The Great Depression, which engulfed the America of the 1930s, made its mark on American culture, economics, and politics. In The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, Amity Shlaes sets out to examine why the original crash in 1929 led to a depression that lasted through the following decade, concluding that both Hoover’s and, to a greater extent, FDR’s uncertainty about capitalism as a system, desire for control, and interest in government planning led them to create an uncertain atmosphere where businesses could not regain their feet, prolonging the depression unnecessarily.
Shlaes provides generous context for every argument that she makes. Several early chapters are devoted to introducing the political and economic situation in the 1920s, the intellectuals who would become influential voices during FDR’s terms, and the presidency of Herbert Hoover, whose policies set the stage for those pursued by FDR. Successive chapters deal with topics as varied as monetary policy, the TVA’s effect on the utilities industry, the administration’s clashes with the Supreme Court over the legality of federal intervention in state business legislation, the creation of special interest groups in the 1936 election, increasing unionization and propagandizing, and race relations. The efforts of private industry to cope with the changing situation are detailed throughout. Shlaes is a fair examiner. She does not blindly follow standard conservative rebuttals, which focus on monetary policy, supply-side economics, and the influence of communism in the era. Instead, she paints a nuanced picture of the many facets of the economy that intertwined to create each problem and explains the long-term effects of the solutions that the administration offered. She even allows that some New Deal policies had some good consequences, like the creation of roads and other public-interest construction, without overlooking their many harmful costs to private business, national expecations, and personal attitude.
Stylistically, Shlaes’ writing is readable and enjoyable. Though the introductory detours mean that the reader does not enter the Depression for several chapters, they are all engaging and prove to be important in understanding the period as a whole. At times, her style is overly terse, and the constant use of abbreviations (NRA, TVA, CCC…) is confusing, but the latter is not really her fault. Personally, I would prefer footnotes to the bibliographic endnotes, which are difficult to refer to as one reads, but the story reads pleasantly enough that extensive footnotes would probably be distracting to all except devoted researchers.
Altogether, The Forgotten Man is an excellent economic history of the Great Depression. If you have wondered about the effects of the Depression and the New Deal on twentieth-and twenty-first-century American culture, politics, and economics, I definitely recommend reading this book.