Published on 4 May 2015
Americans today place enormous pressure on presidents to “do something”…anything, to get the economy going. There was one president, though, Calvin Coolidge, who did “nothing” — other than shrink government. What happened? America’s economy boomed. Is there a lesson to be learned? Award-winning author, historian, and biographer Amity Shlaes thinks so.
March 17, 2016
May 22, 2014
At Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, Stephen Gordon talks about the odd distribution of goalie decisions on penalty kicks and how they’re quite similar to politicians:
Goaltenders jumped in more than 90% penalty kicks in the sample: the frequency of staying put was only 6.3%. Kickers, on the other hand, distributed their targets in roughly equal proportions.
The goaltenders’ strategy was not wholly ineffective: when the kicker aimed left or right (71.4% of the time), goaltenders guessed correctly 6 times out of 11. But the fact remains that the frequency of the goaltender staying put (6.3%) is much smaller that the frequency of kicks aimed down the middle (28.7%).
This doesn’t mean that goaltenders should never jump. What it does mean is that goaltenders jump far too often. Why?
Bar-Eli et al suggest an explanation: ‘action bias’. This is presented as an example of Kahneman and Miller’s (1986) [PDF] ‘norm bias’. Goaltenders believe is is less bad to follow the ‘norm’ (i.e., to jump) and fail than to not jump and fail. In other words, goaltender think that jumping and missing is less costly than not jumping and missing.
Which brings us to economic policy. Politicians are continually demanded to ‘do something’ about a kaleidoscopic array of grievances, and the norm in these cases is to promise to do something. As far as politicians and most voters are concerned, doing something is better than doing nothing — even when doing nothing is the correct response.
In many cases — possibly the majority of cases — doing nothing is the smart move. A recent example is the concern about the so-called ‘skill shortage’. When firms complain that they can’t get the workers they want at the wages they are willing to pay, the correct response is to do nothing: the market response to a labour shortage is to let wages increase.
But doing nothing is almost always bad politics: it is invariably interpreted as a lack of concern, and this perceived indifference will be pounced upon by other political parties. A politician who promises to act polls better than one who promises to do nothing.
A goalkeeper who fails to jump looks like an idiot if the ball goes left or right. The fans roar their disapproval and the keeper learns that doing the dramatic-but-wrong thing is better for his reputation than the non-dramatic (but more likely to be correct) non-action. Politicians also learn that the media will turn themselves purple denouncing the lack of action (even when that’s the correct decision) and short-term polling numbers move in the wrong direction.
As Calvin Coolidge is reported to have said, “Don’t just do something; stand there.” But even if you’re right not to take action, it will be harder to bear up under the criticism of the “do something” crowd.
February 23, 2014
I missed this post earlier in the week, as Mark Steyn briefly talks about visiting the grave of the 30th president in Plymouth Notch, Vermont:
Presidents are thin on the ground in my corner of New Hampshire. There’s Franklin Pierce down south, and Chester Arthur over in western Vermont (or, for believers in the original birther conspiracy, southern Quebec), but neither is any reason for a jamboree. So, for a while around Presidents Day, I’d drive my kids over the Connecticut River and we’d zig-zag down through the Green Mountain State to the Coolidge homestead in Plymouth Notch. And there, with the aid of snowshoes, we’d scramble up the three-foot drifts of the village’s steep hillside cemetery to Silent Cal’s grave. Seven generations of Coolidges are buried there all in a row — including Julius Caesar Coolidge, which is the kind of name I’d like to find on the ballot one November (strong on war, but committed to small government). The 30th president is as seemly and modest in death as in life, his headstone no different from those of his forebears or his sons — just a plain granite marker with name and dates: in the summer, if memory serves, there’s a small US flag in front, and there’s no snow so that, under the years of birth and death, you can see the small American eagle that is all that distinguishes this man’s gravestone from the earlier Calvin Coolidges in his line.
I do believe it’s the coolest grave of any head of state I’ve ever stood in front of. It moves me far more than the gaudier presidential memorials. “We draw our presidents from the people,” said Coolidge. “I came from them. I wish to be one of them again.” He lived the republican ideal most of our political class merely pays lip service to.
I came to Plymouth Notch during my first winter at my new home in New Hampshire, and purchased some cheddar from the village cheese factory still owned by his son John (he sold it in 1998). So, ever afterwards, the kids and I conclude our visit by swinging by the fromagerie and buying a round of their excellent granular curd cheese.
I just finished reading Amity Shlaes’ recent biography of Coolidge (highly recommended, by the way), and I have to admire a man who was able to walk away from the presidency despite the loud demands of his party to run again (and was almost certain to be re-elected if he had chosen to run). Coolidge was the last of the strong advocates for small government to occupy the White House. His immediate successor was very much the opposite: many of the big government ideals of FDR were strongly prefigured in the life and works of Hoover, despite later historians’ claims that Hoover was all about laissez faire economics.
May 27, 2013
I managed to talk for more than 15 minutes, but I could have boiled my remarks down to these two points.
