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Celebrating Calvin Coolidge: An overlooked above-average president

With the 100th anniversary of Calvin Coolidge's inauguration as our 30th president today (Aug. 2), I wanted to call attention to his noteworthy presidency.

Why has Coolidge continued under the radar of history?

In terms of public policy, he was opposed to the growth of government and thought it was more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones. Such acts of omission are typically harder to value compared to acts of commission, especially with government where the benefits of activism are typically obvious while its costs are subtle.

In terms of style, Coolidge didn't have a big personality. He doesn't get any credit from being associated with Mount Rushmore, which started when he was president; he advocated that Teddy Roosevelt should join Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington.

“Silent Cal” was a quiet man for whom quality trumped quantity; he meant what he said and said what he meant. Coolidge was the last president to write his own speeches and the first to make heavy use of radio. And, he still holds the record for presidential news conferences for the number of years he was in office – one every five days in office. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a president who talks less and speaks to the press more?

The closest comparisons to Coolidge are Grover Cleveland and Ronald Reagan. All three held a minimalist view of the federal government. Reagan worked with a bipartisan Congress and inherited a much larger government that could not easily be reduced to earlier standards.

The federal government was much smaller then. Spending is 90 times greater today, even controlling for inflation, which didn’t occur during the six years of Coolidge’s presidency.

Coolidge and Cleveland both vetoed tiny expenditures on items that are amazing by today's norms: flood victims and farm subsidies. In both cases, they did not see the expenditures as an ethical or constitutional role for the federal government. 

They had a much different view than many of today’s politicians when it comes to answering: When should the government take money from one person or another group to give to another person or group?

The extent to which his administration poured over the budget to save money is impossible to imagine now: the Weather Bureau not sending out postcards with forecasts anymore; post office bags switching from red, white, and blue to gray; and white string instead of red tape – yes, red tape! – to wrap documents.

Coolidge and Reagan, both Republicans, embraced the reality of “supply side economics” and its relevance in contexts where high marginal tax rates were impeding the economy – and ironically, squelching tax revenues. The theory describes the supply-side impact of cuts in tax rates: encouraging “supply” in the economy through greater work effort, entrepreneurship and innovation as well as reducing tax avoidance and evasion.

Tax cuts also have “demand-side” implications that are more famous: more money in our pockets results in greater investment and especially consumption. 

Coolidge and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon worked with a Republican Congress to cut the top marginal tax rates from 73% to 25%. In the 1980s, Reagan worked with a strongly-Democratic House to reduce the top rate from 70% to 28%.

Amazingly, federal government spending was roughly the same – about $3 billion – when Coolidge left office in 1929. The increased revenues from decreased tax rates resulted in budget surpluses every year, and the federal debt was reduced by more than 20% – from $22.3 billion to $17.6 billion. Today, if we froze federal spending, we could have a balanced budget within a decade and would be far more likely to avert a debt crisis.

Coolidge and Reagan also both took controversial stands to confront powerful public-sector unions. In August 1981, President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers who went on strike, while Coolidge, as governor of Massachusetts, fired the Boston police in 1919 for striking. In both cases, compromises were available but not chosen. To Coolidge, these were not strikers but deserters. In both cases, the interest group complained, but the public was supportive, especially in the context of the Russian Revolution for Coolidge and a tough economy for Reagan. With his response to the strike, Coolidge became a key national political figure, leading to his election as Vice President in 1921.

Unfortunately, presidential historians often rate Coolidge (well) below-average. But aside from statist ideology and an ignorance of economics, there’s no reason to consider him anything less than above-average. In fact, the most compelling claim about him is that Reagan was our best president since at least Coolidge.

Coolidge was born on July 4 and as president, gave the commencement address at all-black Howard University in 1924. 

He extended full citizenship to Native Americans. He handled the scandals of his predecessor with integrity and consistency, defending the office of the presidency with strong-but-modest leadership. The economy was strong throughout Coolidge's administration.

But he didn't have much international or domestic drama to address. So, the standard opportunities for presidential greatness were not available to him – as they were to Reagan with the Cold War, the worst economy since the Great Depression, and the “malaise” of the Jimmy Carter years.

Still, Coolidge was a fine president by any objective standard – and arguably, one of our best. Let's make sure to celebrate Silent Cal’s centennial this week.

Bluegrass Institute Scholar D. Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., is Professor of Economics at Indiana University Southeast and author of “Poor Policy: How Government Harms the Poor.”

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