Ronald Reagan is an interesting spectre.
When Reagan was President from 1980 to 1988, I was still coming to a period of political realization. I was still a child, paying more attention to the news than my friends were, but I was too young to understand the nuances of Cold War politics. My primary source of information was my parents; and, like most “my dad is cooler than your dad” children, I probably annoyed the other children on the playground by talking about how I would vote for Walter Mondale, if only I could vote yet.
And, it was probably my continued predilection towards these kinds of conversations that made me a social leper when it came to dating in high school.
But let’s give credit where it’s due. Reagan probably accidentally introduced me to politics as a young child by giving his (overwhelmingly expensive and realistically-impossible) missle-defense shield program the nickname “Star Wars” at a particularly impressionable time in my life. When you’re a child in the 80s, a shield in outer space seems perfectly plausible, especially when you believe your society is only ten-to-fifteen years away from patrols by the Millenium Falcon above your head and Marty McFly's Hoverboard below your feet.
And so, while I have grown up to realize that my childhood ideas of the way the world works were naive, many people have not learned that lesson about the economic policies of Ronald Reagan.
Quite the opposite, actually.
Somewhere in the years following his death in 2004, Ronald Reagan became a legend; and possibly Mitt Romney’s favorite ghost since Moroni. During his term, President Reagan’s approval ratings never topped a modest 68%, and his average was a 53. In case you’re not one to click on the links I provide, George HW Bush capped at 89 and settled with about a 61. So that means that, during their respective presidencies, George HW Bush was actually more popular than Reagan. And Bush spent less time at his job than your average Cleveland Browns coach.
But oh, how history re-writes itself in rose-colored inks. Turn on the news today, and it seems like Reagan was a beloved demi-god, wielding the Hammer of Thor and bringing the nation together over a time of such economic prosperity that our middle class feet were lined with diamonds on the souls of our shoes.
(Hell yes I dropped an obscure Paul Simon reference. Take that, Dennis Miller.)
Today, Republicans love the ghost of Ronald Reagan. And I think that’s fantastic. Good for you guys. Reagan did arguably (and eventually) preside over a time of economic prosperity, and there’s nothing wrong with regarding the 80s as halcyon days. I still love a good game of Galaga.
But let’s not pretend the world was not a different place. Let’s not make the mistake of exactly and finitely equating his policies as though past were prologue.
Reagan’s famous M.O. was the oft-debated theory of “Trickle Down Economics.” In short, the theory is that, if businesses and the wealthy are afforded tax breaks and incentives, that money will eventually “trickle down” to the poorer and make the economy stronger. It wasn’t a new idea, and it wasn’t even one that was agreed upon as something that would work (even then), but it was a sort of blueprint for him then, and it is still the economic blueprint for the GOP now.
Mitt Romney (as of now, anyway) would love us to go back to the policies of Reagan to re-usher in that same prosperity; say nothing of the fact that the tax rates were still higher under Reagan than they are today, that the internet and machines hadn't yet replaced humans in manufacturing jobs, or that we were spending money hand over fist to push the now non-existent USSR into bankruptcy.
Another thing we seem to be ignoring is that there are less mechanisms in place for that wealth to trickle down to the working class because there are fewer unions today in order to bargain for a bigger piece of that wealth. In 2011, the union membership rate was 11.8%. In 1983, it was 20%. With the number of union memberships essentially cut in half, there are even fewer tools in place for middle class workers to bargain for that wealth than when Reagan was President.
And since Reagan was President, the wealth gap has increased, and expendable income decreased; whether or not you want to debate that Reganomics was the cause of that. There have simply been no reasons for the wealthy to give up the very human tendency towards greed, hire more people, and filter that wealth down through philanthropy and the growth of the middle class.
The realisty is that, since the days Reagan, the diamonds on the soles of our middle class shoes went first to cubic zirconium, then to shards of glass, and now we’re stuck with idiotic lights in our sneakers that make us look like you’ve got a one-man disco party on your piggies. And that’s if you haven’t given up on life completely and decided on Crocs.
Put simply, even if we were to agree that “Trickle Down” economics was a viable theory back then, there are barely any mechanisms remaining in place today to ensure that the wealth actually does what it’s “supposed” to do. And though our country still maintains some similarities from the 80s (I’m still waiting on that Hoverboard, McFly), it’s simply not applicable to make an apples-to-apples comparison with our current economic climate.