He Thoroughly Changed How We Think: RIP George Melloan
AP Photo/National Portrait Gallery
He Thoroughly Changed How We Think: RIP George Melloan
AP Photo/National Portrait Gallery
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They “ate, slept, made love, raised children, and tried to keep body and soul together by finding ways to make a living.” Those were the words of the late, great George Melloan about the people in his hometown of Whiteland, IN. They’re from his very excellent 2016 memoir of the Great Depression, When the New Deal Came to Town. Melloan frequently explained history, and esoteric economic concepts through people. In doing so he created enormous understanding.

The extraordinarily nice and brilliant Melloan passed away on Wednesday of this week, a little over a month shy of his 93rd birthday. To say he’ll be missed by those lucky enough to have known him brings new meaning to understatement. He’ll also be missed by his many readers around the U.S., and around the world who never got to meet this most gracious man. The good news is that the rather prolific Melloan has yet another book coming out (Bogus Science) in January. His influence will well outlast his time on earth.

Melloan was one of the vital few thinkers whose innovative thoughts thoroughly changed economic policy dialogue in the final quarter of the 20th century. It cannot be stressed enough how degraded the discussion of economics had become before he and his colleagues offered readers a new perspective. When people complain about the present policy debate, they reveal impressive ignorance of how far we've come thanks to people like Melloan. 

He was most famously deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal where he helped shape the 1970s supply-side revolution with the remarkable editor of the Journal’s editorial page, Robert Bartley. Melloan was to his dying day an inconvenient truth for critics of supply side who were unceasing in their view that an economic philosophy rooted in removing barriers to production was all about coddling the rich. They were so wrong.

Indeed, in his similarly excellent 2017 history of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, Free People, Free Minds, Melloan alerted readers to how “Bob’s [Bartley} father taught veterinary medicine at Iowa State, I grew up in a farm village in Indiana, the son of a failed farmer, and Jude [Wanniski] was the son of a coal miner and grandson of an ardent communist." In Melloan’s case, his energetic belief in supply side (really just a new name for classical economics) was borne of having grown up in a town that suffered the policies made by politicians who thought they knew better in Washington, D.C. The political class felt economic growth could be planned. Melloan knew otherwise. It was about freeing people to produce. He learned it from the people who shaped him in Whiteland.

That consumption followed frequently back-breaking production was a given in his hometown. How else would they eat? More than most want to admit, ideology is a luxury of the privileged. Short on the latter, Melloan had common sense. To him, reduced barriers to production that included a lower tax burden were the way up and out for the people of Whiteland and other towns like it. In Melloan’s words, “supply-side measures were not meant to help the rich, but to foster the work effort and investment of time and money by people who want to become rich, or at least richer.”

Melloan was never someone who felt sorry for himself as a consequence of the economic struggles that were seemingly the norm in the 1930s. He stressed early on in When the New Deal Came to Town that it was “not a ‘victims’ book” even though he rightly tied the Great Depression to the policy errors of the political class. Melloan didn’t consider himself a victim simply because as the quote that begins this tribute makes plain, he was too busy living during what was only later referred to as the Great Depression.

All of which speaks to how important Melloan’s book was, and is. He was making a case that even when things are bad in the U.S., they’re still good. Our downturns are gold-plated. A bad day for us is an amazing day most anywhere else. Even in Whiteland people still traveled, dated, danced. Melloan’s future wife was actually jitterbugging when the music on the radio was interrupted to report the Pearl Harbor tragedy. Melloan was telling readers that historians had in many ways overstated the “Great” when it came to the Depression, but also making the modern point that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump could break the United States. Good, happy life would go on no matter the person elected. This message was much needed when it’s remembered how much partisans on both sides were convinced one or the other would turn the U.S. into Venezuela, or something like it.

All of this is mentioned to make a broader point about Melloan’s uplifting optimism. He plainly saw through the bad, and thankfully communicated the good to his readers. Consider yet again the Journal editorial page that he and Bartley oversaw beginning in the 1970s. When they took over commercial air travel was still centrally planned by the Civil Aeronautics Board. Telephones were landlines that we plugged into walls, and were illegal to own. The top tax rate was 70 percent, plus both Democrats and Republicans felt lowering the top rate would result in an inflationary breakout.

That’s what this tribute means about Melloan’s essential role when it came to transforming the policy debate. When he was relatively young, the policy outlook was dim. While nowadays a major tax cut proposal is the price of admission for Republican presidential candidates, in the 1970s talk of tax cuts was radical. It’s no longer radical today because Melloan, Bartley, Jude Wanniski and other expansive thinkers at the world’s most important editorial page succeeded in making mainstream what had once been heretical. Translated, the policy discussion was incredibly stupid before Melloan et al.

Melloan was most influential to me in the area of dollar policy. While he once acknowledged that “I’m a little more Friedman than you are,” Melloan was broadly in favor of a dollar with great constancy as a measure. He knew good money facilitated the trade and investment without which there is no progress. To Melloan, however, his views on the dollar were ultimately about fairness. Never forget that he learned his economic principles in many ways by observing the adults in his hometown; people like Ralph Barger, Orel “Chewtabac” Woods, and Harry Porter, the local drugstore owner. How could they gain if the dollars they earned were constantly being devalued?

After that, Melloan was a cheerleader for others. As Mary O’Grady, his Journal colleague of twenty-five years put it to me, there was no professional jealousy on his part. He loved seeing the individuals he brought to the editorial page succeed. He was also endlessly kind to those not on the page like yours truly. Melloan always returned e-mails, and did so quickly. One as recently as a few weeks ago. The subject for this very broad thinker was China.

Still, my favorite one from Melloan came in January of this year. I’d invited the 92-year old to a dinner FreedomWorks and its Center for Economic Freedom were staging in New York City. He nicely replied, “Sorry to miss it, John, but I have a dinner date.” Even as the end neared Melloan was still living. I’ll leave it there. The world isn’t as smart now that Melloan has left us, it’s surely less gracious, and it’s most certainly less kind. George Melloan will be sorely missed.

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Vice President at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading (www.trtadvisors.com). His next book, set for release in March of 2021, is titled When Politicians Panicked: The New Coronavirus, Expert Opinion, and a Tragic Lapse of Reason. Other books by Tamny include They're Both Wrong: A Policy Guide for America's Frustrated Independent Thinkers, The End of Work, about the exciting growth of jobs more and more of us love, Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at jtamny@realclearmarkets.com.  

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