As President-elect Obama prepares to take office, debate resumes regarding the best way to tackle the economic crisis. Liberal Democrats are hoping for a new "New Deal," while many conservatives contend that the market should balance itself. (Photo: National Archives)
At least some Republicans are starting to muster an anti-stimulus drive, claiming that President-elect Obama's package will not help the economy. Their drive is centered on what they claim is a careful rereading of the history of the New Deal. According to their account, President Roosevelt's policies actually lengthened the Great Depression.
In their story, we would have been better off if we just left the market to adjust by itself. New Deal programs that directly employed people, or in other ways supported living standards, created an uncertain investment climate. They claim that this uncertainty slowed the process of market adjustment that was necessary for returning to high levels of employment.
The Wagner Act, which created the legal framework for the union organizing drives of the era, stands out as being especially pernicious in their story. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which created the 40-hour workweek and established the first national minimum wage, also gets singled out for criticism. In this new reading of history, what most people consider the great successes of the New Deal simply worsened the Great Depression.
In reality, any careful reading showed that the New Deal policies substantially ameliorated the effects of the Great Depression for tens of millions of people. The major economic failing of the New Deal was that President Roosevelt was not prepared to push the policies as far as necessary to fully lift the economy out of the Great Depression.
Roosevelt was too worried about the whining of the anti-stimulus crowd that he confronted. He remained concerned about balancing the budget when the proper goal of fiscal policy should have been large deficits to stimulate the economy. Roosevelt's policies substantially reduced the unemployment rate from the 25 percent peak when he first took office, but they did not get the unemployment rate back into single digits.
It took the enormous public spending associated with World War II to fully lift the economy out of the depression. The lesson that economists take away from this experience is that we should be prepared to run very large deficits in order to give the economy a sufficient boost to generate self-sustaining growth.
However, from the standpoint of Republicans, the more ominous lesson of the New Deal policies is that it left the Democrats firmly in power for more than 20 years. The Republicans did not regain the White House until 1952, 20 years after President Roosevelt was first elected.
Imagine how terrifying the prospect of 20 years of Democratic presidencies must be for the current generation of Republican leaders. This would mean that they would not retake the White House until 2028, just 20 years before the Social Security trust fund is first projected to face a shortfall.
In 2028, Newt Gingrich will be 85 years old; Mitt Romney will be 81; Mike Huckabee will be 73 and Senator McCain will be 98. Even Sarah Palin will be a less than youthful 64. In short, if President-elect Obama is allowed to carry through with his stimulus package and the rest of his ambitious domestic agenda, most of current leadership of the Republican Party can expect to spend the rest of their political career in the political wilderness, far removed from the centers of power.
For this reason, the Republicans can be expected to adopt a strategy aimed at delaying and diluting the stimulus. We can expect their leaders to find every conceivable argument to slow down the spending that the economy desperately needs right now to prevent further job loss. While some of their concerns may be legitimate - we should all support efforts to restrain wasteful pork barrel spending and rein in corruption - these concerns should not be the basis for obstructing stimulus. The public should be careful to distinguish legitimate concerns from simple delaying tactics.
In short, we should realize that the main concern of some of those opposed to stimulus may not be that it will fail, but rather that it will succeed. Most of us don't have the same set of concerns.