A Calvin Coolidge Film

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

At the New York Sun is an article about the making of the first biographical film about Calvin Coolidge, a President I have long thought underrated, particularly since reading some time ago about how Progressive Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt drastically reversed many of his economic policies to help precipitate the Great Depression.

Aside from providing a rare portrait of an often overlooked President, the film strikes me as interesting in a couple of other ways based on the professed outlook of its maker, a self-described "'liberal' filmmaker":

"Why Coolidge?"

"Read his autobiography -- 250 pages, large print."

I did, and was intrigued. I moved on to his speeches, all of which he wrote himself. A master at delegating duties, Coolidge was not one to delegate beliefs. His speeches read like lay sermons to the American public, revealing fundamental values and ideals any small "d" democrat should embrace. I was hooked.
Intriguing, no? This writer has wondered whether Coolidge was as pro-freedom in the social realm as in the economic.

Having said that, the more I look at the article, the less certain I am that John Karol appreciates Coolidge for the right reasons. For example, he says the following about Coolidge just before praising his release of some who'd been imprisoned under Woodrow Wilson's wartime legislation -- Coolidge even called them "political prisoners" -- and his refusal to use executive privilege to prevent investigations of a scandal that might reach his administration.
Others may disagree, but I can't imagine Coolidge rising to political bait like flag burning, the Pledge of Allegiance, gay marriage, or school prayer. In my opinion, he would have viewed these "hot-button" issues as inappropriate, having nothing to do with presidential business.
Does Karol merely disagree (as I do) with Bush's stands on these issues -- or does he not fully appreciate the fact that part of the presiden't job is to help ensure that Americans remain free in all these areas? After all, if religious fundamentalists threaten to violate our rights on such issues, they do become "presidential business". Is Karol a member of the Old Left or the New? It will be interesting to learn which, and regardless of his evaluation of what Coolidge did in the social sphere, it will be interesting to learn about it.

Regardless, it is clear that Coolidge's tax cuts will be praised at least in part for the wrong reasons, although Karol's looking for what he deems praiseworthy does confirm my suspicions that Coolidge was not consistently pro-freedom on this issue:
New Deal historians maintain that the tax cuts of the 1920s reversed the progressive tax policies of Woodrow Wilson. Far from it. Exemptions increased so much that by 1927 almost 98% of the American people paid no income tax whatsoever. When Coolidge left office in 1929, wealthy people paid 93% of the tax load. During Wilson's last year in office they had paid only 59%. [bold added]
In one respect, having a liberal make this film will offer the following advantages: (1) There will be no effort to sweep such matters under the rug; and (2) if Karol tries to pass off a progressive tax (or any tax) as "pro-free market", he will do so less credibly than, say, a conservative filmmaker.

Having said all that, I do have one big reservation: Some of its favorable reviews, coming as they do from the likes of religious conservative Michael Medved and leftist Michael Dukakis, make me wonder whether I will find disappointment in Coolidge or in the objectivity of the film. Nevertheless, barring a strongly negative review from someone whose opinion I value, I am intrigued enough that I plan to watch this one.

-- CAV

4 comments:

coreyo said...

Which presidents rank in your top five?

Gus Van Horn said...

The first three are near-obvious to me:

(1) Washington, (2) Jefferson, (3) Lincoln.

Off the top of my head, I'm tempted to add Coolidge and Truman to the list, but I'd need to do some reading and thinking to commit myself to those two.

Adrian Hester said...

Yo, Gus, you write: "Coolidge was not consistently pro-freedom on this issue:
'New Deal historians maintain that the tax cuts of the 1920s reversed the progressive tax policies of Woodrow Wilson. Far from it. Exemptions increased so much that by 1927 almost 98% of the American people paid no income tax whatsoever. When Coolidge left office in 1929, wealthy people paid 93% of the tax load. During Wilson's last year in office they had paid only 59%.'" The percentage figures are of dubious value here: The tax rates were peculiarly high (for the period) at the beginning of the 20s because of the taxes to pay for WWI, and they were slashed five times during the 1920s--tax rates on rich and poor alike declined throughout the period and increasing numbers of people were exempt. I haven't been able to find figures for gross receipts during the period, but here's a summary by the Department of the Treasury:

Driven by the war and largely funded by the new income tax, by 1917 the Federal budget was almost equal to the total budget for all the years between 1791 and 1916. Needing still more tax revenue, the War Revenue Act of 1917 lowered exemptions and greatly increased tax rates. In 1916, a taxpayer needed $1.5 million in taxable income to face a 15 percent rate. By 1917 a taxpayer with only $40,000 faced a 16 percent rate and the individual with $1.5 million faced a tax rate of 67 percent.

Another revenue act was passed in 1918, which hiked tax rates once again, this time raising the bottom rate to 6 percent and the top rate to 77 percent. These changes increased revenue from $761 million in 1916 to $3.6 billion in 1918, which represented about 25 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Even in 1918, however, only 5 percent of the population paid income taxes and yet the income tax funded one-third of the cost of the war.

The economy boomed during the 1920s and increasing revenues from the income tax followed. This allowed Congress to cut taxes five times, ultimately returning the bottom tax rate to 1 percent and the top rate down to 25 percent and reducing the Federal tax burden as a share of GDP to 13 percent. As tax rates and tax collections declined, the economy was strengthened further.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you for this elaboration, which does indeed put into perspective my objection to the fact that the progressive nature of the tax remained.

Looking at it that way, Coolidge would indeed just about have to repeal taxation altogether to have satisfied me. We could probably cut the man some slack: Ayn Rand was only in her early twenties then!