During the recent celebration of Ronald Reagan’s centenary we have seen a renewed blossoming of the rights obsession with our 40th president and the so-called “Reagan Revolution.” Like him or not, Reagan is undoubtedly one of our more fascinating presidents. The reason, I suspect, is that he was a real person, full of contradictions but possessing a true and deeply felt personal vision for our country. This stands in opposition to the current fashion of politicians who come to office with often no personal accomplishments in the world and have to write books to create a “story” that allows the public and the media to begin to put them into focus (with the help of advisors, ghost writers and public relations specialist). You saw this with the President and you can see it happening right now with Senator Scott Brown. Reagan was a man who needed no book; he had a long and varied career that took him thru a number of jobs and careers that prepared him for the presidency on many levels.
Along with the contradictions of the man himself, the contradictions of Reagan revolution and the revitalization of the American economy under this president in the 1980’s require us to address the other side of this success story. During the Reagan administration we begin to see the establishment of the American plutocracy, the stagnation (at least) of the middle class, wholesale union busting, the growth of corporate influence, uncontrolled defense spending and unrestrained deficit spending (any of this sounding familiar).
David Stockman, who was a primary architect of Reagan’s economic policy, argued in cabinet meetings at the time that President Reagan needed to seriously address spending (entitlements & defense) if he was going to cut taxes, but he never really did this (FYI, all American’s should be required to read David Stockman’s article “Four Deformations of the Apocalypse” from the NYT 7/31/2010). Reagan’s desire to bring Russia to its knees was the prime motivation behind the uncontrolled and unmonitored corporate welfare that we call defense spending and the deficits roared out of control (again, any of this sounding familiar).
As a CPA who lives and breathes business on a daily basis I get Reagan’s support of business as the lifeblood of America, I think the business of America is probably business. I also understand the concern over intrusive and incompetent government regulations and taxation, but that is not a recipe for free and unregulated markets and corporate domination of the American landscape. One has to be clear in understanding that capitalism, at its core, is ruthless, hence the phrase “it’s only business” can be used when eviscerating a rival. Conversely some of our most ruthless capitalist have also become great philanthropist; witness the Rockefellers’, Bill Gates, Ronald Perelman or Warren Buffet. It is balance of these 2 elements and the energy from this dialectic is part of the very fabric of our country.
The question for the American people is simple; can we have a vibrant free enterprise culture and strong capitalism yet still have a humane society that cares for their underprivileged citizens and children (what is another time and place we might have called “Christian values”)?
I believe Government has a vital and necessary role in acting as a bulwark from the excesses of unbridled capitalism but conversely we cannot create a welfare state that disconnects its constituents from responsible citizenship. Thru uncontrolled (and not to mention unpaid for) entitlements we run the risk of createing a sub-class of citizens who are essentially have no incentive for self-betterment or personal responsibility.
This is ground zero in the debate between left and right, liberal vs. conservative; the proper role and size of government. This clash was certainly evident during the Reagan years, and continues unabated today, but I am not sure that this is an unconquerable divide. If we had courageous and intelligent leadership and could get corporate and union influence minimized we might be able to come to some agreement on these matters.