Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Create Modern America, by Adam Cohen

This week I'm reviewing Nothing to Fear by Adam Cohen, a book which I listened to and talks about Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Hundred Days, the first three months after FDR took office as president in March of 1933 where Roosevelt, with the cooperation of a staff of academics and Congress, managed to hammer out about a dozen pieces of legislation which would launch Roosevelt's New Deal. People today may look back on the flurry of activity encapsulated in the New Deal, especially the amount of bipartisan support it managed to garner, when Congress feels more deadlocked than ever.

However, you have to put the Hundred Days and the New Deal into the proper context of the Great Depression and really understand how close the country was to falling apart. Cohen does this excellently in his book and makes the reader understand the urgency of 1933 that something, anything had to be done. However, Cohen also does an excellent job of showing how the New Deal wasn't all FDR's idea, although he gets a large amount of credit for it today. In fact it was Roosevelt's Brain Trust advisors, such as Frances Perkins, Henry Wallace, Raymond Moley, and Harry Hopkins who developed and promoted many of the key ideas of the New Deal. And Roosevelt was not always an ardent supporter of the New Deal. Roosevelt ran on a platform of balancing the federal budget and, along with his budget manager Lewis Douglas, was hesitant to undertake the massive deficit spending the New Deal required. In fact the Roosevelt Recession of 1937 is largely attributed to FDR's attempts to balance the budget. Cohen provides a cohesive picture which goes to great lengths exploring the people who crafted the New Deal and its policies.

The thing that is most important in this book is that Cohen goes into great detail explaining just how bad things were in the Great Depression, especially going into 1933. Things were pretty bad during the Great Recession which we're still gradually working our way out of, but that's absolutely nothing compared to the Great Depression. We're talking unemployment at 25%. (FYI Unemployment peaked at 10% in the Recession) Hoovervilles, shantytowns where the homeless would congregate, sprang up in public parks all across the country. People would go digging through garbage dumps to find food that had been thrown out that was still remotely consumable. People's life savings, often less than $400, had been loaned out to stock market speculators and had vanished when markets collapsed in October of 1929. Banks were failing, industries were closing, farms foreclosures skyrocketed, and the country was in very real danger of falling apart. Something had to be done, and people called out to the Federal Government to do something.

And Herbert Hoover, who'd been elected in 1928, stood by and did nothing. This is the the lesson I want people to take away from this more than anything else. Hoover believed that government welfare programs were morally wrong because it would make people dependent on government and remove any incentive to work. Hoover also believed, and continued stating in the face of all evidence, that the Depression was merely a minor setback and the market would naturally correct itself in time. Hoover got so wrapped up in his small-government laissez faire ideology that he would have let the country burn before lifting a finger to help. Hoover's half-hearted attempts at ''rescuing'' the nation were simply insufficient and would have been too little too late. The reason Roosevelt won with a landslide electoral victory is because the prospect of doing something was better than the continued inaction of Hoover.

The Great Depression was a time of desperation and brought about the political courage, from all sorts of people, to try something. Roosevelt may have been hesitant to undertake the massive debt necessary to save the country, but he understood that regardless of what he ended up doing, inaction would be worst of all. With an unprecedented crisis Roosevelt drew upon some of the finest minds in the United States and tried a variety of projects, such as the National Recovery Administration, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Some projects were great successes, some were great failures, but the important thing was there was a willingness to try anything, keep whatever was working, and admit what wasn't and move on.

This isn't to say that Roosevelt and his administration were perfect, as much as I admire them. In an early attempt to keep the federal budget balanced, Douglas made massive cuts into benefits for veterans of the Spanish-American War and the Great War, which launched not inconsiderable backlash from veterans groups. Roosevelt's banking legislation was widely criticized as benefitting banks as institutions over depositors, and the National Industrial Recovery Act benefitted industry more than labor. There were some mistakes and poor decisions made, and Cohen does an equally good job of showing the darker and unfortunate side of the New Deal, including the legacy of farm subsidies which hve long outlived their usefulness in the era of big agribusiness.

Nonetheless, I think everyone should read this book because people have forgotten just how bad things were in the Great Depression, a calamity not brought about by war or natural disaster, but simple economic forces. And as hard as things were during the Great Recession, they were nowhere as bad as they could have been thanks to safety nets created by the New Deal and its successor, the Great Society of Lyndon B. Johnson. I highly recommend reading this book to understand why America needs its social spending to create a healthy and robust society.

- Kalpar

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