Amity Shlaes
The Forgotten Man

As more bad news arrived, Fed officials, Mellon, Hoover, and many others began to reconsider. After all, they reflected, an adult who had begun watching the market in 1907 had had to wait two full decades for the Dow to double, until 1927, the year Tugwell and the others had sailed on the President Roosevelt. In 1927, the Dow Jones Industrial Average crossed the 200 mark. Yet from the 200 of the spring of 1927 it moved to 381—nearly doubling again—by the summer of 1929. This increase seemed too steep not to be somehow economically and morally suspect. Perhaps the country was indeed in the throes of a dangerous inflation.

As the days passed, more bad news came. London was concerned; at Shorters Court, where U.S. securities were commonly traded, chaos reigned until the closing bell. 'Fear for our prosperity' wrote a London correspondent wonderingly, reflecting Britain's attitude. He quoted the London Daily News on its concerns that U.S. incomes would fall so much that Americans would no longer be able to buy European exports. Only prosperity had made Americans willing to buy expensive European goods, despite the extra tariffs. 'The tariff wall will become temporarily insurmountable.'

On the Continent, too, the potential for trouble was mounting: recently Gustav Stresemann, the fragile Weimar Republic's best statesman and diplomat, had died. Who would hold Europe together now? 'Successor a Problem,' concluded the New York Times. 'Weimar Germany might fail now after all. The result was that gold, seeking a haven, flowed into the United States—$175 million in 1929 and $280 million the next year. If the Federal Reserve had followed the old gold standard rules, this would have increased money available to banks and citizens. But George Harrison at the New York Fed and others believed in the inflation theory, and thought that more cash would exacerbate inflation. The Fed therefore veered from the old gold standard tradition. It sterilized the effect of all that new money by selling bonds—in effect, soaking up money from the economy to offset any monetary expansion. Looking at a broader period, one could see the trend was even more marked: the actual money supply available dropped by nearly 4 percent between the end of 1928 and the end of 1930. The sterilization program more than offset some small interest-rate cuts taken shortly after the crash. Instead of loosening in a time of trouble, the Fed was tightening.

The more Hoover thought about it, the more he too liked the idea of a war against inflation. Market fever was in any case the sort of thing Hoover deplored; he had been complaining about abuse of credit for four years. Meanwhile, the market was beginning to look worse. Not merely the margin sellers but also the regular players were suffering on Wall Street. In the fall of 1929 the Dow's new utility index plunged as well. One night in November, Robert Searle, president of the Rochester Gas and Electric Corporation, gassed himself to death after confronting more than a million in losses in a month. The death seemed a metaphor for the failing of the utilities industry, all the more so because Searle had started out as Thomas Edison's office boy. Among the stocks that had disappointed him, the papers suggested, was Commonwealth and Southern. Willkie now had some 75,000 stockholders, and he was worried about their fate. The share price had been in the middle $20s in June. Now it was closer to $15.

At the beginning of that same month, November, Hoover received a confidential report from Fed officials that the market readjustment was not completed but would instead last months more. The mood was shifting to crisis, and Hoover felt energized—another rescue opportunity in the offing. He mulled over foreign policy, preparing an Armistice Day speech. Even as he moved to act, he savored the situation, commissioning the famed portraitist Leonebel Jacobs to produce pictures of himself and Lou. 'The primary question,' he later wrote, 'at once arose as to whether the President and the federal government should undertake to mitigate and to remedy the evils.' His conclusion was that yes, this was a job to be taken on: 'we had to pioneer a new field.'

Right away—in November 1929—Hoover pushed to expand an existing public buildings program by the healthy sum of $423 million on the theory that the spending would boost the economy. In Washington, builders put up great structures—a new agriculture department, for example. He asked his secretary of commerce, the man who held his old job, to establish a national system of cooperation among the states in public works projects. When Congress convened in December, the president called for 'the expansion of the merchant marine, the regulation of inter-State distribution of electric power, the consolidation of railroads, the development of public health services, and departmental reorganization for greater economy.'

But this was only the beginning. This time, he thought, perhaps the president could broker the recovery. 'Words are not of any great importance in times of economic disturbance,' he announced. 'It is action that counts.' The problem with the economy, at least as it was evolving, was mostly a monetary or an international one—Germany was already in depression. Yet at first Hoover focused on fixing it with domestic fiscal tools. And before a year would pass, Hoover had done damage that did matter on three fronts: by intervening in business, by signing into law a destructive tariff, and by assailing the stock market.

First came business. Hoover believed that business spending might make a difference. He thought he might cajole or bully Main Street, the industrial world, and labor leaders into pulling the economy back to recovery. Less than a month after Black Tuesday, on November 19, 1929, he therefore called a conference of railroad presidents in the cabinet room of the White House. Railroads mattered: they were at the time still the principal means of transport for both people and goods across the nation. The president asked the executives to sustain construction. Mellon came to the meeting. Later that week, industry leaders announced they planned a full billion dollars in outlays—an amount equal to more than a third of what the federal government had spent on all its budgeted projects in 1929.

