An Unfriendly Climate for Business

From the White House on the heels of the Wagner Act came a thunderous barrage of insults against business. Businessmen, Roosevelt fumed, were obstacles on the road to recovery. He blasted them as "economic royalists" and said that businessmen as a class were "stupid."[36] He followed up the insults with a rash of new punitive measures. New strictures on the stock market were imposed. A tax on corporate retained earnings, called the "undistributed profits tax," was levied. "These soak-the-rich efforts," writes economist Robert Higgs, "left little doubt that the president and his administration intended to push through Congress everything they could to extract wealth from the high-income earners responsible for making the bulk of the nation's decisions about private investment."[37]

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During a period of barely two months during late 1937, the market for steel — a key economic barometer — plummeted from 83 percent of capacity to 35 percent. When that news emblazoned headlines, Roosevelt took an ill-timed nine-day fishing trip. The New York Herald-Tribune implored him to get back to work to stem the tide of the renewed Depression. What was needed, said the newspaper's editors, was a reversal of the Roosevelt policy "of bitterness and hate, of setting class against class and punishing all who disagreed with him."[38]

Columnist Walter Lippmann wrote in March 1938 that "with almost no important exception every measure he [Roosevelt] has been interested in for the past five months has been to reduce or discourage the production of wealth."[39]

As pointed out earlier in this essay, Herbert Hoover's own version of a "New Deal" had hiked the top marginal income tax rate from 24 to 63 percent in 1932. But he was a piker compared to his tax-happy successor. Under Roosevelt, the top rate was raised at first to 79 percent and then later to 90 percent. Economic historian Burton Folsom notes that in 1941 Roosevelt even proposed a whopping 99.5-percent marginal rate on all incomes over $100,000. "Why not?" he said when an advisor questioned the idea.[40]

After that confiscatory proposal failed, Roosevelt issued an executive order to tax all income over $25,000 at the astonishing rate of 100 percent. He also promoted the lowering of the personal exemption to only $600, a tactic that pushed most American families into paying at least some income tax for the first time. Shortly thereafter, Congress rescinded the executive order, but went along with the reduction of the personal exemption.[41]

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve again seesawed its monetary policy in the mid-1930s, first up then down, then up sharply through America's entry into World War II. Contributing to the economic slide of 1937 was this fact: From the summer of 1936 to the spring of 1937, the Fed doubled reserve requirements on the nation's banks. Experience has shown time and again that a roller-coaster monetary policy is enough by itself to produce a roller-coaster economy.

Still stinging from his earlier Supreme Court defeats, Roosevelt tried in 1937 to "pack" the Supreme Court with a proposal to allow the president to appoint an additional justice to the Court for every sitting justice who had reached the age of 70 and did not retire. Had this proposal passed, Roosevelt could have appointed six new justices favorable to his views, increasing the members of the Court from 9 to 15. His plan failed in Congress, but the Court later began rubber-stamping his policies after a number of opposing justices retired. Until Congress killed the packing scheme, however, business fears that a Court sympathetic to Roosevelt's goals would endorse more of the old New Deal prevented investment and confidence from reviving.

Economic historian Robert Higgs draws a close connection between the level of private investment and the course of the American economy in the 1930s. The relentless assaults of the Roosevelt administration — in both word and deed — against business, property, and free enterprise guaranteed that the capital needed to jump-start the economy was either taxed away or forced into hiding. When FDR took America to war in 1941, he eased up on his anti-business agenda, but a great deal of the nation's capital was diverted into the war effort instead of into plant expansion or consumer goods. Not until both Roosevelt and the war were gone did investors feel confident enough to "set in motion the postwar investment boom that powered the economy's return to sustained prosperity."[42]

This view gains support in these comments from one of the country's leading investors of the time, Lammot du Pont, offered in 1937:

Uncertainty rules the tax situation, the labor situation, the monetary situation, and practically every legal condition under which industry must operate. Are taxes to go higher, lower or stay where they are? We don't know. Is labor to be union or non-union? . . . Are we to have inflation or deflation, more government spending or less? ... Are new restrictions to be placed on capital, new limits on profits? ... It is impossible to even guess at the answers."[43]

Many modern historians tend to be reflexively anti-capitalist and distrustful of free markets; they find Roosevelt's exercise of power, constitutional or not, to be impressive and historically "interesting." In surveys, a majority consistently rank FDR near the top of the list for presidential greatness, so it is likely they would disdain the notion that the New Deal was responsible for prolonging the Great Depression. But when a nationally representative poll by the American Institute of Public Opinion in the spring of 1939 asked, "Do you think the attitude of the Roosevelt administration toward business is delaying business recovery?" the American people responded "yes" by a margin of more than 2-to-1. The business community felt even more strongly so.[44]

In his private diary, FDR's very own Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, seemed to agree. He wrote: "We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. ... 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!"[45]

At the end of the decade and 12 years after the stock market crash of Black Thursday, 10 million Americans were jobless. The unemployment rate was in excess of 17 percent. Roosevelt had pledged in 1932 to end the crisis, but it persisted two presidential terms and countless interventions later.