Ronald Reagan : Where is Free Market Economics ?

The deregulation era during Reagan’s administration is a common belief among liberals. Like Thatcher, Reagan perhaps believes in free market, but in practice he did not conduct free market policies.

Murray N. Rothbard, The Myths of Reaganomics (1988).

… How well did Reagan succeed in cutting government spending, surely a critical ingredient in any plan to reduce the role of government in everyone’s life? In 1980, the last year of free-spending Jimmy Carter the federal government spent $591 billion. In 1986, the last recorded year of the Reagan administration, the federal government spent $990 billion, an increase of 68%. Whatever this is, it is emphatically not reducing government expenditures.

Sophisticated economists say that these absolute numbers are an unfair comparison, that we should compare federal spending in these two years as percentage of gross national product. But this strikes me as unfair in the opposite direction, because the greater the amount of inflation generated by the federal government, the higher will be the GNP. We might then be complimenting the government on a lower percentage of spending achieved by the government’s generating inflation by creating more money. But even taking these percentages of GNP figures, we get federal spending as percent of GNP in 1980 as 21.6%, and after six years of Reagan, 24.3%. A better comparison would be percentage of federal spending to net private product, that is, production of the private sector. That percentage was 31.1% in 1980, and a shocking 34.3% in 1986. So even using percentages, the Reagan administration has brought us a substantial increase in government spending.

… The next, and admittedly the most embarrassing, failure of Reaganomic goals is the deficit. Jimmy Carter habitually ran deficits of $40-50 billion and, by the end, up to $74 billion; but by 1984, when Reagan had promised to achieve a balanced budget, the deficit had settled down comfortably to about $200 billion, a level that seems to be permanent, despite desperate attempts to cook the figures in one-shot reductions.

… Didn’t the Reagan administration, after all, slash income taxes in 1981, and provide both tax cuts and “fairness” in its highly touted tax reform law of 1986? … The answer, unfortunately, is no. In the first place, the famous “tax cut” of 1981 did not cut taxes at all. It’s true that tax rates for higher-income brackets were cut; but for the average person, taxes rose, rather than declined. The reason is that, on the whole, the cut in income tax rates was more than offset by two forms of tax increase. One was “bracket creep,” a term for inflation quietly but effectively raising one into higher tax brackets, so that you pay more and proportionately higher taxes even though the tax rate schedule has officially remained the same. The second source of higher taxes was Social Security taxation, which kept increasing, and which helped taxes go up overall. Not only that, but soon thereafter; when the Social Security System was generally perceived as on the brink of bankruptcy, President Reagan brought in Alan Greenspan, a leading Reaganomist and now Chairman of the Federal Reserve, to save Social Security as head of a bipartisan commission. The “saving,” of course, meant still higher Social Security taxes then and forevermore.

Since the tax cut of 1981 that was not really a cut, furthermore, taxes have gone up every single year since, with the approval of the Reagan administration. But to save the president’s rhetorical sensibilities, they weren’t called tax increases. Instead, ingenious labels were attached to them: raising of “fees,” “plugging loopholes” (and surely everyone wants loopholes plugged), “tightening IRS enforcement,” and even “revenue enhancements.”

… Secondly, while indeed income tax rates were cut in the higher brackets, many of the loophole plugs meant huge tax increases for people in the upper as well as middle income brackets. The point of the income tax, and particularly the marginal rate cuts, was the supply-sider objective of lowering taxes to stimulate savings and investment. But a National Bureau study by Hausman and Poterba on the Tax Reform Act shows that over 40% of the nation’s taxpayers suffered a marginal tax increase (or at best, the same rate as before) and, of the majority that did enjoy marginal tax cuts, only 11% got reductions of 10% or more. In short, most of the tax reductions were negligible. Not only that; the Tax Reform Act, these authors reckoned, would lower savings and investment overall because of the huge increases in taxes on business and on capital gains. Moreover savings were also hurt by the tax law’s removal of tax deductibility on contributions to IRAs.

… But the bottom line on the tax question: is what happened in the Reagan era to government tax revenues overall? Did the amount of taxes extracted from the American people by the federal government go up or down during the Reagan years? The facts are that federal tax receipts were $517 billion in the last Carter year of 1980. In 1986, revenues totaled $769 billion, an increase of 49%. Whatever that is, that doesn’t look like a tax cut. But how about taxes as a percentage of the national product? There, we can concede that on a percentage criterion, overall taxes fell very slightly, remaining about even with the last year of Carter. Taxes fell from 18.9% of the GNP to 18.3%, or for a better gauge, taxes as percentage of net private product fell from 27.2% to 26.6%. A large absolute increase in taxes, coupled with keeping taxes as a percentage of national product about even, is scarcely cause for tossing one’s hat in the air about a whopping reduction in taxes during the Reagan years.

… In addition to closing loopholes, the White House is nudging Congress to expand the usual definition of a “user fee,” not a tax because it is supposed to be a fee for those who use a government service, say national parks or waterways. But apparently the Reagan administration is now expanding the definition of “user fee” to include excise taxes, on the assumption, apparently, that every time we purchase a product or service we must pay government for its permission. Thus, the Reagan administration has proposed not, of course, as a tax increase, but as an alleged “user fee,” a higher excise tax on every international airline or ship ticket, a tax on all coal producers, and a tax on gasoline and on highway charges for buses. The administration is also willing to support, as an alleged user fee rather than a tax, a requirement that employers, such as restaurants, start paying the Social Security tax on tips received by waiters and other service personnel.

