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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Forgotten Man (Graphic Edition)’
Question of the Day
“We are all Keynesians now,” Milton Friedman famously wrote in 1965. At that time, Friedman was reflecting on several decades of government interventionism in economic policy. The phrase was revived by Richard Nixon in 1971, when he took America off the gold standard, and again in 2008-10, when the Bush and Obama administrations and the Democratic majority in Congress passed a number of laws intended to fix the economy through spending and regulation: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Dodd-Frank Act and Obamacare. Such government interference in the marketplace may have staved off a second Great Depression, but five years after that flurry of legislation, the American economy still wheezes along with capital on the sidelines and the lowest labor participation rate since 1982.
It is unfortunate that policymakers of those years ignored the lessons so expertly taught by Amity Shlaes in her 2007 classic “The Forgotten Man,” a book denigrated by intellectuals like Jonathan Chait and Paul Krugman, but praised by former Sen. Jon Kyl and former Rep. and now Gov. Mike Pence, and waved around in a Senate confirmation hearing by Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican. Ms. Shlaes forecasted the effects of the Obama recovery by looking back to the Roosevelt administration’s ineffectual cocktail of public works projects, tax policies and legislative initiatives. Now, Ms. Shlaes, with the help of illustrator Paul Rivoche and writer Chuck Dixon, has produced “The Forgotten Man” as a graphic novel, a niche genre of literature often denigrated as “comic books for adults,” but in reality a form of painstakingly executed high art. This will be evident to anyone who reads the graphic edition of “The Forgotten Man.”
The literary and visual motifs of the graphic novel genre are obviously drawn from comic book art. As such, Mr. Rivoche and Mr. Dixon consciously inject a superhero element into the storyline, using utilities executive and 1940 GOP presidential nominee Wendell Wilkie as the narrator and protagonist of the story, in contrast to his rival, Roosevelt adviser and Columbia University professor Rex Tugwell.
Though the bulk of the storyline revolves around these two individuals’ historical experiences in the Great Depression, “The Forgotten Man” is also laced with a number of vignettes from American life and politics that capture the spirit of the age: dust bowl farmers; the Schechter Brothers, the Brooklyn poultry merchants who successfully sued the federal government for meddling in their business; American blacks who were looking for Roosevelt to stay out of economic affairs. One could for hours examine just the book’s cover art, a close-up of grey, hollow-eyed trenchcoats and fedoras standing in a line, their faces screaming shame, anguish and fear. Panels are rendered with extraordinary historical detail, even down to Works Progress Administration posters and the title of a book on Roosevelt’s desk — William James’ “Pragmatism.”
“The Forgotten Man” is, above all, a critique of the Progressive effort, and the artistic rendering of a cast of Progressive characters uses shadow and obscurity to emphasize the top-down, faceless, bureaucratic style of managing the economy. One recalls the villain Strelnikov in the film version of “Dr. Zhivago”: bespeckled, faceless, black-clad officials inspecting chicken shops and public works projects. A customer insists to the authoritarian poultry inspector, Mr. Alampi: “The Schechters know their business, mister,” to which Alampi replies, “That’s for the code to decide, pal.” Roosevelt’s face itself is never seen, what we are often treated to is a looming cigarette holder protruding from a silhouette of his head. This leaves room for Mr. Rivoche to unveil the facial shock of FDR’s advisers when the president suggests arbitrarily that the price of gold should be increased, or that competing economic plans be merely woven together.
Also powerful is the constant refrain of “the forgotten man,” a phrase originally used to refer to the public victimized by redistributionist schemes. “The Forgotten Man,” wrote Charles Sumner in 1883, “is the man who pays. The man who prays. The man who is never thought of.” Mr. Rivoche brilliantly executes the essence of the quote by giving us a silhouette of a man in a brimmed hat laboring over a tool-and-dye machine. The same “Forgotten Man” phrase was later co-opted by Roosevelt to strike a chord with the economically downtrodden, an irony that Ms. Shlaes, Mr. Rivoche and Mr. Dixon do not let us forget.
A significant dimension, no doubt intentional, to the work is the political and policy similarities of the 1930s and the 2010s. As the Roosevelt Progressives revel in the high-tech machinery and rigid organization of Soviet collectivism (“Centrally Planned Wheat!” gasps Tugwell at the sight) we think of Tom Friedman sighing in The New York Times that America isn’t more like China. Roosevelt thunders an appeal in the 1936 election, “I can assure you we will keep our sleeves rolled up!” — a reminder of President Obama’s credit-for-trying approach to the economy in 2012. A Progressive idea like government control of farm wages matches today’s minimum wage hike push, an idea sure to depress employment. By the time we reach 1938, the Depression still lingers, and Roosevelt has turned his attention to the storm brewing in Europe. The New Deal has failed.
Though a delightful, if esoteric, pleasure for adults, “The Forgotten Man (Graphic Edition)” has special value as a powerful and fun tool for teaching young adults about history and economics. The fast pace of the book and its emphasis on dialogue doesn’t always give ample time for an exposition of fairly complex economic concepts, and sometimes presumes too much familiarity with the same. However, in an age in which conservatives are looking to recover a sense of how to talk about America, the promise of the free market, and the limits of government management, the graphic edition of “The Forgotten Man” is a dazzling achievement.
David Wilezol is the co-author, with William Bennett, of “Is College Worth It?” (Thomas Nelson, 2013).
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