What Made the Twenties Roar?

by Burt on April 15, 2009

On FOX & Friends today, I had the chance to describe textbook bias. Larry Schweikart (author of A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the War on Terror) has been doing a fine job with that feature in previous weeks on FOX. We all respond to the ideas we believe in, and when history texts distort the past, students can easily be led down the wrong path.

Today is “Tax Day” and one example we discussed comes from a text by John Garraty, a long-time professor at Columbia University. Garraty asserted that Andrew Mellon, the secretary of treasury in the 1920s, wanted to cut taxes on the rich, but that “he opposed lower rates for taxpayers earning less than $66,000 a year.” In truth, Mellon supported, and Congress passed, the “Mellon plan,” which–when it finally became law–cut taxes proportionally more on smaller taxpayers than on larger taxpayers.

That error in the textbook seems small, but it creates an impression in the students’ minds that cutting taxes is a game that only the rich play. In fact, the Mellon tax cuts were one of the biggest economic blessings Americans received in the entire 20th century. Not only did lower income earners pay little or no tax at all, but when the burden was reduced on the country’s major entrepreneurs what followed was a flurry of investments that made the United States the center of economic life for almost every major industrial product in the world. Textbooks sometimes mention radios and refrigerators, but the 1920s also saw either expansion or invention of air-conditioning, zippers, sliced bread, and talking movies. Unemployment, which was twelve percent before the tax cuts, fell to 3.3 percent during the last seven years of that decade. What’s more, the federal government actually increased its revenue after the tax cuts–we had budget surpluses every year of the 1920s.

That is the story untold in most U. S. history texts. What does it all mean? We live in a free society and students respond to freedom. They can wrap themselves in a vision that allows them to create something useful and then to reap the rewards of what they create. When they improve the lives of others, the students then benefit as well. That vision is now competing with a vision that suggests that if we enlarge the scope of government, and turn decisions and controls over to bureaucrats, then the lives of Americans will improve. As parents and teachers, we need to encourage the first of these visions and warn students about the dangers of the loss of freedom, which always comes with the second.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: