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Top 7 Books for Barack Obama’s Remedial Reading List — Because a Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Posted on March 16 2011 6:00 am

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7. The Forgotten Man — Amity Shlaes

Your fondness for the New Deal as the paragon of successful government intervention is a matter of public record. In fact, in your very first press conference you expressed something approaching amused contempt for anyone who would doubt such a thing:

There are several who’ve suggested FDR was wrong to intervene in the New Deal. They’re fighting battles I thought were resolved a pretty long time ago.

If the approach sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same kind of peremptory dismissal others of your ilk have been using for years in defense of global warming. Substitute “settled history” for “settled science” and you pretty much arrive at the same place.

The thing is, outside the progressive echo-chamber it isn’t settled, and all the repetition and eye-rolling in the world won’t make it so.

Consider this opening passage from Amity Shlaes’ marvelous The Forgotten Man.

ONE NOVEMBER EVENING LONG AGO in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a thirteen-year-old named William Troeller hanged himself from the transom in his bedroom. The boy had watched his family slide into an increasingly desperate situation. The gas for their five-room apartment on Driggs Avenue had been shut off since April. His father, Harold, had lost his job at Brooklyn Edison after suffering a “rupture”—a worker’s hernia, probably. … Harold told a newspaper reporter that his brother “was sensitive and always felt embarrassed” about asking for his share at mealtime. … “He Was Reluctant about Asking for Food,” read the headline in the New York Times. New York that year had a Dickensian feel—an un-American feel.


The story sounds familiar. It is something like the descriptions we hear of the Great Crash of 1929. But in fact these events took place in the autumn of 1937. This was a depression within the Depression. It was occurring five years after Franklin Roosevelt was first elected, and four and a half years after Roosevelt introduced the New Deal. It was taking place eight years after President Herbert Hoover first made his own rescue plans following the 1929 stock market crash. Washington had already made thousands of efforts to help the economy, yet those efforts had not brought prosperity.

Unlike the stories you like to recount in support of one social engineering boondoggle or another this one is understated, accurate and verifiable. It also isn’t the main argument,  which in this case extends another 500 heavily footnoted pages. With extensive use of statistics and original sources Shlaes builds a compelling case that the New Deal was a disastrous exercise in central planning driven more by tinkering and trial-and-error — mostly error — than anything else. Originating in all but name with Hoover, not Roosevelt, the New Deal prolonged what should have been one more cyclical depression into the Great Depression.

The term “The Forgotten Man” which FDR appropriated for his own purposes actually originated with William Graham Sumner and had a decidedly different meaning than the one imposed upon it later:

As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine that C shall do for X, or in the better case, what A, B and C shall do for X … What I want to do is look up C. I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the Forgotten Man. Perhaps the appellation is not strictly correct. He is the man who never is thought of …

He works, he votes, generally he prays–but he always pays …

— William Graham Sumner, Yale University, 1883

Inasmuch as you seem determined to take us there again, you might want to give this a read, with particular attention to the “votes” part of that above quote.

Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, Trade Paperback Edition. (Harper Perennial, 2008). 

Next: If the New Deal was such a bad idea, why was it such a bad idea? Let’s dig into some ECONOMICS!

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