Book Review: "The Forgotten Man" by Amity Shlaes

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.  By Amity Shlaes.  (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007.  468 pp.  ISBN978-0-06-093642-6.)

            The forgotten man has been variously personified since the start of the twentieth century as the man that the economy forgot--traditionally, the lowest income individual during the Great Depression.  Amity Shlaes shows in her book, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, that the forgotten man was actually a term coined approximately fifty years earlier by William Graham Sumner in a lecture against well-intentioned progressives (12).    By using standard economic theory tied to the Dow Industrial average and the unemployment rate, Shlaes shows that the Presidential policies begun by Herbert Hoover and enlarged and overtaken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt actually kept the Great Depression going for far longer than was necessary as government became the largest employer in the history of the United States.  By using these economic indicators, Shlaes also shows that though Roosevelt chose to use the image of the forgotten man as that of the lowest social class, the true forgotten man of the Great Depression was, as Sumner had predicted, the average working class who received little from Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.

            Shlaes’ book is a deconstruction of the economic issues preceding and surrounding the Great Depression beginning slightly prior to the stock market crash in the 1920s.  By using easy to understand statistical interpretation, Shlaes shows her readers that the more active the federal government became in the economic recovery projects of the New Deal, the further the Dow Industrial Average dropped and unemployment shot skyward.  This interpretation of the statistical data also shows that though the stock market did spiral downward after the market crash, that it further decreased to severely low levels with New Deal projects, and did not come close to recovery until after the death of Roosevelt despite America’s entry into World War II.

            Though this could easily have turned into a polemicist writing, particularly as it was written as a mass market publication, Shlaes does not tear down the presidential administrations completely.  Instead, she keeps her focus tightly on the economic measures giving credit to each president as it is due.  However, it is clear that this writing is intended to be a comparative to the current century’s economic woes even though she does not delve into them in any real depth. 

            Instead, Shlaes’s strength in this writing is that it can easily be used as a jumping on point for the average reader who wants to know more about how governmental influence affects economic trends particularly in the private sector.  This is the brilliance of Shlaes’ work.  It is not whether she credits or discredits FDR, the New Deal, the myriad of alphabet agencies he created.  The reality is that in the New Deal period and in the economic situation, specifically, there exists economic factual truth somewhere behind all the rhetoric, public relations campaigns, and “policy” that may not always be visible to a public that is unwilling to look beneath the surface of the rhetoric. 

            Shlaes provides the more casual reader a timeline in the very start of the book, which is a very helpful addition.  She also helpfully includes a breakdown of the principal players in a cast of characters.  She also summarizes her work skillfully in her introduction so that even the less scholarly reader can truly see what she will lay before them.  However, this is not entirely a non-scholarly work despite its obvious lack of footnote or endnote citations to follow.  She does bring forth bibliographic notes for specific passages divided by chapter, and includes an extensive bibliography.

            Unfortunately, Shlaes gets a few of her historical facts misplaced, and could have expanded further into some of her examples making this truly appear as a mass market work, but the ardent historian can still find gems inside.  This is not designed as a comprehensive piece for historians to quote from in years to come, but rather a moving of the veil to see the true economic picture behind the reverence given to Roosevelt’s New Deal.  In this way, Shlaes gives both the average reader and the historian a new set of talking points previously hidden by a curtain through which only glimpses have previously been printed. 

              Proponents of Keynesianism will no doubt be naysayers of this work, as Shlaes shows the hazards of this economic theory.  The opposite will be true of the opponents of Keynesianism.  Regardless of which side of the aisle the reader sits, however, this work does show that citizens who are weary of the drudgery of a poor economy often support relief no matter from where it arrives. Therefore, though readers will undoubtedly come into this work with their own biases, all should be able to leave this work with a better sense of the smoke and mirrors of politics in the attempt to negotiate economic strategies.