Learning from FDR's mistakes:
Franklin Delano Obama?, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Suddenly, everything old is New Deal again. Reagan is out; F.D.R. is in. Still, how much guidance does the Roosevelt era really offer for today’s world?
The answer is, a lot. But Barack Obama should learn from F.D.R.’s failures as well as from his achievements: the truth is that the New Deal wasn’t as successful in the short run as it was in the long run. And the reason..., which almost undid his whole program, was the fact that his economic policies were too cautious. ...
Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s new chief of staff, has declared that “you don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste.” Progressives hope that the Obama administration, like the New Deal, will respond to the current economic and financial crisis by creating institutions, especially a universal health care system, that will change the shape of American society for generations to come. ...
Now, there’s a whole intellectual industry, mainly operating out of right-wing think tanks,... propagating the idea that F.D.R. actually made the Depression worse. So it’s important to know that ... the ... New Deal brought real relief to most Americans.
That said, F.D.R. did not ... manage to engineer a full economic recovery during his first two terms. This failure is often cited as evidence against Keynesian economics... But the definitive study of fiscal policy in the ’30s, by ... economist E. Cary Brown, reached a very different conclusion: fiscal stimulus was unsuccessful “not because it does not work, but because it was not tried.”
This may seem hard to believe. The New Deal famously placed millions of Americans on the public payroll... Didn’t ...[this] amount to a major fiscal stimulus?
Well, it wasn’t as major as you might think. The effects of federal public works spending were largely offset by ... a large tax increase, enacted by Herbert Hoover, whose full effects weren’t felt until his successor took office. Also, expansionary policy ... was undercut by spending cuts and tax increases at the state and local level.
And F.D.R. wasn’t just reluctant to pursue an all-out fiscal expansion — he was eager to return to conservative budget principles. That eagerness almost destroyed his legacy. After winning a smashing election victory in 1936, the Roosevelt administration cut spending and raised taxes, precipitating an economic relapse that drove the unemployment rate back into double digits and led to a major defeat in the 1938 midterm elections.
What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs.
This history offers important lessons for the incoming administration.
The political lesson is that economic missteps can quickly undermine an electoral mandate. Democrats won big last week — but they won even bigger in 1936, only to see their gains evaporate after the recession of 1937-38. Americans don’t expect instant economic results from the incoming administration, but they do expect results...
The economic lesson is the importance of doing enough. F.D.R. thought he was being prudent by reining in ... spending...; in reality, he was taking big risks with the economy... My advice to the Obama people is to figure out how much help they think the economy needs, then add 50 percent. It’s much better, in a depressed economy, to err on the side of too much stimulus than ... too little.
In short, Mr. Obama’s chances of leading a new New Deal depend largely on whether his short-run economic plans are sufficiently bold. Progressives can only hope that he has the necessary audacity.