Once upon a time in a land not far away there lived a mighty people. Together they worked, and everyone shared in the fruits of their labor. Life in their nation wasn’t perfect; there was inequality, but no matter a person’s station in life, as the nation prospered, so did they all. A sense of shared purpose united the people, and it seemed that nothing could stop their collective pursuit of a better life for one and all.
Sadly, one day trouble came to this prosperous land. The people still worked as hard as ever, but regardless of their toil and labor, the irresistible force of their combined will had come to meet an immovable object. The engines that drove their economy, the mightiest in the history of their world, had come to be chained to the whim of foreign kings.
It was the good fortune of the people that a man of unwavering faith and strength of character had been elected to lead them. Without regard for his own lot, the leader spoke to the people candidly. He shared the truth of their situation. Open and honest were his words; he warned them that they were at a crossroads, that there was only one path forward to true freedom. He sounded the alarm over their growing dependency on other nations, but he also shared his vision for the future. He called on all of the people to join together, to face their problems and embrace their common destiny.
The people understood that the road would be hard, that sacrifice was needed and more effort would be required of everyone. Only with a united public could the challenges be met. The nation was ready to rally behind their leader, but another man, a man of celebrity, would offer an alternative.
His voice was calming, and his words were clear; there was no need for sacrifice, he proclaimed. Dependency on foreign kings wasn’t the problem — the trusted leader and his oppressive institutions were at fault.
Beleaguered and struggling from before the trusted leader came to power, the people were eager for better days. Their very identity as a nation had become threatened, their confidence shaken. The words of the challenger fell like sweet music upon their ears.
The challenger stood tall. Strong and sure of himself, his scripted appeals hypnotized all who listened. He summoned the people to look back and recall the pride of their mighty nation. He assured them that the path directed by the trusted leader was the path to ruin, that the leader was soft and would surely bring them no good. He offered to relieve them of the hard choices expressed by the wise leader, to release them from the bonds of his “oppressive regime.” Prosperity was their birthright, he said, for they were truly exceptional and deserving. They could be certain that his was the superior path, for it promised resurgent glory, and did so without sacrifice.
Like those of days gone by who crowded around medicine shows, seeking miracle tonics and magic elixirs, the people were swept up by the promise of an easier, yet more rewarding path. The people believed the challenger would deliver the bright future he promised. They could see it already glimmering in the distance. With smooth talk and a calming voice, he had mesmerized the masses and cast his glimmer spell upon them. The people were unable to resist, and with arms wide open, they welcomed the Glimmer Man, overwhelmingly rejecting the trusted leader and refusing his sage advice.
Three decades and nearly two years have passed since that fateful day in November of 1980. The mighty nation was, of course, the USA. The trusted leader was Jimmy Carter, and the Glimmer Man was none other than Ronald Wilson Reagan.
It was July 15,1979 when President Carter gave his now famous “Malaise” speech. The nation had been struggling with increasing dependence on foreign oil for two decades, hitting a tipping point when domestic oil production peaked in 1970. Our energy independence gone, our nation was held hostage, first by the Arab nations that cut off our oil supply in 1973, and then again during the Iranian Revolution in 1979 — this time not only closing the oil spigot but literally holding 52 Americans hostage. By the time of Carter’s speech, nearly half the oil consumed in the US had to be imported.
Our long post-war economic expansion had faltered; the unity that had so tightly bonded Americans had been lost in the bloody rice patties ofVietnam, and our rose-colored glasses, spotted by the assassinations of the 1960s, were shattered by Watergate in 1972. We saw our first trade deficit in 1971 and began an unending series of such deficits in 1976. Inflation soared to double-digits, as did the prime interest rate. Wages were stagnating, and for the first time in our history, people believed the future would be worse than the past. Americans were desperate for a victory, for some light at the end of the tunnel, for anything resembling good news.