Two days later, November 21, the cabinet room was the site of another meeting, this time of leaders from big industries. The guests included Treasury secretary Mellon, again, Henry Ford, Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Pierre Du Pont, Alfred Sloan Jr. of General Motors, and Julius Barnes, who was chairman of the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. After hearing their views, Hoover did something radical. He noted that 'liquidation' (layoffs) had accompanied all previous American recessions and that the federal government had allowed those liquidations to take place. This time 'his every instinct' told him things must be different; wages must stay in place. Otherwise values would be 'stepped down'; industry must help to 'cushion down' the situation. At the worst, businesses in trouble might reduce hours to share jobs. But the general push must be to keep high wages and keep up employment.

That same day Hoover met with labor leaders including William Green of the AFL and his colleague Matthew Woll, whom Robert Dunn had maligned in the meeting with Stalin. From them Hoover collected an assurance that they would not push for an increase in wages above what was already being negotiated. The next day, the president had the construction industry in; the next morning, November 23, found him telegraphing governors and mayors not to cease public works, but to continue their activities so as to take up the slack in unemployment. Within a week Hoover had held two other conferences, one with national agricultural organizations and one with utility executives—Sam Insull of Chicago attended, though not, as far as we know, Willkie. Historians of the Hoover administration later recorded that everyone agreed with his ideas on the necessity for continued expansion except Insull, 'who deprecated all such activities' and wondered aloud whether his industry, at least, was really in trouble. For good measure, Hoover created a temporary bureau to coordinate the expansion of public works among states.

Hoover's wage ideas sounded good to some. And they were indeed the opposite of federal policies in the last downturn. But they did not really make sense: to force business to go on spending when it did not want to was to hurt business. And in some areas—wages, especially—the president's policy was dramatically counterproductive. As the crash continued, profits began to drop. Yet businesses could not adjust: if they wanted to be good citizens, they had to keep their pledge to Hoover and sustain employment and wages. The president was, essentially, requiring that companies take the hit in profits instead of employment.

Later scholars would note the effect of the new precedent: wages of those who had jobs stayed the same. But many did not keep their jobs, or lost cash by being assigned part-work—Hoover's job sharing. This was different from 1921, when companies had been able to cover their losses by cutting wages. But there was also, of course, an effect on employers. Their wage costs forced down the value of company shares, aggravating the downturn that Hoover had vowed to fight. Hoover's humanitarian policy sent a signal nation-wide: do not lower wages. In the end, businesses had to choose between lowering wages and shutting down. Often, they shut down.

Some observers would, then or later, note the perversiry. Coolidge, who had retreated to his home in Northampton, Massachusetts, the Beeches, would later rail against 'these socialistic notions of government.' Tugwell was preparing to pen an acid tract titled 'Mr. Hoover's Economic Policy,' noting that Hoover liked competition, but only in some cases; in others he backed the concept of companies working together. This, Tugwell said, amounted to 'a desire to have his cake and eat it too.' Albert Wiggin of the Chase bank argued that Hoover had his logic about wages backward. 'It is not true that high wages make for prosperity,' Wiggin would protest at one point. 'Instead, prosperity makes high wages.'

But Hoover proceeded, undaunted. He ordered governors to increase their public spending when possible. He also pushed for, and got, Congress to endorse large public spending projects: hospitals, bridges. The president documented meticulously all the positive responses he received from governors and senators when he asked them to increase spending. Among the telegrams came one from Franklin Roosevelt of New York, who wrote that he for his part expected to expand 'much-needed construction work' in his state and that construction would be 'limited only by estimated receipts from revenues without increasing taxes.' By April 1930 the secretary of commerce would be able to announce that public works spending was at its highest level in five years. At the same time, Hoover went to work on another front: farm prices. These were at painful lows, in part because of production incentive Programs advanced by Hoover himself earlier in the decade. The government had lured farmers into overproduction.

There was a monetary element to the problem as well. Looser money or credit policies could have limited the farmers' problems. So in fact could have more orthodox adherence to the gold standard-giving up sterilization. But Hoover chose to sack to the narrow challenge of price without regard to monetary factors. If farm prices were too low; he would raise them. Strengthening protection might bring them up. Protectionism had in any case been part of the Republican Party platform in 1928, in which the party had re-affirmed the tariff as a 'fundamental and essential principle of the economic life of this nation.' And on April 15, 1929, well before the autumn siege, the president had as good as promised a new agricultural tariff: 'Such a tariff not only protects the farmer in our domestic market, but also stimulates him to diversify his crop.'

Now, with farmers in need, the tariff idea gained momentum. Law-makers pushed for it. In the House, the leader was Willis Hawley of Oregon; in the Senate, Reed Smoot of Utah. In the end the legislation called for one of the highest tariffs in U.S. history. The new law made sense on an emotional level: America was in trouble, so America's domestic producers must be protected with fresh advantage. In the autumn of 1929 it became clear that a large new tariff would indeed pass the Congress—and that it would be up to Hoover whether to sign it.

Still, for the general economy the tariff was bad news. As Benjamin Anderson of Chase Bank would point out in an address the next March, the preceding fifteen years, going back to 1914, had seen an excess of exports over imports of $25 billion. America sold more than it bought in the international arena. Others agreed. A new tariff would shut U.S. sellers off from the world at a time when they badly needed customers. It would deprive foreign governments of trade. It would drive the prices of imports up for consumers at home. It would hurt other nations, nations that the United States hoped would become its markets. It would certainly hurt the worker. It would also, in the long run, hurt the farmer, by offering yet more—and greater—incentives to continue doing something that was uneconomical.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.