In the wake of the stock market crash, President Reagan is now willing to give us a post-crash present of: higher taxes that will openly be called higher taxes. On Tuesday morning, the White House declared: “We’re going to hold to our guns. The president has given us marching orders: no tax increase.” By Tuesday afternoon, however, the marching orders had apparently evaporated, and the president said that he was “willing to look at” tax-increase proposals. To greet a looming recession with a tax increase is a wonderful way to bring that recession into reality. Once again, President Reagan is following the path blazed by Herbert Hoover in the Great Depression of raising taxes to try to combat a deficit.

… Another crucial aspect of freeing the market and getting government off our backs is deregulation, and the administration and its Reaganomists have been very proud of its deregulation record. However, a look at the record reveals a very different picture. In the first place, the most conspicuous examples of deregulation; the ending of oil and gasoline price controls and rationing, the deregulation of trucks and airlines, were all launched by the Carter administration, and completed just in time for the Reagan administration to claim the credit. Meanwhile, there were other promised deregulations that never took place; for example, abolition of natural gas controls and of the Department of Energy.

Overall, in fact, there has probably been not deregulation, but an increase in regulation. Thus, Christopher De Muth, head of the American Enterprise Institute and a former top official of Reagan’s Office of Management and the Budget, concludes that “the President has not mounted a broad offensive against regulation. There hasn’t been much total change since 1981. There has been more balanced administration of regulatory agencies than we had become used to in the 1970s, but many regulatory rules have been strengthened.”

… Tariffs and import quotas have been repeatedly raised, and Japan has been treated as a leper and repeatedly denounced for the crime of selling high quality products at low prices to the delighted American consumer.

… It is no wonder, then, that even the Reaganomist Bill Niskanen recently admitted that “international trade is more regulated than it was 10 years ago.” Or, as Secretary of Treasury James Baker declared proudly last month: “President Reagan has granted more import relief to U.S. industry than any of his predecessors in more than half a century.” Pretty good for a Bastiat follower.

Sheldon L. Richman, The Sad Legacy of Ronald Reagan (1988).

Reagan came into office proposing to cut personal income and business taxes. The Economic Recovery Act was supposed to reduce revenues by $749 billion over five years. But this was quickly reversed with the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982. TEFRA—the largest tax increase in American history — was designed to raise $214.1 billion over five years, and took back many of the business tax savings enacted the year before. It also imposed withholding on interest and dividends, a provision later repealed over the president’s objection.

But this was just the beginning. In 1982 Reagan supported a five-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax and higher taxes on the trucking industry. Total increase: $5.5 billion a year. In 1983, on the recommendation of his Spcial Security Commission — chaired by the man he later made Fed chairman, Alan Green-span — Reagan called for, and received, Social Security tax increases of $165 billion over seven years. A year later came Reagan’s Deficit Reduction Act to raise $50 billion.

… According to the Treasury Department, the 1981 tax cut will have reduced revenues by $1.48 trillion by the end of fiscal 1989. But tax increases since 1982 will equal $1.5 trillion by 1989. The increases include not only the formal legislation mentioned above but also bracket creep (which ended in 1985 when tax indexing took effect — a provision of the 1981 act despite Reagan’s objection), $30 billion in various tax changes, and other increases. Taxes by the end of the Reagan era will be as large a chunk of GNP as when he took office, if not larger: 19.4%, by ultra-conservative estimate of the Reagan Office of Management and Budget. The so-called historic average is 18.3%.

Sheldon L. Richman, Ronald Reagan: Protectionist (1988).

Ronald Reagan has forced nations that export textiles, apparel, sugar, steel, and other products to cartelize these industries.

… The administration has thus far:

Forced Japan to accept restraints on auto exports;
Tightened considerably the quotas on imported sugar;
Negotiated to increase the restrictiveness of the Multi­fiber Arrangement governing trade in textiles and apparel;
Required 18 countries, including Brazil, Spain, South
Korea, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, Finland, Australia, and the European Community, to accept “voluntary re­straint agreements” that reduce their steel imports to the United States;
Imposed a 45% duty on Japanese motorcycles for the ben­efit of Harley Davidson, which admitted that superior
Japanese management was the cause of its problems;
Raised tariffs on Canadian lumber and cedar shingles;
Forced the Japanese into an agreement to control the price of computer memory chips;
Removed third-world countries on several occasions from the duty-free import program for developing nations;
Pressed Japan to force its automakers to buy more Ameri­can-made parts;
Demanded that Taiwan, West Germany, Japan, and Switzerland restrain their exports of machine tools;
Accused the Japanese of dumping roller bearings on grounds that the price did not rise to cover a fall in the value of the yen;
Accused the Japanese of dumping forklift trucks and color picture tubes;
Extended quotas on imported clothes pins;
Failed to ask Congress to end the ban on the export of Alaskan oil and timber cut from federal lands;
Redefined dumping so domestic firms can more easily charge foreign competitors with unfair trade practices;
Beefed-up the Export-Import Bank, an institution dedicated to distorting the American economy at the ex­pense of the American people in order to artificially pro­mote exports of eight large corporations.

There is otherwise some evidence that economic freedom positively affects economic performance, cognitive competences and education, even though intelligence is more important. See Heiner Rindermann (2008b, p. 316, section 5.4, and figure 7; 2011, figures 4 & 6; 2012, p. 110, and figures 1, 2 & 3).

Further reading :
Margaret Thatcher : Where is Free Market Economics ?

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