But Carter didn’t have good news to share; he offered instead a choice between two paths: one focused on self-interest, and the other on common purpose. He presented the unadulterated facts of our situation, labeling energy dependency a “clear and present danger,” and warned that to ignore this truth was “a certain route to failure,” one that promised a “mistaken idea of freedom.”
President Carter shared an alternative that he claimed would lead to “real freedom.” He called Americans to “seize control again of our common destiny” and advocated doing so by first solving our energy problems. Carter set forth bold steps in his energy policy. He called for a windfall profits tax on oil companies, for investment in public transportation, to build energy conservation into our homes, and to reach a goal of 20% solar power by the year 2000. Most importantly, the President’s speech was a call to arms on the “battlefield of energy,” where every act of conservation would be “an act of patriotism.”
Ronald Reagan, former actor, both theatrical and political, appeared on the scene with a quite different, and highly attractive, alternative for the American people: he would cut taxes while also balancing the budget and simultaneously address energy dependence without conservation. According to Reagan, oil production was the answer to our energy woes, and high taxes the cause of our economic problems. Reagan raised high the specter of the dark Soviet empire, painted Carter to be a weak leader, and sold the American people on the notion that “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”
Telling the public exactly what they wanted to hear, Reagan easily won a popular majority, of which this author, a Democrat, was a member.
As president, he wasted no time attacking “the problem.” He moved to quickly implement the economic policies that his primary opponent and general election running mate, George H.W. Bush, had referred to as “voodoo economics.” Claiming that tax cuts for top income earners would “trickle down” for everyone else, Reagan’s Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 would cut the top marginal tax rate by 20% and drop the capital gains tax to 20% — the lowest level since the Hoover administration.
The net effect on federal revenues was a reduction of $268 billion over the next three years — as a share of GDP, the single largest cut in American history. In Reagan’s own words, he was treating the federal government like an “extravagant kid” who needed his parents to “cut his allowance.” By Reagan’s second term, the “extravagant kid” prescription had become the signature political strategy of movement conservatism. Known as “starve the beast,” the plan would deprive government of revenue, which would then force spending cuts and the defunding of social programs.
Following a series of limited tax increases from 1982 through 1985, Reagan wielded his tax axe again during his second term. His Tax Reform Act of 1986 also earned it’s place in history as the only legislation, before or since, to simultaneously drop the top tax rate (from 50% to 28%) and raise the rate for the lowest income earners (from 11% to 15%). Not only was the beast to be starved, but so were millions of working Americans.
Unwavering in his faith in “trickle down economics,” Reagan was relentless in his support of the wealthy. Tax advantage was only one side of the ledger. Once the president of the Screen Actors Guild, where he was eventually pressured out of office in response to his pro-management positions, Reagan would wage a full scale war on labor during his presidency. Not only did he freeze the minimum wage and deal the most destructive blow ever delivered to American unions, when he fired 13,000 air traffic controllers in 1981, but he effectively changed the NLRB into an “Employer Relations Board” when he stacked the 5-member panel with a majority of management representation.
Of course, had the Reagan tax cuts been accompanied by corresponding cuts in spending, the American public might have been more aware of the toll taken by Reagan’s anti-labor polices. But contrary to conservative myth, Reagan was as much spendthrift as tax slasher. He did cut funding for many social programs, including food stamps, education and the EPA. He hacked Medicaid and slashed federal assistance to local governments by 60%. But overall, Reagan was anything but fiscally conservative. During his two terms, federal spending would average 22.4% of GDP, well above the 40-year average of 20.7%, and the federal debt would swell to nearly $3 trillion, effectively tripling under Reagan’s fiscal leadership.
