The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, published in 2007, has become one of the most influential books of the decade. Republicans and conservative activists have read the book, absorbed its lessons, and deployed them in the current debate over how to tackle the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s. Newt Gingrich has read it. So has Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee. And so has Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), the head of the Senate Republican Policy Committee; according to his spokesman, the senator has also circulated the book among his colleagues.
Shlaes is a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, a former board member of the WSJ, and a columnist for Bloomberg. She has written at least three op-eds in the Washington Post over the past year, one of which proclaimed that “Phil Gramm was right…A recession is two consecutive quarters in which the economy shrinks, and last quarter it grew” (later it was determined that the economy had been in recession for six months at the time of her article and Phil Gramm’s remarks).
Now here is the extremely strange thing about The Forgotten Man: it does not really argue that the New Deal failed. In fact, Shlaes does not make any actual argument at all, though she does venture some bold claims, which she both fails to substantiate and contradicts elsewhere. Reviewing her book in The New York Times, David Leonhardt noted that Shlaes makes her arguments “mostly by implication.” This is putting it kindly. Shlaes introduces the book by asserting her thesis, but she barely even tries to demonstrate it. Instead she chooses to fill nearly four hundred pages with stories that mostly go nowhere. The experience of reading The Forgotten Man is more like talking to an old person who lived through the Depression than it is like reading an actual history of the Depression. Major events get cursory treatment while minor characters, such as an idiosyncratic black preacher or the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, receive lengthy portraits. Having been prepared for a revisionist argument against the New Deal, I kept wondering if I had picked up the wrong book.
Many of Shlaes’s stories do have an ideological point, but the point is usually made in a novelistic way rather than a scholarly one. She tends to depict the New Dealers as vain, confused, or otherwise unsympathetic. She depicts business owners as heroic and noble. It is a kind of revival of the old de haut en bas sort of social history, except this time the tycoons from whose perspective the events are narrated appear as the underappreciated victims, the giants at the bottom of the heap.[….]
“Even if you add in all the work relief jobs, as some economists do,” she has contended, “Roosevelt-era unemployment averages well above 10 percent. That’s a level Obama has referred to once or twice–as a nightmare.” But Roosevelt inherited unemployment that was over 20 percent! Sure, the level to which it fell was high by absolute standards, but it is certainly pertinent that he cut that level by more than half. By Shlaes’s method of reckoning, Thomas Jefferson rates poorly on the scale of territorial acquisition, because on his watch the United States had less than half the square mileage it has today.
That Republicans embrace this kind of silliness is predictable. That the Council on Foreign relations and our leading newspapers promote it is shameful.