Envy rules, even in Westfield. That’s one conclusion to draw from Netflix’s announcement of a second season for its hit series The Watcher, a mystery built around house lust. Over the course of the (already) too many episodes, citizens of Westfield, New Jersey — heretofore known as a well-churched, likable, commuter town — stalk a new family in the neighborhood.
The Watcher updates Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” with the sin this time being that the family has the resources to afford — or to pretend to afford — a 10,000-square-footer of cedar shake and stone. Murder mystery only works when it references one or the other reality. The reality assumed in The Watcher is that whole towns of “watchers” are envious enough of their neighbors’ Carrara or Calacatta countertops that they are willing to fantasize about murdering them over a mineral slab.
Small wonder that “get the rich” legislation is so popular nowadays. And small wonder that many in Congress are pushing a tax proposal untraditional enough that it would have made even some progressives shiver a few decades back: a federal wealth tax. The equations in vampirical fantasy of The Watcher aren’t hard to discern. Draining the envied neighbors’ blood, one thing the watcher murderers do, is equivalent to draining the rich of their wealth.
All the more welcome, then, is the centennial of a U.S. leader who had no use for envy: Calvin Coolidge.
Coolidge served as president from 1923 to 1929. Even as the nation’s first citizen, he continued to rent his old home, half a two-family duplex in a town with the same middle-class feel as Westfield. As a policymaker, Coolidge favored the America that did rather than the one that watched. What’s more, through his five and a half years in office, Coolidge promoted policies that ensured that Americans could keep doing, which they did so productively that many completely failed to notice which countertops the people next door were installing. (RELATED: A Shoutout to Silent Cal for President’s Day)
As a policymaker, Coolidge favored the America that did rather than the one that watched.
Not that that was easy then, either. Watcher culture was spreading after World War I, a period that bore some creepy similarities to today: underacknowledged inflation, a pandemic (the influenza), and riots during which the frustrated smashed windows and looted high-end shops. Papers routinely caricatured the rich as idle plutocrats. A new party of the resentful formed to groom a presidential candidate of its own: the redistributor Bob La Follette of Wisconsin. La Follette pointed to some very genuine frustrations: Though the top tax rate was over 70 percent, somehow the wealthy weren’t shouldering a great share of the national tax burden.
Capital itself was retreating to its West Egg, or its own Hamptons and Westfields. This was the period when that country’s most talented watcher, the author F. Scott Fitzgerald, conducted his fieldwork on the wealthy, writing:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness … and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
The result was The Great Gatsby, a 1925 book that remains the ultimate argument for the introduction of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax a century on, if you believe high school English teachers.
Coolidge, a Republican, addressed the challenge through a disciplined drive to change policy so that Americans could find doing more productive than watching. As Robert Luddy points out nearby, the first goal was to lighten the tax burden of those who did produce, top earners. The Republicans’ target top rate — 25 percent — was even lower than that of the 20th century’s other tax-cut president, Ronald Reagan. Coolidge and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon also argued that at lower rates, the rich would do so much that they would shoulder a greater share of taxes, not a smaller one. (READ MORE: Calvin Coolidge: Freedom Works Best)
The Progressives howled. In exchange for permitting even a modest drop in the top rate to 48 percent, Progressives and Democrats forced Coolidge and his allies in Congress to make an ugly compromise that threatened to undermine their future plans. Under the new 1924 law, the Treasury had to post the tax bill paid by each top earner in every town across the land. The “Peeping Tom provision,” as it quickly came to be known, provided fodder for every watcher and populist politician in the land.
When it came to new economic redistribution, Coolidge also drew the line.
But Coolidge also campaigned for the doers in other areas as well. In the decades prior, both Republicans and Democrats had made war on firms that appeared too successful for the envious through antitrust action. With the support of the courts, Coolidge only listlessly supported antitrust actions. As historian Mark Malvasi points out, Coolidge removed his old college acquaintance Harlan Fiske Stone from the post of attorney general just as Stone was about to dismember Alcoa, an industrial corporation. Coolidge also appointed common sense conservative judges where he could. One appointee was Learned Hand, who dropped an opinion that included a line that serves the basis of many a defense in tax court today: “Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes.”
When it came to new economic redistribution, Coolidge also drew the line. At the time, millions of veterans were lobbying for bonus payments, an early iteration of what we would call public pensions. The vets’ case compelled. In this pre-antibiotic era, many labored under chronic infection and routinely lost limbs. They personally might never recover from the war.
