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FDR's Folly - and what Obama should learn from it (Part I)

Franklin Roosevelt has for years been given credit for shepherding the nation through the Great Depression. For decades, FDR’s New Deal policies were believed by many economists to have prevented a total collapse of the United States economy until the markets and industry could recover as they geared up production to supply the US and its allies with war material to fight the Axis powers.

More recently, a close examination of FDR’s programs has revealed that the opposite may be true. In FDR’s Folly, Jim Powell shows that many of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs did far more to hurt the economy and delay recovery than they did to help. Higher taxes, strict regulation, and centralized economic planning all combined to keep unemployment high and the economy stagnant for the entire decade of the 1930s.

The recession that became the Great Depression had its roots in the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy. In 1928 and 1929, the Fed increased interest rates and caused a severe monetary contraction. Powell estimates that the money supply actually decreased by 1/3 (chapter 2).

Powell also notes that many states had banking laws that prohibited banks from having branches. This prevented diversification and made banks weaker. Approximately 10,000 US banks failed between 1929 and 1933 []. In Canada, where there were no such restrictions on bank branches, there were no bank failures. Most of the failed banks were rural single-office banks (chapter 4).

Herbert Hoover, who was president when the stock market crashed in 1929, took aggressive steps to save the economy, many of which are similar to steps taken by congress and President Obama over the last few years (chapter 3). Hoover encouraged industry to keep wages high in spite of falling sales and demand. He tried to put people back to work with public works projects and signed the Davis-Bacon Act which required local governments to pay union wages, which helped keep labor costs artificially high. He also backed farm subsidies, which led to overproduction and low prices.

Further, Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in 1930, which raised prices on imported goods. Many other countries retaliated by raising prices on American goods. The Revenue Act of 1932 also raised taxes. Other Hoover policies included restrictions on short sales of stocks and revisions to bankruptcy law that limited the rights of creditors. Hoover’s responses, and Roosevelt’s adoption of many of his policies, turned a recession into the Great Depression.

When FDR became president in 1933, he initiated a series of policies called the New Deal. Many of FDR’s policies took Hoover’s government actions and expanded them. One of FDR’s first actions was to declare a series of bank holidays, in which banks were ordered to close. Powell argues that the bank holidays actually contributed to the bank runs. People knew that the banks were going to be closed. They also knew that, in the days before credit cards, they needed cash. Their response was to rush to the bank and withdraw money while it was open… and solvent.

Another early action of FDR was to sign the Glass-Steagall Banking Act of 1933. This law (repealed in 1999) created a wall between investment banks and commercial (lending) banks. It also established the FDIC to insure bank deposits. The separation of banks prevented diversification and required many of the strongest banks in the country to split into smaller – weaker - parts.

Deposit insurance eased the minds of depositors, but Powell argues that it also made people more risk tolerant. If people knew that their funds were insured by the government, they would pay less attention to what the banks were doing with their deposits. In turn, it encouraged the banks to be more risky with their depositor’s money because they knew that it was guaranteed by the government.

FDR also raised taxes dramatically. The Revenue Act of 1936 increased federal taxes on income, dividends and estates, while limiting deductions. The Undistributed Profits Tax of 1936 raised corporate tax rates and limited deductions for business losses (chapter 6). By the end of FDR’s tenure, the top marginal rates for both personal and corporate taxes were in excess of 90% (chapter 18). These high tax rates discouraged corporate investment and further slowed economic growth.

At the same time that federal tax rates were rising, local and state taxes were also increasing. Many states saw dramatic increases in their income taxes for individuals and businesses as well as higher sales taxes.

Congress actually passed the legislation in 1939 which would have reversed the higher tax trend. The Revenue Act of 1939 would have lowered corporate taxes to a flat 18% and eliminated the Undistributed Profits Tax. However, FDR refused to sign the bill into law.

Another massive New Deal tax increase was passed into law as the Social Security Act of 1935 (chapter 13). As originally passed, Social Security established a payroll tax that would go into an Old Age Retirement Account. Benefits for retirees would begin after January 1, 1942 (although this was later changed to 1940). This was meant to allow funds to build up to pay out benefits, although the program quickly became pay-as-you-go after FDR and congress depleted the trust fund in 1940.

The passage of Social Security slowed the recovery for several reasons. First, it obviously depleted the purchasing power of employees since the tax decreased their take-home pay at a time when wages were already depressed. Since employers were also taxed, it made hiring more expensive and discouraged businesses from adding employees. Finally, it removed money from circulation that could have been spent on goods and services because the tax receipts went into a trust fund for several years before they were paid out to retirees. The ultimate legacy of Social Security is an unfunded entitlement that is expected to go bankrupt by 2037 [].