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In his review of Amity Shlaes’s new biography, Coolidge, for The Wall Street Journal, the editor of The National Interest, Robert Merry, describes how the 30th president achieved what he did, and why we should learn from his presidency today:
At the end of World War I, the national debt stood at $27 billion, nine times its level before the war. But Coolidge, and Harding as well, slashed the country's credit obligation to just $17.65 billion. They did it by cutting taxes, generating economic growth and, in the process, flooding federal coffers with surplus dollars. This accomplishment merits attention today, with the national debt exceeding $16 trillion — more than 70% of gross domestic product. If that number hits 90%, some economists warn, it will squeeze the national economy inexorably.
Under Calvin Coolidge, Shlaes writes, “the American economy grew four percent a year, in real terms,” and “joblessness averaged below five percent.” Wages and purchasing power rose, even as union membership dropped. There was always a federal budget surplus. The wealthy “paid a greater share of the taxes than they had before him,” even though the top tax rate dropped by half, to 25%. Long-term interest rates came down by almost half, and private pensions more than doubled.
Yet Coolidge has received little credit for his achievements. “Popular memory relegates him to the role of placeholder who kept the chair in the Oval Office warm between Roosevelts,” Shlaes tells us:
In writing my recent book, The Forgotten Man, I came across Coolidge, and was astounded to discover how much he had achieved … here was a forgotten president.
As Paul A. Volcker points out,
Calvin Coolidge — the tight-fisted, reticent New Englander — hasn’t ranked high in the Presidential pantheon. Amity Shlaes’s new biography carries a different and highly relevant message: the need for fiscal discipline, the power of saying no, the capacity of a reserved and modest man to draw upon resources of personal conviction and unquestioned integrity to take forceful action. Read Coolidge, and better understand the forces bearing on the President and Congress almost a century later.
Coolidge is an improbable hero. A taciturn New Englander who chose to enter politics, the most garrulous of pursuits, “Silent Cal” has been disparaged for decades.
Dorothy Parker and Sinclair Lewis taught America to mock Calvin Coolidge, but in this marvelous book that is in many respects as subtle and powerful as Coolidge himself, Amity Shlaes blows that injustice out of the water. Her masterly command of economics, policy, and personal portraiture illustrates the times, talents, character, and courage of the consummate New Englander and his gracious wife. When you read of the death of their son, you will be linked to them forever. If you have a free intelligence you will see past Coolidge’s natural modesty to his greatness. And if you have a heart you will come to love the Coolidges for their unadorned humanity. - Mark Helprin, author, Winter’s Tale
In deeds as well as words, Coolidge was “the Great Refrainer.” Despite — or perhaps because of — his achievements, Coolidge does not fit our preconceptions of what a President should be, and do (or not do). “It is almost as if he spoke a different language,” Shlaes writes. “Today Americans believe presidents must be active, in the charge-ahead mode of Theodore or Franklin Roosevelt. Coolidge refrained and advocated refraining.”
He was reluctant to intervene in the economy. He believed it was more important to prevent a bad law than to sign a good one. He emphasized both tax cuts and budget cuts. He did not believe in appeasing interest groups. He upheld private property, free enterprise, small government, federalism, and the virtues of family and faith. He did indeed say that “the chief business of America is business” — but also that “the ideal of America is idealism.” As Alan Greenspan says,
History has paid little attention to the achievements of Coolidge because he seemed to be unduly passive. Yet Amity Shlaes, as his biographer, exposes the heroic nature of the man and brings to life one of the most vibrant periods in American economic history.
Merry concludes his review by reminding us of the relevance of Coolidge’s presidency to our times:
The Coolidge years represent the country's most distilled experiment in supply-side economics — and the doctrine's most conspicuous success. That success is the central Coolidge legacy, brought home with telling authority in Ms. Shlaes's work. This book's time is propitious. As the nation faces a looming economic crisis wrought in large measure by mounting public debt, the Coolidge experiment offers insights into what an alternative course might look like. Ms. Shlaes has given us a detailed examination of that alternative course.
This post was written by Robert Asahina, Fellow of The 4% Growth Project.
Robert Asahina has been a newspaper and magazine editor and writer, a book publishing executive and editor, and a data management consultant. He was editor in chief and deputy publisher of Broadway Books, president and publisher of the adult publishing group of Golden Books, and vice president and senior editor of Simon and Schuster; deputy managing editor of The New York Sun and an editor at The New York Times Book Review, Harper's, George, and The Public Interest; and a consultant at Freddie Mac. He is the author of "Just Americans" and of numerous articles and reviews for The Wall Street Journal, Harper's, The New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere.
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