What Was Herbert Hoover’s Fiscal Policy?: Hoisted from Five Years Ago

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What Was Herbert Hoover’s Fiscal Policy?: In his Budget Message setting out his plans for taxes and spending for fiscal year 1932, Herbert Hoover begged Congress not to embark on any ‘new or large ventures of government’. He admonished congress that even though ‘the plea of unemployment will be advanced as reasons for many new ventures… no reasonable view of the outlook warrants such pleas’. And he boasted that he was proposing a balanced budget–even though revenues were mightily depressed by the Great Depression:

This is not a time when we can afford to embark upon any new or enlarged ventures of Government. It will tax our every resource to expand in directions providing employment during the next few months upon already authorized projects. I realize that, naturally, there will be before the Congress this session many legislative matters involving additions to our estimated expenditures for 1932, and the plea of unemployment will be advanced as reasons for many new ventures, but no reasonable view of the outlook warrants such pleas as apply to expenditures in the 1932 Budget.

I have full faith that in acting upon these matters the Congress will give due consideration to our financial outlook. I am satisfied that in the absence of further legislation imposing any considerable burden upon our 1932 finances we can close that year with a balanced Budget. When we stop to consider that we are progressively amortizing our public debt, and that a balanced Budget is being presented for 1932, even after drastic writing down of expected revenue, I believe it will be agreed that our Government finances are in a sound condition…

Over at the Atlantic Monthly, Megan McArcle claimed that ‘Hoover was no budget-cutter’:

Hoover Was No Budget-Cutter: Hoover did not tighten up on spending.  According to the historical tables of the Office of Management and Budget, spending in 1929 was $3.1 billion, up from $2.9 billion the year before. In 1930 it was $3.3 billion. In 1931, Hoover raised spending to $3.6 billion.  And in 1932, he opened the taps to $4.7 billion, where it basically stayed into 1933 (most of which was a Hoover budget)…

In his Budget Message for fiscal year 1933, Hoover wrote:

In framing this Budget, I have proceeded on the basis that the estimates for 1933 should ask for only the minimum amounts which are absolutely essential for the operation of the Government under existing law, after making due allowance for continuing appropriations. The appropriation estimates for 1933 reflect a drastic curtailment of the expenses of Federal activities in all directions where a consideration of the public welfare would permit it….

The welfare of the country demands that the financial integrity of the Federal Government be maintained…. [W]e are now in a period where Federal finances will not permit of the assumption of any obligations which will enlarge the expenditures to be met from the ordinary receipts of the Government….

To those individuals or groups who normally would importune the Congress to enact measures in which they are interested, I wish to say that the most patriotic duty which they can perform at this time is to themselves refrain and to discourage others from seeking any increase in the drain upon public finances…

That is not a man who wants to open up the taps. That is not a man who thinks that he is opening up the taps.

So what is going on here?

I think that Megan McArdle’s major problem is that she is looking at one table–Table 1.1 in OMB’s Historical Tables. She is not reading Hoover’s Budget Messages or any other documents from the Hoover administration, not reading histories of the Hoover administration, not identifying how what congress finally enacted and what Hoover signed differed from what Hoover had originally proposed–or indeed, at how as the Great Depression deepened Hoover decided at the very start of calendar year 1932–halfway through fiscal year 1932–to push for measures (Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Home Loan Bank, direct loans to fund state Depression relief programs) that increased spending–but did so alongside the Revenue Act of 1932 that increased taxes.

After he decided that he was President and that the Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon whom he had inherited from Coolidge worked for him and that Mellon should go off to be Ambassador to the Court of St. James, Hoover did decide to do something to fight the Great Depression. Tax increases to try to balance the budget in order to call down the confidence fairy made up the biggest part of his plan. But Hoover also sought to fund state relief. And he sought to set up GSE’s (RTC, HLB) to restart broken capital markets.

But to say that ‘Hoover was no budget-cutter’ misses most of the story. Hoover would have been a budget-cutter in normal times. Hoover was a budget-balancer. Hoover held the line against powerful political forces that sought to increase government spending in the Great Depression for fully 2 1/2 years before endorsing what seem to us to be half-measures.

AUTHORS:

Brad DeLong
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