06/11/2004: The Reagan post....
Other than a cursory mention of President Reagan's death when I was talking about the Belmont Stakes and agreeing with a suggestion that a biomedical research institute would be the most fitting memorial to Reagan, I've not bothered to note Reagan's passing. Bluntly, he wasn't a favorite president of mine (I was just graduating from law school in 1982, during the depths of the recession of those times, and whether rightly or not I saw him as being responsible for the bad effects on a lot of people I knew and regarded highly), and the rush to deify him in recent memory (the Reagan Legacy Project and it's dim-witted suggestion that every county in the United States should have something named after Reagan was, for me the last straw) sickens me. That doesn't mean that I perceive Reagan as "the anti-Christ". He was an extraordinary man, if only (and arguably not only) in the sense that since there have only been 42 men in the history of the United States who've ever held the office of President of the United States; you can't get that high and not be extraordinary in some respect. But he wasn't The Second Word Made Flesh And Dwelt Among Us, as some of his fans would have it; he had his good points and he had his bad points.
Bob Somerby, incomparably as always, draws our attention to a couple things to read that reinforce that fact. The first he mentions today, namely Paul Krugman's column in the New York Times today: An Economic Legend
But let's not be bullied into accepting the right-wing legend about Reaganomics.The second recommended reading is from yesterday's "Daily Howler": Lou Cannon's President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (from 1991, a study of the Reagan presidency) and its "prequel", Cannon's 2003 Governor Reagan. Somerby quotes Eric Alterman's assessment of President Reagan, "a book that can be admired by honest fans of Reagan as well as honest opponents". I own this book, and I wholeheartedly agree.It's an excellent work, and you can't put it down without having some respect for the complexity of the man--regardless of how you feel about his policies and performance in the White House.
Here's a sample version of the legend: according to a recent article in The Washington Times, Ronald Reagan "crushed inflation along with left-wing Keynesian economics and launched the longest economic expansion in U.S. history." Actually, the 1982-90 economic expansion ranks third, after 1991-2001 and 1961-69 — but even that comparison overstates the degree of real economic success.
The secret of the long climb after 1982 was the economic plunge that preceded it. By the end of 1982 the U.S. economy was deeply depressed, with the worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression. So there was plenty of room to grow before the economy returned to anything like full employment.
The depressed economy in 1982 also explains "Morning in America," the economic boom of 1983 and 1984. You see, rapid growth is normal when an economy is bouncing back from a deep slump. (Last year, Argentina's economy grew more than 8 percent.)
And the economic expansion under President Reagan did not validate his economic doctrine. His supply-side advisers didn't promise a one-time growth spurt as the economy emerged from recession; they promised, but failed to deliver, a sustained acceleration in economic growth.
Inflation did come down sharply on Mr. Reagan's watch: it was running at 12 percent when he took office, but was only 4.5 percent when he left. But this victory came at a heavy price. For much of the Reagan era, the economy suffered from very high unemployment. Despite the rapid growth of 1983 and 1984, over the whole of the Reagan administration the unemployment rate averaged a very uncomfortable 7.5 percent.
In other words, it all played out just as "left-wing Keynesian economics" predicted.
It's a measure of how desperate the faithful are to believe in the Reagan legend that one often reads conservative commentators claiming that the Clinton-era miracle was the result of Mr. Reagan's policies, and indeed vindicated them. Think about it: Mr. Reagan passed his big tax cut right at the beginning of his presidency, and mainly raised taxes thereafter. So we're supposed to believe that a tax cut passed in 1981 was somehow responsible for an economic miracle that didn't materialize until around 1997. Apply the same timing to the good things that happened on Mr. Reagan's watch, and you'll discover that Lyndon Johnson deserves the credit for "Morning in America."
So here's my plea: let's honor Mr. Reagan for his real achievements, not dishonor him — and mislead the nation — with false claims about his economic record.
Len on 06.11.04 @ 09:02 PM CST