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From History, a Forgotten Lesson

The urge to help others is easily understood. Who will pay isn’t.

Seventy-five years ago this winter, President Franklin Roosevelt was trying to restore the economy to help someone he called “the forgotten man.”

Roosevelt’s forgotten man was the poor man, the homeless bum, one he had described during his 1932 campaign as the man “at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” To help this man, FDR in 1934 was fashioning programs that still shape our lives today.

Social Security, which would become law the next year, was to help the forgotten senior citizen.

The Wagner Act, likewise a 1935 law, shaped the modern union in the name of helping the forgotten worker.

Other legislation tried to help forgotten rural Americans, especially farmers braving the Dust Bowl.

During those Depression days, however, many Americans were also thinking about another forgotten man, one identified by the philosopher William Graham Sumner. Sumner described this man algebraically. “A” might want to help “X,” Sumner said. That sounded good—charity, philanthropy. “B” might also want to help “X”—again, a humane impulse. The problem came when “A” and “B” passed a law that coerced “C” into funding the perhaps worthy, but perhaps dubious legislation for “X.” “C” was Sumner’s forgotten man, the taxpayer, the man who paid, the man who prayed­—“the man who never is thought of.”

Researching the Great Depression for my history of the period, I found that Americans really did know both forgotten men, Roosevelt’s and Sumner’s. Through those challenging years the debate ran on—my forgotten man is the one who matters, one person would say. No, it is my forgotten man who matters more, another would reply.

The economy sustained the debate. For while the stock market gained much ground after the initial crashes, at no point in the entire 1930s did it regain its 1929 high. Unemployment, too, remained terrifyingly high—in the mid-teens and higher. Just when everyone expected full recovery came the second dip, the “Depression within the Depression” of 1937 and 1938.

Today, looking at the economy, we have our own version of the same debate. Will helping specific groups benefit us all? Or will Washington’s largesse hurt some of us? The family that paid its mortgage may sympathize with neighbors who did not. But that first family may find that the higher taxes it pays to fund the second family jeopardize its ability to keep its own home.

Today, there is yet another forgotten man waiting in the wings.

The forgotten man is not the union member, the older citizen or even the man now homeless because he never understood what it meant to take out a subprime loan. The new forgotten man is our grandchildren.

The grandchildren are the ones who will have to pay for the debts we are taking on to help the forgotten men we know. They will pay through higher taxes than we have known. And they will pay through inflation. The dollars they earn or inherit will simply be worth less over time.

The takeaway from the 1930s is clear: Help one forgotten man at your peril, for in doing so you often create another.

Amity Shlaes is author of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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