…comes a timely article by Charles C. Johnson on “How Silent Cal beat a Recession”:
Eighty-eight years ago this week, U.S. President Calvin Coolidge took office upon the sudde death of President Warren Harding.Like the current administration, the Harding-Coolidge administration faced a tough recession from 1919-1921. But unlike the current administration, the Harding-Coolidge and Coolidge-Dawes administrations cut taxes, balanced budgets and slashed government spending, reducing federal debt by over a third in a decade.
The American economy grew, averaging just over 7% from 1924 to 1929, the years of his presidency. So did Coolidge’s popularity. He was so popular that even during the Great Depression’s height song-writer Cole Porter compared his lover to the “Coolidge dollar.” Ronald Reagan, who grew up during the Coolidge presidency, admired “Silent Cal,” even going so far as to read a biography of the 30th president as he recovered from a surgery in 1985 and to praise him in letters to his constituents. To Reagan, Coolidge wasn’t silent, but was silenced by New Deal supporters, whose intellectual heirs control much of Washington today.
In Coolidge’s time, as now, the educated class harbored contempt for the philosophical underpinnings of our republic and for those who would defend them. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of Teddy, accused Coolidge of having been “weaned on a pickle.” In language similar to attacks on conservatives today, Pulitzer Prize winner Arthur Schlesinger castigated Coolidge for being too beholden to business. In 1995, another Pulitzer Prize winner, Irwin Unger, said Coolidge “slept away most of his five years in office. . .The watchword of [his] government was do nothing.”
But “nothing” seemed to work. With the tax cuts in place, luxuries of the rich quickly became middle-class, as affordable cars and radios rolled off the assembly line. Industrial titans (and Coolidge-backers) like Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford made unheard-of fortunes. Real annual per-capita income rose 37%, to $716 from $522.
The “Coolidge prosperity,” denounced as ephemeral after the 1929 crash, was real for those who experienced it. Coolidge knew this well, telling reporters that “If you can base the economic conditions of the people on their appearance, the way they are dressed, [and] the general appearance of prosperity, I should say it was very good. . . I noticed most of the ladies had on silk dresses and I thought I saw a rather general display of silk stockings.”
Unlike President Obama, President Coolidge didn’t want to “spread the wealth around,” but to grow it. He didn’t call for “shared sacrifice” – Americans had sacrificed enough during the great war – but for good character. There “is no surer road to destruction than prosperity without character,” he said in a speech at the University of Pennsylvania in 121. And from the White House lawn in 1924 he said, “I want the people of America to be able to work less fo the government and more for themselves. I want them to have the rewards of their own industry. That is the chief meaning of freedom.” For Coolidge, then, fiscal matters were a moral question that tested the founding-era premise that free people can govern themselves. He encouraged Americans to “begin to workand save,” in good and bad times. Only “our productive capacity,” he told Depression-era readers in his autobiography, published in 1929, “is sufficient to maintain us all in a state of prosperity if we give sufficient attention to thrift and industry.”
That productive capacity, Cooidge knew, was sapped by the spendthrift – he called it “socialistic” – notions of government that sought to be all things to all people. Coolidge, making note of federal farm subsidies and flood insurance, criticized the thinking of “expect[ing] the government in some miraculous way to save us from the consequences of our own acts,” in a post-presidential column on Oct. 17, 1930. Americans, he wrote, “want the right to run our own business, fix our own wages and prices, and spend our own money, but if depression and unemployment result we look to government for a remedy.”
As Coolidge saw things in 1924, “A government which lays taxes on the people not required by urgent public necessity and sound public policy is not a protector of liberty, but an instrument of tyranny. It condemns the citizen to servitude.” Coolidge helped Americans prosper by letting them be free.