The "Stupendous Sum" of 1924: Calvin Coolidge on Taxes and Government Spending

Calvin Coolidge’s moniker “Silent Cal” is something of a misnomer. While he was very famous for his economy with words, he was well known in his day for using the kinds of media available to him. In fact, he hired the best media strategists of his day to help him effectively utilize what was available to him. Because of this, he became the first President to appear speaking on film. His speech could, with a few minor edits to the particulars, be just as apropos today as it was back then. Behold:

Hit the jump for more.

American Rhetoric gives us a transcript:

[This] country needs every ounce of its energy to restore itself. The costs of government are all assessed upon the people.

This means that the farmer is doomed to provide a certain amount of money out of the sale of his produce, no matter how low the price, to pay his taxes. The manufacturer, the professional man, the clerk, must do the same from their income. The wage earner, often at a higher rate when compared to his earning, makes his contribution, perhaps not directly but indirectly, in the advanced cost of everything he buys.

The expenses of government reach everybody.

Taxes take from everyone a part of his earnings and force everyone to work for a certain part of his time for the government.

When we come to realize that the yearly expenses of the governments of this country…the stupendous sum of about 7 billion, 500 million dollars — we get…700 million dollars — is needed by the national government, and the remainder by local governments.

Such a sum is difficult to comprehend. It represents all the pay of five million wage earners receiving five dollars a day, working 300 days in the year. If the government should add 100 million dollars of expense, it would represent four days more work of these wage earners. These are some of the reasons why I want to cut down public expense.

I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government — and more for themselves.

I want them to have the rewards of their own industry. This is the chief meaning of freedom.

Until we can reestablish a condition under which the earnings of the people can be kept by the people, we are bound to suffer a very severe and distinct curtailment of our liberty.

These results are not fanciful; they are not imaginary. They are grimly actual and real, reaching into every household in the land. They take from each home annually an average of over 300 dollars — and taxes must be paid. They are not a voluntary contribution to be met out of surplus earnings. They are a stern necessity. They come first.

It is only out of what is left, after they are paid, that the necessities of food, clothing, and shelter can be provided and the comforts of home secured, or the yearnings of the soul — for a broader and more abundant life gratified.

When the government affects a new economy, it grants everybody a life pension with which to raise the standard of existence. It increases the value of everybody’s property, raises the scale of everybody’s wages.

One of the greatest favors that can be bestowed upon the American people is economy in government.

If only today’s Republican politicians were more willing to say these kinds of things!

Now for a few thoughts.

First of all, it is amazing how much more money our government spends today. The “stupendous sum” of Coolidge’s day of $7,500,000,000 would be $94,786,977,161.05 when adjusted for inflation. Let’s put this in perspective a little bit:

  • In February of last year, Sen. Tom Coburn found between $100 and $200 billion dollars in wasteful spending through redundant government programs.
  • Also in February of 2011, Speaker John Boehner promised at CPAC to cut $100 billion in discretionary spending.
  • I’d love to quote you a budget figure, but you see, we haven’t had one for over 1100 days. Might want to contact Harry Reid about that.
  • For fiscal year 2011, our government took in $2.303 trillion in tax receipts.
  • The expenditure for 2011, meanwhile, was around $3.82 trillion.

In fairness, the population has increased since then. The 1920 Census revealed that the nation had 106,021,537 people. It has roughly tripled since then, totaling 308,745,538 in 2010. However, multiplying the sum Coolidge mentions in his speech, adjusted for inflation, would give us $284,360,931,483.15. Still a drop in the bucket for what we took in, much less spent, for 2011. For example, the debt limit agreement reached back in August promised spending cuts of $917 billion alone over ten years.

Keep cool with Coolidge!

Second, Calvin Coolidge is exactly right about the basics behind taxation. It is the government taking from your earnings for its own functions. Now this in and of itself isn’t wrong. The government has to get its money somehow. It can’t just print it (well, okay, maybe it can….with problematic–to say the least–results). However, as Coolidge notes here, “They are not a voluntary contribution to be met out of surplus earnings. They are a stern necessity. They come first.” Furthermore, until the people are able to actually keep as much of their money as possible,  they “are bound to suffer a very severe and distinct curtailment of our liberty.” Barry Goldwater, in his seminal The Conscience of a Conservative, quotes the late, great Senator Robert Taft of Ohio as saying, “You can socialize just as well by a steady increase in the burden of taxation beyond the 30% we have already reached as you can by government seizure. The very imposition of heavy taxes is a limit on a man’s freedom,” (pg. 54). The spirit of Coolidge was strong with him. Unfortunately, this spirit does not appear to be strong with either the current occupant of the White House or most members of Congress.

And all of this was before the wonderful thing we know as withholding came into being.

Third, “[o]ne of the greatest favors that can be bestowed upon the American people is economy in government.” What a great thought, that. Pity most of our elected officials in Washington, much less the states and lower levels of government, don’t understand that.

This is a former Massachusetts governor I’d have no problem getting behind. There’s a good reason Ronald Reagan considered him one of his favorite Presidents.