In mid-December 1933, Eccles received a telegram from Roosevelt's Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., asking him to return to Washington at the earliest possible date to "talk about monetary matters." Eccles was perplexed. The new administration had shown no interest in his ideas. He had never met Morgenthau, who was a strong advocate for balancing the federal budget. After their meeting, the mystery only deepened. Morgenthau asked Eccles to write a report on monetary policy, which Eccles could as easily have written in Utah. A few days later Morgenthau invited Eccles to his home, where he asked about Eccles's business connections, his personal finances, and the condition of his businesses, namely whether any had gone bankrupt. Finally, Morgenthau took Eccles into his confidence. "You've been recommended as someone I should get to help me in the Treasury Department," Morgenthau said. Eccles was taken aback, and asked for a few days to think about it.
"'Here you are, Marriner, full of talk about what the government should and shouldn't do,'" Eccles told himself, as he later recounted in his memoirs. "'You ought to put up or shut up. . . . You're afraid your theory won't work. You're afraid you'll be a damned fool. You want to stick it out in Utah and wear the hair shirt of a prophet crying in the wilderness. You can feel noble that way, and you run no risks. [But] if you don't come here you'll probably regret it for the rest of your life.'" Eccles talked himself into the job.
For many months thereafter, Eccles steeped himself in the work of the Treasury and the Roosevelt administration, pushing his case for why the government needed to go deeper into debt to prop up the economy, and what it needed to do for average people. Apparently he made progress. Roosevelt's budget of 1934 contained many of Eccles's ideas, violating the president's previous promise to balance the federal budget. The president "swallowed the violation with considerable difficulty," Eccles wrote.
The following summer, after the governor of the Federal Reserve Board unexpectedly resigned, Morgenthau recommend-ed Eccles for the job. Eccles had not thought about the Fed as a vehicle for advancing his ideas. But a few weeks later, when the president summoned him to the White House to ask if he'd be interested, Eccles told Roosevelt he'd take the job if the Federal Reserve in Washington had more power over the supply of money, and the New York Fed (dominated by Wall Street bankers), less. Eccles knew Wall Street wanted a tight money supply and correspondingly high interest rates, but the Main Streets of America—the real economy—needed a loose money supply and low rates. Roosevelt agreed to support new legislation that would tip the scales toward Main Street. Eccles took over the Fed.
For the next fourteen years, with great vigor and continuing vigilance for the welfare of average people, Eccles helped steer the economy through the remainder of the Depression and through World War II. He would also become one of the architects of the Great Prosperity that the nation and much of the rest of the world enjoyed after the war.
Excerpted from "Aftershock," by Robert B. Reich Copyright © 2010 by Robert B. Reich. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.