In this third and final televised debate with Mitt Romney on Monday, President Barack Obama quipped that “when it comes to our foreign policy,” the Republican would “import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.” If only.
Republicans presided over one of the largest economic expansions in American history in the Roaring Twenties. The policies of the Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge Administrations were traditionally laissez-faire.
After the post-World War I recession, Harding aimed to restore “normalcy” to the country. One of his first acts of business was to formalize and streamline the federal budget process. The war period had seen shortfalls rise enormously. Harding reduced spending from $6.3 billion in 1920 to $3.3 billion in 1922.
This was a conscious policy. Harding famously said there should be “less government in business and more business in government.” Besides spending, taxes were slashed but throughout his and Coolidge’s terms, the budget was in healthy surplus every year, allowing them to pay off a third of the national debt.
Coolidge in particular recognized the moral aspect of limited government. “The men and women of this country who toil are the ones who bear the cost of the government,” he explained. “Every dollar that we carelessly waste means that their life will be so much the more meager.” He certainly wouldn’t have spent billions of taxpayers’ dollars to salvage bankrupt automakers and prop up unprofitable green energy companies.
Fueled by low taxes and supply-side economic policies, the American economy grew by a fourth during the Harding-Coolidge era. Commodities that had once been considered luxury items become available to the population at large — automobiles, chemical products, film and radio were among the fastest growing sectors of the economy. Telephone lines were strung across the continent. Indoor plumbing and modern sewer systems were installed for the first time in many places.
The liberal economies policies of the 1920s engendered a liberal mindset. Women, who had won the vote in the previous decade, entered the workforce. White collar employment expanded overall. Homosexuality became far more acceptable. Art and fashion flourished.
In fairness, the exuberance of the era also fueled a speculative bubble that popped in 1929 but even if unfettered capitalism was to blame for the stock market crash, the subsequent Great Depression was hardly due to a “do nothing” attitude on the part of government.
Herbert Hoover, Coolidge’s successor, was a Republican but a progressive. He rejected his treasury secretary’s advice to “leave it alone,” rather doubled federal spending between 1929 and 1933, raised tariffs and taxes and expanded public works projects to sustain employment. He pressured business into not cutting wages in the face of deflation. By the end of Hoover’s term, nearly one in four American workers was out of a job.
It was the Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt who chastised Hoover’s “reckless and extravagant” spending and for believing “that we ought to center control of everything in Washington.” Roosevelt’s vice presidential candidate John Nance Gardner accused the Republican of “leading the country down the path of socialism.”
What Hoover had done was pave the way for the New Deal. When the Democrats came into office in 1933, they continued, indeed strengthened the policies of the Hoover Administration. As a result, the American economy didn’t recover until after the Second World War.
President Obama likes to criticize his predecessor for waging two wars “on a credit card.” Mitt Romney can rightly criticize his opponent for doing little to rein in spending. If anything, the president has made the fiscal situation worse. Unemployment hasn’t come down. Business confidence has faded. A return to normalcy would seem to be in order. Barack Obama has made clear that he will not advocate such a prudent course of action. If he’s right and Mitt Romney will, that’s worth a try.