The Myth of 'Herbert Hoover Economics'

Jeff Jacoby

4/13/2011 2:04:00 PM - Jeff Jacoby

To convey their disdain for the ongoing Republican pressure to reduce federal spending -- pressure that led to the recent agreement with President Obama for $38 billion in cuts in the current fiscal year -- critics have been reaching back eight decades for what they seem to regard as the ultimate in fiscal put-downs.

"Watching the debate in Washington," write Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift in a recent column, "it's like Herbert Hoover versus John Maynard Keynes, and sadly Hoover is winning." Hoover, they explain, "was curiously passive" in the face of the Great Depression and "he responded with a renewed focus on balancing the budget."

Populist Jim Hightower blasts Republicans for enabling Hoover to make "what looks to be a full comeback to power," complete with a return to Hoover's economic prescription: "Insist on reducing the size and spending of governments. . . . 'The deficit is the devil,' cry the New Hooverites, as they wildly slash spending and try to kill federal programs."

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asserts that "one of the most basic principles of economics is that when an economy is anemic, governments should use deficit spending as a fiscal stimulus." A lawmaker who "believes that the response to a weak economy is to slash spending," he says, "is embracing the approach that Herbert Hoover discredited 80 years ago." Last month, Kristof's colleague Paul Krugman scorned House Speaker John Boehner "for declaring that since families were suffering, the government should tighten its own belt." That, Krugman snorted, is "Herbert Hoover economics."

If there is one thing most people have learned about Herbert Hoover, it is that his timid response to the financial crisis of 1929 brought on the Great Depression. Instead of slashing federal spending and clinging to laissez-faire economics, the received wisdom goes, Hoover should have done just the opposite: plowed more money into the economy, relying on deficit spending to stimulate growth.

The only thing wrong with that narrative is that federal spending under Hoover didn't plummet. It went through the roof.

Hoover was sworn in as the 31st president of the United States on March 4, 1929. By the time his term ended four years later, federal outlays had climbed more than 50 percent in dollar terms; they had almost doubled when measured in purchasing power; and they had tripled as a fraction of national income. "If stimulus is the solution to high unemployment," remarks Santa Clara University economist and law professor David Friedman, "the Great Depression should have ended almost before it began."

Following the Wall Street crash of 1929, the Hoover administration went into spending overdrive. Real federal expenditures climbed by 4.7 percent between 1928 and 1929, but over the next three years they rose, respectively, 8 percent, 17.2 percent, and 15.7 percent. Exclude military outlays, and spending under Hoover exploded by a phenomenal 259 percent. Looking back at the federal government's growth during the 1920s, economist Randall Holcombe points out that in percentage terms, expenditures grew more in the four Hoover years than they would during the first seven years of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency.

FDR is remembered today, of course, for the vast expansions of the New Deal. But as the Democratic standard-bearer in 1932, he lacerated Hoover as a big-spending Republican.

"For three long years," Roosevelt said in accepting his party's nomination, "I have been going up and down this country preaching that government . . . costs too much. I shall not stop that preaching."

Stop that preaching he didn't. He accused Hoover of presiding over "the greatest spending administration in peacetime in all our history . . . an administration that has piled bureau on bureau, commission on commission." He slammed the Republican's record of "reckless and extravagant" spending, and of thinking "that we ought to center control of everything in Washington as rapidly as possible." He mocked those who thought "a huge expenditure of public funds" was the best way to grow the economy of succumbing "to the illusions of economic magic." His running mate, Texas Congressman John Nance Garner, even warned that Hoover was "leading the country down the path of socialism."

For his own part, said FDR, "I ask you very simply to assign to me the task of reducing the annual operating expenses of your national government." Indeed, he promised to enforce "absolute loyalty to the Democratic platform and especially to its economy plank." That plank called for "an immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by . . . not less than 25 per cent."

In its zeal to cut today's multi-trillion-dollar budgets, the GOP is certainly fair game for critics. But those critics might want to think twice before blasting contemporary Republicans for their Hooverian impulses. Herbert Hoover can be fairly faulted for many things, but rolling back the federal budget isn't one of them.