In retrospect, it’s rather obvious why so many people revere Ronald Reagan as such a great leader. With the entire nation suffering from some sort of collective amnesia regarding his record on the debt, what else could be expected when a president slashes taxes and simultaneously pumps trillions of dollars of federal stimulus into the economy? This is not to diminish his foreign policy record, where among other achievements, he must be given credit for his part in ending the Cold War. But the real magic of the Reagan presidency came from his innate ability to capture the imagination of the American people, to lull them into believing what he wanted them to believe, regardless of the reality — with masterful stagecraft, to cast a spell and breathe life into an alternate reality that never really existed.
The harsh truth of Reagan’s legacy is that while the American people were under his spell, his actual handiwork was the crafting of a new form of politics that used the public’s natural patriotism and belief in the work ethic to gain the blind support of working people while giving all benefit to only the wealthiest among us.
Reagan appealed to our national vanity with his incantation of American exceptionalism, but did nothing to help the average citizen share in the prosperity. He nearly silenced the voice of organized labor, the movement that brought us the 40-hour workweek, the minimum wage and workplace safety. He abandoned Carter’s energy policy, the last to be adopted by any administration, and as a result relinquished control of our energy future to OPEC and other foreign nations. He put the pedal to the metal on military spending, skewed tax policy to advantage the rich, and tilted the economic playing field to such an extent that, as a nation, we may never recover.
All of what’s happened in the three decades since Reagan was elected cannot be blamed solely on his policies, but it goes without question that he is the creator-in-chief of the paradigm that made it all possible. He won election by contradicting the sage advice of Jimmy Carter and convincing the American people that no sacrifice would be needed, so long as we dealt with our “problems.” And then he did everything in his power to divert attention from both his budget deficits and the real “problem” — parasites of American wealth who use their influence to rig banking, trade and tax policy.
By conjuring up fictitious culprits, like his famous Cadillac-driving welfare queens, Reagan was able to sell a large segment of the populace on the notion that our economic woes were the result of lazy, untrustworthy miscreants, living large on the public dole. Sadly, the predisposition of many conservatives was justified by Reagan’s own messaging, and this particular blame-game became a form of muffled racism. Expressed mostly through dog whistle politics, the finger was pointed at all “others” — minorities of any stripe. It was this form of deceit that planted the fertile ground of economic hardship with the seeds of radical division that continue to grow today. Job losses, stagnant wages and a diminishing standard of living weren’t the fault of profit seeking elites exploiting people and planet; it was all the fault of “big government” supporting lazy loafers who milked the system.
In the time since Reagan was first elected, America has grown increasingly divided. With half of the population still under the Glimmer Man’s spell, believing that it isn’t poverty that’s “the problem” — it’s the poor, the scales continue to tip further and further in favor of the rich, and the toll is paid increasingly by working Americans, mostly by the vanishing middle class. Since 1979, two-thirds of all income gains have gone to the Top 1%. That exclusive group, which accounted for only 9% of all income in 1976, now rakes in a full 24% and claims more financial wealth than the bottom 95%. Meanwhile median household has remained essentially flat, and the United States has taken its place amongst the most economically unequal nations on the planet — worse than even Iran and China.
Is this unhealthy for an economy? Absolutely. When wealth becomes so overly concentrated, the middle class has insufficient funds to provide the demand for the goods and services that are essential for a consumer economy. Without sufficient demand, companies cut back, jobs are lost, demand weakens further, and the cycle repeats itself — a self-reinforcing death spiral without a bottom. If not for our serial economic bubbles, where lack of income was relieved with ever-increasing borrowing and debt, conservative voters might have been awakened from that glimmer spell cast all those long years ago. But such has not been the case. The bubbles have served to conceal the dire straits our nation must now navigate.
Following 30 years of shared prosperity, the Reagan era ushered in the age of extraction, where the rich get filthy rich and everyone else struggles to make ends meet. Ronald Reagan made the national debt a major campaign issue when he ran against Jimmy Carter —America needed a conservative to address this pressing issue. Yet, once elected, Reagan tripled the debt, and today it sits at over $15 trillion.
