Jay Evensen: Calvin Coolidge wouldn't shed tear over sequester
Deseret News Archives
To watch Calvin Coolidge is to marvel that, even in a day when, compared to today, people were media novices, such a person could rise to power in a democracy.
Search YouTube, if you don't believe me. He's there, in black and white, reading a speech, his eyes looking more at the papers in his hands than at the camera, his voice a high-pitched monotone and his right hand coming up awkwardly from time to time to lend emphasis.
It's only when you write the words down and read them that you begin to see their relevance to the early 21st century.
"Silent Cal," as people have come to think of him, if they think of him at all, would have been thoroughly unimpressed with the squawking in Washington over the "sequester," which is designed to eliminate 2.4 percent of government's growth over 10 years.
He cut Washington's expenses without shedding tears over federal jobs. He presented a balanced budget every year he was in office. He also convinced Congress to lower the top marginal income tax rate from 50 percent in 1923 to 25 percent in 1925.
He had just started this quest when he stood in front of a camera in 1924. This was only 11 years after Americans had amended the Constitution to make the income tax legal, and Coolidge had watched the tax burden expand to meet the demands of a world war, then never retreat to previous levels.
"I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government and more for themselves," he said. "I want them to have the rewards of their own industry. This is the chief meaning of freedom.
"Until we can re-establish a condition under which the earnings of the people can be kept by the people, we are bound to suffer a very severe and distinct curtailment of our liberty."
For the most part, Coolidge has been lost to popular history. We recognize the "roaring '20s" without remembering the man who made the roar possible.
Historian and former journalist Amity Shlaes rectifies a lot of this in her new book, "Coolidge." Unfortunately, it won't be enough to drown out the modern media-savvy politicians who want people to believe government can spur prosperity by taking more of the people's money, and spending even more than that.
Shlaes, author of the critically acclaimed study of the Depression, "The Forgotten Man," makes a case for remembering Coolidge, writing that, "Our ignorance … diminishes our understanding of his era and our past." It also diminishes our understanding of the present.
It is significant to note that, even in his day, Coolidge was considered by many to be old-fashioned. But then, students of history would be hard-pressed to find any time in which austerity and prudence were considered hip or cool.
Prudence was woven into his character by the harsh realities of an upbringing in late 19th century rural Vermont. It shaped him, or perhaps it chiseled him.
Years later, while others were caught in the new popularity of mortgages as a way to leverage wealth in a burgeoning era of prosperity, Coolidge wasn't so sure.
"It's like finding money, to buy a home on our easy payment plan," an advertisement of the day read. Still, as Shlaes writes, Coolidge and his new wife decided to rent, even though by then he was a successful young lawyer. "Coolidge did not like to be beholden to bankers or anyone else, for that matter. Independence was his way of protecting his freedom to do what was right."
He wanted others to have that freedom, too.
When Washington cut taxes, it found that the rich actually paid more. "In 1927, those earning over $50,000 … would pay about 80 percent of the income taxes, whereas in 1920 those top earners had paid about half," Shlaes writes.
Maybe if Coolidge had been more media savvy, more charismatic, his legacy would loom larger. But then, a big part of his success came from knowing when to simply get out of the way of the American people.
By definition, that doesn't provide many headlines. It can, however, provide jobs.
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