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History of an Economist

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Tavarish Tugwell

 “I personally have long been convinced that the outright ownership of farms ought to be greatly restricted. My own view, that under intelligent state control, it should be possible to introduce a planned flexibility into the congestion and rigidity of our outdated economic system.”

My wife is a native of Moscow, and until 1989 was a member in good standing of the Communist Party of the USSR. She earned advanced degrees from Moscow State University, and worked in several Soviet Ministries.  Residing in her Tverskaya Street apartment are 40 or so, elegantly bound volumes that compile the entire body of work of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, infamously known to the world as V.I. Lenin.

The statement confused and puzzled my wife; while the content was pure Lenin, she could not recall ever hearing or reading the exact statement.

 She had good reason to be puzzled.

Lenin never said it!

Rexford Tugwell, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, said it.

If Rexford Tugwell had not been born of a biological mother, no author could create him. 

Of the countless, faceless grey-men infesting FDR’s alphabet soup of New Deal agencies, Rexford Tugwell was surely the socialist virus most deeply engrained within the 1930’s American body politic.

Even in FDR’s world of New Deal socialist economic experimentalists, Rexford Tugwell rightly deserves the honorific of Tavarish.

If Tugwell had not profligately published and vigorously promoted his peculiar vision of socialist central planning, few modern readers would believe he existed at all, much less as a powerful influence inside FDR’s New Deal White House. 

Even as a teenager living on a successful farm, Tugwell decided real agricultural dirt would never be found under the well manicured fingernails of the agricultural academic.  

Tugwell’s life as pampered academic and unaccountable government bureaucrat was interrupted only by a brief 1937 excursion into the private sector, while holding the nebulous title of “traveling consultant and executive vice president” for American Molasses.  Upon accepting the position, Tugwell was hailed by the President of American Molasses “as one of the ablest men in the country, with brains, personality and executive ability; vision and comprehensive social and economic point of view. Mr. Tugwell's job will be, to explore the realms of economic and social trends and assist in integrating a business in a changing social and political world."  After a mere fourteen months, reporting to a real boss, being subject to flinty-hearted Board of Directors, (rather than egg-headed  academics), and limited to spending finite stockholder funds, (rather than infinite public taxes), the ablest man permanently fled the private sector, first for the safety and comfort of the New York City Planning Commission, and later as appointed Governor of Puerto Rico.

Even inside the ivy covered walls, Tugwell avoided the heavy lifting of routine classroom toil. He much preferred utilizing his valuable time developing and spreading the false gospel of state-controlled, centrally-planned agriculture.     

In preparation for joining FDR’s 1932 Presidential campaign, Rexford Tugwell spent the summer of 1927 traveling Europe as a member of an unsanctioned delegation of American labor leaders, academics, and leftist writers. Traveling in plush Romanov owned railroad coaches, the delegates toured the fledgling Soviet Union of Potemkin villages meticulously crafted for their benefit.

Articles published in the United States gushed with wide-eyed amazement at Socialist progress achieved in a mere decade.

The delegation was promised personal interviews with Prime Minister Mikhail Kalinin, and *Leon Trotsky, viewed by many as the philosophical and intellectual soul of Lenin’s revolution. The Kremlin tantalized the delegation with hints a meeting with Stalin himself was possible.

After enduring numerous delays and clumsily faked schedule changes, the delegation met with Trotsky on September 8.  All questions were submitted in advance, and an agreement that no follow-up questions, or discussion would be permitted. 

According to one delegate’s diary, Trotsky appeared in an “immaculate white linen suit” while an interpreter answered the prepared questions rapid fire. Many visitors left, viewing Trotsky as more carnival barker than Socialist visionary.

*Trotsky held the minor post of Commissar of foreign concessions and was dismissed from the Party and exiled by Stalin late in 1927.

Had Trotsky’s performance been less dismal, history could have been made on September 9, 1927.  

It was not.

In New York, Babe Ruth was sitting on 49 home runs; number 50 would not come for two more days.

In Moscow, Rexford Tugwell, and several other delegates opted to visit an exhibition of uninspired modern Russian art. In one of history’s ironic quirks, that cultural side trip prevented a meeting of two giants of socialist agricultural, American Rexford Tugwell and Georgian, Josef Stalin.

For the sake of a few scraps of crudely painted canvass, Rexford Tugwell squandered a Socialist’s dream of meeting one Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili.

