In a 1932 speech, Franklin Roosevelt spoke about the people the New Deal was supposed to help: “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”
The term became as inextricably linked to the Great Depression as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”. The 1933 movie, Gold Diggers of 1933 further cemented this definition, with Joan Blondell leading the big number, “Remember My Forgotten Man.” Her man is the forgotten World War I veteran, the struggling farmer. The images make their point: soldiers march triumphantly in a parade that turns into a march through a driving rainstorm, then the men as civilians, in a never-ending line at a soup kitchen (and if you’re wondering if this seems a bit serious for a musical called with the words “gold diggers” in the title, don’t worry—another number features Ginger Rogers singing “We’re in the Money” in pig latin). The plot of the 1936 comedy My Man Godfrey is set into motion when Carole Lombard’s character, a flighty heiress, has to find a “forgotten man” for a scavenger hunt at a society party (she finds William Powell at a city dump, which is an unconscionable piece of luck—oh wait, it’s a movie, no wonder). The forgotten man as the down and out veteran, living in a tent, standing in bread lines, has become a standard piece of Depression era iconography.
In the opening pages of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, though, author Amity Shlaes tries to set the record straight on the true meaning of the phrase. A 19th century Yale philosophy professor named William Graham Sumner actually coined the term “forgotten man” in a lecture that became the basis for an essay. However, he didn’t mean the poor and downtrodden; rather, Sumner meant the working, responsible people who give up something—money paid as taxes that supported social programs, laws that made it harder for a business to be profitable—in order to support the shiftless and/or helpless. The forgotten man was, as described later in the book, the “hidden taxpayer, average citizen—not someone who received, rather someone who paid in.”
I almost hesitate to write anything about this book. I have some enormous, staggering, embarrassing holes in my education and one of them is economics. I plead guilty to having never taken an economics class in my life, which is a shame because I do know that at my college there were several econ classes that people just raved about, but I somehow missed because I was busy taking other things, which may or may not have been useless. (Note: I also know nothing about art history. look, at my college, art history wasn’t a class, it was a cult, and I wasn’t willing to spend a whole year sucking up to some of the most irritating professors on campus just to be conversant in the art of artists who I know better from Browning poems. I figured I’d catch up sometime. Haven’t yet. Sorry!)
I mention this because I feel like my lack of knowledge in this field makes it very hard for me to judge this book. Now it’s not like this book is written for economic policy experts—I’m sure that Shlaes was aiming it for the popular history reader. I just may be too dimwitted and distrusting of my own ability to sort out things that I don’t think about on a regular basis to be sure I’m getting everything as much as I would like to. When I read that doing x leads to y, I don’t know or understand why. How come the result isn’t z? What makes it y? I can't answer these questions and often feel unsure.
So keep all that in mind if you read on (and if you do, you are far too optimistic and probably deserve some kind of present). I am going to try to stick to what I know, but I still fear that I might write something stupid. Okay, I write stupid things all the time, but there’s a difference between a stupid opinion and completely misinterpreting something. And the latter is a distinct possibility.
Then off we go:
I don’t think there’s anyone that would say that the New Deal was 100% successful. The question, though, is whether it did more harm than good. Shlaes’ seems to be saying that the New Deal didn’t end the Depression, but in fact extended it because the government overstepped its bounds and interfered with what should have been private enterprise.
I’m not going to get into details because I’m worried I’d get them wrong. And I may get what I’m about to say specifically wrong. I think what Shlaes is proposing is that the Depression could have been only three years of utter, bitter misery without the New Deal programs and then the country would have been on the road to prosperity, not mired in “recovery.” The New Deal, on the other hand, kept the nation on a treadmill of recovery and stifled prosperity. This probably makes sense on paper in a business environment. But I think if you told people that they had a choice of three years of utter misery, with the possibility—at least for some—of achieving more prosperity than they had before the Depression, or they could have 6 years of a milder misery, with perhaps less profitability at the end, many people would take the latter.
I feel like there’s a lot of that type of thing in this book—ideas that work and are beneficial in business but maybe aren’t what people want in their day to day lives. A great deal of time is spent throughout the book on the Tennessee Valley Authority and how that put utilities into the hands of the federal government and took the away from the federal government. Leaving electricity to private businesses makes sense in terms of competition and all the benefits that can bring, but would the private businesses have been motivated to bring power to the poor and underserved places? Getting electricity to these areas was an important step in improving the standard of living for people. Just think how today efforts to help undeveloped countries are often frustrated by the fact that they don’t have consistent and reliable electricity sources.
In another section, Shlaes quotes someone’s complaint about the New Deal economy, that the nation isn’t creating real jobs, just “make work jobs,” referring to the jobs from the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration. There certainly were make work jobs and while that may seem silly in some ways, to perhaps an accountant or CFO, they still were important to the people who had them. Dad is a bit young for the Depression, but he knew and worked with many people who had been through it. When I asked about this, he said that yes, people realized they were doing busy work in some places, but it meant everything in the world to them; it gave them hope and a belief that maybe things were going to get better, and I think people need that.
(I realize that throughout this I must sound hopelessly naïve.)
Another thing that makes me uneasy about this book is that a large part of Shlaes’ argument relies on many “if only they hads…” that is, "if only they had done whatever, there would have been almost no Depression." The problem with if-only-they-hads, though, is that they make the assumption that everything is executed perfectly and people behave in a specific way. But things never go as planned and people don’t always—okay, don’t often—behave in sensible predictable ways. For example, she writes about how heavily taxing the wealthy business owners was counterproductive because if those people had been able to keep more of their money, they would have re-invested it in their businesses, spent more on consumer goods, been more innovative and that would have been good for the overall economy. Again, this all makes sense on paper. But those business owners could also have invested in stupid ideas that didn’t work and cost people money, or just given it all to spendthrift children, or blown their extra money on castles in Europe. Obviously not every single business person would have done this, but my points is just that the theory is based on the premise that people are going to act wisely, rationally, and beneficently, and you just can’t say that.
I’m also troubled by the fact that I constantly felt like I was getting only one part of the story. The book gives portraits of Andrew Mellon, Samuel Insull, Hoover, FDR, various cabinet members, and Wendell Wilkie (Shlaes’ seeming favorite). But it almost never deals with what average people were thinking during this time. It goes through the whole battle between Wilkie and the TVA, but we never hear from any of the people who were living in that area thought, and what they wanted. We don’t hear from the people who had the make-work jobs from the PWA or WPA. I don’t think that was part of the concept of the book, dealing with the ordinary pawns, as opposed to the players in the game; this is a book about what went wrong from an economic/business point of view. But I miss those alternate voices nonetheless.
There were other things that bothered me about this book, but again, that might have been just me. I never would tell people not to read it, and am sure others might be quite fine with it; in fact, I would recommend it from a "judge for yourself" pov. I just feel that for a book subtitled, “A New History of the Great Depression,” I got only a small piece of a history, and I'm not sure if what's there is there because it fits a certain theory. And I can’t judge that theory without knowing more (and the not knowing more is again, my fault as well).
The point of Shlaes' book is to reclaim the Depression from the familiar story of the poorest of the poor and give it to the people who suffered the burden of supporting them. That may have been the intention, and if you look hard you can find that—it’s linked to the struggles of big business and the problems the New Deal caused them, but the book focuses almost exclusively on the business titans, not the responsible middle-class and working poor, "the hidden taxpayer, the average citizen." We don’t hear from them enough. The forgotten man is, again, forgotten.