How FDR Made the Depression Worse
Roosevelt’s revolution began with his inaugural address, which left no doubt about his intentions to seize the moment and harness it to his purposes. Best remembered for its patently false line that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” it also called for extraordinary emergency governmental powers.
The day after FDR took the oath of office, he issued a proclamation calling Congress into a special session. Before it met, he proclaimed a national banking holiday—an action he had refused to endorse when Hoover suggested it three days earlier.
Invoking the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, Roosevelt declared that “all banking transactions shall be suspended.” Banks were permitted to reopen only after case-by-case inspection and approval by the government, a procedure that dragged on for months. This action heightened the public’s sense of crisis and allowed him to ignore traditional restraints on the power of the central government.
In their understanding of the Depression, Roosevelt and his economic advisers had cause and effect reversed. They did not recognize that prices had fallen because of the Depression. They believed that the Depression prevailed because prices had fallen. The obvious remedy, then, was to raise prices, which they decided to do by creating artificial shortages. Hence arose a collection of crackpot policies designed to cure the Depression by cutting back on production. The scheme was so patently self-defeating that it’s hard to believe anyone seriously believed it would work.
The goofiest application of the theory had to do with the price of gold. Starting with the bank holiday and proceeding through a massive gold-buying program, Roosevelt abandoned the gold standard, the bedrock restraint on inflation and government growth. He nationalized the monetary gold stock, forbade the private ownership of gold (except for jewelry, scientific or industrial uses, and foreign payments), and nullified all contractual promises—whether public or private, past or future—to pay in gold.
Besides being theft, gold confiscation didn’t work. The price of gold was increased from $20.67 to $35.00 per ounce, a 69% increase, but the domestic price level increased only 7% between 1933 and 1934, and over rest of the decade it hardly increased at all. FDR’s devaluation provoked retaliation by other countries, further strangling international trade and throwing the world’s economies further into depression.