Sunday, 1 March 2009

Hoover / Brown

Reading Geoffrey Perrett's America in the 1920s, one of the similarities that caught my attention was the plight of the luckless Herbert Hoover and that of the equally ill-starred Gordon Brown.

Here is Perrett's description of Hoover accepting the Republican nomination in 1928:
... [Hoover] reviewed the country's achievements since 1920: a 45 per cent increase in national income, while population rose by 8 per cent; 2.3 million new families, and 3.5 million new houses; a 66 per cent rise in high school enrollment, a 75 per cent rise in in college enrollemnt. After spraying his audience with more figures than they could expect to comprehend as they sat sweating under a broiling sun, he summarized what the figures meant; "We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us. We have not yet reached the goal, but, given the change to go forward with the policies of the last eight years, we shall soon with the help of God be in sight of the day when poverty shall be banished from this nation." (1)
Change the proper nouns, and it could be Brown accepting the leadership of the Labour Party in 2007. It is fair to note that both men demonstrated a genuine desire to ease suffering and reduce poverty. Brown can - justly - claim to have done some good things as chancellor to improve the lot of people at the bottom of the heap in Britain.

The personal similarities between the two men are striking. Both are decent - by their lights, at any rate - and hard working, with first rate minds:
Hoover was described by Henry Stimson as being "capable of more prolonged and intense intellectual effort" than any president he knew, and Stimson served under every president from Teddy Rooseveldt to Harry Truman. (2)
Both Hoover and Brown are numbers men, fixated with measuring and quantifying things. This - coupled with a minimal endowment of charisma - makes them seem technocratic and aloof. Again, from Perrett:
Hoover's entire campaign was to consist of seven such speeches. He delivered them head bent, as if in rapt contemplation of his navel, left hand in left trouser pocket, nervously jiggling his keys, right shoulder working up and down. His eyes never left the page as he read in his midwestern monotone a thousand words sweated out over many hours by Hoover alone. They invariably sounded more like official reports than emotional perorations. (3)
Brown, of course, isn't quite as wooden or dry, because the spin doctors got to him. You can sense, however, that this is the style he would naturally adopt, if the image men would leave him alone to do it the way he wanted. And Brown's gauchness and social awkwardness is - to me - quite endearing. Their statistical obssession and poor presentation, however, makes makes it difficult for the electorate to warm to them. Post Thatcher, we're too accustomed to spin and image manipulation. We get uncomfortable with anything more than illusion.

Both had the ill-luck to be at the helm when the economy foundered. Neither man was responsible for what happened, but both were/are held to be culpable by their electorate. Perhaps more versatile performers would have managed to pass the blame to others, but neither Brown of Hoover would have been able to do so, even if they had been tempramentally capable of pasing the buck. Both set themselves up by claiming they were responsible for the good times that preceded the distasters of 1928 and 2008:
The Republicans ... had taken all the credit for the prosperity of the Twenties. They had thereby saddled themsleves with all the blame for the Depression when it came. (4)
Again, the parallels with Brown are obvious. Further, when the American economy collapsed int he late 20s, Hoover elected to identify himself with the economic crisis, which lead to his undoing:
Hoover assumed complete responsibility for overcoming the Depression. Alas, there was no solution to it. The banks were shakey, business paralyzed, farmers impoverished, charities inadequate, unions demoralized, cities and states broke, intellectuals misled, and all were looking to the Federal government ... (5)
Brown, whether he wants it or not, is the man who will be expected to sort out the mess of the British economy, or face the consequences. He was, after all, the man who was supposed to be in control of it, for years, before he became Prime Minister.

He will fail, like Hoover failed. The likelihood is that this will turn into a new Depression, moping around the globe for a decade, immune to any attempt to lift it. Freidman has been abandoned in favour of Keynes but it will probably prove to be a Phyrric victory. The billions and trillions of dollars and pounds and yen are thrown at the problem will fail to resolve it, just as in the 20s and 30s:
... no twitching of the reins of power could ever conquer the Depression, and for one overriding reason: to resote demmand on the scale required by government action would have first destroyed money and then destroyed the government. It would have had to borrow at least $20 billion a year for several years, at a time when the entire nation's income had fallen t $39 billion a year. Unable to borrow so much from so little, it would have had to run the printing presses until the money turned out was worth less than the paper used. (6)
None-the-less, Hoover's insistence on identifying himself with the the solution to the Depression, his failure to realise this goal, and his lack of charisma doomed him:
The animus that Hoover's name can not be exaggerated. So much more had been expected of him than almost anyone ever elected to the presidency, and the country had never fallen so low. He was derided with a hatred that went beyond hate. (7)
The Republicans were routed in 1932. It is likely the same fate will befall the British Labour party in 2010, and Brown will suffer a similar - and probably just as unfair - corrosion of reputation.

And the unseating of Hoover provides a model for the unseating of Brown. In the 1932,
Roosevelt's campaign consisted mainly of blaming Hoover for the Depression ... Roosevelt presented himself as the safe, solid, middle of the road amateur in politics who would take good care of the taxpayer's money and make sure bureaucracy was kept in check. (8)
Once more, if you change the names, it could be Cameron versus Brown in 2010, or Key versus Clark in 2008.

So much for Brown and Hoover. The next - and more interesting - question is whether the new kids on the block - Obama, Key, very probably David Cameron - have come in too soon? Hoover wrestled with the Depression for almost four years, and thus became associated with it. The New Great Depression is still in its early days, and any bright and bushy-eyed "safe, solid, middle of the road amateur in politics" runs a real risk of being too closely identified with its opening scenes, not the Grand Guignol of the main act. Will Obama, Key and Cameron be more Hoovers, mauled by a Depression they are incapable of lifting?
1 - From America in the 1920s, by Geoffrey Perrett, published by Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982, pages 311-2.
2 - ibid, page 490.
3 - ibid, page 312.
4 - ibid, page 483.
5 - ibid, page 490.
6 - ibid, page 490. THe quotation actually refers to Roosevelt's adminstration, from 1933 onwards. The impracticality of a Keynesian solution was as real for Hoover as it was for Roosevelt, however.
7 - ibid, page 484.
8 - ibid, page 484.

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