The Great Depression in Memory

In this week’s New Yorker, John Updike mounts a rearguard fight against Amity Shales’s The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.

Mr. Updike begins with a warning against “Great Depression nostalgia” but a few hundred words later he succumbs himself:

Roosevelt made such people feel less alone. The impression of recovery—the impression that a President was bending the old rules and, drawing upon his own courage and flamboyance in adversity and illness, stirring things up on behalf of the down-and-out—mattered more than any miscalculations in the moot mathematics of economics. Business, of which Shales is so solicitous, is basically merciless, geared to maximize profit. Government is ultimately a human transaction, and Roosevelt put a cheerful, defiant, caring face on government at a time when faith in democracy was ebbing throughout the Western world.

These 95 words are a good precis of the core defects of twentieth-century liberalism. Government succeeds when people “feel” better, regardless of policies’ actual outcomes. Appearance of action is more important than the action itself. Business is “merciless” and “maximizes profit,” while government is “a human transaction.” (Mr. Updike should compare the experiences of shopping at Target and renewing a driver’s license.)

Ms. Shales’s “revisionist” argument is not terribly controversial: “Roosevelt truly was an inspiring figure … [but] Hoover and he did terrible damage to the economy, and in fact made the Depression worse” (in Ms. Shales’s words, via Power Line). Johnathan Alter came to much the same conclusion acknowledged as much in his Roosevelt sketch The Defining Moment.

The truth is, the business of government is good government. There is no such thing as “business,” just businessmen and businesswomen, who are no more venal or merciless as a class than the bureaucrats of, say, the IRS or FBI.

I’m retreating a little from my review of Mr. Alter’s book, when I wrote “1933 called for charisma, not technical genius.” Roosevelt’s charisma stemmed the tide, but it would have been better still to have both charisma and good policy. Roosevelt’s mistakes weren’t errors of degree, “miscalculations in… moot mathematics,” but errors of kind, blunders stemming from fundamentally wrong views about the capacity of government and the effects of incentives. Roosevelt not only prolonged the Depression; his white elephants are still with us today.

UPDATE: Ms. Shales summarizes her book in an essay at the American Enterprise Institute (via Instapundit). “The incredible rightness of FDR’s war policy obscures the flaws in his prior actions.” Mr. Updike wrote that “for [his] inspirational feat he is the twentieth century’s greatest President.” That’s only half right. He may have been the greatest president of the last century, but as Ms. Shales says, it was for fighting fascism. (The same essay was printed as an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal.)

MORE: Here is a podcast interview with Amity Shales, via Cafe Hayek.

MORE: Hey, Greg Mankiw agrees!  “My view: When evaluating political leaders, it is better to trust ‘the moot mathematics of economics’ than ‘the impression of recovery.'” Via The Economist.

PREVIOUSLY on Zeal and Activity: Review: The Defining Moment


3 Responses to “The Great Depression in Memory”

  1. Eric Says:


    I appreciated your take on Updike’s response to Shlaes book. Especially pertinent given Al Gore’s latest book, “Attack on Reason” a.k.a. “anyone who does not agree with the Left is illogical.” It’s sad that the Left claims a monopoly on reason when most of their arguments are based on emotion and guilt. Keep up the good work!

  2. Timothy Says:

    Thanks Eric. I haven’t read Mr. Gore’s book. Maybe I can make time for it later this summer.

    I’d sure always rather have good policy than intuitive or nice policy, but emotion is powerful stuff too, and FDR really did have it.

    Thanks for the kind words – Timothy

  3. Review: The Defining Moment « Zeal and Activity Says:

    […] on Zeal and Activity: A comment on John Updike’s review of The Forgotten Man, by Amity […]

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