Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Lecture with UC-Davis Professor Eric Rauchway
Events have forced us to consider the facts. Phrases do not feed the hungry, or give jobs to the six or seven million who want work and cannot find it. The jobless man can derive no comfort from the proclamation that we are merely in one of those “cyclical” depressions which are bound to come every so often and, having passed, leave us better off than before.
—Charlie Ross, “The Country’s Plight: What Can Be Done About It?”
Observing the fallout from the Great Depression from his post in the capital, where frustration over soaring unemployment rates had not only caused faith in democratic institutions to wane but had boiled over into pro-fascist rumblings, Charles G. Ross filed “The Country’s Plight” in November 1931, while serving as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Chief Washington Correspondent. An 11-part, demand-side excoriation of fiscal policy under Hoover, the essay, for which Ross received the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, identified the “maldistribution of wealth” as the primary driving force behind the Depression and lobbied for a ratcheting up of progressive taxation as a way to end it. As MU Associate Professor and Faculty Chair of Journalism Studies Tim Vos noted in his opening remarks on Ross’ life and work, while “The Country’s Plight” at times descends into punditry, the essay as a whole still reflects the commitment to objectivity as an epistimological norm for journalists that Ross, years ahead of others in the industry, championed while serving as a pioneer faculty member at the MU School of Journalism under founding dean Walter Williams. For Ross, the journalist’s primary task was to explain, for it was only in laying out the facts that the press could equip citizens to actively and knowledgeably participate in public life.
A noble pursuit, to be sure, but as University of California-Davis Professor of History Eric Rauchway pointed out in setting the stage for his Pulitzer Prizes Centennial lecture on “The Country’s Plight,” praising Ross for his objective approach leaves an important question unanswered: Did he actually get the facts right? Did he, that is, accurately unpack for Post-Dispatch readers both the causes of the nation’s economic crisis and the steps that government and industry would have to take to lead the United States out of it? In working towards an answer to this question of whether Ross got it right (spoiler alert: kind of, but also not really), Prof. Rauchway, true to the form of Ross’ article, divided his lecture into three parts.
How Severe Was the Problem: “We must know the facts”
Coming off the heels of his introducing Gregory La Cava’s 1933 utopian vision of fascist America, Gabriel over the White House, as part of the Kinder Institute’s “Democracy at the Movies” film series, Prof. Rauchway noted that the very fact that pro-fascist sentiment existed at the time—let alone that it was stoked by “America First” media mogul (and Gabriel co-writer) William Randolph Hearst—underscored just how serious the country’s plight was as it approached the March 1933 nadir of the Depression. In terms of economic indicators of the crisis-level at the time, he pointed out that Ross’ essay came roughly in the middle of an unprecedented 43-month period of GDP contraction, nearly all of which occurred during the Hoover administration. By the time the Depression reached its inflection point in 1933, after which the country finally began to show signs of economic recovery under Franklin Roosevelt, unemployment rates were at approximately 25%, and questions about whether or not the nation’s capitalistic and democratic systems could even survive gravely rang out. The economic crisis, he argued, wasn’t simply different in magnitude but different in kind from what the United States had previously known.
Ross’ Viability as an Economist
As for Ross’ theory that a maldistribution of wealth led to the Depression, Prof. Rauchway explained that it in many respects aligned both with the causal analysis of the era’s leading demand-side economist, John Maynard Keynes, as well as with the economic history and trajectory of the United States in the early 20th century. Prior to the 1929 stock market crash, borrowing rates were high, as “ordinary people buying ordinary things” on credit became a norm. Following the crash, however, borrowing to buy dried up as expectations about the nation’s economic future changed, and the result, further fueled by Hoover’s deflationary monetary policy, was a self-sustaining collapse: merchants lowered prices to chase scarce dollars; profit margins tightened and employment decreased; debts went unpaid and banks failed; people lost access to money and the problem compounded. Which is all to say that Ross’ two basic premises—(a) that a deficiency of purchasing power among the working class was a leading cause of the Depression and (b) that re-invigorating demand by putting money in the hands of those who would spend it might stimulate the economy—held water.
The Country’s Plight, and How We Escaped It
Of the major bullet points that comprised Ross’ proposed solution to the Depression, some certainly had a place in FDR’s recovery plan. Ross’ insistence on the importance of public ownership of utilities, for example, at least partially came to bear with the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Similarly, if indirectly, his demand for decreased work hours became a calling card of labor unions’ collective bargaining platforms during Roosevelt’s time in office. In terms of the policies and programs actually enacted during the New Deal, however, Ross missed the mark significantly in two instances. For one, nowhere in his essay did he suggest the kind of large scale public work programs that were central to the New Deal’s creating jobs and increasing purchasing power among the once-unemployed. Most notably, though, the linchpin of Ross’ argument—that progressive taxation would lead to the redistribution of wealth—wasn’t in FDR’s plans. Rather than tweak fiscal policy, Prof. Rauchway showed how the president instead pursued a reflationary course of action that used going off the gold standard to generate monetary shock that in turn induced demand and increased spending.
Prof. Rauchway concluded the lecture by fielding questions on topics ranging from the successes and failures of President Obama’s Keynesian approach to stimulating the economy during the “current unpleasantness”—he didn’t ask for enough, Prof. Rauchway argued—to whether or not there was, in fact, any consideration of progressive taxation during the New Deal (Keynes, for his part, generally had no objections to stimulating economic growth through progressive taxation but also believed that preserving some inequality was morally important in that it might make individuals rapacious with their money rather than toward their fellow citizens). In addition to the lecture and film introduction, Prof. Rauchway also discussed his publishing pursuits with History and Political Science faculty and graduate students during a September 7 lunchtime panel in the Kinder Institute offices in Jesse Hall.
A PDF copy of Ross’ original essay can be found here.
Eric Rauchway writes and teaches about US History at the University of California-Davis, where he has been a professor since 2001. He is the author of The Refuge of Affections: Family and American Reform Politics, 1900-1920 (Columbia University Press, 2001); Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America (Hill & Wang, 2003); Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America (Hill & Wang, 2006); The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008); and The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace (Basic Books, 2015). He holds a PhD from Stanford, an MA from University of Oxford, and a bachelor’s degree from Cornell, and, prior to assuming his current position at UC-Davis, he taught at University of Nevada-Reno and Oxford.
The lecture was part of the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative, a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prizes Board and the Federation of State Humanities Councils in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the Pulitzer Prizes. The initiative seeks to illuminate the impact of journalism and the humanities on American life today, to imagine their future, and to inspire new generations to consider the values represented by the body of Pulitzer Prize-winning work.
For their generous support for the Campfires Initiative, we thank the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Pulitzer Prizes Board, and Columbia University.