Bold, Persistent Experimentation vs. Bold Persistence

By Roosevelt Institute |

fdr-profile-serious-150FDR knew that even when an idea failed, he had to keep trying.  Republicans think that if they keep trying the same thing, they can’t fail.

It would be difficult to imagine a better illustration of the stark difference between the political and ideological aftermaths of the economic collapses of 1929 and 2008 than the statement made on Thursday, the eve of the anniversary of the inauguration of the WPA in 1935, by House Speak John Boehner.

“Nothing is off the table except raising taxes,” Mr. Boehner declared when addressing negotiations on raising the debt ceiling. “I believe that raising taxes will hurt our economy and hurt job creation in our country.”

What we are seeing yet again is a clash between faith-based economics and fact-based economics.

Mr. Boehner and most of his fellow Republicans are people of faith. Their faith, though, is not in God, but in the Market. Their devil is the government. They know the Truth, and facts and evidence will not shake their faith.

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The same difference between policy based on faith and on facts was the greatest one between Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The former was an ideologue, the latter a pragmatist. In 1932, FDR exemplified the fact-based approach when he famously called for “bold, persistent experimentation” and said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” For his part, Mr. Hoover, like most people in his party today, was oblivious to evidence. His position (and, far more, that of today’s full-blown believers in the Market God) was: Take the Method (as they see it, there is only one) and try it. If it fails, deny its failure and try it again — and again . . . and again . . . . But, above all, keep trying the same thing.

Low taxes on the rich, little government regulation, and concentration of wealth and income at the very top led to the Great Depression. When they were reinstated during the administration of George W. Bush, those policies produced the Great Recession. In between, when President Bill Clinton proposed a modest increase in the top marginal tax rate as part of his 1993 budget proposal, “conservative” economists predicted disaster and, basing their positions on received dogma, every Republican in Congress voted against the Clinton budget plan. It was followed by a period of sustained prosperity and a budget surplus.

Those facts make no impression on ideologues of the right. Nor does the fact that such government programs as the WPA substantially mitigated the ill effects of the Depression for millions of its victims and that similar programs would do the same today.

The difference boils down to this: Bold, persistent experimentation versus bold persistence.

Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters and Professor of History at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi and the author of ten books, including The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941.

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