Monday, June 30, 2008

Robot's Encomium of Herbert Hoover

Writing in Slate today the eminently readable (and prolific) economic writer Daniel Gross (no relation) takes some shots at the 31st President of the United States. With his ineptitude and "hands-off" economic policies Hoover, Gross asserts, is one of the few U.S. Presidents to have actually made a short-term difference on the economy: in this case, one so bad that he somehow plunged us into or exacerbated the effects of the Great Depression. Gross's tale is certainly consistent with what I learned in AP History, but contradicts the growing consensus in the historical field that argues that Hoover actually was pretty darn activist.

Recall his background. By the time he was elected President Hoover was one of the most accomplished men in American history. Born into humble, Quaker origins by the end of WWI he had grown to become one of America's most successful engineers, businessman, and humanitarian for his efforts organizing food supplies to Belgium as head of Wilson's emergency war-time Food Administration. While today we might think of Hoover as a consummate Republican--the third in that memorable 1920s triumvirate beginning with Harding and Coolidge--he was in fact more like an Eisenhower or Colin Powell: non-partisan until snatched up by one of the political parties to run on their ticket or join their cabinet. If he had any political sympathies as a youth it was toward the insurgent progressive Republicans that splattered the canvas of his Upper Midwest origins. While the right-wing of this insurgent group included men like Theodore Roosevelt who were anything but hostile to capitalism, no progressive was "hands-off" when it came to the economy. Roosevelt's era, after all, embodied the philosophy of the New Nationalism: the conscious decision by the federal government to increase its powers at the expense of a Gilded Age monopoly capitalism that was seen as the real movers and shakers in U.S. political life.

The key point here is that Hoover's presidency in large part reflected this philosophy. For much of his life as an engineer and later government administrator he had advocated collective bargaining, mine safety, and an eight hour work day. His work on behalf of the U.S. federal government during WWI was seen as having actively repaired European economies from the devastation of war. After the Stock Market Crash he forced the Federal Reserve to ease credits by lowering the discount rate, and agreed to maintain wage rates contrary to the bellicose screams of the pro-business lobbies. He got a $140 million appropriation from congress for public works in a time when the federal government's largest peacetime expenditures was typically for the Postal Service. Despite federal expenditures accounting for only 3% of GDP (whereas now they're closer to 20%) Hoover doubled federal public works expenditures in three years. Rightly believing that the Great Depression was a global phenomenon--a position that FDR himself denied--he temporarily suspended German reparations payments to the U.S.

As the 1932 election approached, Hoover's "second program" laid the foundation for FDR's New Deal. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation and first Glass-Steagall Act provided taxpayer dollar transfers to local government and industry to spur economic recovery in addition to making loans to banks, building and loan associations, railroads, and agricultural corporations. The Federal Home Loan Bank Act was a predecessor to the New Deal's Home Owners Loan Corporation, helping home owners refinance their mortgages and prevent foreclosures. The one true blemish on Hoover's record, the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, many historians consider to be the work of Congress, and fundamentally opposed to the many anti-isolationist measures Hoover initiated.

Historians like David Kennedy (whose work I'm drawing from extensively here) have in my view correctly noted that Hoover's failures were more due to his timing than his actions. America in 1929 simply did not have the political imagination, will, or infrastructure to engage in the kind of massive and wholly unprecedented peacetime activity on the federal level witnessed in the New Deal. Far from absolving Hoover of responsibility, however, such historicization allows us to acknowledge the short end of the stick he has received over the years as his reputation continues to get unjustifiably punished. Without Herbert Hoover's sputtering and altogether insufficient response to the Great Depression, the New Deal's more robust measures would have been impossible.


Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

great post, srsly. what's the revisionist approach to j edgar hoover?

3:34 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

That he was a closet Red, maybe?

5:46 PM  

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