Douthat on Updike on Shales

Ross Douthat does a fine job of pointing out the problems with John Updike’s review of Amity Shale’s new book on the Great Depression:

So far as I can tell from parsing this solipsistic flapdoodle, John Updike thinks the New Deal should be judged a great success because FDR was politically skillful enough to persuade Updike’s Dad to become a Democrat. Which is well and good so far as it goes: Political savvy is no small thing in a President, particularly at a moment of global disarray, and the perception of government activism in the face of the Great Depression was politically necessary even when economically undesirable. But one of the implications of Shlaes’ book, which Updike is supposed to be reviewing, is that FDR could have given us the fireside chats and the rhetoric of government action and yes, even the stronger safety net without the counterproductive attempts at centralized planning and the relentless scapegoating of business, both of which helped keep unemployment well above ten percent until World War II intervened. One can give Roosevelt the credit he deserves for the “inspirational feat” of keeping faith in American democracy alive among the men waiting in Studs Terkel’s soup lines, but it’s still worth addressing The Forgotten Man’s argument – which Updike doesn’t even touch, with all his florid talk of “the moot mathematics of economics,” the “merciless” quality of business, and government as “ultimately a human transaction” – that the men waiting in those soup lines might have benefited from an actual job as well, and that the New Deal’s role in stifling the growth that might have created such jobs (and shortened those soup lines) needs to be considered when assessing Roosevelt’s legacy. A Presidency that makes Americans “feel less alone” in the midst of a crisis is an admirable thing, but so is a five percent unemployment rate, and Updike leaves unrebutted Shlaes’ suggestion that a better, less-utopian New Deal might have given America both.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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