WILL THE 20’S ROAR AGAIN ?

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Will the ’20s Roar Again?

We are overdue today for another wave of creative thinking about everything—politics, the culture, education and morality. But this time, hold the roaring.

By Daniel Henninger January 2, 2020

If time travel were real, nearly half the U.S. population—and all the Democrats—would ship Donald Trump back to the Roaring ’20s, an era presumably more in sync with his instinct for creative outrage. But voters then would have been as startled by Mr. Trump’s political personality as voters now. Despite the dawn of the Flapper Age, their taste in presidents ran more toward Warren G. Harding, elected in 1920, whom no one would mistake for Donald J. Trump.

Harding’s campaign slogan was “a return to normalcy.” When he died in office 2½ years later, his successor was the uber-normal Calvin Coolidge, who won election on his own in 1924.

Other than the American presidency, though, the 1920s were in no way normal. In the U.S. and much of the world, the decade witnessed a remarkable economic and industrial boom. If we’re going to compare the ’20s then to the ’20s being born this week, an economic footnote is in order about a main cause of the first “roaring.”

When the 16th Amendment created the personal income tax in 1913, the original top marginal rate was 7%. By 1920 it was 77%, in part because of the Great War.

At the urging of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, Congress enacted tax cuts in 1921, 1924 and 1926, with the top rate falling in middle-decade to 25% on incomes above $100,000. Prosperity followed, just as it did after the Kennedy tax cuts in the 1960s, Reagan’s reductions in the 1980s, and today—undeniably—after the Trump corporate rate cut of 2017. As in the 1920s, the consumer is again king, with disposable income available to buy an innovative economy’s extraordinary array of new products.

Pessimists say the Great Depression silenced the 1920s’ roar. It did, and some of its lessons deserve mention.

 

In 1930, under Republican President Herbert Hoover, a Republican Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley tariff on imports, which walloped a world economy already in decline. Mr. Trump is the greatest lover of tariffs since Hoover, Smoot or Hawley. But along comes a surprise for the new decade: Mr. Trump is reducing the tariffs he imposed on the rest of the world, announcing he will sign the first phase of a trade deal with China on Jan. 15.

As he starts his re-election campaign, Mr. Trump is putting Hoover behind him, preferring instead to run on Coolidge’s record of an expanding economy whose job and wage turbines are humming. And by the way, Pete Buttigieg isn’t the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Depression and FDR transformed the Democratic Party. It adopted as an article of faith, held to this day by every Democratic presidential candidate, that any tear in the social fabric should be mended with permanent entitlements or subsidies. The competing idea is that subsidies are a poor substitute for finding and holding a job in a vibrant private economy.

That’s what President Coolidge believed in the 1920s, and the belief that private opportunity is better than public subsidy has been kept alive the past century by such public figures as Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, Paul Ryan and Donald Trump. Mr. Trump’s gut-level belief in the power of the private economy is an attribute that gets overwhelmed by the daily drama.

Of course, the decade wasn’t known as the Roaring ’20s because of the daytime economy in Peoria. These remarkable 10 years saw the rise, all at once, of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities—New York, Chicago, Paris, Berlin, London.

Music, art, drama, literature, ballet, architecture, movies, newspapers—it’s hard to grasp the creative radiance and energy of the decade. Louis Armstrong was 24 when he formed the Hot Five in 1925. Yankee Stadium became the “House That Ruth Built.” The Roaring ’20s brought the birth of urban sophistication, whose resonances—and residue—are still with us.

America’s large urban centers are again magnets for cosmopolitan elites who are socially liberal in outlook, while the more moderate or conservative outlying rural towns and suburbs wonder, once again, what happened to the traditional structures of everyday life. The conflicted reality is that the Jazz Age of the 1920s produced great creativity and great moral slackness. Much of the culture today remains in a 100-year war over the content of the modern age.

Nothing like the artistic dynamism of the ’20s exists today. Most of the creative arts consider it a solemn obligation to disappear into reductionist obsessions with race, gender, identity and the Gini coefficient (inequality). Sunday sermons are delivered on climate change. Little of it is compelling or interesting. Back then, technology’s role in a better life was celebrated. Today it engenders neurotic phobias.

If there is one valid correspondence with the first Roaring ’20s, it is that the earlier decade produced a wave of new thinking about everything. We are overdue today for another wave of creative thought—about politics, culture, education and morality. This time, hold the roaring.

Write henninger@wsj.com.

 

 

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