism or repression except of the old upper classes.
Shared misery. I doubt that a less ideological observer would have seen “being poor together” as harbinger of success – but that really isn’t the objective of a “progressive”. Baldwin is actually expressing joy in the fact that there are no individual successes and those who had power and affluence was now being persecuted. That theme carried forward in an encounter between Douglas and Communist activist, Betty Glan, as Douglas was speaking at Russian collectivist factory:
Then he launched a counterattack, repeating an ugly story he had heard about the factory. “But what about yourselves? Two months ago a group of bank clerks were arrested at two o’clock in the morning; they were tried at four o’clock and executed at six. Where was their right to assemble witnesses, to engage counsel, to argue their case, and, if convicted, to appeal?
…what Douglas would remember for decades was a young woman who approached him with a countering argument. “You talked only about individual justice. This is a bourgeois idea.”
Seems that Holder’s DOJ holds the same view.
In the early 1900’s they marveled at the “efficiency” of the post Bolshevik Russian state even as journalists like Walter Duranty of the New York Times hid the ravages and savagery required to concoct these “successes”. Duranty reported fallacious “successes” even as Russia starved 6 million Ukrainians to death, forced collectivization of agriculture, nationalization of industry and actively engaged in persecution of individuals in the free exercise of their rights – can’t happen in America, you say?
It already has and Obama’s regime has eerie parallels to the proto-Marxist actions of the FDR administration.
Schlaes relates perhaps the most significant example of a government bent on denying individual rights in the pursuit of the good of the collective. It gets little publicity these days but that would be the unconstitutional behavior of FDR and his administration that culminated in the 1935 Supreme Court case of Schechter Poultry Corporation v. United States.
Schechter is summarized here at the PBS website that is unsurprisingly sympathetic to FDR but still accurate:
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt worked with the Democratic Congress to enact several sweeping economic reform bills, known as the New Deal. In 1935, in A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a central piece of this New Deal legislation. In reviewing the conviction of a poultry company for breaking the Live Poultry Code, the Court held that the code violated the Constitution’s separation of powers because it was written by agents of the president with no genuine congressional direction. The Court also held that much of the code exceeded the powers of Congress because the activities it policed were beyond what Congress could constitutionally regulate.
Schechter Poultry’s sweeping interpretations of legislative power had devastating effects on President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the 1930s. The centerpiece of the New Deal legislation, the NIRA, was essentially declared unconstitutional. Ultimately, President Roosevelt responded by proposing a “court packing” scheme in 1937, allowing a new Supreme Court justice to be appointed for every current sitting justice over the age of 70. The scheme was designed to help tip the Court’s ideological balance to Roosevelt’s side. It failed in Congress and never became law. By the late 1930s, however, the Supreme Court began reading Congress’s powers under the Commerce Clause more broadly. Indeed, by the 1960s, the Court held that congressional statutes outlawing racial segregation in local businesses were constitutional under the Commerce Clause.
“…sweeping interpretations of legislative power” – hardly. The court was not making sweeping interpretations; rather it was reining in a central government that assumed that there was nothing out of its control due to their active corruption of the Commerce Clause.
It is the same today – you may well see Schechter come up in the pending ruling by the SCOTUS on Obamacare due to this:
…the Court found Schechter’s activities had nothing to do with interstate commerce. Schechter bought poultry from out of state, but its offending conduct was confined to New York State. The activities of Schechter thus fell outside congressional power because they constituted intrastate (in-state) commerce. Additionally, some provisions of the poultry code were found unconstitutional on their face. The effect of a butcher’s hours and wage practices on interstate commerce, for example, was found far too “indirect” to be within the congressional powers to regulate under the Commerce Clause.
Obamacare would seem to fit this description well.
While not being a grinding analytical look at the Great Depression (and thankfully it is not), Schlaes book is probably a better and a far more relevant read today than it was in 2007. It does remind us that old Marxists never die, they just get re-branded (as liberals, “progressives”, labor, etc.). Due to the striking historical parallels it draws, it is instructive to see that they are being replayed right before our eyes. I strongly recommend that you download The Forgotten Man to your Nook or Kindle – or even go old school and actually get the dead tree edition.