In stark contrast to Trotsky, Stalin spent six hours with the Tugwell-less delegation, discussing his vision of massive Soviet collective farms, and Socialism’s inevitable spread around the globe.

Unlike their less fortunate Russian cousins, American farmers were spared the devastation of Stalin’s 1927 agricultural vision, -until Rexford Tugwell arrived with FDR’s New Deal Agricultural Adjustment Act, (AAA), of 1933.

As Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, serving under Secretary Henry Wallace, Tugwell played a much larger role than the modest title would suggest.

As principle author and prime promoter of the AAA, Tugwell was granted unprecedented, (for a mere Assistant Secretary), discretionary authority and power. 

In the naively, surreal world run according to Rexford Tugwell, the AAA pummeled the American farmer with an agonizing trifecta of simultaneous misery- millions of wasted tax dollars, no increase in farm prices, and more workers added to the to the unemployment lines.

Only, Rexford Tugwell, (and perhaps Leon Trotsky), could implement a program of wealth redistribution which taxed hungry, ill-clothed consumers and middle men millers, to pay equally hungry and ill-clothed farmers, to NOT grow wheat or cotton.

Only Rexford Tugwell, (and perhaps Mikhail Kalinin), could balloon the Department of Agriculture into a 100,000 man army, literally in the field, tasked with reducing farm output.

In Tavarish Tugwell’s Ivy League School mind, spending millions to reduce cultivated farm acreage would result in higher farm prices. 

In Farmer Brown’s school of hard knocks mind, receiving those millions to not farm a portion of his land represented an opportunity to buy higher quality seeds and fertilizers and increase crop yield from what he did farm.

Obviously missed in Tugwell’s calculus, less farm acreage required less farm labor, driving waves of employed farm laborers off the land and onto the bread lines. 

However, Tavarish Tugwell was not satisfied with merely controlling the agricultural aspects of farming. In 1935, he assumed control of the Resettlement Administration, (RA). Finally, his lifelong dream of creating perfect social harmony through central planning had become reality, albeit short-lived.

Only Rexford Tugwell, (and Josef Stalin), could forcibly relocate rural southern farmers to planned utopian communities in Arizona, Nebraska or Maryland.

 Armed with $250 Million, and a staff of 13,000, the RA assumed responsibility for retiring even more farm land than the AAA, physically uprooting farm families from land classed as nonproductive, and creating Tugwell’s version of the much admired Soviet villages visited a decade earlier.

Tugwell is quoted, “If one arm of the Department of Agriculture worked for the advantaged element in the farm population, it is the Department’s responsibility to equally improve the lot of the disadvantaged.” 

Given the economic condition of agriculture in 1935, it is legitimate to ask who exactly was included among “advantaged element of the farm population.”

Following the precedent of Schechter Poultry Corp. v United States which threw out FDR’s industrial National Recovery Act, in January 1936 the Supreme Court, (in Butler v United States), ruled 6 – 3 the AAA unconstitutional.

The radical policies of Tugwell’s Resettlement Administration proved too much for many of FDR’s supporters who forced Tugwell’s resignation and departure in December 1936. His unceremonious resignation, coupled with a need to earn a living, led to his ill-fated tenure with American Molasses. Even Tavarish Tugwell must have recognized the irony the failed socialist promise “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his labor”, applied to true believer and non-believer alike.

The missed Stalin meeting, devastating Supreme Court rulings, utter failure of urban utopias, and banishment to the living Hell of a Wall Street paycheck may have discouraged a lesser determined socialist.

Not so, Tavarish Tugwell. 

From the safety of the New York City Planning Commission, while still serving as a shadow adviser to FDR, Tugwell continued to develop his increasingly bizarre theories of state control. 

Totally convinced American capitalist-democracy was hopelessly flawed, and inevitably doomed to fail, Tugwell proposed, (his label), “A Fourth Branch”.

Stating the president was hemmed in by the Senate; Congress was incapable of providing direction to the whole country; and the judiciary was hampered by legal precedents, Tugwell believed only a “Fourth Branch” of Government vested with vast planning power could save the country from permanent economic ruin. 

Tugwell neglected to explain how he planned to surmount the obvious barrier to “The Fourth Branch”, presented by the United States Constitution. 

Perhaps, like the current administration, he considered the Constitution little more than an inconvenient truth easily subverted in pursuit of the necessary ends.

More about this author: R. M. DOUGLAS

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