In the typical vision of the Great Depression, hungry children in tattered clothing sulk in the streets. What is not typically recognized is that FDR’s policies reduced and destroyed crops of grains and cotton, thereby increasing the costs of food and clothing. FDR may have rhetorically sympathized with the poor, but his policies greatly harmed them.
Burton Folsom, Jr., describes these problems in Chapter 5 of his book, New Deal or Raw Deal?, which I began to review earlier.
Here’s the basic story. Hoover with his Smoot-Hawley Tarriff destroyed American agricultural exports. Then, with the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, Roosevelt paid farmers with tax dollars to stop growing crops on some of their land, artificially propped up the prices of various (politically selected) agricultural products, and unleashed thousands of bureaucrats to enforce the Byzantine controls. The bureaucrats were, of course, paid to reduce agricultural output and increase prices through taxes on food processors that were passed along to consumers.
And yet some people continue to praise FDR as an enlightened, “progressive” president, despite the profound harm of his stunningly stupid programs.
Folsom notes on page 67, “In 1933, the U.S. was plowing under 10 million acres of cotton and killing 6 million piglets; in 1935, the U.S. was importing 36 million (bales) of cotton and 2 million pounds of ham and bacon.”
Folsom’s chapter on agriculture thus provides important details on the Great Depression. However, the chapter also illustrates Folsom’s inability to essentialize and prioritize. Of the 16-page chapter, Folsom devotes the final four-and-a-half pages to reviewing the dispute between FDR’s man Rexford Tugwell and Virginia Senator Harry Byrd. It’s an interesting story, and it does illustrate the nature of FDR’s bureaucratic takeover of America. And yet I found myself wondering why Fosom is so stingy with some elements of the story and so spendthrift with others. The fact that FDR under-tipped for train service is a mildly interesting, peripheral point — hardly one meriting the four-fifths of a page that Folsom devotes to it as a part of the bit on Tugwell, itself a peripheral story.
Nevertheless, Folsom lays bare the folly of FDR’s political controls.