Pork: True in the '30s, true today

Amity Shlaes

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

TESS VIGELAND: This week the House Appropriations Committee approved $153 million-worth of legislative earmarks. They include everything from a "Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree" in North Carolina to funding for the sewage system in South Bend, Indiana. Yesterday. Senator Barak Obama revealed a list of 113 earmarks he's requested. And he challenged fellow presidential candidates to do the same. Commentator Amity Shlaes says there's a lot of history behind the pork barrel.


Amity Shlaes: Once upon a time Congress wasn't about earmarks. That time was the '20s. Washington just didn't have the money.

In 1929, federal spending was worth less than 3 percent of GDP. Then came the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt was an inspiring president. But he didn't really like economics.

When the great thinker John Maynard Keynes came to call, Roosevelt was disappointed. He told a colleague that all Keynes did was present a "rigmarole of figures."

Roosevelt didn't know how to stop the Depression. So, he turned to giving the voters something. He and Congress started giving farmers cash to idle land or curtail crops. They encouraged farmers to slaughter 6 million pigs early in order to limit the supply of pork and drive up the price.

Roosevelt also gave to seniors by granting them pensions through the Social Security Act. Blacks got something: new construction at Howard University.

Roosevelt even had something for the press. He provided them with government jobs, care of the Works Progress Administration.

That was like handing out salaries to Google employees after a crash. By the end of the campaign of '36, federal spending had tripled to 9 percent of the economy. Billions were flowing to constituent groups.

What about the result? The Depression didn't end. On the contrary, unemployment rose in the later '30s. The Dow didn't come back either.

But the political effect we all know. In 1936, Roosevelt took 46 of 48 states. And American groups ever after expected their gifts from government.

The New Deal begat The Great Society that begat the Republicans' Medicare Part D. By offering that costly new entitlement to prescription drugs before an election, Bush was pulling a Roosevelt.

So remember the rule about earmarks. Help for the economy? Maybe. Help for politicians? Sure. It was true in the 1930s, and it's still true today.

Vigeland: Amity Shlaes's new book is The Forgotten Man, a new history of the Great Depression. We're always interested in your thoughts.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...