The Agenda

Megan McArdle on Herbert Hoover: Truthiness Watch

Megan McArdle offers a quick primer on Hoovernomics for one of her colleagues:

Hoover did raise taxes on high earners quite a bit in 1932, and perhaps this is what my colleague is thinking of–though as this did not produce any immediately noticeable increase in tax revenue, it’s hard to say how much of a fiscal contraction this actually represented.  (Even if it were, outside of the odd Cato paper, Hoover’s name is never invoked to warn against the mortal dangers of what he actually did: raised taxes on rich people in the middle of a recession.)

Instead, he is associated in the public mind with slashing spending.  But there doesn’t seem to be any question that Herbert Hoover raised both spending and government deficits by rather a lot, and quite bravely considering that his critics–a group led by a fellow named Franklin Delano Roosevelt–”accused the president of ‘reckless and extravagant’ spending, of thinking ‘that we ought to center control of everything in Washington as rapidly as possible,’ and of presiding over ‘the greatest spending administration in peacetime in all of history.’ Roosevelt’s running mate, John Nance Garner, charged that Hoover was ‘leading the country down the path of socialism.’ “

Megan links to a Cato policy analysis by Veronique de Rugy:

President Hoover radically changed course from the low-tax policies of the 1920s with the Revenue Act of 1932. That law sharply increased individual tax rates at all income levels, with the top rate rising from 25 percent to 63 percent.

Herbert Hoover is perhaps best understood as a technocrat, not as a laissez-faire ideologue. The collective amnesia regarding Hoover’s political identity reminds me of a phenomenon Frank Dikötter identifies in his wonderful essay The Age of Openness, ably described by the University of California Press:

The era between empire and communism is routinely portrayed as a catastrophic interlude in China’s modern history. But in this book, Frank Dikötter shows that the first half of the twentieth century was characterized by unprecedented openness. He argues that from 1900 to 1949, all levels of Chinese society were seeking engagement with the rest of the world and that pursuit of openness was particularly evident in four areas: governance, including advances in liberties and the rule of law; greater freedom of movement within the country and outside it; the spirited exchange of ideas in the humanities and sciences; and thriving and open markets and the resulting sustained growth in the economy.

The CCP’s selective account of that era was a crucial tool for establishing its legitimacy, and it has shaped our understanding of China’s experience from 1900 to 1949. In a similar vein, the New Deal coalition proved so politically successful that it crafted a folk narrative in which President Roosevelt’s program was not reactive, contingent, and creative, but rather that it was a progressive realization of a fairly well-defined vision regarding the extension of social citizenship rights.

One could also argue that contemporary conservative accounts of the Reagan years similarly deemphasize the role of contingency. Nicole Gelinas’s excellent After the Fall offers an alternative narrative for the post-1984 economy centered on the rise of Too Big to Fail and its consequences. She published a precis of her argument in the Winter 2010 issue of National Affairs.


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