Monday, February 16, 2009

Right-Washing the New Deal

This op-ed by Karl Frisch originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

It's probably a good thing that cable news generally doesn't draw much of an audience from the 18- to 24-year-old demographic. Otherwise, history professors across the nation could very well be witnessing the undoing of their work to educate students about the dire economic climate the United States faced for much of the 1930s.

Those who have been watching cable news lately have undoubtedly noticed the litany of conservative media figures attempting to rewrite history by denigrating the tremendous successes of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal policies in what amounts to an orchestrated effort to derail the economic recovery plans of President Obama.

Fox News Washington managing editor Brit Hume recently called Roosevelt's policies "a jihad against private enterprise," just after claiming that "everybody agrees, I think, on both sides of the spectrum now, that the New Deal failed." That may be accurate if by "both sides of the spectrum" Hume is referring to the right and far-right over at Fox News.

Hume's own jihad against the facts, however, represents only a small portion of the historical misrepresentations passed off as reasoned debate about the New Deal.

Witness the day-break machinations of the crew over at MSNBC's Morning Joe. During a recent broadcast, Joe Scarborough and co-host Mika Brzezinski kicked off a string of attacks against the president's recovery plan, using the New Deal as their dubious weapon du jour. Mika said of Obama's plan, "I think we're going to have the same unemployment in three or four years, just like the New Deal." That just isn't true -- unemployment fell every year from 1933 through 1937.

Her buddy Joe didn't fare much better, cherry-picking data in telling viewers that unemployment was at "20 percent" in 1938, ignoring the downward trend in unemployment that occurred under the New Deal.

Joe isn't alone -- conservative columnists George Will and Mona Charen have played the same numbers game to falsely claim the New Deal failed to reduce unemployment, a contention disputed by historians and economists.

Don't take my word for it -- data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the unemployment rate in 1933 clocking in at 24.9 percent and falling each year thereafter (to 14.3 percent in 1937) until 1938 when it rose to 19 percent. Why the increase from 1937 to 1938? As Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has noted, it was a reversal of these very same New Deal policies, which had reduced unemployment, that actually led to recession and drove the numbers back up. It's worth noting, by the way, that these numbers do not include those in federal work-relief programs (at the time, BLS counted those employed by the New Deal's emergency work programs as unemployed). So, the unemployment numbers were actually lower than reported in these years.

The strengthening of the social safety net during the 1930s stimulated the economy while also providing assistance to those waiting to feel the economic recovery for themselves. That's perhaps why Fox News' Bill O'Reilly saw fit to lambast portions of the president's plan aimed at assisting those most in need during these difficult times, claiming last week on his television show that increased funding for programs like food stamps has "nothing to do with stimulating the economy." Though his ego will never let him admit it, O'Reilly is dead wrong.

Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Elmendorf and former McCain campaign economic adviser Mark Zandi have both said that extending food stamps does, in fact, stimulate the economy. Zandi stated last year that "extending food stamps [is] the most effective [way] to prime the economy's pump," while Elmendorf noted in congressional testimony just last week that "[t]ransfers to persons (for example, unemployment insurance and nutrition assistance) would also have a significant impact on GDP."

Faced with the prospect that history will again demonstrate that government spending and investment are important tools in confronting an economic crisis, it is now clear that conservatives are engaged in a misinformation campaign to mislead the public.

So, when radio host Rush Limbaugh, whom former President Ronald Reagan reportedly called the "Number one voice for conservatism" and House Republicans named an honorary member of Congress in 1994, recently said of Obama, "I hope he fails," it makes one wonder if he might not be speaking for all of his pals on the right.

If Limbaugh and conservatives truly want the president to "fail," rewriting the history of the New Deal may very well be the first salvo in a long war to defeat Obama's agenda for America.

Karl Frisch is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog, research, and information center based in Washington, D.C.

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