Sunday, July 01, 2007

Updike on the Depression

I've just read John Updike's New Yorker review of Amity Shlaes' book on the depression. It was a bizarre review. Most of the review is spent summarizing the book's thesis, in essence that FDR's interventionist policies hurt more than helped, and we would have been better off with someone less interventionist. I was waiting for Updike's rebuttal, but it never really came. Instead, there was this:
My father had been reared a Republican, but he switched parties to vote for Roosevelt and never switched back. His memory of being abandoned by society and big business never left him and, for all his paternal kindness and humorousness, communicated itself to me, along with his preference for the political party that offered “the forgotten man” the better break. Roosevelt made such people feel less alone. The impression of recovery—the impression that a President was bending the old rules and, drawing upon his own courage and flamboyance in adversity and illness, stirring things up on behalf of the down-and-out—mattered more than any miscalculations in the moot mathematics of economics.

Let me try to understand. It's better to have someone who gives the impression of helping poor people than someone who actually helps poor people? Really?

He also says:
Business, of which Shlaes is so solicitous, is basically merciless, geared to maximize profit. Government is ultimately a human transaction, and Roosevelt put a cheerful, defiant, caring face on government at a time when faith in democracy was ebbing throughout the Western world.
I'm not sure what it means to say that government is a "human transaction," but as for the "faith in democracy" part, where exactly does FDR's court-packing plan (mentioned in the article) fit in?

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