By AMITY SHLAES
You get the feeling President Obama is girding for battle with the financial sector. In last week’s State of the Union address, he promised to regulate the industry. On Jan. 21, he was blunter, warning that he would not let companies that enjoyed “soaring profits and obscene bonuses” block his financial reforms. “If these folks want a fight,” he said, “it’s a fight I’m ready to have.”
This declaration of war echoes that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1936, late in his campaign for a second presidential term, FDR spoke of the challenges of “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking.” Wall Streeters and businessmen hated him, he said, adding that “I welcome their hatred.”
Then Roosevelt escalated: “I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and the lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master.”
Mr. Obama might want to stick to a moderate approach. FDR’s war against business played to the crowd, but it hurt the economy. While monetary policies impeded recovery in the late 1930s, it was the administration’s assault on companies and capital that ensured the Depression’s duration.
Roosevelt had initially opted for safety and picked relatively moderate advisers. His first Treasury Secretary, William Woodin, was a railroad executive. Roosevelt also kept over a Hoover-era official, Jesse Jones, at the TARP of the day, the Reconstruction Finance Corp. James Warburg, the son of Wall Street banker Paul Warburg, also joined the team.
In the crucial days before March 5, 1933, when FDR declared a “bank holiday” to halt the bank run, New Dealers worked with Republicans to resolve the financial crisis. When it came to reforming Wall Street, they were likewise measured. Yes, they created the Securities and Exchange Commission. But their regulation seemed designed to serve markets, not stamp them out. At least mostly.
Though there was nothing establishment about the centerpiece of the early New Deal, the National Recovery Administration, it was friendly to big business. Indeed, too much so. Under the NRA, the largest players in each industrial sector were judged too big to fail not because their failure would create systemic financial risk—the argument for banks today—but rather in the faith that firms of such scale could serve as engines of recovery.
And Roosevelt, like Presidents Obama and Bush, dumped billions in cash onto the country. There was, not surprisingly, a Roosevelt market rally, just as there has been an Obama rally.
But complete recovery proved elusive. The public spending programs had less effect than hoped. Smaller firms complained, accurately, that the NRA’s minimum wages and limits on hours disadvantaged them. Unemployment was still high. FDR knew he could not keep asking Congress to authorize enormous outlays forever.
Frustrated, the president shifted to retribution. By 1935, FDR decided that firms, especially big firms, were impeding recovery. They must now redeem themselves and save the economy by sacrificing—or else.
The attacks started with taxes. In 1935, well before the “hatred” speech, FDR led Congress in passaging a law that replaced a flat rate on corporate income with a graduated rate—itself a penalty on larger firms. Personal income taxes went up, as did other rates. In 1936 FDR signed into law the undistributed profits tax, which aimed to force reluctant firms to disgorge cash as dividends or by paying higher wages. This levy too was graduated, with a top rate of 27%.
The 1935 Wagner Act was a tiger that makes today’s union law look like a pussycat. It favored unions over companies in nearly every way, including institutionalizing the closed shop. And after Roosevelt’s landslide victory in 1936, the closed shop and the sit-down strike stole thousands of productive workdays from companies, punishing earnings and limiting ability to hire.
Of particular relevance today was Roosevelt’s switch on antitrust policy. The large companies once rewarded by the NRA now became targets.
The final front of the war was utilities, the country’s most hopeful industry. FDR’s 1935 law, the Public Utilities Holding Company Act, made it so difficult for private-sector firms in this industry to raise capital that it was called a death sentence.
The result of it all was the Depression within the Depression of 1937 and 1938, when industrial production plummeted and unemployment climbed back into the higher teens. Even John Maynard Keynes chided FDR for his attitude about businessmen: “It is a mistake to think they are more immoral than politicians.”
Among themselves, the New Dealers acknowledged failure. FDR’s second Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, eventually determined that the problem was lack of what he labeled “business confidence.” Late in the decade, Morgenthau dared to call for tax cuts. He even placed a sign on his desk asking, “Does it contribute to recovery?” Roosevelt told him the sign was “very stupid.”
Ultimately the war abroad required FDR to give up his war at home. Now the same industries that had been under prosecution were at the War Production Board, signing contracts. Scholars have argued that wartime spending ended the Depression. But the truce with business played an important role.
The 1930s story suggests not that any individual reform is wrong per se. It reminds us rather that frustrated presidents are inconsistent, that antibusiness policies are cumulative, and that hostility yields more damage than benefit. Presidents can choose between retribution and recovery. They cannot have both.
Miss Shlaes, a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, is author of “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression” (HarperCollins, 2007).