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Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future Hardcover – International Edition, February 3, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
In an attempt to challenge the legend that has sprung up around Ronald Reagan's presidency over the past decade, Bunch, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, argues that the Reagan myth is dangerous because, unlike other American presidents held up as heroes, like Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson, reverence for Reagan did not emerge organically. Rather, the GOP hatched the Reagan myth, feeding it to the news media for purposes that were essentially partisan in nature... pulling off a maneuver that was unprecedented in American history. The result has been a simplified reconstruction of Reagan, from far from universally popular president to the man who ended the Cold War and spurred unprecedented economic growth. Bunch contends Reagan was responsible for neither, at least not singlehandedly. Instead, he claims that the 40th president's real achievement lay in his ability to compromise, an element of his leadership conservatives have ignored since he left office. Neither Bunch's arguments nor his prose are powerful enough to do more than slightly tarnish Reagan's halo, but his book capably puts into perspective an imperfect but fascinating administration. (Feb.)
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*Starred Review* The Ronald Reagan who won the cold war, cut taxes, shrank the government, saved the economy, and was the most beloved president since FDR is a myth, Bunch says. The cold war fizzled out primarily because of Soviet economic collapse. Reagan cut taxes just once, in 1991, and thereafter raised them yearly. He vastly expanded the government and burdened the economy with enormous deficits. Moreover, his approval ratings were just average, reflecting his divisiveness as a political figure. Bunch also shows that however tough-talking, Reagan was a negotiator who achieved nuclear arms reductions by talking with Soviet leader Gorbachev and got into the Iran-Contra mess because he wouldn’t send combat troops abroad. In practice, especially of foreign policy, he was a pragmatist, not an ideologue. The truculent jingoist of the myth was concocted after Alzheimer’s silenced the man and the would-be juggernaut launched by the GOP’s 1994 election triumph crashed and burned before a Democratic president who shrank government and the deficit, balanced the budget, and even racked up surpluses. Bunch names the leading, venal mythmakers and shames the myth exploiters, too. Anyone interested in America’s immediate future should read this book. --Ray Olson
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Reagan had his ups and downs as president, but the GOP has reinvented him as the man who ended the Cold War and spurred unprecedented economic growth. Reagan also convinced many Americans that the country’s problems were the fault of the government, which was probably untrue. Reagan believed in small government, but there are almost no rich, successful countries with small governments. In 1900, when we did have very limited government, the life expectancy of the average American male was 45 years, and the average income was $4,200 per annum in today’s money. Reagan seemed to want to turn the clock back to the heyday of laissez faire capitalism, the 19th century. The drawback is that the 19th century was also a time of massive inequality, with over half the population living in poverty.
Many of the economic arguments used in the debate over Reaganomics are complex. It is still disputed whether tax cuts, or other factors, drove the improvement in the economy in the 1980s. President Trump appears to believe that major tax cuts, and a dose of Reaganomics, will deliver long term sustainable growth. I wanted to find out what happened the last time it was tried. Unfortunately, Bunch does not always master his brief. I needed to do further reading to get a better understanding of the Reagan era.
Bunch argues that Reagan in office, was different to how he is portrayed today. Reagan was willing to compromise to get things done, he had a good relationship with Tip O’Neill, the House speaker. Reagan did not always play the tough guy. He sold weapons to Iran to get American hostages released, and was nearly impeached for his efforts. Reagan exited the Middle East after 241 U.S. Marines were killed by terrorists in Lebanon. However, he did not retaliate against Hezbollah, the terrorist group responsible. Reagan disliked putting American soldiers in harm’s way and preferred to use proxies, such as Saddam Hussein, to fight America’s enemies in the Middle East and in Latin America. It seems unlikely he would have invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.
Reagan claimed that a high tax burden, excessive government regulation, and massive social spending programs had hampered U.S. growth. The performance of the economy clearly improved during his presidency. When Reagan came to power in 1981 the country was in a deep recession (1979-82). Unemployment was 10.6%, but when he left office unemployment had fallen to 5.4%. He inherited inflation of 12.5% in 1980, but by 1989 it had fallen to 4.4%. From 1983 – 1989, GDP grew at an average rate of 4.4%, which was excellent.
