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Topical Depression

"Topical Depression" Continued...

Issue: "Our long war," March 8, 2008

WORLD: Untrustworthy?

SHLAES: Just mercurial. We all know people like that. Humans move from impulse to impulse, and they are not always consistent. There's the philanthropic impulse, the honesty impulse. Roosevelt cared a lot about balancing the budget, but he was the first great non-budget balancer.

WORLD: Back in 1933 a National Recovery Administration had the federal government setting prices and wages. The Supreme Court in 1935 declared that to be unconstitutional, and you quote Justice Brandeis telling Roosevelt, "This is the end of this business of centralization. I want you to go back and tell this president that we're not going to sit back and let this government centralize everything. It's come to an end." It wasn't the end, it was just the beginning.

SHLAES: In some ways it was the end. They never got control of the business sector of the economy again, the way they had it with the NRA. And because the NRA was so soundly defeated by the Supreme Court, today business is not regulated the way agriculture is regulated. I love this quote of Brandeis. For one thing, you can't imagine a Supreme Court justice, nowadays, in the cloakroom grabbing Karl Rove-but it was someone more junior than Karl Rove-and telling him, "You go back and tell Bush this and that." It's kind of fun to see that Brandeis was so direct.

WORLD: Did Roosevelt save America from revolution?

SHLAES: The standard story is that America would have gone communist or fascist, had FDR not been there. But I had no sense that Americans wanted revolution. The Democratic platform in 1932 was as placid and moderate as could be. Americans didn't really want revolution; they just wanted to have growth back.

WORLD: You note the romantic affairs of Harold Ickes, Rex Tugwell, and other New Dealers. How much did personal lives interplay with political lives?

SHLAES: I just think that if you leave out the private life, sometimes you miss the story. There was this hypocrisy of the New Dealers that they lived well, even as they advocated life as a proletariat, basically, and that's worth noticing. I think Washington is a true crucible. It's too hard for people to live there and they do often fall apart under the pressures of being in government.

WORLD: Your sympathy for Rex Tugwell comes through.

SHLAES: I liked Tugwell. Tugwell was a collectivist, so he was wrong. But he was an honest man, and he knew that his ideas weren't working out. One of the best books that I discovered was Government Project, the study of a farm that Tugwell had caused to be created a collective farm, right down to the detail, what color the houses were, how many cows, and so on. Later, one of his students went and saw that the farm didn't work. The people didn't want to share the chickens, they wanted their own chickens. There's a famous line in the book, well at least to me famous, where someone's observing and says, "I like the idea of the collective chicken coop, but I always keep forgetting, which chicken is my chicken." That's the essential collective problem. And worse, they trash the community house. So Tugwell's student writes this up, and Tugwell writes the intro: "Here's the story of my collective farm, my animal farm. It is not a nice story."


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