It was May 1939. In less than two years, the Empire of Japan would spoil America's splendid isolation (a term that actually refers to a period in British foreign policy) and drag us into World War II, thus ending the Great Depression.
But on that May afternoon, electric fans cooled the House Ways and Means Committee room as the congressmen puzzled over the economy's persistent doldrums. No previous recession had lasted even half as long. The unemployment rate had again topped 20 percent -- though it had been seven years since the New Deal began. Henry Morgenthau, Roosevelt's Treasury Secretary, was testifying, and he was brutally honest about the results of the greatest (to that time) experiment in Keynesian fiscal policy.
"We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. And I have just one interest, and if I am wrong … somebody else can have my job. I want to see this country prosperous. I want to see people get a job. I want to see people get enough to eat. We have never made good on our promises ... I say after eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started … And an enormous debt to boot."
Burton Folsom Jr. in his new book, "New Deal or Raw Deal," has unearthed the above quote and much more -- an extraordinarily timely bit of historical housekeeping. Over the weekend we learned that several GOP governors, starting with Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, are going to decline funds from the "stimulus" bill just passed by lopsided Democratic majorities in Congress. This, too, has happened before.
In 1932, Congress passed the Emergency Relief and Construction Act. Congress made $300 million (I know, today we spend that on disposable coffee cups for the agriculture department) available to the states to relieve unemployment. Some states, like Illinois, seized disproportionate shares ($55.4 million) while other states, like Massachusetts, declined all federal help. Gov. Joseph Ely believed that relief should remain a local matter. The Boston Civic Symphony performed a number of concerts to benefit the unemployed. Boston College and Holy Cross played an exhibition football game for charity. And the city's schoolteachers agreed to donate 2 percent of their salaries for six months to benefit the poor.