Sunday, November 30, 2008

If His Lips Are Moving, George Will Must Be Lying

In the movies, zombies can only be killed by shooting them in the head, or cutting their heads off. You can destroy their bodies, remove limbs, etc., but as long as the head is intact, it still poses a danger. In the world in which we live, political-historical lies continue to live even after they have been definitively disproved. The reason is simple. There are enough people willing to hear these lies and consider them as possible that they keep the waters muddied.

Such is George Will's column today.
Early in what became the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes was asked if anything similar had ever happened. "Yes," he replied, "it was called the Dark Ages, and it lasted 400 years." It did take 25 years, until November 1954, for the Dow to return to the peak it reached in September 1929. So caution is sensible concerning calls for a new New Deal.

The assumption is that the New Deal vanquished the Depression. Intelligent, informed people differ about why the Depression lasted so long. But people whose recipe for recovery today is another New Deal should remember that America's biggest industrial collapse occurred in 1937, eight years after the 1929 stock market crash and nearly five years into the New Deal. In 1939, after a decade of frantic federal spending -- President Herbert Hoover increased it more than 50 percent between 1929 and the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt -- unemployment was 17.2 percent.

"I say after eight years of this administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started," lamented Henry Morgenthau, FDR's Treasury secretary. Unemployment declined when America began selling materials to nations engaged in a war America would soon join.

It's all here in this long quote. The invocation of the "Roosevelt Recession", a reliance on the Dow as a measure of economic health, mentioning President Hoover as the real father of the New Deal, and the rise of employment during Lend-Lease and the build-up to war.

Except, of course, these are "facts" that are stitched together not by the slender threads of insight and keen analysis, but the heavy hemp rope that's only good for keeping a ship tied to a dock. In other words, Will is citing facts, but he is putting them together the way Frankenstein built his creature. As such, it is not a revived human being, but something monstrous.

Two weeks ago, Will tried to use this same right-wing "historical interpretation" on Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman (not a good idea, George; you both might have Ph.D.s, and Krugman may teach at your alma mater, but he has the Nobel, and you have an op-ed column in the Post, so there is a difference between you), and Krugman schooled him on the way real history, especially real economic history works (the important part comes at the end).

While it is true that it took World War II to lift the US out of the Depression, it is also true, as even conservative historian David Kennedy has written in his massive history of the times, Freedom From Fear, that Roosevelt was essentially a very conservative politician. He disliked the deficit spending he was forced by circumstances to adopt. He preferred the higher taxes, especially the way his tax plan progressed, and limited approach to federal welfare through public works, but also knew that circumstsances did not allow it. His problem, as Krugman notes in the linked video clip and Kennedy explains in detail in his book, was that he took too much heart from the way the economy was improving through the first year and a half of his second term. While unemployment decreased, investment started to tick upward, and banks seemed stable, the underlying structural impediments and deficiencies of the system had yet to be fully rooted out. Another part of the problem, which Kennedy does address and Krugman did not (a TV appearance would hardly be a place to do so) was the stupid Smoot-Hawley tariff, which placed such high tariffs on imports that it, for all practical purposes, shut down our foreign trade. This was made worse by the rising tide of Japanese imperialism in the Pacific, where the Japanese navy, rather than the Royal Navy of Great Britain, controlled the sea lanes. Nervous about antagonizing the Japanese, trade across the Pacific was curtailed, except to the Japanese themselves, who continued to buy our scrap steel to build its war machine.

In other words, a combination of political timidity and historical circumstances were as much a part of the lengthening of the Great Depression as anything. It certainly was not the fault of the New Deal that the Depression lasted as long as it did; nor did the New Deal "fail" to end the Depression, since that was never the plan in the first place. Will is just repeating nonsensical lies that only anti-historical conservatives love to repeat in order to discredit Democratic policies.

It is necessary to repeatedly call these lies what they are, even though it is quite tiresome to note that Will is lying. Repeating them doesn't make them true, and an honest, truly informed review of the historical record bears that out.

Virtual Tin Cup

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