Recommended Meltdown Reading: "The Forgotten Man"

Last Updated Sep 24, 2008 2:01 PM EDT

If you happen to be on a long airplane trip this week and can't get the current Wall Street debacle out of your head, here's a suggested read: "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression."

The history is a major reassessment of how efforts to blunt the Great Depression fared. Written by Amity Shlaes, a former Wall Street Journal editorial writer and now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the book is an engaging if sometimes bumpy review of how Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the alphabet soup programs to combat depression worked or didn't work. The book came out last year but has been recently printed (HarperCollins) in paperback.

Shlaes is interesting because of her conservative viewpoint which I don't personally share but I find provocative. She is an acquaintance of mine. We once shared a cab after an event in New York some years ago and I found her bright and personable. Her writings in the Journal fit the typical WSJ worldview but Amity did prick a few sacred cows in ways that I found amusing.

Her literary work pricks more sacred cows such as a popular one that FDR and his New Deal did a great deal to bring the nation to recovery and help to the "Forgotten Man" that FDR referred to in a 1932 radio broadcast.

Neither Hoover nor Roosevelt, in Amity's view, really understood the Roaring '20s and weren't all that much help in the Crashing '30s. Hoover totally gummed up recovery chances with his tariff programs that choked off a lot of budding business. FDR's neo-socialism with programs such as the National Industrial Recovery Act (creating the National Recovery Administration) was so heavy with rules and diktat that it choked off innovation and hopes of competition. Luckily, it was declared unconstitutional.

Amity traces a number of human stories in her book. My favorite involve a Kosher pair of brothers from Brooklyn who chafe at being told being told what kinds of chicken they can sell and how they can sell them. They battled in court.

As Shlaes later said in an interview: "One lesson [from her book] is that you do not need to mess with the economy for it to recover."

I agree with her only up to a point. But it doesn't matter what I think. In times like these, views like Amity's take on enhanced value, whether you like them or not. So, take a look if you're on a trip and have the time.