The Real Roaring 20s

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

When you read history after you graduate, you invariably come away with a startling realization: Everything that you have been taught is wrong.

“President from 1923 to 1929, Coolidge sustained a budget surplus and left office with a smaller budget than the one he inherited,” Amity Shlaes, author of a new book on Calvin Coolidge, said in a lecture at Hillsdale College early this year.” Over the same period, America experienced a proliferation of jobs, a dramatic increase in the standard of living, higher wages, and three to four percent annual economic growth.”

Shlaes, author of a seminal book on the Depression, The Forgotten Man, pointed out that Coolidge became president after three decades when so-called “progressive” forces were dominant in American politics, in both parties. “The Woodrow Wilson administration had nationalized the railroads for a time at the end of the war, and had encouraged stock exchanges to shut down for a time, and Progressives were now pushing for state or even federal control of water power and electricity,” she noted. “The business outlook was grim, and one of the biggest underlying problems was the lack of an orderly budgeting process: Congress brought proposals to the White House willy-nilly, and they were customarily approved.”

Not too surprisingly, The New Yorker dismissed Shlaes book but didn’t really have anything to offer by way of rebuttal beyond their trademark hauteur. Shlaes, though, makes an interesting point in relation to current events. “The popularity of Harding and Coolidge, and the success of their policies—especially Coolidge’s—following a long period of Progressive ascendancy, should give today’s conservatives hope,” she avers.” Coolidge in the 1920s, like Grover Cleveland in the previous century, distinguished government austerity from private-sector austerity, combined a policy of deficit cuts with one of tax cuts, and made a moral case for saying ‘no.’”

“A political leader who does the same today is likely to find an electorate more inclined to respond ‘yes’ than he or she expects.” Fun fact: Coolidge vetoed 50 bills.

Though caricatured as taciturn, when Calvin Coolidge did speak, he chose his words carefully, and they are memorable:

  • “We must have no carelessness in our dealings with public property or the expenditure of public money. Such a condition is characteristic of undeveloped people, or of a decadent generation.”
  • “Experience does not show that the higher rate produces the larger revenue. Experience is all the other way. When the surtax on incomes of $300,000 and over was but 10 percent, the revenue was about the same as it was at 65 percent.”


Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
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