Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Another Day, Another Republican Historical Myth To Debunk

Lance Mannion points out this annoying Republican historical myth:

That the New Deal was a pointless exercise that did nothing to end the Great Depression and in fact lengthened it.

In one sense, this is not entirely incorrect. The New Deal did not in fact end the Great Depression. But that's as far as truth goes here.

What really happened is this: FDR took office in 1933. He was really a pretty conservative guy. He was very uncomfortable with causing a higher deficit through social programs. But he knew what was necessary to keep the United States a functioning country. The winter of 1933 was the very depths of the Depression. The nation had lost trust in not only the Hoover presidency but in fact the ideas of the Republican Party. Unemployment was at its height. People were traveling around the country unable to find work. Radicalism, of both left and right varieties, was beginning to rise among the millions of discontented. FDR knew that he needed to do whatever was necessary to restore the faith of the nation in American democracy. So he established programs like the CCC to get young men to work (and if you want to stop revolutionary activity, the best way to do it is to get young men off the streets and working), the WPA to build public works projects that showed what government could to help provide infrastructure to people while also employing lots of them, and TVA to bring the poorest part of the nation out of poverty. FDR managed to accomplish all of these goals. Despite right-wing demagogues like Father Coughlin he managed to hold off radicalism at a time when Europe could not. He stabilized unemployment which slowly improved. The faith of Americans in their government was restored.

Here's the thing: the New Deal did not end the Great Depression because it was a bunch of useless government programs as right-wingers like to claim. It did not end the Great Depression because it was far too small to do so. As I mentioned earlier, FDR was uncomfortable with massive government expenditures. In 1937, he thought the economy was on enough of the right track to cut back government spending. Upon doing so, the nation instantly plunged back toward the depths of the winter of 33 until FDR got the money flowing again. This should be the ultimate rebuttal to any Republican claims that the New Deal did not help ease the Depression--once the government money stopped, the economy collapsed!

Conservatives also like to say that World War II is what actually ended the Depression. And they are correct about this. But they don't make the obvious connections as to why. WWII ended the Depression because the government spent the kind of money necessary to put all of America back to work. As Lance points out, this if anything proves that the conservative analysis of the New Deal is entirely wrongheaded. If the New Deal failed it was because it had limited aims rather than because it expanded the govenrment. Is this definitive proof that government spending will always help the economy expand? Well, no but it does prove that it does do so at least sometimes. And that's a whole lot more evidence than conservatives have about their economic programs working.