The question is whether tax cuts can spur economic growth. The top tax rate was 70% in 1980, when Reagan left office it was 28%. Reagan believed that if you lower taxes, especially for the rich, everybody will be better off. This became known as trickle-down economics. Conservatives argue that lower taxes stimulated the economy in the 1980s, and they are still looking for ways to cut taxes. Reagan may have preached small government, but in practice he presided over significant spending growth. Paul Krugman who writes for the New York Times, teaches at Princeton, and won a Nobel prize in economics is a critic of Reaganomics. He is much quoted in the book. Bunch and Krugman argue that the increase in defense spending created a Keynesian stimulus that probably kickstarted growth after the recession. Bunch points out that federal spending went up by an average of 2.5% per annum during the Reagan years as did the federal governments civilian workforce. Krugman argues that coming out of a deep recession inevitably led to a new business cycle, and a growth spurt, while lowering taxes did not provide a long term fix.
Bunch also argues that one of the main problems in the 1970s was high oil prices. These started to fall in the 1980s for reasons that had little to do with Reagan. The high prices encouraged the oil companies to find new sources of supply and OPEC lost its ability to control the market. Lower oil prices helped reduce inflation, and improved growth. The price of a barrel of oil dropped from $107 in 1981, to $30 in 1986 (in today’s money). The slump of 1979-1982, had been more or less deliberately engineered by Paul Volcker at the Federal Reserve, as a way to bring down inflation. Volcker used monetary policy to purge inflation out of the system. Volcker was a Carter pick. Once inflation was defeated, interest rates also came down and this gave a boost to the economy.
Congress approved Reagan's tax and defense plans, but refused to make any deep cuts to the welfare state. All this left a hole in the budget, and government borrowing went up to pay for the increased spending. The Debt/GDP ratio increased from 32% to 50% over the life of his presidency. A Debt/Ratio of 50%, seemed high at the time, but is low by today’s standards. The Debt/Ratio was 105% in 2016, and most economists argue that it should not be allowed to get much higher. If you were to cut taxes today, borrowing would have to go up, at least temporarily. The theory is that the economy should grow faster and the Debt/Ratio should come down. This is Keynesian thinking and is what happened shortly after WW2, when the Debt/Ratio reached 119% in 1946, by 1974 it had fallen to 31%. The question is whether the country can still afford to cut taxes given the country’s high level of borrowing.
Bunch and Krugman argue that the deregulation that took place under Reagan may have created two massive financial disasters during the last quarter of a century, the savings-and-loan crisis of the 1980s, and the financial crash of 2008. Politicians bought into the idea that the New Deal-era restrictions on bankers were nothing but pointless red tape. In 2008, a credit boom and a real estate bubble, was followed by the worst economic slump since the Great Depression.
Did Reagan win the Cold War? The myth is that by ramping up defense spending from 5.7% of GDP to 7.4% of GDP Reagan broke the Soviet economy. The Soviets could not keep up with this rate of spending and were forced to surrender and sue for peace. This is a story which Bill Clinton seemed to believe. I lived in Europe in the 1980s and traveled around eastern Europe in the early 1990s. My sense was that ordinary people in the region wanted to be part of the West, it was a bottom-up revolution not something engineered in Washington. Bunch shows that the Soviets made no attempt to match America’s arms build-up during the Reagan years. Gorbachev took power in 1985, he was looking for friendship with the West and to get out of Afghanistan. Arkady Ostrovsky, who writes for the Economist magazine, reports that Russians don’t believe they lost the Cold War. He argues that key people in the Moscow media and the intelligentsia wanted Russia to become a normal European country in the 1980s. It was their choice to dismantle the Soviet Union in 1991. Bunch reports that polls showed that 70% of Germans gave the credit to Gorbachev, not Reagan, for ending of the Cold War.
Repeating the myth, that Reagan defeated Gorbachev has damaged Russian-American relations. Bush and Clinton expected Russia to become a client state of the U.S. and it was no longer treated as an equal. George Kennan, who devised Harry Truman’s Soviet containment strategy in the 1940s, warned Clinton in 1997 that he risked turning Russia into an enemy. Russians concluded that Gorbachev and Yeltsin were weak and in 1999, they elected a traditional Russian strong man, Vladimir Putin. Putin would stand up to the U.S. and not be pushed around. This is an instance where believing your own domestic propaganda, can come back to bite you.
Most people have only recently noticed that America is becoming a more unequal society, and this is increasingly blamed on Reagan. Wages have stagnated since the late 1970s. Productivity gains and the benefits from economic growth have not been passed onto the workers. It is argued that the real beneficiaries of Reaganomics were the richest one percent. In 1978, the chief executives of America’s big companies took home 30 times the pay of their average workers; in 2013, that multiplier was 296. Robert Reich argues that the middle class provides 70% of the spending in the U.S. When the middle class doesn't share in the economic gains, the economy can get into a downward cycle. The rich don't spend, they invest, but not always in the U.S. This is an enjoyable read, but it needs updating to reflect some of the thinking since 2008.
