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Friday, January 02, 2009

Some Thoughts for the HAW Panel Tomorrow on War and the Economy

From 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. tomorrow in the Empire Ballroom East of the Sheraton New York, 7th Ave. and 53rd St., HAW members and friends will participate in a roundtable: "One Faltering Economy 
and Two Wars: What Can Historians Contribute?
 Unfortunately, I can’t be there. While I’m sure there will no shortage of topics, I hope they will include the widely believed theory (at least among my students) that “wars have been good for the economy” in American history.

Variants of this thesis can be found among across the political spectrum. On the right, neocon Conrad Black argues that World War II “had restored prosperity after the free market had failed.” On the left, Paul Krugman similarly writes: “There's nothing magic about spending on tanks and bombs rather than roads and bridges. The reason World War II worked more effectively than the WPA [in terms of promoting economic growth] as that it was *bigger.*” While Krugman might prefer that this “bigger” spending be on roads and bridges, rather than bombs, this does not change the fact he still accepts the overall premise that spending on wars can be good for the economy. If anyone should have greater reason to call this theory into question, it is antiwar historians.

A good place to start are the works of Robert Higgs on war and the economy. Few historians have provided a more powerful response to the Krugman/Black thesis. Higgs examines the most commonly measures of wartime prosperity and finds them wanting. He makes a compelling case that genuine prosperity did not begin to return until the wartime demoblization of 1945 and 1946. Higgs followed in the tradition of Thomas Cochran who in 1961 had convincingly challenged the thesis of Charles Beard that the Civil War had spurred industrialization.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Crimes of Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Japanese Internment

I've never understood why so many historians regard FDR as a great president. For example, he failed to get us out of the Great Depression through the New Deal, refused to lift a finger to push through an anti-lynching bill, tried to pack the Supreme Court, turned away the Jewish refugees on the S.S. St. Louis, and pushed a Bush-like doctrine of unconditional surrender which encouraged the enemy to fight on to the bitter end. Under Harry Truman, that rigid doctrine provided the rationale for dropping the atomic bomb.

Most of all, FDR approved one of the most outrageous violations of constitutional rights in American history: the internment of Japanese Americans. Shouldn't that action alone guarantee him a place at the bottom (or near the bottom) in the presidential ranking lists of historians? Am I missing something? Perhaps someone can explain.

Here is a government propaganda film which tries to put FDR's internment policies in a sunny light:

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Danny Kaye's Wartime Musical Tribute to the Income Tax

One of the best illustrations of Randolph Bourne’s dictum that “War is the Health of the State” was the rise of the modern income tax during World War II. Before 1942, the tax covered only a small well-off minority. As the federal government lowered the brackets and raised the rates during the war, however, the old “class tax” became a “mass tax.”

The introduction of withholding was the primary means to accomplish this goal. The Office of War Information promoted payment of the tax as not only a patriotic duty but as a positive joy.

It also commissioned Irving Berlin to write “I Paid My Income Tax Today.” Here is an audio of the song as joyfully belted out by comedian and actor Danny Kaye. The lyrics are here if you want to sing along:

I said to my Uncle Sam
Old Man Taxes, here I am
And he
Was glad to see me
Mister Small Fry, yes, indeed
Lower brackets, that's my speed
But he
Was glad to see me

[1st refrain:]
I paid my income tax today
I never felt so proud before
To be right there with the millions more
Who paid their income tax today
I'm squared up with the U.S.A.
See those bombers in the sky?
Rockefeller helped to build 'em, so did I
I paid my income tax today

[2nd refrain:]
I paid my income tax today
A thousand planes to bomb Berlin
They'll all be paid for and I chipped in
That certainly makes me feel okay
Ten thousand more and that ain't hay
We must pay for this war somehow
Uncle Sam was worried but he isn't now
I paid my income tax today

[3rd REFRAIN with coda:]
I paid my income tax today
I never cared what Congress spent
But now I'll watch over ev'ry cent
Examine ev'ry bill they pay
They'll have to let me have my say
I wrote the Treasury to go slow
Careful, Mister Henry Junior, that's my dough
I paid my income tax
Now you've got all the facts
I know you'll pay your taxes too

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