- Small government is the best way to achieve competent and effective government. Coolidge and his team were able to monitor government and run it efficiently because the federal budget consumed only about 5 percent of GDP. But when the federal budget is 23 percent of GDP, by contrast, it’s much more difficult to keep tabs on what’s happening – particularly when the federal government operates more than 1,000 programs. Even well-intentioned bureaucrats and politicians are unlikely to do a good job, […]
- Higher tax rates don’t automatically lead to more tax revenue. Coolidge and his Treasury Secretary practiced something called “scientific taxation,” but it’s easier just to call it common sense. Since Amity’s book covered the data from the 1920s, I shared with the audience some amazing data from the 1980s showing that lower tax rates on the “rich” led to big revenue increases.
Dan Mitchell, “Two Lessons from Calvin Coolidge”, International Liberty, 2013-05-26
February 13, 2013
Ed Driscoll has an interview with author Amity Shlaes at PJMedia:
MR. DRISCOLL: How long after finishing The Forgotten Man did you start work on Coolidge, and how did you do your research?
MS. SHLAES: I think I started working on Coolidge while I was writing The Forgotten Man because I wrote one draft of Forgotten Man, this history in the 1930s. And then I thought well, this doesn’t work narratively because I didn’t describe what the change was from; where they started, what were their premises. Their premises were the premises of the ’20s and, you know, the ’20s premises were maybe smaller government is better, maybe still the pendulum of government action, reduce uncertainty in the policy environment so that a business can go forward. All these ideas were ideas from the ’20s, and whose ideas were they? Well, they were Calvin Coolidge’s and before Coolidge, Harding’s ideas. But mostly Coolidge’s, I think he’s the hero of the ’20s.
So I went back at the very last minute with Forgotten Man and put Coolidge in and he felt just right. I really liked him. And I thought well, we don’t — we don’t appreciate him much and what I learned in that short look for writing the new beginning to Forgotten Man made me want to go back and give him his own show.
MR. DRISCOLL: Coolidge is sadly remembered today by many people for only one quote and that’s “The business of America is business,” which is actually a bastardization of what Coolidge really said. Could you place that quote into context?
MS. SHLAES: Yes, that’s from a nice speech to newspaper people, actually. And he says the chief business of America is business, and he also says the chief ideal of Americans is idealism. So there’s a yoking together of two concepts, if you go back and read the whole speech, and it’s not fair to paint him as a only capitalism or capitalism to the exclusion of other areas. He’s not like Ayn Rand, for example, because he always tends to bring in the spiritual — other spheres in — and he doesn’t think only capitalism always prevails. He sees a balance. What he doesn’t like is when capitalism or business intrudes upon spiritual. And that’s very different from modern libertarianism.
So anyway it’s all there and that’s — he was extremely idealistic and extremely spiritual, some would say pious. Herbert Hoover called him a fundamentalist, and that was not a compliment coming from Herbert Hoover.
February 12, 2013
Amity Shlaes has written a new biography on President Calvin Coolidge, reviewed here by Gene Healy:
If there was ever a time when the president could simply preside, it has long passed. As early as the Eisenhower era, political scientist Clinton Rossiter observed that the public had come to see the federal chief executive as “a combination of scoutmaster, Delphic oracle, hero of the silver screen, and father of the multitudes.” Under the pressure of public demands, the office had accrued a host of responsibilities over and above its constitutional ones: “World Leader,” “Protector of the Peace,” “Chief Legislator,” “Manager of Prosperity,” “Voice of the People,” and more.
To that daunting portfolio add “Feeler-in-Chief,” a term coined in all earnestness by The New York Times‘s Maureen Dowd in 2010 while lashing out at Barack Obama for being insufficiently emotive about the BP oil spill. Obama, she wrote, had “resisted fulfilling a signal part of his job: being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it.”
Poor MoDo would have kicked the cat in sheer frustration if confronted by the implacable, inscrutable Calvin Coolidge, whose reaction to the job’s more unreasonable demands was a Bartleby-like “I prefer not to.”
[. . .]
Here was “a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president,” Shlaes argues. And though history remembers “Silent Cal” mostly for his reticence and frequent napping, Shlaes reminds us that “inaction betrays strength.” In politics, it’s often easier to “do something,” however unwise, than it is to hold firm: “Coolidge is our great refrainer.”
Alas, after Coolidge‘s elegant introduction, the sledding gets much tougher. Long stretches of this 456-page tome read like an info-dump from Shlaes’s clearly formidable research files. Like the hardscrabble farmers of Plymouth Notch, you need to set your jaw grimly and persevere through a long winter of sentences that should have been left on the cutting room floor, like: “Coolidge met with [Budget Director Herbert] Lord six times and reduced a tariff on paintbrush handles by half, his second cut that year, the other a reduction in duty on live bob quail.” Shlaes should have followed the example of her famously taciturn subject, who in his 1915 opening address as president of the Massachusetts Senate delivered a crisp little homily of 44 words, ending in “above all things, be brief.”
Still, the level of detail she provides inspires reflection on the vast gulf between today’s GOP and the grand party of old. Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge cut taxes and shrank spending. They were pro-peace and anti-wiretapping. They embraced “normalcy” instead of stoking fear. And — go figure — they were also popular. Today’s Republicans could profit from studying their example.
January 14, 2013
The way President Barack Obama’s acolytes are calling for bold action in his second term, you’d think he had been some kind of prudent Calvin Coolidge in his first.