In the case of the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, he stepped into the presidency during a time when Americans were feeling betrayed, downtrodden, and defeated. Betrayed by the abhorrent actions of the Nixon administration, downtrodden by the oil crisis of the 1970s and the Iran hostage crisis, and defeated, for the first time, in a war that left a ragged and festering societal gap. Americans were besides themselves to feel a grounding and an excitement that the worst was behind them and the best was just a short jaunt to the shining city on the hill. Cue Reagan, with his optimism, and his homespun knack for telling a story. He was just what the election doctor ordered for an uneasy America.
The problem with feelings, good or bad, is that they can deceive us into believing that of which does not exist, and perceive what is bad is actually good. Thus, Tear Down This Myth by William Bunch portrays Reagan as a president that was imbued with solid acting chops, and superior speaking skills, along with a savvy team of image makers, that essentially hoodwinked the American public into using patriotism as a way to cloak their eyes to the reality of his damaging policies that still haunt us to this day.
When historians were surveyed and asked to order the presidents from best to worst, Reagan was placed in the lower end of the middle of the pack. Cue outrage from the conservative right who felt affronted by the placement of their republican luminary. After all, who else is there to serve as their touchstone? Nixon was out of the question and Ford lost to Carter. Eisenhower? Who by contrast of many today's Republicans, would be considered a liberal sellout. Thus, the Reagan mechanicians were rallied to begin the repairs to embellish the good and sweep away forever the bad. Some of it very bad.
Bunch, though, does give kudos where they are due. When it came time to deal with his Congressional adversaries, and to get things done, he was willing to compromise and did such over and over to avoid deadlock. In regards to the Soviet Union and nuclear weapons, he was always willing to have dialog with the "enemy". Additionally, when our troops were the target of terrorist attacks, he got them the heck out of harm's way!
What the myth makers are hoping will evaporate like ice water on a hot skillet is the bungles and outright scandals. Turning a creditor nation into a debtor nation; slashing income tax rates for the wealthy (Bunch writes that this was on the top of Reagan's list of grievances with the Federal government) and that one in particular that severely damaged his image at the time, and nearly toppled his presidency: Iran-Contra.
Another myth perpetuated by the orchestrators (rehabilitators?) of Reagan as Savior is that he "ended" the Cold War. Of course, Bunch writes this is pretty much bunk and as one that studied the Soviet Union, its society, its politics, its economics, during the late seventies and early eighties, it is BUNK. The Soviet Union and its satellites had been teetering economically for years. Anyone who cared to investigate beyond the scare rhetoric and Evil Empire talk would have known it was only a matter of time. A socialist house of cards whose collapsing gentle breeze certainly wasn't Ronald Reagan. The nuclear disaster at Chernoble never seems to get a mention. Bunch does write a couple of times that Reagan had a very real fear of Armageddon and that the threat of a nuclear attack played heavily into those fears thus provided motivation to negotiate with the Russians.
The last third of the book is dedicated to the years after Reagan's presidency; his announcement of Alzheimer's and his retreat from public life. This only served to temper those that would have otherwise criticized the legacy that he left. The press also treated him with kid gloves, and for the most part, still does, because of his diagnoses. After his passing, Reagan's presidency was elevated by some that they even declared that his image should be carved on Mount Rushmore to join George Washington and Abraham Lincoln lovingly gazing across the fruited plain.
What is left for politicians currently, is to have their careers and policies connected to the Reagan myth. Like King Mitas, Reagan has the golden political touch for those that embrace it, without considering the reality of what is actually was. It's a "What would Reagan do?" world for conservative Republicans and at times Democrats. Yet, hardly anyone stops to evaluate what Reagan actually DID, bad and good.
Bunch is most certainly even-handed with his portrayal of Ronald Reagan. He does compliment him when warranted and rails against him when he doesn't (Saving and Loan scandal). The only issue I take with this book is that Bunch uses it as a platform to decry regulations and policies that he believes contributes to Global Warming and Greenhouse gases. It felt strangely out of place in this book. However, if you are curious and want some factual information on Reagan, this book is a very good place to start.
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He got elected by committing treason (the Iran deal), and his economic policies led to the problems we have today.Read more