You have to cut me some slack. I was 17. Today, 35 years later -- I'm still a bit of a Reagan fan. Not much for the things he actually did, though there are some things I can point at even today and say he got right -- but for what he claimed to want.
(What did he do? California's Briggs Iniative, in 1978. It would have prevented gay Americans from working in schools. The Anita Bryant wing of the Republican Party was all in favor of it. Reagan, who was about to run for President, got pushed hard to at least keep his mouth shut bout it -- instead he wrote a letter opposing it, and an editorial in the Herald-Examiner against it as well.
(What else? I'm unclear that anything the U.S. did actually accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union; the idea that we spent them into bankruptcy is not really falsifiable. But he was right to stand against it -- he did and never wavered.)
But where Reagan touched me, moved me, really connected with me to the point where I was prepared to become a conservative murderbot and Spread the Good News, was when he talked about the evils of deficit spending, the evils of borrowing from your children.
"You and I, as individuals," he said, "can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but only for a limited period of time. Why should we think that collectively as a nation we are not bound by that same limitation?"
It made sense to me then, and it makes sense to me now. No, a country is not a household; I've seen that meme too. But a country is a finite set of resources, and when those resources are heading out of the country to pay overseas lenders, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars a year, son, you got a condition.
I'm not going to spend a lot of time discussing the extraordinary gap in performance on the deficit between Democratic and Republican administrations, post-1980. In Republican Administrations the deficit goes up, and in Democratic Administrations the deficit goes down. Period. This is a 35-year coincidental correlation, at this point -- and it's not the House, which allegedly holds the power of the purse; the deficit's gone up with Democratic Houses and Republican Presidents, down with Democratic Houses and Republican Presidents; up with Republican Houses and Republican Presidents (exploded under Bush and Speaker Hastert) -- and down with Republican Houses and Democratic Presidents. (Indeed -- Republican House and Republican President is the worst combination; Republican House and Democratic President the best, by far, for controlling spending. There's something to be said for the hatred Republicans have for Democratic Presidents.)
But I am going to spend some time breaking down Ronald Reagan's performance on the deficit, because he's pretty much where all this started: said one thing, did very much another.
Let's start by dismissing the argument that the House was responsible for all this. It's not true, at its core. Ronald Reagan requested $29.4 billion more in spending than Congress passed. Conservative/libertarian types will dispute this. If you want to understand how this gag works, read here:
So Congress was slightly more responsible than Reagan, yeah. This isn't saying much: those budgets were disasters, and the disaster was almost immediately evident to everyone: in fiscal 1981 the deficit was $78B, the debt was $994B, and the debt as a percentage of GDP was 34% -- that last number is the best way to understand what's going on with these numbers; inflation lowers the value of the dollar, over time, but GDP is GDP.
By 1989 the deficit was $152B, the debt was 2.9 Trillion, and the debt as a percentage of GDP was 55%.
What caused this? Tax cuts, and spending hikes. You think Democrats spend like crazy, you haven't paid attention to either of the Reagan or Bush II administrations.
A word in favor of very nearly the last Republican politician I actually liked -- Bush I loved his country, raised taxes, and primed the pump for the Clinton Administration's eventual elimination of the deficit, and a decade of economic good times. Clinton mostly gets credit for that, but it was him, a brave Democratic Congress in the year of Clinton's first budget, and George HW Bush, who deserve the credit. (Don't the Republicans in the House, who fought Clinton at every turn deserve some credit? Well, at the level of causing complete paralysis, they do; the modern House deserves the same sort of credit for Obama's budget deficits dropping. I'm not clear if seething hatred is really praiseworthy, but at the level of only caring about results, thanks, guys.)
But back to Reagan -- we can argue Obama another decade. (And will, for all the decades I have left.)
One of the things Reagan gets credit for is that, in the face of mounting deficits, he did in fact raise taxes. Several times. And he did. But it's worthwhile, comparing his tax cuts and his tax hikes.
The total of Reagan's tax cuts: $275B.
The total of Reagan's tax hikes: $133B.
So one of those numbers is twice as big as the other. And what's more, they're different kinds of tax cuts and tax hikes. They redistributed the tax burden: the cuts helped the wealthy; the hikes hit the middle and working classes. Ronald Reagan, in eight years, shifted the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle class and poor, and took a debt that had required 80-odd years to create (a debt that Robert Heinlein found horrifying when it was still relatively small) -- and tripled it in two terms.
I missed voting for Ronald Reagan by three weeks: I turned 18 on November 30, 1980. It's a truism that people tend to stick with their first votes; they've got skin in the game, they want the person they voted for to succeed, and whichever party that person belongs to, is the party they tend to vote for, going forward, for the rest of their lives. (And this is why Obama's two great performances with the young is so long-term scary for the GOP -- it's not just that they voted Democratic now; they're going to vote Democrat til they die.)
Alternate worlds -- I can picture a world where I'd been born on November 1, instead of November 30. I'd have voted for Reagan, without a doubt. (I thought then, and think now, that Jimmy Carter was a terrible President.) Would I then have spent the next four years desperately searching for justifications for his brutal budgets, his failure to deliver on the thing that made me a Reaganista in the first place? I don't know. I like to think not, but people are far more rationalizing than rational, to mention Robert Heinlein for the second time.
Somewhere in another splinter of time, is a slightly older version of me busy writing the exact opposite of this piece, with the same conviction with which I wrote this one? Maybe. If so, hi there, Dan: I love you anyway. You're wrong, though.