April 29, 2010


FDR’s Alphabet Soup: New Deal America, 1932-1939. By Tonya Bolden. Knopf. $19.99.

     Economist Milton Friedman coined the phrase “we are all Keynesians now” – and attributed it to President Richard Nixon – as a way to show that by the 1970s, politicians and economists of all persuasions implicitly accepted the approaches advocated by John Maynard Keynes to manage the United States economy in times when things seemed to veer significantly off track. An equally emphatic phrase, perhaps even more accurate than the one about Keynes, would be, “We are all FDR’s children now,” for the enormous expansion of the federal government that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt engineered has had a huge and lasting effect on every aspect of American life – and continues to be the underlying basis for further expansion of government power, such as President Obama’s recent push for a vastly greater role for the government in the healthcare field.

     The time is always right for a look at what FDR did and what it means, but it seems particularly right today, when there are so many arguments being made – often so stridently – about the importance of either making government more a part of everyday life or of rolling back its influence. A well-researched book for young readers, such as FDR’s Alphabet Soup, can be especially valuable in showing the limits of today’s debates. For example, no one short of a few fringe extremists is suggesting abolition of the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), FCC (Federal Communications Commission) or FHA (Federal Housing Administration) – three of the agencies created by FDR in a single year (1934). Even the proposals of the strongest critics of government’s role will at most tinker around the edges of what FDR did. Rolling back the government to pre-FDR days is literally unthinkable.

     What FDR’s Alphabet Soup does so well is to show the context within which Roosevelt vastly expanded the government; his rationale for doing so; the horrible economic climate in which we was elected and served; and many of the elements of his plans to pull the country out of the Great Depression. To her credit, Tonya Bolden does not offer an unmitigated cheer for FDR, and in fact questions (as many economists do today) whether all those New Deal programs actually pulled the economy up very much – or if they merely reoriented it, with the advent of World War II being the factor that finally ended the Depression.

     Bolden offers a combination of statistics (unemployment tripled during the Depression, to a rate of almost 25%, and national income fell more than 50%) and personalizing photos (FDR walking in 1920 during his unsuccessful bid to become Vice President, and three years later visiting a resort whose waters were supposed to help polio sufferers). There are political buttons from the period, cartoons, and plenty of photos – plus many quotations from ordinary citizens, not just politicians. There are also pictures of people working in one or another of the FDR “alphabet” agencies: men planting trees in South Dakota for the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), others pushing wheelbarrows in San Francisco for the CWA (Civil Works Administration). Bolden discusses how the agencies were created, what they did, what sort of opposition they faced, and what events made people ever more willing to accept a governmental helping hand – for example, the disastrous dust storms that hit the Plains in the mid-1930s. FDR’s missteps are mentioned, too – notably his failed attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court by increasing the number of justices, so he could add ones who would support his initiatives rather than possibly declare them unconstitutional. And the legacy of FDR’s creation of so many new government entities is made clear in a four-page postscript showing what happened to many of the “alphabet soup” agencies. Anyone wondering about FDR’s profound and lasting influence on the size and reach of the federal government has only to look here: the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation), and many other FDR-era creations – including non-alphabet-soup ones such as Social Security – are a huge part of modern American government and modern American life. Whether or not FDR’s approach helped end the Great Depression, there is no question that it permanently transformed the relationship between Americans and the government that is supposed to be elected to serve them.

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