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The Abject Failure of Reaganomics

By       Message Robert Parry     Permalink
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Zero Job Growth

During the decade of George W. Bush's presidency, the United States experienced zero job growth. And zero is actually worse than it sounds since none of the preceding six decades registered job growth of less than 20 percent.

By comparison, the 1970s, which are often bemoaned as a time of economic stagflation and political malaise, registered a 27-percent increase in jobs. Yet, in part because of that relatively slow rise in jobs -- down from 31 percent in the 1960s -- American voters turned to Ronald Reagan and his radical economic theories of tax cuts, global "free markets" and deregulation.

Reagan sold Americans on his core vision: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Through his personal magnetism, Reagan then turned taxes into a third rail of American politics. He convinced many voters that the government's only important roles were funding the military and cutting taxes.

Yet, instead of guiding the country into a bright new day of economic vitality, Reagan's approach accelerated a de-industrialization of the United States and a slump in the growth of American jobs, down to 20 percent during the 1980s. The percentage job increase for the 1990s stayed at 20 percent, although job growth did pick up later in the decade under President Clinton, who raised taxes and moderated some of Reagan's approaches while still pushing "free trade" agreements and deregulation.

Yet, hard-line Reaganomics returned with a vengeance under George W. Bush -- more tax cuts, more faith in "free trade," more deregulation -- and the Great American Job Engine finally started grinding to a halt. Zero percent increase. The Great American Middle Class was on life-support.

Ignoring Reality

Despite these painful statistics of the past three decades, Reaganomics has remained a powerful force in American political life. Anyone tuning in CNBC or picking up the Wall Street Journal would think that these economic policies had enjoyed unqualified success for everyone, rather than being a dismal failure for all but the richest Americans. The facts were especially stark for the 2000s, the so-called "Aughts" or perhaps more accurately the "Naughts."

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"For most of the past 70 years, the U.S. economy has grown at a steady clip, generating perpetually higher incomes and wealth for American households," wrote the Washington Post's Neil Irwin in a Jan. 2, 2010, review of comparative economic data. "But since 2000, the story is starkly different."

As the Post article and its accompanying graphs showed, the last decade's sad story wasn't just limited to the abysmal job numbers. U.S. economic output slowed to its worst pace since the 1930s, rising only 17.8 percent in the 2000s, less than half the 38.1 percent increase in the despised 1970s. Household net worth declined 4 percent in the last decade, compared to a 28 percent rise in the 1970s. (All figures were adjusted for inflation.)

Despite this record of economic failure from Bush's reprise of Reaganomics -- trillions more in government debt but no net increase in jobs or household wealth in the last decade -- many Americans appear to have learned no lessons from either the Bush-43 presidency or Reagan's destructive legacy. Any thought of raising taxes or investing in a stronger domestic infrastructure remains anathema to significant segments of the population still enthralled by the Tea Party.

Indeed, across the mainstream U.S. news media, it is hard to find any serious -- or sustained -- criticism of the Reagan/Bush economic theories. More generally, there is headshaking about the size of the debt and talk about the need to slash "entitlement" programs like Social Security and Medicare. Instead of paying heed to the real lessons of the past three decades, many Americans are trapped in the Reagan/Tea Party narrative and thus repeating the same mistakes.

"Voodoo Economics"

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The U.S. political/media process seems resistant to  one of most obvious lessons of the past three decades: Simply put, Reaganomics didn't work. As George H.W. Bush once commented -- when he was running against Reagan in the 1980 primaries -- it is "voodoo economics."

Yet, the fact that the United States has embraced "voodoo economics" for much of the past three-plus decades and refuses to recognize the statistical evidence of Reaganomics' abject failure suggests that the larger lesson of this era is that the U.S. political process is dysfunctional, a point driven home by the recent Tea Party-led government shutdown and threatened debt default.

In the decades that followed Reagan's 1980 election, the Right has invested ever more heavily in media outlets, think tanks and attack groups that, collectively, changed the American political landscape. Because of Reagan's sweeping tax cuts favoring the rich, right-wing billionaires, like the Koch Brothers and Richard Mellon Scaife, also had much more money to reinvest in the political/media process, including funding the faux-populist Tea Party.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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