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Jayne Lyn Stahl Headshot

Things to Remember Before Today's Debate

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Savor the irony of the second Republican 2012 presidential debate not only because it takes place in the Ronald Reagan Library, but because Reagan's economic policies are the best argument against the Republican Party platform today.

What, for the past few decades, has been loosely lumped under the heading "Reaganomics," "supply side economics," or "trickle down," actually manifested in ways strikingly familiar to what has been happening to public workers today in Wisconsin, and other states.

It was thirty years ago almost to the day, back on August 3, 1981, that a first term president, Ronald Reagan, ended the air traffic controller strike by firing striking air traffic controllers. As ABC reported that day, Mr. Reagan seemed convinced that "being tough is what the public wants." Oddly enough, it seems to be what the public wants today, too, only from a Democratic president, Barack Obama.

A closer look at what it means to be tough also comes through, as Jonathan Kozol reports in Illiterate America, when at a time 60% of America's population, roughly one-third, were functionally illiterate, President Reagan requested that federal funding for literacy programs be cut by 50%. Nor did it escape Kozol's notice that the intent for doing so was to create a permanent welfare class consisting mostly of people of color.

Mr. Reagan departed drastically from the policies of his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, who not only identified the problem of illiteracy in this country but, as Kozol said, "defined it as an obligation he would not shirk."

Funding for literacy programs in the U.S., in the mid-1980s, was $100 million, and the president wanted to reduce its size to $50 million. What did he want to do with the rest? "Star Wars," as a way to shield against nuclear ballistics attacks, and in 1984, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization was launched.

Remember during tonight's Republican debate when any of the aspiring Republican presidents are asked about how they feel about cutting the defense budget, the failure to drastically cut defense can only be offset by reductions in so-called "entitlements" like literacy, and support for public education. In his 1984 federal budget, Reagan authorized nearly ten times more for Defense than Education, $269 billion for Defense, $29 billion for Education. The message was clear: missiles are more important than developing minds. Defense manufacturers will welcome a Republican president, and a return to the Star Wars mentality.

So, when you hear Romney, Perry, Paul, Bachmann et. al talk about the need to reduce the federal deficit, and cut spending, don't forget that the total spending for 1984 was more than seven times the federal defict, or $852 billion for spending to $185 billion deficit. It's fair to say Ronald Reagan spent his way out of recession.

President George W. Bush shouldn't feel bad. He wasn't the only one who came into office with a surplus, and left office with a deficit. Reagan did, too.

And, when you hear his Republican progeny like Perry, Romney, and Bachmann extol his virtues, and call him a job creator, keep in mind that it was a rise in unemployment in his first term that nearly kept Mr. Reagan from a second term, and yes, it was only by increasing the federal deficit that Mr. Reagan was able to not only stabilize employment, but grow it.

The fluctuations in the stock market pale by comparison to the ups and downs of unemployment under Reagan. At the start of 1981, and at the beginning of his first term, the unemployment rate in the U.S. was 7.5% and it grew to nearly 8.6% by January, 1982. By the end of 1982 and during his first term, official unemployment stood at nearly 11%, and increase of nearly 3%.

As unemployment began to decrease, arguably as a result of federal spending, Mr. Reagan's chances for a second term grew proportionately. His popularity began to plummet not because he increased federal spending on military programs, and the federal deficit, but because of the Iran-Contra debacle.

So, where were all the deficit hawks when Ronald Reagan was in office? Where were all the obstructionists when Ronald Reagan raised the debt ceiling some eighteen times?

And, where were the folks who want to privatize everything from Social Security to Medicaid to public education, folks like Eric Cantor, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, the folks who call for "smaller government" and, who like Sarah Palin, speak worshipfully of Ronald Reagan when, back in August, 1981, Ronald Reagan said "Government has to provide, without interruption, the protective services that are its reason for being."

Of course, that statement was made in the context of breaking the backs of air traffic controllers, but a former union organizer himself, Ronald Reagan was alarmingly prescient given the efforts of those like Scott Walker, and yes even Arnold Schwarzenegger, who chose to furlough government workers, and not government bureaucrats.

It was under Ronald Reagan that the concepts of deregulation and free markets became inextricably intertwined setting the stage for the massive mortgage and housing fraud, and failure that resulted in the crash of 1987, and that has brought this country closer to total economic collapse than we have been in more than eighty years.

Maybe, in the end, Republicans running for the White House in 2012, might be wise to avoid skipping in the shadow of Ronald Reagan for if you walk with ghosts, you must live with them, and while they may want another Ronald Reagan, we really cannot afford one.