Did FDR End the Great Depression?

April 13, 2010 at 09:54 (Economy, History, Politics)

Nope.

‘He got us out of the Great Depression.” That’s probably the most frequent comment made about President Franklin Roosevelt, who died 65 years ago today. Every Democratic president from Truman to Obama has believed it, and each has used FDR’s New Deal as a model for expanding the government.

It’s a myth. FDR did not get us out of the Great Depression—not during the 1930s, and only in a limited sense during World War II.

Let’s start with the New Deal. Its various alphabet-soup agencies—the WPA, AAA, NRA and even the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority)—failed to create sustainable jobs. In May 1939, U.S. unemployment still exceeded 20%. European countries, according to a League of Nations survey, averaged only about 12% in 1938. The New Deal, by forcing taxes up and discouraging entrepreneurs from investing, probably did more harm than good.

What about World War II? We need to understand that the near-full employment during the conflict was temporary. Ten million to 12 million soldiers overseas and another 10 million to 15 million people making tanks, bullets and war materiel do not a lasting recovery make. The country essentially traded temporary jobs for a skyrocketing national debt. Many of those jobs had little or no value after the war.

No one knew this more than FDR himself.

[…]

Roosevelt died before the war ended and before he could implement his New Deal revival. His successor, Harry Truman, in a 16,000 word message on Sept. 6, 1945, urged Congress to enact FDR’s ideas as the best way to achieve full employment after the war.

Congress—both chambers with Democratic majorities—responded by just saying “no.” No to the whole New Deal revival: no federal program for health care, no full-employment act, only limited federal housing, and no increase in minimum wage or Social Security benefits.

Instead, Congress reduced taxes.

[…]

By the late 1940s, a revived economy was generating more annual federal revenue than the U.S. had received during the war years, when tax rates were higher. Price controls from the war were also eliminated by the end of 1946. The U.S. began running budget surpluses.

Congress substituted the tonic of freedom for FDR’s New Deal revival and the American economy recovered well. Unemployment, which had been in double digits throughout the 1930s, was only 3.9% in 1946 and, except for a couple of short recessions, remained in that range for the next decade.

The Great Depression was over, no thanks to FDR. Yet the myth of his New Deal lives on. With the current effort by President Obama to emulate some of FDR’s programs to get us out of the recent deep recession, this myth should be laid to rest.

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