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Opinion

March 17, 2013

Column: ‘Quiet Cal’ clapped a lid on scandal, spending

“Debt takes its toll.”

So begins “Coolidge”, the magnificent new biography of the 30th president of the United States by bestselling author and free-market journalist Amity Shlaes. No writer is perhaps better suited to write a biography of the fiscal sentinel Calvin Coolidge, and this biography is indeed a prequel to her masterpiece, “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.”

Calvin Coolidge found himself on the ballot as Warren G. Harding’s vice presidential running mate on the 1920 Republican Party ticket after an unlikely yet highly successful career in Massachusetts politics. Harding and Coolidge campaigned for smaller government as a response to the rising federal debt following World War I, a top tax rate over 70 percent, the nationalization of railroads, and Progressive attempts to establish governmental control of water power and electricity.

As president, Harding signed legislation that gave the executive branch more control of the federal budget, lowered the top tax rate, and proposed selling naval petroleum reserves to private entities. Yet Harding appointed cronies to several significant positions who were incapable of resisting bribes and favoritism. To stanch the damage, Harding embarked on a West Coast trip but never came back. He died, and Coolidge found himself as president.

Into the breach Coolidge stepped. He vowed to see Harding’s budgetary and tax reforms through to “perfection,” meaning without scandal. To that end, he quickly announced that government spending would be slashed: “We must have no carelessness in our dealings with public property or the expenditure of public money. Such a condition is characteristic of undeveloped people, or of a decadent generation.” Coolidge led by the example of discipline, meeting with his budget director every Friday prior to Cabinet meetings in order to cull the budget and construct arguments for denying requests for more spending. Shlaes demonstrates how Coolidge’s twin pillars of fiscal policy – tax cuts coupled with tight budgeting – brought more tax receipts, budget surplus, and economic prosperity. The publication of this book is fortuitous.

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