Any smart historian of the 1930s is a New Deal critic. The Obama administration unquestionably needs to respond more effectively to the current crisis than the Roosevelt administration did to the Great Depression. But not because the "New Deal didn't work," as conservative pundits are now frequently saying -- it did. It didn't go far enough fast enough, and it included some other mistakes from which we can usefully learn, but ignoring its successes will only make things worse.
If you prefer irony to panic, you might consider the peculiar spectacle of the current administration, a bitter opponent of the New Deal, deploying the full force of the New Deal's legacy to stave off the financial crisis. We've been bailing like it's 1933, with the Exchange Stabilization Fund joining the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee in an effort to stop credit from vanishing. And now Congress has provided an emergency-relief program of the kind that made the New Deal work. But can New Deal programs succeed without New Dealers running them? Judging by the last time Americans tried it, during Herbert Hoover's last year of office, the answer is, sadly, no.
Responding to the collapse of several major investment banks this week, John McCain reassured us, "I think still -- the fundamentals of our economy are strong." That move comes from an old playbook: On Oct. 25, 1929, Herbert Hoover declared, "The fundamental business of the country, that is the production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous basis."
Thomas Pynchon's characters in Against the Day worry about America's "capitalist Christer Republicans" as only the inhabitants of a thoroughly Protestant universe can. It's easy to mistake Pynchon's jittery, inventive monologues and his resentment of social order for the ramblings of a stoner hippie. But if Pynchon is a hippie he also drank his Protestantism deeply, and his sense of ineffable divinity sits uneasily alongside the certainty Christianity Americans often profess.
The U.S. Civil War cost $6.6 billion in 1860 dollars, with which you could have bought freedom for all American slaves, set each of them up with forty-acre parcels and mules, and still have about $3.5 billion to cover back pay. So, the war was a bad bargain; more importantly, fumbling its aftermath represented an unforgivable waste of so many dead. And much as we like to talk about Lincoln's leadership, the villains and cavilers who squandered the dearly bought victory are an integral part of the Civil War story.