The Anti-Economist — From the May 2013 issue

The Age of Cruelty

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Following heavy Democratic losses in the 2010 congressional elections, Barack Obama announced that he was reading a biography of Ronald Reagan to see how the great man had handled his party’s whopping 1982 midterm defeat. With the country mired in a deep recession, Republicans had lost twenty-seven seats in the House of Representatives. But Reagan maintained that recovery was around the corner. By the following year, the economy had bounced back and the unemployment rate, which in 1982 averaged nearly 10 percent, had begun falling sharply. Reagan easily won reelection in 1984. Having experienced even greater losses in the House, Obama hoped that Reagan’s story would provide a blueprint for his own political recovery — and perhaps it did, since he won reelection more comfortably than many pundits had predicted.

The center-left historian Sean Wilentz has called the period from 1974 to 2008 the Age of Reagan. In his book of that title, Wilentz expresses his grudging admiration for how our fortieth president transformed the nation. “Reagan,” writes Wilentz, “embodied a new fusion of deeply conservative politics with some of the rhetoric and even a bit of the spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier.” But this embrace of progressive rhetoric and spirit did not actually reflect Reagan’s damaging policies, a fact Wilentz can’t help but document. A more accurate name for Wilentz’s book — and for the era — might be the Age of Cruelty.

The reverence in which Americans of all political persuasion seem to hold Reagan today is absurd. As president, he created a phony — if romantic — picture of America’s past, a schoolboy’s fiction of a country forged by individualism. From this fiction came the dream that we could return to an earlier moral order in which citizens were supposedly freer. Of course, America was in part built by bold individualists, but it was also built by government investment in canals and railroads, in public water and urban sanitation systems, in highways, scientific research, free K–12 education, college subsidies, and a legal system that encouraged competition while protecting private property. If Reagan brought Americans optimism, it was optimism based on false hopes and misleading facts.

Wilentz’s Age of Reagan doesn’t end with Reagan himself or even his successor, George H. W. Bush, because the revived centrist outlook of the Democratic Party carried Reagan’s legacy through the Clinton years. The party’s movement toward the center brought with it concessions not only to Reagan but also to Milton Friedman, the right-wing economist whose ideas served as the intellectual buttress to Reagan’s Reader’s Digest ideology. “In many ways Milton Friedman was a devil figure in my youth, [in a] Keynesian household of economists,” Clinton treasury secretary Lawrence Summers said in a 2001 interview with PBS.

I grew to see the issue as more nuanced as I was in school and ultimately have come to have enormous respect for Friedman’s views on a range of questions. That’s a respect that is born of the power of his arguments as one considers them more and more deeply.

Obama’s decision to place Summers and other Clintonites at the helm of his first-term economic-policy team was an early indication that his election represented a continuation of Reagan’s influence. And this spring’s budget debates remind us yet again that the Age of Cruelty continues. As a result of cuts imposed by the sequester, discretionary domestic spending could soon sink to its lowest level as a share of the total economy since the early 1960s, and the burden of these cuts will fall squarely on the poor. While the sequester targets infrastructure, education, and housing expenditures, ongoing budget negotiations will likely cut entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Taken together, these cuts would reflect an abdication by the government of its responsibility to maintain a decent society. This is Reagan’s true legacy, advanced in different ways by every occupant of the White House — Democrat and Republican alike — since his departure almost a quarter century ago.

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