Today’s Wall Street Journal features a novel conservative argument about comparisons between Barack Obama and FDR. The standard fare is that everybody knows FDR failed to do much about the Great Depression, which was actually ended by World War II (never mind the contradiction between claims that stimulating demand through government spending always fail–except when that stimulus is via the Department of Defense!).
But George Bittlingmayer and Thomas W. Hazlitt, two conservative academics, have taken a different tack: FDR’s 100 Days policy blitz, which focused on a banking crisis, was actually “conservative,” and depended in no small part on rhetorical attacks on government spending that assuaged the concerns of bankers and other investors.
In making this case, Bittlingmayer and Hazlitt don’t much try to compare the nature of the 1933 banking crisis and today’s, and also don’t comment at all on how or why FDR departed from his wise conservative course in subsequent months and years. They do sneak into the argument the assumption that Obama’s (and, as anyone who reads polls can tell you, the public’s) concerns about the behavior of corporate executives seeking public subventions are disastrously undermining investor confidence:
Limiting corporate jets and CEO salaries may play well to the crowd. But every rational shareholder knows that jets make sense if (and only if) they help increase profits, and that arbitrary pay limits don’t protect company assets or owners. Instead, failed managers need to be replaced, at competitive wages, by superior ones. New shareholder protections that made that easier would attract bipartisan support and be cheered by investors.
I guess that these gents think investors are “going Galt” in their own small way out of disgust at public anger over their “rational” perks, and depressing the markets. By suggesting that current psychology, not past policies and events, are responsible for the current crisis, this is a clever means of shifting blame from Bush and the GOP to Obama and Democrats, which is an obvious objective in virtually all conservative agitprop these days.
But it’s interesting the extent to which the profs rely for their argument almost exclusively on the accounts of the 100 days by Raymond Moley, the brain-truster who left the Roosevelt administration midway through 1933, and then devoted much of the rest of his long career to New Deal-bashing, contemporary and revisionist. It’s a bit like citing Dick Morris as the definitive chronicler of the Clinton administration. Like Morris, Moley was indeed briefly a shaker and mover in a presidential administration. But like Morris, he chose to go into opposition, and his bitterly expressed interpretation of the deeds and thoughts of his one-time chief have to be taken with a shaker of salt.