Monday, October 31, 2011

Obama: Campaigning Like It's 1936

Don't take just the author's word: Read "Liberal Fascism" by Jonah Goldberg" and/or "New Deal Or Raw Deal? How FDR's Economic Legacy Has Damaged America" By Burton Folsom Jr. Both of which document in devastating fashion that it was FDR who prolonged and deepened the great depression, and is was his death, not the end of WWII, that finally ended it...T

While Republican presidential candidates are looking forward by proposing
variations of a flat income tax, President Barack
’s tax-the-rich campaign strategy is looking backward—to
Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 reelection campaign. FDR won his reelection, but the
American people lost: Roosevelt’s new taxes on business and the “economic
royalists” gave us the “Roosevelt recession” of 1937-38.

By August of 1935, Roosevelt had achieved some of his signature pieces of
legislation: a new entitlement program known as Social Security, banking reform,
pro-union reform, infrastructure expansion and massive transfers of wealth to
the poor and middle classes. Sound familiar?

FDR also ran up federal spending significantly: from 6 percent to 9 percent
of the economy.

However, FDR needed more revenue to support his big-government schemes. More
importantly, he needed a villain to explain why, given the passage of his New
Deal legislation, government spending and regulations, the economy was still

So he proposed raising taxes on the rich, which he dubbed a “Wealth Tax.” As
he explained to Congress in June 1935, “Our revenue laws have operated in many
ways to the unfair advantage of the few, and they have done little to prevent
the unjust concentration of wealth and economic power. … Social unrest and a
deepening sense of unfairness are dangers to our national life which we must
minimize by rigorous methods.” President Obama couldn’t have said it better

There were several components to FDR’s plan. First he wanted very high taxes
on the rich—up to 79 percent—and to lower the thresholds so that more
high-income earners paid more taxes. He also wanted to increase the estate
tax. As for business, he wanted to close the “loopholes,” a graduated corporate
income tax and a tax on intercorporate dividends.

But the bill that actually passed the Democratically controlled Congress in
1935 would not raise much money—estimated at about $250 million, which initially
seemed like enough to cover budgetary shortfalls. FDR’s associates acknowledged
at the time that the Wealth Tax was more about politics than policy, or as
Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau put it, “it was more or less a campaign

However, by 1936 Roosevelt needed yet more revenue and had apparently grown
to relish his new class warfare and railing against “organized money.” So he
proposed another business tax: an undistributed profits tax.

Like Obama, FDR faced what he saw as a big problem: Businesses had a lot of
cash on hand but weren’t spending it. “Regime uncertainty,” the reluctance of
business to hire and invest when faced with a growing onslaught of new taxes and
regulations, suppressed capital spending. No one knew what the future held so
businesses held on to their cash hoping to survive. Again, sound familiar?
Roosevelt believed that forcing businesses to spend that money would create
jobs. So he proposed, and got, his undistributed profits tax. If the
government were going to tax idle money anyway, maybe businesses would put it to

The irony, of course, is that the more FDR dreamed up new taxes and
regulations to get the economy moving, the more regime uncertainty he created.
And those efforts had a predictable effect: the economy began to turn south in
1937, resulting in the Roosevelt recession. Unemployment had fallen from a high
of 24.9 percent in 1933 to 16.9 percent in 1936, the year of FDR’s first
reelection—still significantly higher than the post-war high of 7.5 percent
during Reagan’s 1984 reelection and the current, and likely to remain, 9.1
percent unemployment rate under Obama.

However, unemployment under Reagan and Roosevelt were dropping quickly in
their reelection years, which boosted voter confidence. Not so with Obama. And
Obama’s embracing of FDR’s “soak the rich” tax policies—as FDR’s critics called
it—will do just as much economic harm now as they did then. While the
unemployment rate fell to 14.3 percent in 1937, it rose to 19 percent in 1938
and only declined to 17.2 percent in 1939.*

If President Obama is trying to draw lessons from FDR’s 1936 reelection, he
is learning the wrong ones. FDR had a huge majority in both houses of Congress,
so he was able to get his class-warfare agenda passed—though his efforts
expanded the growing divide between conservative and liberal Democrats. Obama
may complain about the need to tax the rich; Republicans won’t let him do

In addition, the country leaned more to the left then, with several national
demagogues—including Louisiana Senator Huey Long, Francis Townsend and Father
Charles Coughlin—constantly pulling FDR leftward (whether FDR really resisted
that leftward tug is a matter of opinion). There really is no strong national
voice to the left of Obama, except for MSNBC and perhaps Occupy Wall Street.
The lesson Obama should be learning from the 1936 election is that FDR’s
Wealth Tax and class warfare set the economic recovery back years. Obama’s
effort to channel FDR’s policies and reelection success would have exactly the
same impact.

Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy
Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow at

* For a discussion of the best figures for pre-war unemployment rates see
Robert A. Margo, “Employment and Unemployment in the 1930s,” Journal of Economic
Perspectives, Spring 1993.
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