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
May 27, 2013
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.