Review of “Calvin Coolidge” by David Greenberg

On Tuesday, Sept. 9, 1919, Boston policemen voted to strike. They wanted to unionize; management wouldn't allow it. That evening more than 1,100 of the 1,500-plus cops walked off their beats. News of the walkout spread and “looters and hooligans” gathered in South Boston, the North End and the West End.

It began innocently enough, but as David Greenberg writes in Calvin Coolidge, “After midnight, the tomfoolery escalated into riots.” Windows were smashed, shops raided, three men died. Mayor Andrew Peters called out the state militia, which couldn't stop the violence. By Thursday, the governor called the full state guard, which did. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis fired the striking cops and began hiring replacements. American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers sent a telegram to Peters and Governor Calvin Coolidge protesting the firings. The governor didn't budge. “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time,” wrote Coolidge.

According to Mr. Greenberg, Rutgers historian and columnist for Slate, those 15 words changed everything. Coolidge went from a reasonably successful pol to a rising star. He won reelection by more than 100,000 votes and was nominated for vice president by the Republicans at their 1920 convention.

The Massachusetts governor's decision made him popular with middle-class voters who distrusted aggressive unionism. Mr. Greenberg peers through the lens of public relations at the Boston strike and Coolidge's subsequent actions as governor, vice president, and—following the death of President Warren Harding—president. He argues that our 30th president's small-government, pro-business policies were ill-considered but well sold.

He's half right. Harding and Coolidge ran after World War I. Taxes were high, wartime measures were still in place and dissenters sat rotting in jails. Republicans promised to return the country to “normalcy,” which sounded OK to voters.

They kept that promise. The government let dissenters out of prison, scaled back or scrapped wartime restrictions (such as the Army's absurd claim that it owned all radio frequencies), froze federal spending and reduced the national debt. Taxes were cut four times during Coolidge's six years in office. With wartime surtaxes still in place, the top tax rate was about 70 percent when he became president, 20 percent when he retired.

“From 1923 to 1929, wages rose; inflation, unemployment, and interest rates fell,” writes Mr. Greenberg. Supporters called this the “Coolidge Prosperity,” but he disagrees. He explains, “How much any president should receive credit or blame for the course of the economy on his watch is impossible to determine,” but argues Coolidge shouldn't be given much credit.

He takes several stabs at proving Coolidge's policies had little to do with the Roaring Twenties. The wartime buildup caused the economic boom. And also automobiles. And the spread of electricity. One is half surprised he doesn't mention universal indoor plumbing. All these contributed to economic growth; so did Coolidge's tax cuts.

Then there's the blame. Coolidge's “brand of economics,” writes Mr. Greenberg,”…would be widely discredited, faulted for the disasters that followed”—i.e., the Great Depression. Coolidge is judged economically shortsighted. His “naive faith in the gospel of productivity and the benevolence of business…deterred him from even asking the questions that might have mitigated the misfortune.”

The president cut the taxes of rich and poor, and some people used that money to buy stocks, which was a bad thing. It gave “investors more dollars to feed the market, helping to push the healthy investment of the mid-1920s into the gambling that followed.” Some bought stocks on credit, which Mr. Greenberg regards as self-evidently nuts and cause for regulation. It's one of five things he fingers for causing the Depression.

Here we see the disconnect between professional historians and economists. Historians want a broad canvas full of social causes and important political actors; economists try to screen out static to find quantifiable causes—preferably only one. It's telling that Mr. Greenberg walks readers through a maze of things that might have caused the Depression without once mentioning the name Milton Friedman.

Why Friedman? Because the late Nobel Prize-winning economist proved that the Depression was largely a monetary problem. The Federal Reserve's contracting of the money supply scotched things—beginning about seven months after Coolidge left office. It's not even a very controversial assertion among economists. At Friedman's 90th birthday, current Fed chairman Ben Bernanke told the honoree he was right: “[W]e did it. We're very sorry. But thanks to you, we won't do it again.”