07/22/2011 10:10 am ET Updated Sep 21, 2011

Reagan's Utopia Myth

Mention the current economic crisis to virtually any Republicans in Congress and they will gush nostalgically about the good old days when President Ronald Reagan held sway.

But the economy was far from a utopia in the Reagan years, the Republicans' fond memories notwithstanding.

It is difficult to quantify the monetary damage that Reagan's environmental and energy policies inflicted on the nation, but the direct and indirect dollar costs are estimated to be considerable. For example, how many billions did our economy lose as a result of Reagan squandering our global lead in renewable energy technology and applications? What were the additional medical bills resulting from Regan's slowdown, and in some instances, total suspension of anti-pollution regulations to protect public health?

Actually, there is no need to get so abstract when hard and fast statistics chronicle just how flawed Reagan's economic record was.

To be fair, some positive economic trends occurred during his eight year reign. Inflation and unemployment declined, and the pace of job creation increased. It's just that the "bonanza," bolstered by extremely favorable tax treatment to the wealthy, disproportionately benefitted the top two percent of income earners. The "trickle down" of riches to the less fortunate was negligible.

Moreover, the Obama Administration's supposed economic policy defects constantly excoriated by the Republican Party could be attributed to Reagan as well. The Great Communicator imposed new taxes and raised old ones (with the burden falling most heavily on the lower and middle income brackets). He turned a national net surplus into an enormous national debt, lagged in the rate of job creation compared to his predecessor, Jimmy Carter as well as to President Clinton, and expanded the scope of the federal government.

All this doesn't make any difference to contemporary Republicans. They launch into a reverential testimonial for Reagan at the slightest mention of his name. It seems to have eluded them that the gap between rich and poor widened significantly during the Reagan years. The same cannot be said for noted conservative author Kevin Phillips. In a scathing critique of the Reagan Administration, he cites government statistics showing that 80 percent of the nation's population experienced a decrease in income adjusted for inflation, undoubtedly related to the decline in average hourly wage and weekly earnings during that period.

Reagan slashed domestic programs that constituted a safety net for the economically disadvantaged and used the funds to build up the armed forces. To further help pay for the military expansion, he defied Republican orthodoxy and increased social security, payroll, sales and excise taxes, all of which more than offset the modest income tax reduction that the American public received.

His deregulation crusade and the explosion of national debt led to runaway individual debt, a spate of bank failures, and set the stage for the current deficit and threat of a national default.

So let's get it straight. Reagan's economic policies might have created a paradise for the top income brackets but no Christmas in July for the rest of society. We don't need a revival of his grand design in 2011.

Edward Flattau's fourth book, 'Green Morality,' is now available.

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