Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hoover days are here again

You won't find any of the latter-day heirs of Herbert Hoover's economic and political philosophy utter the words he himself uttered in one revealing moment of frustration: "The only trouble with capitalism is capitalists. They're too damned greedy."

Hoover in fact also believed in something else we hear precious little of from conservatives today: "social responsibility." Until his failure to deal with the Depression pushed him more and more into self-serving denial, Hoover frequently spoke of the need for the wealthy to bear the burden of taxation as a basic social duty; he favored a "steeply graduated tax on legacies and gifts . . . for the deliberate purpose of disintegrating large fortunes"; he accepted at least in principle the need for some government intervention during economic downturns; he denounced as immoral those who worshiped unrestricted economic freedom, saying "they give no consideration to the fact that property or the power over property can be used to abuse liberty. It can be used to dominate and limit the freedom of others."

What is remarkable about the amnesia of present-day Republican leaders is how they have managed to become a caricature of even the historical caricature of Herbert Hoover. Thus Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, declared the other day that it is the rich who have been "hit the hardest by this recession" and that they must not be made to "foot the bill for the Democrats' two year adventure in expanded government"; thus the Republican mayor of Colorado Springs rejected Federal jobless assistance for his city explaining of those who had lost their houses and jobs, "some people want a homeless life . . . they really do"; thus GOP Senate candidates Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin stated recently that they oppose extending unemployment benefits because (Angle) "extending unemployment . . . really doesn't help anyone" and (Johnson) unemployment insurance only discourages workers from facing up to the fact that they need to "take the work that's available at the wage rates that's available"; and thus we have the conservative chorus-line of denunciations of government public-works and jobs programs as "socialism" and a threat to "liberty" and of the White House's proposal for allowing tax cuts on the wealthiest two percent to expire as "class warfare."

All are pitch-perfect echoes of Hoover's more famous examples of legendary callousness to the suffering of those hit by the Depression. As Hoover became more and more embattled, he became more doctrinaire in insisting on a balanced budget (even though he clearly knew it was the worst prescription in a recession), denounced "raids on the federal treasury" to pay for unemployment relief, attacked FDR in the 1932 campaign as a Russian-style communist and a promoter of "class antagonsisms" and the Democrats as "the party of the mob," and insisted repeatedly that the Depression was over and told reporters "no one is actually starving . . . The hobos, for example, are better fed than they have ever been. One hobo in New York got ten meals in one day." (Years later, in his memoirs, Hoover explained that during the Depression "many persons left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples.")

The only reason present-day Republicans are able to indulge in Herbert Hooveresque talk is because they don't have to bear the consequences of Hebert Hooveresque policies, and they (alas correctly) calculate that historical memory is insufficient for most people to be aware of what happened last time we tried them. It is a kind of political moral hazard: it's easy to take reckless and grandstandingly ideological positions (such as opposing an extension of unemployment benefits, opposing financial regulation, opposing federal aid to the states to avoid laying off teachers and police, opposing deficit spending in a recession) if you know the other party will save you from the actual consequences of those irresponsible positions.

But had the nation experienced — as it did from 1929 to 1932 — three years of suffering at the hands of conservative economic prescriptions, they simply could not get away with it. By 1932 the nation was without a shred of doubt as to what the real consequences were in a recession of limited government, balanced budgets, "states rights," hands-off laissez-faire, and tax policies favoring the rich. Unemployment was approaching 25 percent; hundreds of thousands of children were out of school because localities had no money to pay teachers (though in Chicago teachers worked without pay to keep the schools open) while Hoover sill adamantly blocked direct federal aid to individuals and municipalities (though his Reconstruction Finance Corporation gave large loans to banks); millions of Americans literally fended off starvation by prowling through restuarant refuse bins for rotten scraps of food, or gleaning farm fields for discarded vegetables, or standing for hours waiting for a handout at the inadequate soup kitchens and bread lines. Desperate farmers blocked highways and mobbed foreclosure auctions literally threatening to hang court officials if they tried to go through with the sale. In January 1933 the president of the conservative American Farm Bureau told the Senate Agriculture Committee, "Unless something is done for the American farmer we will have a revolution in the countryside in less than twelve months."

That such radicalization is not abroad in the land in the Bush recession is ironically a product of the very policies Republicans feign to denounce so bitterly. Ironically, the Democrats have done just enough to make the world safe for laissez-faire ideologues, but not enough to command the political loyalties of those who would be the first to suffer if those ideologues ever have the opportunity again to match actions to their words.


For those who would like to refresh their memories about what actually happened the last time we tried out the policies now being espoused by the GOP leadership, I can recommend no better place to start than historian Robert McElvaine's superb book The Great Depression, an exemplary blend of analytical and narrative history that brings the era to life along with clear explanations.