On her MSNBC show last night, Rachel Maddow repeated the historical canard that Herbert Hoover's inaction was responsible for the worsening of the Great Depression. She repeated the usual line that his reluctance to spend money allowed the nation to sink further into disaster. She also compared his commitment to austerity to the modern Tea Partiers. Readers of this blog are well aware of the historical inaccuracies there. And this canard gets repeated ad nauseum, especially on the left. So with that in mind, I issue an open challenge to Rachel Maddow:
Ms. Rachel Maddow
Dear Ms. Maddow,
On your show of August 3rd, you argued that Herbert Hoover was responsible for the deepening of the Great Depression because of his commitment to what we would now call "austerity" and his refusal to act aggressively and use government spending to prop up the economy. Your portrayal of Hoover as a proto-Tea Partier committed to free markets and laissez-faire is, however, historically inaccurate.
One need only glance at Hoover's own writings to see your mistake. In his acceptance speech upon receiving the GOP nomination in 1932, he said: "We might have done nothing. That would have been utter ruin. Instead, we met the situation with proposals to private business and the Congress of the most gigantic program of economic defense and counter attack ever evolved in the history of the Republic." Over the course of that year, Hoover proposed a variety of new spending programs as well as the largest peacetime tax increase in US history. His set of programs foreshadowed the New Deal, and even FDR's advisor Rex Tugwell admitted: "When it was all over, I once made a list of New Deal ventures begun during Hoover’s years as secretary of commerce and then as president…. The New Deal owed much to what he had begun." Government spending over Hoover's presidency increased by 47%, hardly evidence of a refusal to act or a commitment to austerity. Of course the Smoot-Hawley tariff and a near-prohibition of immigration are hardly the acts of a man committed to small government. Finally, Hoover was convinced that maintaining high wages was the key to prosperity, and he successfully convinced major employers to not cut wages in the early 30s. The result, of course, was the 25% unemployment that characterized his presidency.
In summary, Hoover was, to borrow the title of Joan Hoff Wilson's biography, a "forgotten progressive."
The evidence for this, as I've shown, is not found in the writings of right-wing cranks, but in Hoover's own words and those of his contemporaries. Modern historians such as David Kennedy recognize this as well.
You are clearly a smart and passionate person and you have frequently criticized the right for what you see as their intellectual dishonesty. If you are as committed to intellectual honesty and open debate as you say, then I hope you would accept the following challenge:
I challenge you or the guest of your choice to a debate on the topic "The Great Depression was caused by laissez-faire capitalism and cured by big government." If you don't want to do a debate, I would gladly appear on your show to do an interview on the topic. Given your commitment to open inquiry, I would think you would gladly welcome the opportunity to expose your viewers to a dissenting view. After all, if you are correct, you have nothing to fear but fear itself. Plus, your competition at Fox and Fox Business regularly have guests with dissenting views and your commitment to open debate and intellectual honesty is at least as strong as theirs, is it not?
You can find my complete CV here: http://myslu.stlawu.edu/~shorwitz/Vitae/Horwitzlatest.pdf. As you'll see, I've written and taught about the Great Depression and my views would seem to be exactly those you reject, so you should relish the opportunity to have my views aired and rebutted.
Your producers can contact me at email@example.com. I'll be happy to rearrange my schedule if you are willing to accept my challenge.
An intellectually honest person would either admit her historical errors and/or take up my challenge. I hope you do both.
Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics
St. Lawrence University