Sea of Noise

Wed, 09 Jun 2004

Ronald Reagan: The Great Taxer?

In a week filled with partisan comments alternately making Ronald Reagan out to have been a great saint and the Devil incarnate, Paul Krugman offers a balanced view of Reagan's tax policy.

Krugman, however, does understate the case:

We're also sure to hear that Mr. Reagan presided over an unmatched economic boom. Again, not true: the economy grew slightly faster under President Clinton, and, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates, the after-tax income of a typical family, adjusted for inflation, rose more than twice as much from 1992 to 2000 as it did from 1980 to 1988.

(Let's leave aside the question of what constitutes a "typical family". Krugman doesn't tell us, but it seems like a term of art sufficiently imprecise to obscure sleight of hand.)

Both presidents are sometimes underappreciated for the economic gains made during their respective presidencies. (And that's about the nicest thing I'll have to say about Clinton this year, so enjoy it while you can!) Total Federal government outlays shrank as a percentage of GDP under both presidents. But it seems only fair to point out that Reagan accomplished this impressive economic growth while simultaneously rebuilding our military strength and prosecuting the Cold War; Clinton, on the other hand, was the beneficiary of the so-called "peace dividend" that resulted from Reagan's success, enabling him to shrink national defense outlays as both a percentage of GDP and relative to total outlays. [Source: Statistical Abstract of the US] Clinton also benefitted, some of us would argue, from the structural changes and changes in thinking about the role of government in the economy brought about in no small part because of Reagan.

True, the national debt did also increase during President Reagan's watch. He was not, it seems, omnipotent or infallible. But to have accomplished such impressive economic gains while also making the hard choices required at a pivotal point in history--that no other president in recent memory can claim.

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