U.S. Economic Recovery Prospects, 1934

From The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, by Amity Shlaes (HarperCollins, 2007), Kindle Loc. 3321-3353:

Lillienthal and the TVA’s engineer, Llewellyn Evans, sailed to Britain to study something new that the United States might copy: what the Britons called their “grid,” which used power from both private and public companies. “The problem of linking public and private companies is similar to that of the Tennessee Valley,” Lilienthal told a reporter in New York at the Hotel Roosevelt before he sailed. In fact the UK grid owed some of its efficiencies to Sam Insull [a Chicago entrepreneur then facing prosecution by the FDR administration, but later found not guilty on all counts], who had advised Westminster repeatedly. The British press saw irony in the fact that Lilienthal of the TVA wanted to have a look at it. Lilienthal, the Electrical Review chuckled, said he was looking for a man of “seasoned specialized judgment, such as [Mr. Lilienthal] regards as essential for determining future policy in the States, but circumstances have deprived the American people of his experience and that of his associates.”  

THE BRITISH WERE ON TO something. Another reality was becoming clear that summer of 1934: the drama of the prosecutions and the spring cleanups was hiding something. While the Norris Dam and other New Deal projects might be ahead of schedule, the economy was not, at least not in the sense of being where it had been before. The American Federation of Labor had reported in late spring that 780,000 workers who had been reemployed by the National Recovery Administration in the autumn had been unemployed again by the spring of 1934. William Green, the AFL’s leader, began fighting with Richberg at the NRA over employment numbers: the AFL wanted industry, not relief agencies, to solve the economic problem. The job had to be done, and it had to be partly Richberg’s, since, challenged Green, “We cannot indefinitely support one-sixth of our population on money borrowed against future taxes.” There were still nearly eleven million unemployed. And the Dow was heading in the wrong direction; it would spend the summer below the 100 mark of the preceding winter. Looking up, the New Dealers were taken aback. “The Depression was refusing to disappear,” Tugwell later wrote of the whole period.

Roosevelt now regrouped. Midterm elections were that November. The prosecutions had originally been about punishing financiers for the crash. If Insull’s debentures had lost all their value, then Insull must be guilty. But now the prosecutions and investigations should also be about justifying the New Deal, economically and morally. The Fireside Chats would help. Roosevelt and others had noticed that the medium of radio really did seem to create a new reality, separate from the reality of old politics. If voters focused on the voice and the message, and not the tardy recovery, that might carry the Democrats forward.

It was a hope that the administration concentrated on—for even as government lawyers prosecuted, they were also finding themselves on the legal defensive. The National Recovery Administration, for instance, was under fire in Congress, and from business, as a bureaucracy out of control. A report submitted to the fifty-seventh annual meeting of the American Bar Association noted that by June 25 of 1934, some 485 codes and 95 supplements had been approved by the president and 242 more by the Administrator for Industrial Recovery. In the period of a year, 10,000 pages of law had been created, a figure that one had to compare with the mere 2,735 pages that constituted federal statute law. In twelve months, the NRA had generated more paper than the entire legislative output of the federal government since 1789.

To survive, Richberg and the Justice Department warned—accurately—that the NRA must pass review by the Supreme Court, and soon. In any case, the law required renewal by Congress in 1935. Its constitutionality was a big question: could such a large program really be legal under the Constitution’s commerce clause? Marking Constitution Day in September, the New York Times commented that in regard to such legislation, “the winds of controversy over this issue are already rising.” With the election coming up, the New Deal had to score victories in national politics; if it couldn’t win a genuine return to prosperity, then it might succeed with the negative victories of bringing down the villains.

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