The person who's the point person for the wingnuts on the "FDR's actions made the Great Depression worse" meme actually has an op-ed piece in today's Washington Post. (I know you're shocked!)
The former member of the Wall St. Journal's editorial board (a body known for free-market, fantasy-based editorials that openly contradict their reporters' own fact-based stories) is flogging her book on said topic, and says some pretty wacky things about how we should handle the Current Economic Unpleasantness:
What about spending? The Depression tells us that public works are probably less effective than improving the environment for entrepreneurs and new companies. The president has already put forward a big tax cut for lower earners. He might offer a commensurate one for higher earners. He might expand the tax advantages he is currently offering to companies -- wider expensing of losses, for example -- and make them permanent. A discussion that permits the word "trillion" might also include the possibility of bringing down U.S. corporate taxes, taxes on interest, dividend and capital gains -- again, permanently. The cash that a relatively competitive United States draws from abroad will move the country forward faster than any stimulus.
So the Depression and the New Deal are both worth going back to, but for different reasons than many suspect. We may rely on the best of the New Deal, the matter-of-fact bravery our parents and grandparents showed then, to help us through today's unexpected challenges. But we don't have to repeat New Deal stimulus experiments, because we know that they didn't work.
You can read the mandatory rebuttal from Paul "Unlike Right-Wing Hacks, I Actually Won A Nobel Prize for Economics" Krugman here (I know, it's silly and old-fashioned of me to think Krugman might actually know more about the subject matter):
Net stimulus of around 3 percent of GDP — not much, when you’ve got a 42 percent output gap. FDR might have been more of a Keynesian if Keynesian economics had existed — The General Theory wasn’t published until 1936. Note in particular that in 1937-38 FDR was persuaded to do the “responsible” thing and cut back — and that’s what led to the bad year in 1938, which to the WSJ crowd defines the New Deal.
Implications for Obama: be inspired by FDR, but don’t imitate him slavishly. In particular, your economic policy should be bolder, not more cautious.
He also addresses her directly:
When you hear claims that the New Deal made the depression worse, they often come directly or indirectly from the work of Amity Shlaes, whose misleading statistics have been widely disseminated on the right.
(Oh, and he kneecaps her here, too.)
Historian Eric Rauchway:
So on the numbers, the U.S. economy improved briskly during the New Deal. Things that are moving quickly and in the right direction, but still haven't reached their destination after a while, are things that have a long way to go—which is true of the U.S. economy recovering from 1932. Historians disagree on which part of the New Deal most encouraged economic growth, but at the least the New Deal did not prevent this recovery.
Shlaes makes a different argument about numbers, because she uses different numbers. She starts each chapter with a rat-a-tat of just-the-facts, but instead of GDP, which represents the overall economy, she quotes the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which represents the maybe 10 percent of Americans who owned stock. And though she quotes an unemployment number, she doesn't quote the figures I've just mentioned. Instead she chooses different estimates of unemployment that (she acknowledges) show a much larger share of Americans out of work during the New Deal.
If you want to know how the New Deal treated ordinary Americans, this choice really matters. Let's look at a figure Shlaes gives twice in her book and again in her Wall Street Journal editorial: She has unemployment at 20 percent in the 1937-38 recession. That's appalling—almost as bad as 23 percent in 1932. Based on such a statistic, you could think the New Deal wasn't alleviating the Great Depression. But that number hides something: A third of the people Shlaes counts as unemployed had a job that the New Deal gave them through its relief programs.
Now, you may say, wait: Those people really shouldn't count as employed—we're not interested in government make-work, we're interested in the real economy. Fair enough—and if you look again at Historical Statistics of the United States, you'll see another measure of unemployment—private, nonfarm unemployment—measuring the real, industrial economy. And on that measure, unemployment again runs markedly lower under Roosevelt than under Hoover. John Maynard Keynes might have explained that the New Deal wasn't just offering make-work, it was stimulating the economy—and Shlaes in fact at one point says the same: "[I]t functioned as Keynes ... hoped it would." Yet of all the possible ways to measure unemployment, Shlaes chooses the only way that hides the effect of New Deal relief programs and makes it look as though the economy performed as poorly under Roosevelt as under Hoover.
She's equally intellectually rigorous in the rest of her public statements:
The private sector is a better job creator than the public sector. The Internet was not created by executive order — it was private industry.
I mean, come on - that's one's so widely known, most reasonably bright high school students would know that the federal government actually created the basis of what is now known as the internet.
And finally, Ms. Shlaes puffs up her own academic credentials (she doesn't even know the definition of a recession)- because, you know, she's a right-wing hack pushing an agenda, and not someone who's learned to achieve within the academically-rigorous free market of ideas (you know, the one not propped up financially by free-market foundations). I'm not surprised to find out that she's an English major with no formal training in history or economics! I mean, neither do I - but I haven't set myself up as an economic expert, either.
Don't write her off, or ignore the possible impact she may have on the stimulus package. After all, you know how people believe what they see on the teevee, and she's all over the place in our fair-and-balanced media.