- Healthy economic growth (it wasn't called the Roaring Twenties for nothing).
- Taxes were cut so deeply that, as wikipedia notes, "by 1927, only the richest 2% of taxpayers paid any federal income tax."
- Government surpluses and declining national debt during his entire time in office.
- Government spending was almost perfectly flat.
- Twice vetoed bills establishing agriculture subsidy programs.
- Had a general disposition against regulation.
- Only once delivered a state of the union speech orally (his first), delivering all the rest in writing, thus sparing citizens from the modern day circus it have become (the lack of television obviously also helped).
For the right, the fact that Coolidge presided over sustained growth—and without accumulating massive debt, as Reagan did—seems to ratify the wisdom of the low taxes, loose regulation, and limited government that they still champion. As for the Depression, they find it easier to scapegoat Herbert Hoover—almost certainly the worst president of the 20th century next to Richard Nixon—than to admit to blots on Coolidge’s legacy.
This view is problematic for many reasons, not least because it assumes that presidents neither benefit from the achievements of their predecessors nor bear responsibility for the long-term consequences of their own policies. Coolidge in fact benefited from the wartime spending under Wilson, which buoyed the economy into the 1920s.
Although the economy boomed in the 1920s, wealth grew unevenly. According to a 1928 Brookings Institution report, more than one-half of American families remained near or below subsistence at the time—despite an economic boom that was dubbed the “Coolidge Prosperity.”This maldistribution of wealth—in some ways similar to today’s—meant that while business was able to produce record numbers of cars, radios, and appliances, many citizens were hard-pressed to buy them. In 1927, the popular economists William Foster and Waddill Catchings published Business Without a Buyer, arguing that supply did not in fact create its own demand, and that overproduction could be dangerous. Coolidge’s fiscal policy failed to correct these imbalances.
- From 1923 until 1929 (Coolidge's tenture in office), the percentage of households with a telephone rose from 36 percent to 42 percent
- The number of local telephone conversations grew 46.8 percent between 1920 and 1930, while the number of long distance conversations grew 71.8 percent over the same period. There were 5 times as many long distance telephone calls as telegraph messages handled in 1920, and 5.7 times as many in 1930.
- The percentage of homes with a radio rose from roughly 2 percent in 1923 to 35 percent in 1929.
- While automobiles were relatively rare before the beginning of World War I, by the end of the 1920s about 60 percent of American families owned one.
- The percentage of dwellings with electricity increased from 45 percent in 1923 to 69 percent in 1929.
- The number of hours spent preparing meals and doing dishes declined from 44 in 1900 to 30 in 1925 (guessing this is per household -- source is lefty economist J. Bradford DeLong).
What was more, despite warnings from economists such as William Z. Ripley, Coolidge declined to restrain the Wall Street speculation that flourished in the late 1920s. One problem was margin trading—buying stocks with a tiny down payment and a loan from your broker for the rest, then selling them at a profit soon after. Like Charles Ponzi’s notorious scheme, margin trading depended on the buyer not getting caught short when the bill came due.
Some urged the Federal Reserve to stop lending brokers money to enable these deals, but Coolidge kept mum. Even in January 1928, when brokers’ loans reached an untenable volume, the president denied they were out of control. His administration also declined to regulate the market in other ways, permitting, for example, the sale of stocks back and forth between brokers to drive up shares and fool unwitting lay investors.
One can also call into question Coolidge’s policies regarding agriculture, global trade and credit, anti-trust enforcement, and other issues. To what degree different policies could have averted the catastrophe of the 1930s is unknowable. But Coolidge’s naive faith in the gospel of productivity and the benevolence of business deterred him from even asking the questions that might have mitigated the misfortune.
The Depression buried Coolidge’s economics. The success of the New Deal sealed the coffin, seemingly forever. But Reagan’s legions have labored hard to bring them back from the dead, and as memories have faded and historical knowledge atrophied, their arguments have gained adherents—to the point where they now go unquestioned in many precincts of the right.