Coolidge, and, indeed, Harding before him, built the vets hospitals and paid for rehab. But Coolidge vetoed veteran pensions twice. “We have no money to bestow upon a class of people that is not taken from the whole people,” he said.
Banks were foreclosing on farms as commodity prices dropped, and the farming lobby approached Coolidge multiple times, perhaps expecting a softening from a man born in Vermont. Silent Cal turned his fellow farmers down with two famous lines, inserting one of those legendary Coolidge pauses in between. “Well, farmers never have made much money,” Coolidge told a farm board official. Pause. “I don’t believe there is much we can do about it.”
“Silent Cal” was his nickname. But like many shy powerhouses, he was only selectively shy. When it came to businesses’ contributions to American welfare, he spoke up often, with none of the inhibitions of modern Republicans. “The man who builds a factory builds a temple,” and “the man who works there worships there,” Coolidge said at one point before his presidency, an image so brash one can scarcely imagine it being offered at CPAC today. (RELATED: Why Would Republicans Rule Out Social Security and Medicare Reform?)
While president, Silent Cal was just as bold. He not only praised business loudly — “The chief business of the American people is business” — but also showcased it and its achievements. The Rotarian in Coolidge was his greatness. With decades of rubber-chicken banquet speeches behind him, he understood the importance of not only large tax laws but also the small gestures. When he inaugurated the first national Christmas tree near the White House in 1923, that tree shone with new electric lights, marking the president’s appreciation of the new utilities industry. To keep hope alive in every unskilled worker, Coolidge also took the unconventional step — unconventional for the Grand Old Party — of increasing federal spending on education.
While writers may not have backed Coolidge, the electorate did.
Coolidge’s plan worked, and he won his wager. Less taxed and less regulated, Americans took to doing with enthusiasm. The economy grew so fast that they also benefited: The 1920s were the years when many citizens first saw electricity in their homes, even those Christmas lights, or drove their first Model T and Model A. Around the time Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, the six-day work week dropped to five days in many places. One can summarize the economic gift that Coolidge policy gave the nation in a single laden word: “Saturday.”
Not everyone appreciated the cultural shift. Fitzgerald pressed on with the caricatures, as did other writers less known today, especially the firebrand Sinclair Lewis. Coolidge’s Rotarian streak so appalled Lewis that the writer even slammed Coolidge in a book title — The Man Who Knew Coolidge — the volume a parody of small-town life. Most of the time, Coolidge simply ignored smears, whether they appeared in novels or in political tracts. (“I don’t read that one,” he reportedly said when asked if he’d looked at a magazine that regularly assailed him.)
Such silence was not easy to maintain — even for Calvin. After Coolidge’s presidency, when Lewis won the Nobel Prize for his work, Coolidge commented in print that Lewis’ negative portraits of middle-class America simply did not capture reality. “[O]ur average is fairly satisfactory,” Coolidge noted in his understated way. “The world waits in our anteroom for our advice and assistance.” Coolidge left it at that.
For while writers may not have backed Coolidge, the electorate did. When he ran for office in 1924, Coolidge garnered more votes than the new Progressives and Democrats combined. The Ku Klux Klan indeed marched in Washington, but as “Coolidge Culture” deepened, the Klan faded. In 1926, Coolidge enjoyed a mandate so strong that he was able to see into law his target top tax rate of 25 percent — and repeal the heinous watchers’ measure, the “Peeping Tom” provision. That proved easy since the main argument of the envy watchers was gone. Under the lower rates, business was so active that the rich indeed paid a higher share of the tax burden. The result was a popularity for Coolidge so great that when he, emulating George Washington, opted not to run for office a second time, the Republican Party practically had a nervous breakdown. (READ MORE: The Coolness of Calvin Coolidge)
The 1920s are simultaneously far away — in “amber,” as Jon Meacham says in a new Coolidge documentary — and just around the corner. The decade’s very real prosperity suggests that redistribution, or even redistribution lite, is a foolish errand. The social programs that so appeal to election engineers — the child credit, for example — help families less than a cut in the plutocrat’s marginal rate.
Such a claim will rile the Sinclair Lewises and F. Scott Fitzgeralds among younger conservatives. So be it. The record stands. For minds open enough to read them, the evidence of policy that permits innovation, growth, and flourishing families is right there in the statistics. Happy Centennial, Calvin.
Amity Shlaes chairs the board of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation.