Review: The Forgotten Man

Amity Shales’s The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression takes a critical look at the handling of the Depression by Roosevelt.  Assessing Roosevelt’s economic policy from the a laissez-faire position is timely, and much in vogue, but such an analysis runs counter to the conventional narrative of Roosevelt’s presidency.  It needs to be exemplary to be heard at all, and this work isn’t quite up to that level.

There are ideas worth hearing here, though.  Hoover and Roosevelt both misstepped on what we know to be fundamental economic principals now, including freeing up the money supply in a recession, and made good faith efforts to get people working again through public works. The difference between the two was the extent to which Roosevelt was willing to push his agenda.  Questions about how far he was willing to push constitutional limits of federal power and trade collective versus property rights are interesting to hash out.  It’s also important to try to assess the effectiveness of those actions – moral or immoral.

As a collection of facts and context, The Forgotten Man is fairly sound, and though Shales seems to be sympathetic to the property rights side of the arguments, there seems to be major hunks missing or taken on faith.  I know this is not an economics text or paper, but I would prefer more concrete facts on the table regarding outcomes.

Similarly, it would be helpful to understand the key personalities more clearly so that their decisions are more fathomable.  Arguments about the defensibility of these actions must have come from these actors, and understanding their motivations and justifications is of considerable interest.  Shales goes more for breadth than depth here, bringing many different players on stage rather than deeply analyzing a few.

The choices of the players who get the focus is pretty unusual.  There’s a running narrative thread centered on Wendell Willkie who opposes Roosevelt in the 1940 election.  Willkie seems to be an interesting figure, from roots in the power utility to the sorts of changes that make a man a political contender, but as a laissez-faire standard bearer he seems to lack conviction and success.  There’s also a sizeable amout of aside time spent on William Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Again, an interesting figure, but strangely out of place in an economic story.

Now, perhaps I am misreading Shales intent.  Perhaps she intended this as a broad history of this period.  If so, her sweep seems to stick on a few areas; if not there’s many a quirky point that doesn’t seem to belong.

As I say, there are many interesting points made in the work.  I definitely learned things reading it, but, for me, it raises more questions than answers.

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