Column cal and the big cal-amity opinion

Let’s remember that the eight years of Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) were economically disastrous. Taxes soared, the dollar plummeted, and the economy soured. A sharp, corrective recession in 1921 ended quickly because the new Harding-Coolidge administration responded to it by reducing the burden of government. When Harding died suddenly in 1923, Coolidge became President and for the next six years, America enjoyed the unprecedented growth of “the Roaring ‘20s.” Historian Burton Folsom elaborates:

“One measure of prosperity is the misery index, which combines unemployment and inflation. During Coolidge’s six years as president, his misery index was 4.3 percent — the lowest of any president during the twentieth century. Unemployment, which had stood at 11.7 percent in 1921, was slashed to 3.3 percent from 1923 to 1929.

What’s more, (Coolidge’s Treasury Secretary) Andrew Mellon was correct on the effects of the tax-rate cuts — revenue from income taxes steadily increased from $719 million in 1921 to over $1 billion by 1929. Finally, the United States had budget surpluses every year of Coolidge’s presidency, which cut about one-fourth of the national debt.

That’s a record “progressives” can only dream about but never deliver. Yet when they rank U.S. presidents, Coolidge gets the shaft. If you can get your hands on a copy of the out-of-print 1983 book, “Coolidge and the Historians” by Thomas Silver, buy it. You’ll be delighted at what Coolidge actually said, and simultaneously incensed at the shameless distortions of his words at the hands of progressives like Arthur Schlesinger.

Coolidge could have run for another four-year term in 1928 (and surely would have won) but he declined and retired from politics. His Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, won the presidency that year and assumed office in March 1929. The stock market collapsed in October and a recession gave way to full-scale depression in the summer of 1930.

Should Coolidge get any of the blame for the Great Depression? The Federal Reserve’s expansion of money and credit in the 1920s certainly set the country up for at least a mild fall, but that wasn’t Coolidge’s fault. He saw the Fed as the “independent” entity it was supposed to be and didn’t meddle with it. At least once he expressed concern that the Fed might be fostering a bubble but he otherwise didn’t make a stink about it. “Not my bailiwick,” he believed.

In any event, far worse than the Fed’s inflation was its deflation, which didn’t begin in earnest until the final weeks of the Coolidge administration. After years of depressing interest rates artificially with easy money, the Fed by early 1929 was jacking them up and choking off money and credit. It continued to do so by either deliberate intent or actual effect for the next three years.

Even six months after the October 1929 stock market crash, the economy wasn’t yet in a deep funk. Markets were, in fact, making a comeback in the spring of 1930 and unemployment had not yet hit double digits. Not until June 1930, when Congress and President Hoover raised tariffs and triggered an international trade war, did recession cascade into depression. Two years later, they flattened just about everybody who was still standing by doubling the income tax.

Coolidge takes heat from progressives because any other stance ruins their narrative and undermines their agenda. Silent Cal practiced small government. Progressives can’t admit that small government works or that big government doesn’t, so guess who they vilify and who they praise? Small-government Coolidge delivers prosperity and he’s the villain. The statist Roosevelt prolongs the Depression but he’s the savior. The high tax/high tariff/big spending Hoover is dismissed as another Coolidge-style laissez faire advocate, though he was nothing of the sort.

Our 30th President, it turns out, was infinitely smarter and more honest than an awful lot of progressives. Of solid personal character, this frugal New Englander grew up respecting the hard-earned property of others. He believed that the strength of America was not in its politicians and bureaucrats. Once, as Governor of Massachusetts, he asserted, “In a free republic a great government is the product of a great people. They will look to themselves rather than government for success. The destiny, the greatness, of America lies around the hearthstone… Look well to the hearthstone; therein all hope for America lies.”