Reaganomics: A Decade Later
by Michael I. Niman
I remember the “Reagan Revolution.” Though it certainly didn’t seem like any sort of revolution at the time. It was more like some sick joke—or a bad dream that wouldn’t end. I remember the wars that also wouldn’t end. And corruption on an unprecedented mass scale as various industries and their representatives were put in charge of policing and regulating themselves. I remember the tax cuts for the rich and the cuts in education and health funding for the rest of us. I remember “trickle down” economics—with the rich pissing on the poor while the middle class was satiated with credit cards.
Reagan to rot in hell
When Reagan died in 2004 I wrote a eulogy entitled “Reagan to Rot in Hell.” I recalled how the “grandfatherly” Reagan obscenely celebrated in the American media was no grandfather to children in Nicaragua, where more than 50,000 people were killed in his terrorist “Contra War” against that nation’s democratically elected government. And he was no grandfather to Mayan children in Guatemala, where more than 400 villages were wiped out and as many as 200,000 people killed in a Reagan-supported soft war. Then there were El Salvador and Apartheid South Africa—murderous regimes supported by the Gipper.
I also recalled his treason, arming Iran’s fundamentalist regime and funding, training and arming Osama bin Laden’s incubating al Qaeda forces. This criminal cowboy foreign policy of reckless plunder continued under the Bush Senior “son of Reagan” administration, the Clinton “Bush Lite” White House, and finally under the Bush “son of Bush” regime, also known as the Cheney White House. Over the course of a generation we went from being perceived as a beacon of democracy to becoming the world’s foremost rogue state.
But ultimately Reagan’s legacy was at home. How did the Reagan revolution transform America? As the rich became richer, did their wealth trickle down? Back in the 1980s, as the Reagan White House celebrated greed as an economic doctrine, there was hot debate as to where all this greedism would take us. The Reagan government, however, also paved the way for the concentration of media that we see today, so over the next two decades greedism was sold to us without debate as “normal” and healthy economic policy. The greedist Bush and Clinton governments continued Reaganomics, bringing Neanderthal economics into the 21st century. As Latin America and Europe swung left, we swung right, continuing to cut taxes for the rich and social programs for the poor while expanding military and corporate welfare spending.
The experiment is over
We’ve reached the point where this stuff is no longer academic. We threw the entire American society into a radical rightist experiment with no turning back. And a generation has gone by. So let’s look at where we are compared to the rest of the world’s affluent, industrialized nations.
We know that the rich have been getting richer and the poor have been getting poorer. And we know that more and more the middle class has been plagued with downward mobility. The wealthiest Americans have been splurging on McMansions and luxury cars and boats while the average American family is struggling to pay off high-interest credit cards. When you divide the amount owed among families with at least one credit card, the figure divvies up to about $9,000 per household.
What fewer people know is that among wealthy industrialized nations, the US is second only to Switzerland in the amount of its national wealth owned by the richest 10 percent of the population. And guess what—the United States’ rich have been getting richer and richer since the Reagan Revolution. Conversely, according to the Federal Reserve, the wealth of the bottom 40 percent of the US population dropped by two thirds since Reagan took office. You see, money doesn’t just appear. It has to come from somewhere.
Super Bowl of poverty
While we’re only number two in wealth concentration, we’ve won the Super Bowl of poverty, earning the number one spot by having the largest percentage of our population living in poverty. When it comes to poor children, we win the trifecta, besting, for example, Scandinavian nations by a factor of at least five. I guess American toddlers are lazy and don’t want to go out and find jobs.
American children living in poverty at least can be thankful to be alive. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, the US now ranks number one among industrialized nations for infant mortality as well. How’s that for pro-life? CNN reports that an American baby is three times as likely to die during its first few months of life as a Japanese baby. Perhaps this is a function of the US being next to last when it comes to funding social programs—a result of us also being next to last when it comes to the amount of taxes collected per capita. One dividend of the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans imposed over the last generation is a bounty of tiny corpses.
Not on vacation
We’ve also taken to working longer hours, scoring first place in the number of weeks worked per year. Americans now work a full two and a half months more than our Swedish counterparts, for example, whose government, like those of France, Austria and Denmark, mandates a minimum of five weeks paid vacation per worker. Other wealthy developed nations mandate at least four. We’re the only one that mandates zero weeks of vacation—with most American workers only scoring a week or less.
Globally, the number of weeks worked tends to be inversely tied to a nation’s unionization rate. The lower the rate of union membership among workers, the less vacation we get. In the US the rate of unionization fell from 22 percent when Reagan began his war against unions by firing the nation’s striking air traffic controllers to 13 percent today—placing us second to last in unionization behind France. France, however, has a peculiar arrangement by which 90 percent of its workers are protected by collective bargaining agreements. US workers are dead last in that field, with only 14 percent protected by such agreements.
We do have one large unionized growth industry, however—that being prison guards (though through a terrifying arrangement, many of these jobs are now outsourced to a growing private prison industry). The US leads the entire world, developed and undeveloped, rich and poor, democratic or totalitarian, when it comes to the incarceration of its citizens. Nobody else even comes close, with Americans, on average, 10 times more likely to be caged than our European counterparts and 30 times more likely to be incarcerated than folks in India. And if you’re a black or Hispanic American, raise that number another tenfold—not because you’re more likely to commit a crime per se, but because you’re more likely to be arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison if you do (see http://mediastudy.com/articles/incarceration.html).
We also lead the developed world in obesity—with no one else coming close to clinching this crown from us. Obesity leads to high blood pressure and heart disease, adult onset diabetes and a host of other chronic diseases. This in turn is good for the bottom line of pharmaceutical and health care companies and the investors who own their stocks—who tend not to be as obese as those who go into debt to pay their health care bills. That’s because obesity is tied to social class, with poorer people eating cheap unhealthy food while having less time for and access to activities that promote fitness. Americans are also targeted as children by ruthless advertisements for high-fat, high-sugar junk foods—ads that are illegal in other countries. This commercial propaganda leads to the development of lifelong eating disorders, which are also good for various businesses and their investors.
Then there’s the environment. In the generation since Reagan ordered the solar panels removed from the White House roof, we’ve held fast as the world’s largest per capita carbon producer—another record that no one is coming close to challenging. Laissez-faire planning policies have saddled us with an unworkable urban transportation infrastructure dependent upon private automobiles. This drains more money from the pockets of working folks while perpetuating our shameful energy addiction.
Morally, ethically, environmentally and economically, the Reagan Revolution experiment in greedism is a bust. And there’s no amount of historical revisionism that can cover this up. So let’s finally knock it off with the docudramas, the talk of naming highways, parks and airports after Reagan, the nonsense about carving his bust into Mount Rushmore or putting his likeness on our increasingly worthless currency. As a nation, we need to get to the business of cleaning up the mess this failed ideology left for us.
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