While today's economic slowdown pales in comparison to the Great Depression, when it comes to political action, the ghost of the 1930s may still be haunting Washington, D.C. President Franklin Roosevelt explained the need for the New Deal this way in his 1932 address to the Democratic National Convention: "While [Republicans] prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings."
That's not so different from the sentiment behind modern-day calls for action, like Rep. Barney Frank's plan to bail out homeowners. When the market takes a wrong turn, it's the job of government to grab the wheel—by boosting spending or cutting taxes—and steer the economy back on the right path.
But if there's anything more unpredictable than the direction of the market, it's the effects of government tinkering with economic policy. And even today, economists and historians still vigorously debate not only whether or not the New Deal helped take the country out of the Depression but if it actually made things worse.
Just how divided are experts? In 1995, economist Robert Whaples of Wake Forest University published a survey of academic economists that asked them if they agreed with the statement, "Taken as a whole, government policies of the New Deal served to lengthen and deepen the Great Depression." Fifty-one percent disagreed, and 49 percent agreed. Whaples today says that the New Deal remains a thorny issue for economists because it's so difficult to measure the effects it had on the country. "You need a credible model of the economy, and not everyone is going to agree on what that model should be," he says.
Yet most economists, including defenders of the New Deal, do agree that Roosevelt's policies were far from perfect. The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, in particular, gets a lot of blame. It created the National Recovery Administration, a federal bureaucracy that limited competition in various industries by setting prices and wages above market levels. The ensuing upward pressure on the price of goods and unemployment may have turned a bad situation worse. While it benefited some producers, the NRA's policies meant basic goods were more expensive for consumers and jobs harder to come by for people who were already in dire straits.
But the law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1935, so some argue it did not last long enough to create severe damage. "The NIRA might not have been a good idea," says Eric Rauchway, historian at the University of California-Davis, "but it was not exerting enough of a drag to prevent a rapid rate of recovery. If you look at the economic performance of the 1930s, you see a rapid upward trend."
Fears of confiscation
Just how rapid that trend was, though, depends on whom you ask. Except for a downturn in 1938 (historians still debate its origin), the economy and unemployment did improve after the onset of the New Deal. The country's real gross domestic product fell from $865 billion in 1929 to $635 billion in 1933 but rebounded to $1 trillion by 1940.
The only hiccup was a decline from $911 billion in 1937 to $879 billion in 1938. But the percentage of jobless Americans remained in the double digits until the onset of World War II. In 1930, unemployment was at 8.7 percent, and it climbed to 24 percent in 1932 before declining to 15 percent by 1940. Jim Powell, author of FDR's Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression, asks, "There was expansion, but how come you still had average unemployment of 17 percent from 1933 to 1940?"
One explanation is that in addition to the harm done by the restrictions imposed by the NRA, the "soak the rich" rhetoric coming from the Roosevelt administration had a chilling effect on economic growth by making people fear for their property rights. Who knows, maybe Uncle Sam would just start wholesale confiscation of the fortunes of America's wealthy or the nationalization of industries—Americans were already observing that going on across the pond with the rise of communism in Russia and fascism in Europe. This uncertainty, along with a jump in the top federal income tax rate from 25 percent in 1931 to 79 percent in 1936, may have deterred investment.
Whaples also points to the 1938 election, in which Democrats lost 72 seats in the House. While the Democrats retained majorities, these losses made it harder to pass their agenda and thus reduced the specter of "soak the rich" policies. "Investment almost immediately went up very strongly after [that election], now that people weren't as worried about the New Dealers and threats to their property," Whaples says.