Carter warned us that we had to deal with dependency on foreign oil and set goals for energy efficiency and the implementation of wind and solar power. Reagan scuttled all plans for alternatives, and today we still import half of the oil we consume, while the planet sits at the precipice of global peak oil (the point at which total world oil resources go into terminal decline). The US has been without an energy policy since Carter, and today we waste nearly 60% of all energy produced through inefficiency, and we generate a whopping 4% of what we consume from wind, solar, hydro and geothermal combined.
Ronald Reagan may have ridden into Washington on a white horse, but what he was peddling was nothing more than snake oil. He sent us down the path Carter called “a certain route to failure,” and more than 30 years later, we’re still steaming full speed ahead into the abyss.
Three decades of blind support of business and dismantling of government has severely tilted the playing field and rigged the game against the average American. It was rigged banking that allowed Wall St. to bleed the American people for trillions of dollars of wealth. Rigged trade permitted the multinational corporations to send millions of jobs overseas. Rigged tax policy continually subsidizes the largest industries, requiring many to pay no income tax at all, and further enables massive concentration of wealth and power. Rigged elections ensure that the interests of the rich and powerful are always put in front of the wellbeing of our nation as a whole, and an increasingly rigged judiciary makes damn sure that the voice of average Americans is silenced.
As a result, our infrastructure is in disrepair and our education system is unable to meet our needs. Healthcare spending amounts to 17% of GDP, with costs at more than double the OECD average and continuing to soar. Unemployment is still at rates almost unseen since the Great Depression. The debt is over $15 trillion. Upward mobility has been all but comepletely lost. Our unfunded liabilities are in the tens of trillions of dollars. We seem to be permanently at war. Gas prices are at $4 per gallon, and we have no solution for our energy problems.
Could this be the “mistaken idea of freedom” that Jimmy Carter warned us about?
One thing is certain: it’s hard to see how we could be worse off today had we listened to Carter’s sage advice. The issues that now plague our nation are reaching epidemic proportions, yet we’ve become so polarized as a people that we’re entirely unable to work together in seeking real solutions. Discussion and analysis of our problems with the intent of identifying solutions isn’t even part of the conversation. We have become trapped in a partisan world controlled by the extremes, where positions are argued, but principles and values are trampled into the muddied ground of an ideological battlefield.
This division is the true legacy of the Reagan presidency. Where we were previously united in our efforts and earnestly sought after the common good, the Reagan doctrine taught that fragmentation and self-interest were appropriate responses to the issues we face. Win/win, shared properity, and an end to poverty were replaced with winners and losers, extraction and exploitation, Social Darwinism, and the survival of the most ruthless. Reagan gave those who needed someone to blame a target for their ire — anyone who’s different — and in so doing, drove an iron wedge into the American body politic.
Like a family that can’t deal with it’s problems, we’ve become a dysfunctional society. And as is typically the case, our dysfunction is rooted in our inability to effectively communicate. If we are to avoid further disaster, we must once again come together as a people, and the only way that happens is when we commit to an equal balance of inquiry and advocacy. We have to listen as well as speak, because it’s the only way to understand, and the only route to respecting our neighbors position is through understanding their perspective.
It’s time to be honest about the problems we face, time to stop arguing and start working together. It’s time to break the Glimmer Man’s spell, and in the words of Jimmy Carter, “seize control of our common destiny.” Most importantly, it’s time we recognize the greatest lie Reagan ever told: that “government is the problem.” The truth is that government is what we make it.
Government is the framework of rules we agree to live by and the vehicle with which we can achieve the otherwise impossible. Government is not “the problem” — the problem is broken government, and We the People are the solution.
The United States of America was founded on the principle of unity and of embracing the common good. “E pluribus unum” — out of many, one. This is the true source of our greatness. To the extent that we deviate from this principle, we work toward our own demise. We are the greatest nation in the history of our planet, but in order to remain great, we must sacrifice self-interest and embrace our common purpose, for this is the nature of true patriotism.