Amity did a commentary item for Marketplace radio yesterday, suggesting Coolidge as a model for current policymakers. I’ve included an excerpt below.
Coincidentally, I did an interview for Marketplace on Friday, exploring the history of tax rates. My comments on Coolidge ended up on the cutting room floor (to use an anachronistic metaphor), but I suspect Silent Cal readers might be interested in the subject anyway.
Anyway, here’s the excerpt from Amity’s commentary. Link to the audi and ful text is at the end:
As presidents go, Calvin Coolidge is an unlikely hero. Conservatives focus on him far less than they do on Ronald Reagan, and after all, Coolidge served a long time ago, from 1923 to 1929. Coolidge said “no” so often that he was trashed as lazy even by his own peers. Today, Coolidge is held in such low esteem by most Americans that if they remember anything, it is his nickname: Silent Cal.
But Coolidge did three things that stand out today, especially from our budgetary perspective. The first was to monitor federal spending — personally, with his own pencil, and intensely. As president, Coolidge met with his budget director every Friday at 10:00 a.m. Once cuts had been made, Coolidge made more. Coolidge monitored every penny spent down to the salt and pepper on the dinner table. The housekeeper at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Miss Riley, managed to cut her outlays from $11,667.10 one year, down to $9,116.39 the next. “Very fine improvement,” the president wrote in a note to her.
More at: Looking to President Coolidge for budgetary perspective
Andrew Mellon, Treasury secretary for Coolidge (and every other GOP president of the 1920s)
I’m researching a policy brief on estate taxation, and just today I came across a nice, illustrative quote from Coolidge’s Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon. Mellon, you’ll recall, truly loathed the estate tax:
After a man has become sufficiently civilized to provide for the reasonable requirements of living, the impetus to further effort at production is found largely in the desire to leave one’s family well provided for. A man will not seek to build up a large fortune just to have it taken away from his family at death.
More to come…
Coolidge delivering his first State of the Union address on December 6, 1923. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Today marks the 87 anniversary of Calvin Coolidge’s first State of the Union address. The speech also marked another “first” — the dawn of the radio era in presidential rhetoric. According to the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, Coolidge’s address was the first to be broadcast by radio — a move that reflected the soaring popularity of radio receivers. In 1923, there were 2.5 million receivers in private homes across the nation. Three years earlier, there had been fewer than 5,000.
The speech itself is remembered for its indication that Coolidge would continue the policies of his predecessor, Warren Harding. Reflecting my abiding interest in 1920s-era taxation, let me offer this quick selection:
For seven years the people have borne with uncomplaining courage the tremendous burden of national and local taxation. These must both be reduced. The taxes of the Nation must be reduced now as much as prudence will permit, and expenditures must be reduced accordingly. High taxes reach everywhere and burden everybody. They bear most heavily upon the poor. They diminish industry and commerce. They make agriculture unprofitable. They increase the rates on transportation. They are a charge on every necessary of life. Of all services which the Congress can render to the country, I have no hesitation in declaring to neglect it, to postpone it, to obstruct it by unsound proposals, is to become unworthy of public confidence and untrue to public trust. The country wants this measure to have the right of way over any others.
Forgive me for pointing out (again), that Coolidge was willing to walk the walk when it came to fiscal conservatism. He never suggested tax cuts that weren’t “paid for” with spending cuts. As he put it (and I test your patience by repeating it, yet again), “the taxes of the Nation must be reduced now as much as prudence will permit, and expenditures must be reduced accordingly.”
Contemporary deficit hawks should emulate that kind of honest, candid budgeting.
The full transcript of Coolidge’s speech is available from the Miller Center.
Two weeks before election day in 1924, Washington Star cartoonist Clifford Berryman took aim at the partisan competition over tax cuts.
In an era of buoyant revenues and restrained spending, lawmakers felt free to promise additional tax relief. Partisan divisions centered not on the desirability of tax cuts in general, but on their distribution in particular.
For the most part, Democrats were eager to raise income tax exemptions, thereby freeing more Americans from a tax widely considered a rich man’s burden. Republicans, by contrast, were more interested in cutting marginal rates for the income tax, while also arguing for elimination of the federal estate tax.
Find more on 1920s tax policy at the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts.
Judge Learned Hand
On my personal blog (which I’ve just resurrected after losing ALL of my old posts in a server meltdown), I’ve posted a short item on Google’s now-famous tax avoidance activities.
Which is all neither here nor there, in Coolidge terms, except that I included a quotation from Judge Learned Hand, a Coolidge appointee and one of the most sensible people ever to talk about the murky morality of tax paying and tax avoidance. As Hand wrote in 1947:
“There is nothing sinister in so arranging one’s affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible. Everybody does so, rich or poor; and all do right, for nobody owes any public duty to pay more than the law demands. Taxes are enforced exactions not voluntary contributions, to demand more in the name of morals is mere cant.”