Monday, April 27, 2015

Making it "Great"

(After reading an old econ book from college and a book about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, I thought I'd post this book review from 2008.)

Following the 1929 stock market crash the nation entered an economic recession. President Hoover implemented many policies in an attempt to turn things around, but succeeded only in driving more banks into insolvency and increasing unemployment. He also sought to have government replace business as the spending engine in the economy, and initiated numerous projects, such as Hoover Dam in Arizona. But when conditions hadn't improved by the next election he was overwhelmingly swept out of office by FDR and his New Deal.

Beginning in 1932 FDR had high ambitions for his first 100 days in office, and indeed was a whirlwind of activity. Unfortunately, there wasn't much logic or reason behind the activity, and the uncertainty of FDR's policies and actions further weakened the market. But he went even further by seeking to regulate business excessively and replace many private-run industries, such as utilities. Taxes were increased as high as 90% for wealthy individuals, and many new taxes were created such as the death tax, inheritance tax, undistributed profits, etc. Tax rules where changed retroactively and government prosecutors were kept busy persecuting those who'd already paid or had run afoul of the complex government rules.

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes is a fascinating look at the Depression from a very convincing economic policy perspective. She skewers Hoover for turning a recession into a depression and FDR for having made it "Great." She points out why government policies failed to keep banks from failing, why the market lost confidence in government and how harsh tariff laws not only further weakened domestic industries but also exported the financial crisis abroad. She chronicles the various advisers to FDR, including many who were socialists in the many government bureaucracies created to tax anyone with money and spend it on New Deal programs that amounted to little more than expensive propaganda. She also points out that many of FDR's early New Deal successes were actually programs that Hoover started. As the depression deepened and lingered until the beginning of WWII, as many as 1 in 4 workers were either unemployed or in government work programs and people began to accept the depression as a fact of life.

Having studied economics for several years in college, I found the arguments to be logical and persuasive. I'm especially surprised, however, with the view this book paints of FDR and the lasting reverence so many in this country had for him. Some very brief research showed that the merits of the New Deal are indeed controversial, so for me further research is necessary to either validate or refute the claims of this book. Nevertheless, Ms. Shlaes has made a very logical argument against the legacy of the New Deal.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Gateway to hell... or heaven?

Leprosy isn't something we think about anymore unless we're reading the Bible, and although the word in scripture is used rather broadly, a stigma has attached to those suffering from Hansen's Disease.  In The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai, John Tayman explains that the skin disease usually affects the colder parts of the body – particularly the hands, feet, ears, and nose – destroying the underlying tissue.  Those afflicted suffer a loss of feeling and sometimes a curling in of the fingers or collapse of the nose often resulting in horrific disfigurement.  Because the tissue of the eyes is cooler it can destroy eyesight, so it's understandable why people were so fearful of the disease.  But not knowing what caused it (bacteria) or how it was spread (it is contagious only for those who are genetically susceptible) led to policies of exile, and Kalaupapa on Molokai is one of the most famous colonies.

A rocky and windswept peninsula on the north coast of Molokai was chosen because escape was difficult.  The seas were rough and cliffs thousands of feet tall separated it from the rest of the island.  The land was purchased cheap and the earliest exiles were often dropped in the surf and told to swim for shore.  A lawlessness pervaded the settlement and given the appearance of some of the exiles, it seemed a hellish place to those sent there and any who saw it.  Tayman describes the history of the colony from the early days until the early 2000s.  He tells the stories of many who were sent there over the years as well as the efforts of some to alleviate the suffering such as Father Damien, the Catholic priest who eventually shared his flock's fate, and Joseph Dutton, a Civil War soldier who just wanted to do good.  A cure for leprosy was found in the late 1940s which can halt or prevent the disease, but cannot reverse the damage already caused, and Tayman sounds a much more hopeful note in his account toward the end.

"The more we suffer, the more strength we have.  The more suffering, the closer we are to one another.  Life is that way.  If you haven't suffered, then you don't know what joy is.  The others may know something about joy, but those who have gone through hell and high water, I think they feel the joy deeper." 

As much as I enjoy all kinds of histories, I find that those of disease and sickness are often the more human side of history.  Toward the end of the book Tayman focuses on four individuals who were exiled in their youth, and he shows them not as 'lepers' but as real people whose ordinary hopes and dreams were interrupted by their disease.  I particularly liked the story of Makia who was exiled as a boy and yet earned a college degree after he was cured, in spite of being blind from the disease and not being able to read braille because he didn't have feeling in his fingers.  It's a fascinating history told with a very human viewpoint.