With both Barack Obama’s supporters and the media looking forward to the new administration’s policies being similar to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies during the 1930s depression, it may be useful to look at just what those policies were and — more important — what their consequences were.
The prevailing view in many quarters is that the stock market crash of 1929 was a failure of the free market that led to massive unemployment in the 1930s — and that it was intervention of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies that rescued the economy.
It is such a good story that it seems a pity to spoil it with facts. Yet there is something to be said for not repeating the catastrophes of the past.
Let’s start at square one, with the stock market crash in October 1929. Was this what led to massive unemployment?
Official government statistics suggest otherwise. So do new statistics on unemployment by two current scholars, Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway, in their book Out of Work.
The Vedder and Gallaway statistics allow us to follow unemployment month by month. They put the unemployment rate at 5 percent in November 1929, a month after the stock market crash. It hit 9 percent in December — but then began a generally downward trend, subsiding to 6.3 percent in June 1930.
That was when the Smoot-Hawley tariffs were passed, against the advice of economists across the country, who warned of dire consequences.
Five months after the Smoot-Hawley tariffs, the unemployment rate hit double digits for the first time in the 1930s.
This was more than a year after the stock market crash. Moreover, the unemployment rate rose to even higher levels under both Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, both of whom intervened in the economy on an unprecedented scale.